An international modelling career first sparked London-based Kiwi Ella Drake’s interest in jewellery, with her ethical, sustainable and timeless-yet-contemporary brand Monarc now one of the most sought-after in the business.
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” sang Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . Nearly 70 years later, those iconic lyrics still ring true – and in fact the sparkling precious stones have been worn as jewellery for almost 1000 years – but what has changed is the kind of diamonds that girls these days want to wear.
And that’s in no small part thanks to New Zealander Ella Drake, whose jewellery brand Monarc was among the first in the world to utilise and celebrate ‘aboveground’ diamonds – stones that are identical to earth-mined diamonds in every way (including their uniqueness) but are created in a laboratory. This incredibly innovative process not only removes any ethical concerns, but also addresses issues of sustainability.
“While mined diamonds generally pass through several owners with an origin impossible to trace, aboveground diamonds have transparent provenance,” explains Drake from her home studio and workroom in London. “The diamonds Monarc uses are 100 percent traceable, created with 100 percent renewable/green energy (carbon neutral or carbon negative even) and are guaranteed to be cartel-free.
“And by choosing one carat of sustainably produced, aboveground diamond, rather than earth-mined, you’ll currently save 545 litres of water, 250 tonnes of earth and 64kg of carbon dioxide – this was a key fact that confirmed Monarc would never use earth-mined diamonds,” she adds.
Bay of Plenty-born Drake launched Monarc in 2017, having taken a glamorous-sounding yet circuitous path to begin her career in jewellery. After a childhood spent in Mount Maunganui and being ‘discovered’ as teenager at a shopping mall by a model scout, Drake was determinedly studying graphic design at Auckland University of Technology – but the world of international modelling was calling. “I was really focused on my studies and I hadn’t planned to model, but modelling continued to present opportunities. Upon entering my third year at university, I decided to run with it [the modelling opportunities] and I suppose that decision carried me through the next six years of my life,” she says. “I began modelling in Sydney, followed by Tokyo and then on to Europe. My stay in Milan was meant to be a four-to-six week trip, but a month into my stay, I was put on contract with Gucci.”
Catching the eye of then-creative director Frida Giannini, Drake became an in-house favourite, working almost exclusively for the brand for four years. She says her favourite part about working for Gucci was “getting to know the entire team, who came to feel like family, and observing from the inside the creative discipline and magic that is spun to actualise each collection. Gucci’s designers would explore and sit with various creative directions for months, which then would be taken through to be developed and refined. The designer in me really cherished being part of this creative process.”
And it was on breaks between shooting, hanging out with the likes of “Ale” [Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director since 2015], that Drake realised that while their clothing went alongside each new trend and season, often their jewellery didn’t. “I love that [jewellery can be] something timeless, which is why I wanted to pursue jewellery more than I ever did fashion. I like the sentimental nature that jewellery captures and holds … it can become a multi-generational teller of stories.”
Finding herself with time to spare between modelling gigs, Drake studied at the Gemological Institute of America in Florence, and in 2012 moved to Sydney to work for an international jewellery production company. A year later, the opportunity to manage its portfolio of European accounts came up, and Drake jumped at the chance. “Having been based in Europe for a number of years in my recent past, I felt comfortable and excited to get back to London.”
While there, Drake “began to question whether there was a better, gentler way to do things”, and in 2017, after gaining the confidence to try it out, “took a leap of faith” and started Monarc. “My driving aim was to present intelligent design and premium materials, with a focus on bespoke service. Sustainability and ethical practice have been the guiding principles of Monarc’s operations and brand decisions since day one,” she says. “I believe every decision I make for Monarc should be rooted in good intention, from the design to choosing carefully procured and considered materials, right along the whole production process.”
As well as aboveground diamonds, Monarc uses only recycled precious metals. Plesur is the brand’s first collection incorporating upcycled coloured gemstones. “Plesur is one that I feel super-passionate about!” says Drake. “I have held Monarc back from using coloured gemstones in collections to date because I haven’t been happy with current and commercial methods to obtain gemstones.
“Mining is really detrimental to the environment (no matter which way it’s spun), so I’ve worked for more than two years to collect heirloom stones and alluvial gemstones. I have absolutely loved the experience of hunting down heirloom and estate jewellery, and meeting with the people who have held their jewellery for the years prior to Monarc purchasing it for upcycling. I feel the history held by each upcycled gemstone imbues the new collection with so much more life. Due to the nature of using heirloom stones, many pieces will be limited runs and one-offs.”
A second new release sees Monarc creating a considered edit of hair accessories – barrettes and pins in silver and gold vermeil. “I’ve been working with the experts at London’s Glasshouse Salon, owned by fellow Kiwi Olivia Crighton, to create functional hair pieces that can be worn as part of an everyday look or as an elegant hair element that can be used for a special occasion,” she says.
Drake has an even newer arrival, with the birth of her daughter Ulli in early June, and is looking forward to a long-awaited trip back to New Zealand. “I plan to return home to [Mount Maunganui] for a several-month stint in 2022,” she says. “Despite living overseas for the best part of 14 years, I still call Mount Maunganui home and it’s where my family live. It’s an anchoring place and one to which I always return. My love for the beach lifestyle inspires me the most; a slower, more peaceful, coastal existence. I’m incredibly excited and feel privileged to introduce my baby to the New Zealand lifestyle.”