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5 minutes with: Kiki McDonough

The Chelsea native on jewellery, entrepreneurship and her favourite neighbourhood restaurant

15 January 2024

There are a handful of people who, in the past few decades, have become synonymous with Chelsea’s creative, independent spirit, and jewellery designer Kiki McDonough is one – not to mention a sparkling symbol of female entrepreneurship. McDonough was born and raised in the area, and as you’ll discover, Chelsea has played a starring role throughout her life. Read on to find out her beginnings, inspirations and practical tips for staying resilient in tough times. 

Tourmaline and Diamond Earrings, £4500
Tell us about the evolution of your career.

Despite being a fifth-generation jeweller, my first job was as a secretary in the personnel department at Vogue, and I was once secretary to David Stirling, founder and creator of the SAS. I had a lot of secretarial jobs in those days because I would get bored and want to move on after a year. 

There were quite a few temporary secretarial jobs along the way, too. One of them was working for Matthew Parris in the letters department of Mrs Thatcher’s office. The rest are best forgotten!

How did you make the move into jewellery?

I had been a secretary for years before a friend who owned an antique jewellery shop asked me to design some modern jewellery for the shop. I thought they were completely mad, but decided I’d give it a try.

The antique shop had a little brooch, which was a round crystal with a diamond-set bow on the top with pearls around the outside, and I used that as the starting point to design a pair of earrings and got a manufacturer from Birmingham to come and have a look. Neither of us thought they would sell and – long story short – they are now in the V&A’s modern jewellery collection

It was extraordinary, really. 

The brand is all about my love of coloured stones – which nobody was selling when I started in the ’80s because it was all about diamonds and pearls. I have always loved these beautiful, coloured stones, and I just wanted to try them out and see what happened.

If anyone had said to me all those years ago that I’d end up building a worldwide brand, I wouldn’t have believed it. In a way, my career has been one continual surprise. Which means that it has never been boring… it has always been fun.

What was it like being the first woman in five generations of jewellers?

Jewellery was always designed, chosen and sold by men because years ago, men did the buying. But now everything has changed, and more women are doing the buying and are in the jewellery trade. But I was one of the few when I started, and I’m sure that is why the business took off. 

My father was a world expert in Georgian jewellery and English silver, so people used to come in from various museums to talk to him, and he was interested in the provenance of pieces and their antiquity, but he wasn’t so interested in the sort of jewellery that I made, which is, you know – put on your jeans, put a pop of colour on your ears, and go and have a good time. He thought what I did was rather strange.

Jazz Cushion Blue Topaz, Pear Iolite and Diamond Ring, £4900
Did you notice a shift in the jewellery industry as more women became involved?

I think it was more of the transition in buying habits and women earning their own money and making their own decisions. 

Originally, the husband might have bought a woman her jewellery, and then perhaps he was too busy and she would go with his money, and then eventually it became women buying for themselves. And now women come in and want to buy birthday and Christmas presents or treats for themselves.

What achievement in your career are you most proud of? 

One is the fact that I got through three recessions and a pandemic, and I learned to adapt the business in different ways. And I am very proud of the fact that I can walk down the street and a woman can come towards me wearing my earrings. She doesn’t necessarily know who I am, but I walk past and think ‘Yep! I did that!’

In the recession of the early 90s, I was building my brand, my husband was doing the same with his business, and we had a baby and a two-year-old, and that was tough – but my two sons have always been incredibly supportive and lovely. And so I suppose those are the three highlights of my career.

Was there a common thread in how you remained resilient throughout those challenges?

I think it’s about how quickly you can adapt. You have to be resilient. You can’t buckle at the first sign of trouble. And there are times when you wonder why you are putting yourself through something, but you don’t stop – you get up in the morning and keep going.

To build a brand, you have to have discipline and determination that goes way and beyond anything that you’d have to have if following a career in somebody else’s business. It’s different skills, I think. I get bored quite quickly, so having my own business is perfect for me because every single day there are at least three or four new challenges.

Where should someone start with buying their first coloured gemstones?

Always start with earrings because they are nearest your face – they can enhance what you look like and lift your mood. They catch the light as you turn your head, too.

As for colours, just try on a few – unless you’re automatically attracted to a particular one. I think people shouldn’t be scared of it because everybody suits colour.

All the traditional colour-matching restrictions have gone out of the window now and everyone’s experimenting with combinations like pink and orange. Our pink tourmaline and fire opal earrings are one of our bestsellers.  

Lavender Amethyst and Fire Opal Necklace, £12200
You take a lot of inspiration from ballet – what is the most memorable performance you’ve seen?

The most iconic performance I’ve ever seen was when I was 19. I had no money, but I queued up at the box office to get tickets for Sleeping Beauty, and when I finally got to the front it had sold out, but they did have two recently returned tickets for Fonteyn and Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet that evening. It cost me two weeks’ salary. And I thought, ‘even if I don’t eat for a week, this is going to be worth it’. It was amazing – it was one of their last performances together, the crowds just leapt to their feet.

My other passion is Liverpool Football Club. People say they can’t imagine me liking football, but it’s all about feet, and leaping about. There is a huge connection between that and ballet. So those are my two favourite things.

If you could have dinner with three inspirational people, dead or alive, who would they be?

One of them would be Margot Fonteyn and the other one would probably be JK Rowling, because my son refused to read for such a long time, and that all changed once I gave him Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And third, Margaret Thatcher, because I started my business in the ’80s when Mrs Thatcher had really encouraged a can-do, entrepreneurial atmosphere in the country, and there was an explosion of small businesses because they felt she was on their side. So I’d like to thank her for being on my side.

And where would you go for dinner?

Manicomio in Duke of York Square – the food is really fresh and I love it.

You’ve been based in Chelsea for more than 30 years. How has it changed in that time?

I was born and brought up here, too – in Smith Street, just off the King’s Road. 

When I was growing up, there were no parking meters, every shop was a little grocery shop or a fishmonger, and there were very few clothes shops, except Biba on Kensington High Street. So it has changed but, amazingly, it keeps that essence of small shops.

This shop [Kiki’s flagship on 12 Symons Street] used to be the butcher shop where my mother used to shop. Can you imagine if someone had told me when I was 10 years old, waiting there with my mother, that in a few decades it would be my jewellery shop? 

If I haven't made my team laugh at least twice a day, I haven't done my job properly.  

Oval Peridot Vine Earrings, £6200
What is your advice for future female founders?

It’s difficult giving people advice because you never know what sort of business people have got or how their lives work. But, for the sharp end, if you like, it’s about discipline, a bit of luck, and a bit of talent. 

I also think that it’s really important to be a bit charming in your business. It’s very easy to be aggressive and just get on with things, but I’ve always maintained that building a business and a brand should be good fun. I feel that if I haven’t made my team laugh at least twice a day, I haven’t done my job properly. 

There are many jobs nowadays that involve being in front of a screen from 9 to 5, and sometimes I like to ask everyone to turn away from their computers and tell the last joke they heard, just so that we can laugh. There’s an intensity to running a business and there have been hard times, but ultimately, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? 

 

You can find Kiki McDonough’s distinctive jewellery, including her new ‘Snowflake’ collection, just around the corner from Sloane Street in her flagship boutique at 12 Symons St, London SW3 2TJ; kiki.co.uk

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