Diamonds are forever. From engagement rings signifying one of the most important steps in most people’s lives to crown jewels and references in James Bond movies, diamonds symbolise luxury and quality. However, in appreciating the beauty of these stones the conflict which surrounds their excavation is often overlooked and forgotten. A large majority of gemstones originate in Africa yet, there is almost zero representation of the continent once they leave with near-zero jewellery stores on famous high streets across London or New York referring to the origin of the gemstones that decorate their windows. One African entrepreneur who took issue with this over a decade ago and has fulfilled her dream of “bringing the voice of Africa to fine jewellery” is Vania Leles, Founder of Vanleles Diamonds.
Leles spent her early life in Guinea-Bissau, a tropical country on West Africa’s Atlantic Coast. She then moved to Lisbon for her formal education before relocating to London. Travel, specifically across Africa was a big part of her upbringing having visited 15 countries across the continent by the time she was 17. In London, she was scouted to become a model and moved to New York where she walked for world-renowned fashion brands such as Yves Saint Lauren and Prada.
During one photoshoot, whilst admiring the jewellery “someone mentioned most of the gemstones comes from Africa,” she recalls. Something which shocked her as during her childhood she had always associated diamonds with conflict and war rather than fashion and beauty. She conducted further research and started to question “if all these stones come from Africa why is there no representation of Africa or African inspired brands”. She became so passionate about the space she called her mother a few weeks later and said “I want to quit modelling to give a voice to the community where these products come from so that we can help solve the issues creating so much conflict”. Given the complexities of the industry, her mother suggested doing research into exactly why there was no representation and spend 10 years working in the industry. Leles was 24 at the time and “10 years seemed like a lifetime” but she heeded the advice and decided to formally educate herself about the industry.
An Education In Gemstones
Leles enrolled herself at the Gemological Institute of America where she studied gem, design and business techniques. Towards the end of her studies in search of a job in the industry she decided she wanted to work for a well respected but relatively small business in team size so she could learn as much as possible. She fell in love with world-renowned London based Graff Diamonds. In pursuit of a job she sent her resume to the company 15 times before receiving a callback and after 3 interviews she secured a role as the in house gemologist. “Working for Graff was really the best schooling I could have had as I got exposure to all of the different departments learning from some of the best people in the industry” she recalls.
After 2 years at Graff, she was headhunted to work for De Beers where she solidified her experience in a larger more corporate environment. A few years after that she was again headhunted for Sotheby’s, one of the largest brokers of fine jewellery in the world. “Working at Sotherby’s was a dream come true because I got the best of both worlds working for a family business at the time but a large corporation in its own right”. Her role started as the jewellery expert but morphed into one of client relationship management which “was the best way for me to build my Rolodex as I had started to think about when I would start my own business”. After a few years at Sotheby’s in 2011 “I felt 11 years was enough experience and gave my mother 1 extra year than she asked for so it was time to pursue building a business that could change the industry” Leles says.
Creating Vanleles Diamonds
In order to start Vanleles Diamonds Leles sold many of her valuable personal items and saved up some initial seed funding and kicked things off by renting a small studio designing bespoke pieces for high-end clients. Her break came when a supplier she had known from her days at Graff borrowed her 12 stones worth approximately £1.1m entirely on trust. “In the industry, your reputation is the most important thing,” she says. The agreement was that she would pay for the stones as she sold them and after 6 months she had sold all of the stones and re-invested the profits back into the business. 2015 provided another inflection point for her business when she received funding from an investor who was a long time client of hers.
This investment allowed Vania to hire a PR company in order to market the brand as well as build a small team and rent a beautiful salon on Bond Street, one of London England’s renowned locations for high-end shopping. Today Vanleles Diamonds have their own collections, all inspired by African countries where the diamonds are sourced. An example of this is her Zambian Edition which features emeralds all sourced from Zambia. “I want to bring the source countries of these gemstones to the forefront of consumers minds as they are the ones who have the power to change the industry through their demand” she says. She has built personal relationships with all of the mines she works with so she can ensure they take their corporate social responsibility seriously and give back to their local communities.
The long term mission for Leles is to have end of end tracking of the source of gemstones and recently she has begun looking into how she can utilize blockchain technology in order to achieve this. However, she is very aware ethical sourcing and representation of Africa is not something she can do alone so encourages other young Africans to enter the industry because “in 20-30 years I want to walk down bond street and see more representation of Africa as the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly” an old African proverb she recalls from her childhood.
Leles’s mission is a big and difficult one but she is doing her bit to help to shine a light on some of the conflict associated with these beautiful natural resources which will ensure a long-lasting impact for many generations to come.