Q&A: Nathalie Kabiri
The owner of Kabiri on the parallels between jewellery and art, the influence of Instagram and the demand for products that tell a story
Interview: Emily Jupp
Portraits: Christopher L Proctor
In 2004, inspired by the New York jewellery scene, Nathalie Kabiri spotted a gap in the market in London for a store that brought a curated selection of underexposed designers together under one roof. Despite being just 28, with just an art history degree and a brief career in PR and retail under her belt, she was undaunted by the prospect of opening her own shop. “I didn’t think too much about it. It was just a natural inclination,” she says, shrugging, when I ask if she was troubled by the steepness of the learning curve. “It wasn’t too bad. There was an appetite for fine jewellery at that time in Marylebone, so it was relatively easy. Sometimes I would sell out and realise we didn’t have any new stock coming in, but you learn as you do it and you get used to planning ahead.”
In 2015, Kabiri moved to a new location at 94 Marylebone Lane from its previous site on Marylebone High Street. “Marylebone Lane was developing in a direction we wanted to go in, with The Ivy Cafe opening there and a mix of independent boutiques. It is not too chain-y and that resonates with our customers, who prefer something less obviously branded.”
The Marylebone store is laid out much like a gallery, with white walls and minimalist glass cases displaying a small, curated selection of designs. In the window are glass boxes showing a mix of designers, collected together under a loose theme. Today, gold alligator pendants bask on glass hills clustered with gilded shell earrings by Rokus. “Having a physical shop is a good opportunity for makers to showcase their work—sometimes designers just walk in here with their products.”
The jewellery ranges from fine, wearable works of art at £5,000 and above, to fashion jewellery at £30; from ornate statement earrings made with precious stones, to woven necklaces and pendants made with vintage jewels, beads and faux pearls. “When you see it on, it makes sense,” Nathalie explains. “The kind of person who appreciates this aesthetic would wear everything here, even though it’s varied. It’s a case of trying it on and seeing how versatile it is.”
She points to a pair of earrings by Sarah Zhuang, with long tassels hanging from a stud. “This you can wear about three ways. Take the tassels off and then they become studs. And these are the Claire eternity rings by GFG. They are like classic eternity rings but with a difference.” She points to some rings covered with half white and half black diamonds. “The designer covers half the ring with one kind of stone and half with another, so you can twist it around for different looks.”
It’s this cutting-edge style combined with value and wearability that has placed Kabiri on Time Out’s list of the top 50 London shops and the Telegraph’s rundown of the best boutiques in London. The designers she selects, after trawling through graduate shows, jewellery symposiums, international showcases and Instagram, are often newly established and therefore not widely known—many are sold exclusively at Kabiri, which satisfies her clients’ demand for an item that feels personal and unique.
Who are your clients?
Our clients travel a lot and they expect us to play to their standards in terms of what is out there. They like to get value from their jewellery, but they are also quite adventurous and like to try different looks. Things have got a little more homogenous because of social media—I see a lot of ‘influencers’ on Instagram show off a new item and then our clients will ask for that brand or piece.
At the same time, everyone wants to feel different and be the first to discover things. There is some snobbery now towards brands that have expanded and got more than one store, even. I think our clients, and people in general now, are willing to spend a lot for something with a story behind it, something that feels unique. It makes my job a bit harder in a way, because I’m always trying to stay one step ahead.
What is your personal style?
I wear a mix of what’s to hand. I add things on throughout the day because I’m usually in a rush in the morning. I gather jewellery according to my mood. I like these earrings at the moment by Song Wang. Her brand, Sounder Wang, launched last year. They are a colourful, hand-dyed resin with gold-plated silver. Both older women and younger women love it. They are quite sensual, asymmetric objects. They are a bit ahead of the curve. She’s doing something different.
Have you always been interested in jewellery?
Not necessarily jewellery, but I was into design. My mum would always take me to see cool designers and she was into jewellery. I didn’t raid her jewellery box because she wouldn’t let me, but for my 18th birthday she took me to Electrum which was a cool designer jewellery gallery near here. It’s not there anymore, but it stocked contemporary designs. I got a huge ring made of rock. It wasn’t a typical 18th birthday present, it wasn’t like a solitaire. It was more an art piece.
Is that how you view the jewellery here, as art?
My clients like to know the piece they buy will keep its value. People ask me, why would you spend £200 on a piece of jewellery that’s made of plastic? But I say, you would spend £500 on a cotton T-shirt that has little intrinsic value, because of the name of the designer—and it’s the same with jewellery. That’s the thing about designer jewellery: it is like buying art, because the name of the designer will add value and the piece will appreciate. I still have my 18th birthday ring. I keep stuff. I do value things and I think it’s better to buy something and keep it. I don’t buy too much but what I do buy, I keep for a long time.
How has social media changed your business?
The beauty of Instagram is if you follow particular influencers, they go through the effort of curation for you. Anissa Kermiche, who we stock, is almost an influencer in her own right, as well as being a jewellery designer. We also see a lot of Instagram celebrities doing photoshoots on the street outside. It’s a picturesque place with lots of high-end independents. Daily, I see girls posing outside the window with their photographers. I think it’s very photo-friendly here—it has character but it’s not grungy. I’m not sure there is anywhere else in central London that is quite so pretty at street level.
What do you do when you’re not looking for new designers or working in the shop?
I have two kids, so I spend time with them and I try to get them out and away from the screens! My kids are into YouTube celebrities, and they go crazy if they see one in real life. I have no idea who they are, but their reaction to them is like the equivalent of me seeing Michael Jackson when I was little. My daughter went pale when she saw Caspar. She was like, “He’s got 10 million followers,” and they had their pictures taken with him. They also seem to like watching people talk about playing Fortnite.
Which designers do you admire at the moment?
I like Loquet. They make personalised jewellery. They have these rings where you open a door on them and can personalise it with charms. I feel like it’s a tightly thought-out, clever concept and I am impressed by their business sense. Their brochures are well shot, and they give their work love and attention, which I appreciate. I admire them a lot as designers.
What is on-trend right now?
Statement earrings are pretty massive. Chokers and bangles are also on-trend at the moment. The earrings with fringes are very big but the smaller clusters of stud earrings aren’t so on-trend any more.
Do you look at the provenance of your jewels?
It’s common sense, to a certain extent. Usually, you can tell by the price point. Some people have that tag of being ‘ethical jewellery’, but actually it’s very difficult to check their provenance—there is no governing body or regulator. I had a conversation with a jeweller who had been making jewellery for a long time and she had that ethical tag attached to her, but she said it was really hard even for her to verify her supply chain. There is the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS)—established in 2000 to prevent ‘conflict diamonds’ and encourage ethical mining—but even that is not thoroughly regulated or checked. Swarovski has a big lab for producing fine jewellery, but I like the romance of unearthing something like a diamond from the ground. As a rough measure, less is more—and you should always look at the quality of what you’re buying.