Q&A: DINNY HALL
Creative director of the eponymous jewellery brand on breaking rules, wearing diamonds and loving food
Words: Jackie Modlinger
Images: Orlando Gili
Dinny Hall is both an iconic jewellery designer and consummate retailer, whose dedicated following includes the likes of Madonna, Elizabeth Hurley and Kristin Scott Thomas. Her latest (fifth) bijouterie boutique that mushroomed on Marylebone Lane—an English sausage shop in a previous incarnation—just before Christmas is testament to her talent.
Cue a treasure trove: signature hoop earrings, a staple in every girl’s jewellery box, in bamboo or twist design; dangling star or heart necklaces; twist ‘spike’ earrings inspired by the Lisbon archaeological museum’s Celtic gold collection; ‘pinky’ signet rings; coloured gemstone rings (tourmaline, tanzanite, sapphire); latticed Moroccan frieze drop earrings; arm candy that includes cuffs, ‘wave’ bracelets, ‘curve’ bangles and Dinny’s take on the tennis bracelet.
Creative director of her eponymous label, she has just blown in from her Norfolk farmhouse retreat—her faithful miniature schnauzer Bobo in tow. Dinny (real name Deborah) is a nickname taken from a character in a John Galsworthy book.
From an early age, fashion and jewellery were Dinny’s passion, and have remained constant throughout her life. “My mum loved jewellery, but I think I probably love it even more. There’s this story about when I was a little girl, I flogged her engagement ring—I swapped it for a Barbie Doll! That was my first jewellery transaction.
“I didn’t actually know I wanted to be a jewellery designer until I was on my foundation course at St Albans School of Art. I liked making things; I discovered that cutting out metal was something I really wanted to do,” she recalls.
Hers has been a long journey spanning 31 years, sometimes travelling a rocky road, with her American agents going bust and a burglary at her Hampstead store. The secret of her survival? “Enthusiasm—I just jump every hurdle. I might knock them down sometimes, but I get over them,” she concedes.
“Your ego has to be bruised,” believes Dinny: “So many designers start out with an enormous ego—you have to be bashed up to get going again. I got to a point where my rise was quite meteoric, I have to say. I was in the right place at the right time, championed by fantastic people, and had amazing help”—like Liberty, whose loyalty has endured to this very day (she has a concession there), and her collaboration with milliner Stephen Jones and fashion designer Rifat Ozbek, which lasted seven years. “I think that quietly—because I don’t make a big noise—everyone’s really pleased to still be in business after all that time,” she muses.
So how did Dinny get to the top of her game? Let’s flash back to the start of her brilliant career.
What was your very first job?
A Saturday job, in a bakery in a place called Bovingdon—we lived just outside that village. It put me off chocolate eclairs for life. But it did help me to get up to London by train to go shopping in Kensington Market and buy myself clothes, which I spent every penny on.
So you were into fashion back in the day?
My mother was very beautiful and she wore Biba. She would wear little pillbox hats with pink mini-skirts. When I was that young, it was the tail end of ‘hippie’ and the beginning of ‘glam’, so I had a floaty 1970s skirt that was bias-cut and all uneven at the hem and these denim platforms with huge heels that I’d teeter around in. I was the most fashionable girl in the village.
I loved to draw. I used to go to stay in people’s houses and I would design clothes for them. I’d start imagining what they’d wear and I did cartoons. We used to live not far from this place called Nettleton, where Hugh Hefner had a Playboy Club. I used to see the girls when I was going for a walk or riding, so I started doing these funny ‘bunny girl’ cartoons. I was fascinated as to why women would want to wear pom-poms and ears. I have always been very creative and knew that I was going to go into design.
After your foundation course you got into Central St Martin’s—quite a coup, no?
You know what, that’s when I thought, WOW—they sent the boys to private school and they didn’t get into a decent university, and I got into the best art school in England. I don’t know how—I think it was probably my cartoons. My portfolio and sketchbooks were pretty full.
You must have been so chuffed when Liberty bought your Turkish-inspired graduation collection. How did that come about?
I am definitely a rule-breaker: the university was trying to make the jewellery into a kind of art form, while I was pushing it towards fashion and theatre. There was one tutor, Mick Milligan, who saved the day for me, otherwise I felt they were a load of old fogeys. When Liberty bought my collection it was like, there you are then! I was a maverick at that point, so I was delighted and it kind of gave me the confidence to strike out on my own.
Diamonds—are they your best friend?
I wear a lot of diamonds—that might sound a bit boring, but one, I’m a Taurus and it’s my birthstone and two, they’re indestructible. They make me feel I can wear them all the time, without worrying about knocking, scratching or damaging them. Three, they sparkle and they’re uplifting. I’ve re-invented the diamond tennis bracelet, which is completely gorgeous. For me, it’s that little twinkle that just makes the difference.
When you’re designing, do you have a muse?
There have definitely been muses along the way. Nancy Cunard is one—she used to wear bangles all the time and I got very inspired by her. She was a real clunky-clunk. Another early muse was Josephine Baker, who used to wear these huge spiral earrings. Talitha Getty. She is wearing THE most stunning Ossie Clark dress in that iconic picture on the top of a building in Morocco, but she’s not wearing any jewellery so I thought, I’ve got to design some earrings for Talitha. That’s how the ‘Talitha’ range came about. It’s like chain mail using the quatrefoil. Joni Kamen, an actor, is the face of our young customer—she’s the niece of Nick Kamen who did the Levi’s ads. Her mum, Emma, is a friend of mine. She’s grown up wearing the jewellery.
What made you choose Marylebone as a location for your newest shop?
I always wanted to have a shop in Marylebone—there’s something about it being the only village in the heart of London. There are little things I know about it, like the fact that one of the only elm trees in central London is in Marylebone. It has memories for me: I used to do pilates in Thayer Street for 20 years, and I got to know it particularly well because my son went to Abercorn Prep School. When he was very little I picked him up from the school gates. I enjoyed wandering round—there is just an atmosphere, something real about London that’s in Marylebone. However gentrified, however many shops have come in from all around the world, there’s still something very ‘London village’ about it.
Will you be spending much time in Marylebone?
Yes, I’ll certainly eat here—at Sourced Market—and when people ask me where to stay in London, I say Durrants Hotel. The Wallace Collection is amazing, they have the best collection of armour ever and I love the way the porcelain is shown in those extremely OTT rococo rooms. I loved the fact that there was a sausage shop here—and you’ve still got The Ginger Pig and La Fromagerie, of course. Though some areas can lose their way, Marylebone seems to be able to re-invent itself.
This is a special issue, devoted to food. Is food one of your loves?
If I hadn’t done this, I’d probably have been a chef. I am a total foodie. Indian and Thai are my most favourite foods in the whole world. Number two’s Italian. I find cookery therapeutic—you have to put your heart and soul into it. I’ve become quite good at cooking Indian food, I’ve really learned about the spices. I do things like prepare my ginger, garlic and curry leaves and put them in the fridge, so I can use them quickly. I fuse southern Indian food with things I have learned in the north, and Thai and Sri Lankan cookery. My interest comes from seeing the food cooked on my travels in the early 1990s, and I went to cookery classes when I was out there. Piers, my husband, cooks as well—he’s probably more of a traditional cook. We take it in turns.
So, what comes next for Dinny Hall?
We’ll probably start doing ear-piercing downstairs here. I have a lady who does it with a needle—the old-fashioned style of piercing, as opposed to a gun. We’re bringing out our own range of simple keepers in 14 carat gold. I am designing a men’s signet range and we’ll do men’s ID bracelets, too. That’s because of the millennials—my 21-year old son and all his friends wear jewellery. I am designing a jewellery box that we’re going to be selling and a pendant handbag clip—a chatelaine pendant in silver or gold—based around an orb that you can attach to your handbag.
How do you relax?
I might spend the whole day cooking on a Saturday or I might bake bread. Bobo helps; she has to go for a walk every day. I do pilates in Norfolk now on Friday and Saturday mornings. When I go to the Far East, I do yoga. I lead a very stressful, highly-charged life, so I need to really build in time for a healthy body and mind, as well as having a bit of fun.