BIBI VAN DER VELDEN: Holland’s jewellery innovator

She’s charming and utterly fearless. Bibi van der Velden, Dutch sculptor and jewellery designer, knows precisely what she wants. Next stop, America.

Bibi van der Velden has a fascination with collecting ancient precious objects, which directly inspire her work. These range from pieces of antique Chinese jade to ancient Italian coral to 400,000-year-old mammoth ivory found in the Siberian permafrost. Using her knowledge as a sculptor, she gives antique materials new value by integrating them into one-of-a-kind designs, using precious stones, sustainable gold, pearls and diamonds to create wearable pieces of art.

Having made an impact at the JCK Las Vegas Design fair, her next ambition is to conquer America. Van der Velden’s designs, each the result of a multi-faceted creative process incorporating sculpture, handcrafted materials and cutting-edge technologies, create emotional connections with consumers drawn to the stories inspiring each piece.

Her sculptural statement pieces have a concept-meets-craftsmanship aesthetic, featuring an unusual blend of materials that she likes to source herself. This can vary from a peacock feather picked off a lawn in India to a marble rock scooped out of a riverbed in Italy or a pink seashell washed up on a forgotten shore. The creative journey might start with a vintage pocket watch, a family heirloom, or that 400,000-year-old Mammoth tooth. “What I like about travelling is that something really weird can inspire me,” she says. “It can be anything; sometimes it’s the most unlikely thing that inspires me – around any corner something might happen.”

Born in New York and growing up in England and Holland, Van der Velden is certainly well travelled. She now divides her work across several continents and has studios in Amsterdam, Switzerland and Bangkok. “I do my production in Bangkok where I am really able to immerse myself in my work,” she explains.

Van der Velden started her Wearable Art jewellery line in 2005, using unique pieces, antiques and personal belongings to create exclusive jewellery. It was followed by Bibi van der Velden, a fine jewellery line, and the Mammoth Collection. Celebrities such as Sienna Miller and Kanye West are already big fans: Kanye West bought a Mammoth piece at Dover Street Market in London and collaborated with Van der Velden in 2011 – she made all the jewellery for his prêt-a-porter show in Paris.

Apart from her own jewellery lines, she collaborates with several houses such as Steltman in Holland and Guya Merke from Vieri Haute Joaillerie in Switzerland. In 2011, she took on the role of ambassador of the Solidaridad project – ‘On the way to good gold’ – travelling through Colombia and Peru to collaborate with mineworkers to mine gold in a sustainable way. From the ‘good gold’ they extracted, she designed a piece of jewellery in which you can find an unique, original and unrefined piece of gold.

Besides jewellery, she has launched her own jacket line named Bibi vd V and she also owns a company with her two brothers named The Old House, making sustainable and organic products.

Asked to describe herself in three words, she says: “Conscious, adventurous and sculptural. I can explain sculptural in a different way: I am a 3D thinker so everything that I do – the way that I dream and the work that I make – is all in a sculptural 3D way/ That is really how I look at the world. If I look at a person, I register the bone structures… And of course I am a sculptor by profession; that is my background.”

Between a trip to Switzerland, where she is collaborating with Vieri on her Midsummer Night’s dream collection, and a visit to New York, where her work is launched at Dover Street Market NY, we meet for coffee at her studio, White Space, in central Amsterdam. Van der Velden is the embodiment of bohemian chic: she is wearing no make-up, jeans, a gray T-shirt and one of her own Bibi vd V jackets. And then there’s the jewellery – gold necklaces in different shapes and colours, made from a variety of materials from her many collections.

We are surrounded by grand installations and sculptures that Van der Velden made together with her artist mother Michele Deiters for Bibi-Michèle, their collaborative sculpture exhibition. Her mother introduced her to art and sculpture at a very young age: “I always wanted to be an artist and do something with sculpting or art. It is a bit of a privilege in a way that you know what you want to do at a young age as so many people, after high school, wonder what they want to do. For me that was always clear.”

What’s also very clear is that Van der Velden is a multitasker. During the interview, she is eating breakfast, working on a bright red ancient coral necklace for a client, and arranging a trip to Las Vegas where she will be attending the JCK Las Vegas Design fair for the second time. “Maybe I do too much, but I know that at the end I never have to regret the chances I did not take,” she notes.

“Do you mind me eating breakfast?” she laughs, as she continues speaking passionately about her childhood, work, plans and dreams. Born in New York, of Dutch parents, she moved to England after a year and grew up in the English countryside just outside London. Part Edwardian, part Victorian, their home – The Old House – had a great history; “It was a very magical place to grow up,” she says, “It is the base for what I am doing now, the way I am using my imagination and the way I can disappear into my own fantasy world.”

Surrounded by forests and flower fields, the garden had a big lake and a great hedge that Van der Velden used to call the dragon. The Old House also had a tunnel underneath leading to a local church and it even had a ghost – a little girl wearing red boots. “We were educated at a very strict school. There was this contrast between wearing uniforms and the old English way – where spirit-breaking was still the standard – and then being able to come home, close the gates, throw your uniform off and disappear into your own fantasy world.”

After nine years, the family moved back to Holland where Van der Velden went to a Dutch high school, followed by a move to Florence to study sculpture. She wanted to learn “all the rules before she could break them,” she recalls. “They teach you to understand the human body, the basics – how you can draw a human figure on a piece of paper or in a piece of clay.”

Hanging out with mostly Italian friends, she enjoyed the city of the Renaissance, driving for hours through the countryside in search of the perfect pasta dish. It was in Florence that her interest in jewellery making grew: “I was collecting all these weird antique objects. In Florence they had a lot of antique markets and after a while I thought I have to do something with this collection or I need to stop collecting. So when I came back in Holland I started making jewellery, which people responded to in a very enthusiastic way.”

Back in Holland, she went to the Rietveld Academy followed by the Royal Art Academia in Den Hague to continue her studies in sculpturing and 3D visuals, while in the evening hours she followed a goldsmith course in Amsterdam.

Now she combines both jewellery design and sculpture, and she believes the two complement each other. “The techniques are very similar,” she says. “I mean, obviously you can put a lot more conceptual background into sculpting, but I try to do that with jewellery as well… I am really telling a story with my collections.”

Working with new materials every time, she always wants to push herself. “I think it’s all about reinventing yourself, but also keeping people guessing about what’s next.”

Van der Velden’s jewellery is very technically accomplished. Pick up one of her fine jewellery pieces and you can open it, twist the stone around, and marvel at how diamonds are used in extraordinary ways. They’re difficult to make. “For instance, with the Cloud Collection, the sculpted clouds in these semi-precious stones are super-difficult to make. We really had to transform a machine for that collection.”

Her personal favourite collection, named Memorabilia, is full of technically challenging pieces: “The domes of rock crystal that we carve have little 3D golden objects, diamonds and pearls moving inside. Technically, it is a difficult piece to make; to polish it from the inside is difficult to do, but it looks super-simple and has a clean design. My pieces always have a twist, which I think is very important.”

She also loves the Mammoth Collection, her most well-known range, available at Dover Street Market in London, Tokyo and New York. Here, Van der Velden looked for a respectful balance between nature and design. The carved rings are based on prehistoric and mythical creatures; crocodiles and dragons inlaid with 18 ct gold and semi-precious stones holding pearls in their beaks.

And then, of course, there’s the mammoth tooth. “I read something about mammoth ivory and I needed to have it,” she says. “As the mammoth has been extinct for over thousands of years, the ivory is legal and therefore very suitable for sculpture or art. However, it took me two years to find an available piece. I had to keep pushing myself forward. A million times I thought, forget about it. But I’m a fighter. If I set my mind on something, on the things that I want to achieve, I won’t stop. I think that’s the only way to get where you want to be – you really need to sink your teeth into something.”

Van der Velden is always trying to work with sustainable materials. “I would say that I am very conscious, conscious in the goals that I set for myself and what I want to achieve in life, but also conscious of the effect that we have on the environment and world and how we hopefully can make a contribution.”

In her role as an ambassador for the Solidaridat project, she now tries to use only sustainable silver and gold and raise awareness. “I really believe that if you leave all the responsibility with the consumer, not a lot is going to change. But if you put different governments under pressure, so that they have to restrict mining in a certain way or at least create certain rules to make sure that mining is done in a sustainable way, then that is the way in which you can create a difference.”

Which brings us to 2014 and her plans for the year or so ahead. “At the moment, I am really focusing on the States,” says Van der Velden, “I see there is actually a big market for my jewellery there… in America. The sky really is the limit.” Her collection is already stocked at Bergdorf Goodman and she is working on an exclusive collection for the upscale US department store. She also plans to attend the Couture show in Las Vegas this spring. As the American economy begins to show signs of life, luxury is rediscovering itself. “People are more positive now and they are up for everything again. They are spending money again, although what I like to see is that the consumerism [of old] has become a thing of the past.”

Now the pursuit of excellence – creating the most rare and beautiful objects – has replaced the pursuit of simply making profit. Consumers and luxury brands alike have regained interest in rarity, quality and creativity, in bespoke products of all kinds, in the revival of ancient skills used in contemporary ways.

“People are very conscious about what they are buying and why they are buying it”, Van der Velden says. “What I try to do is to push my designs more into the direction of art, I really want to create timeless, exclusive pieces for my clients.”

In a sense, Van der Velden’s jewellery is part of the emerging ‘slow fashion’ culture. It’s about achieving a balance between luxury and sustainability in a way that chimes with the mood of the modern consumer.

Published on Hungertv.com.


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