London-based Pippa Small is an extraordinary woman. Her expansive view of the world we live in and the opportunity to effect change for the better for humankind is both inspiring and humbling. Her namesake jewellery brand – stocked by the world’s top retailers from Net-A-Porter to Matches Fashion - was inspired by a deep love for the world and is a testament to her continued authenticity...
The more you learn about Small, the more you discover that her list of achievements is seemingly endless. From being awarded an MBE from the Queen for ethical jewellery production and charity work to working with Tom Ford for Gucci to becoming an ambassador for Survival International (a cause which fights for land rights for tribal people). Yet perhaps her biggest and most rewarding role yet is that of a single mother to twin children Mac and Madeleine (almost five) who were born when Small was 43.
Small grew up in Northern Quebec in a very large family which was “a joy but could also be overwhelming” and found a form of solace in stones from an early age. “I imbued stones and beads with memories and emotions,” she recalls. Her life thereafter has been a rich tapestry of adventure, activism, and anthropology, travelling the world and helping drive positive change wherever she can, all the while creating her covetable jewellery. After trying to have a baby for many years, becoming a mother to her twins was a dream come true for Small and kept her stationery in her colourful London home for a year or so after 20 years of non-stop travel. But it didn’t last long… the twins accompany Small on her travels and you can’t help but think how incredibly lucky they are to have such an inspiring role model and to be given such a wonderfully wide view of the world from such a young age. “The twins love India and driving around in a tuk-tuk. They love watching animals such as monkeys, peacocks, and elephants in the garden and camels on the roads. We stay in an old palace and everyone has known them since they were a few months old, so it’s like home to them,” she says.
It’s a busy and typically diverse year ahead for Small: trunk shows in Japan, the Hamptons, Beirut. A new project in Jordan in a camp of Syrian refugees. And new collections to be designed in Burma, India and perhaps Bolivia – much of which we imagine will be with her twins in tow. We caught up with Small to find out more about her lifelong love of stones, colourful interiors, travel adventures and daily life with her beautiful twins.
“ I had the twins at 43, after trying for many years to have a baby unsuccessfully. I had faced the possibility of not having children and that made me very sad. So ever since the twins arrived healthy and perfect, I have been in a place of gratitude. The sleeplessness of the early days felt a small challenge ”
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Curious, determined, thoughtful.
What has motherhood taught you so far?
Patience, a new perspective on the world and a sense of the future.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I suffered anxiety and shyness. I would believe in myself and in life.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?
Being an older mother, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my children. The most challenging part has been juggling the work I love, which involves travelling to Afghanistan, Burma and South America to work with artisans, with bringing my children on trips with me. Occasionally for their wellbeing, I have to leave them behind, which is heart-wrenching. I struggle with what I do, which is a large part of who I am, and taking risks such as going to dangerous countries while wanting my children to be safe, secure and content.
How have you handled any sleep deprivation?
As I had the twins as a single mother and it was very much my decision to have children, I have always felt there was no room for moaning and complaining. Broken nights for a few years is exhausting but made up for in abundance with laughter and smiles.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I was born into a large family. Between half and step siblings there were eight children, spanning nearly two generations! My parents were both much older. I was a quiet, introverted child who lived a lot in my imagination and was close to my pet chickens, dogs and ponies. I found in stones a sort of solace and comfort. Their stillness and smooth worn forms, the stories of their creation – which is the story of the formation of our planet, instinctively felt to me as a talisman. I imbued stones and beads with memories and emotions. My growing collection of stones, shells and gems gathered from my mother and grandmother were like diaries of my life, representing places times and people.
Can you tell us about your mother and her love of travel?
My mother was married twice and when she was widowed the second time, she decided at last she could do what she wanted and that was to travel. She took us all over north and east Africa, the Middle East and India. She loved adventure and meeting new people and learning about new places. I have wonderful images of her dancing with an old shepherd at a wedding in a Turkish village, arms in the air and stamping to the drums under the moon. I remember her chasing after me as I was about to get into a donkey cart in the Atlas mountains in Morocco to go and join a Berber family on their way home… I was so curious and interested in the cultures and traditions of the peoples in all the places we went. I wanted to know how they lived, who they worshipped, what the landscapes meant to them and also about the jewellery they wore. What it meant and what it was made of.
What are your most vivid memories of working in Thailand with Burmese refugees?
I have been very lucky to work with all kinds of peoples in all sorts of places. I was very disturbed by the situation of the Burmese refugees in Thailand at the time – the whole community was in hiding in the jungle from the armies of both countries and were living illegally – they ran and hid if they heard a boat on the river. They were trying to make schools for the children under the trees and small gardens to eat. They were tragic victims of a violent regime in Burma and a country unable to support more refugees. Between victims of war in Afghanistan, poverty in Bolivia, a recent difficult political regime in Burma and groups living in slums in Nairobi I have learnt that humans truly are extraordinary; regardless of circumstances. The human ability to create, to laugh and to find joy is inspiring.
Were you nervous when you first attended Paris Fashion Week? How did it feel to be picked up by Barney’s?
My first fashion week was very scary, I was designing pieces unlike anyone else at the time, large uncut African aquamarines, Siberian river tumbled topaz and a whole kaleidoscope of gems – so there was a great deal of interest in my work and I was overwhelmed. Barneys bought the line and were wonderfully loyal for nearly the next 20 years. I had no idea what I was doing, how to price the jewellery, how to reproduce them, if I could find the stones again, etc! I was amazed that so many wholesale shops were so patient and stayed with me for many years.
What’s the best style advice you’ve ever been given?
Be comfortable, respectful and colourful.
What did your own mother teach you about life and motherhood?
My mother encouraged education and independence, and to find work that was exciting but helped others, conservation or human rights. When I started making jewellery I think she was a little disappointed until I began working with communities in need of support and work – then she was proud. She was trusting and encouraged us to explore the world. I later heard she was somewhat anxious when I was 17-years-old and my sister and I disappeared in Tibet for weeks where she heard no word from us. The last communication was when we told her we were walking to Tibet from Nepal over the mountain passes… then silence!
Another time I was travelling on my own in northern Borneo, the only communication I had was a two-way radio from the nearest village to tell her I was going into the jungle with the nomadic Penan tribe to photograph some illegal logging sites in the rainforest. I had the most life changing time living with this community who lived, hunted and travelled through their forest home, making shelter from the trees and hunting with blow pipes. She understood how important it was for me to do this and to challenge myself and learn to travel alone around the world.
I always feel you have to face your fears and challenge yourself to keep growing. To me, a dinner party is more frightening than going into the jungle alone!
How would you describe your interior style?
It’s like a living museum, full of treasures from around the world, masks from the Embera people of Panama, hats from Tibet and the Hill tribes of Laos, tiles from Kabul, and wooden toys from Japan, I love the memories of textiles, paintings from the San Bushman from the Kalahari and jewellery collected from around the world. I love colour, it inspires me and makes me so happy. I think the greatest luxury is having things that are handmade, imbued with the story of the life of the maker in every stitch and the cultural map of the place it comes from. The children have grown up surrounded by handmade toys and colourful textile work.
Did your career change after you became a mother?
As I work for myself and am a single mother, after the children were born I was home for three months just going into the shop once or twice a week, but I didn’t travel for the nine months I was pregnant and not until the twins were about four months old. This was a shock as I have not stayed still that long in lover 20 years!
I have a different attitude, in some ways more serious about the business but also have stayed true to myself and my interest of working with artisans all over the world. Our next project is working with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan, and we are also hoping to work with Roma gypsies in Romania – all of whom are in need of work, and a market to sell to, to express themselves creatively and carry on their traditions that give them their confidence and role in life. I don’t like giving into fear – my trips to Kabul do make me very nervous but I also am aware that I can go for a quick trip in and out to work with the jewellers but their reality is they are stuck there and have to face the challenges of the violence and instability. I think it is so important to work on the designs together but also to have the time to sit and chat over tea… to listen to their experiences, dreams and fears.
How do you juggle your children with work?
I have a nanny who travels with me and the twins and enjoys our adventures in India and all over the world. The twins love India and driving around in a tuk-tuk and watching animals in the garden like monkeys, peacocks, and elephants and camels on the roads. We stay in an old palace and everyone has known them since they were a few months old, so it’s like home to them. I go to work with the goldsmiths and stone cutters and they play in the garden and go on outings around the town and countryside, going on elephant and horse rides, kite flying. I feel much happier knowing they are near me, and learning about other cultures and people.
What kind of role model do you want to be for your children?
I want to be an independent person, following my dreams, to be thoughtful and consider others, to be aware of the many facets of our world, there are so many struggling and they need to see this and I hope one day will be involved in changing things for the better. To know anything is possible, to be passionate and love what you do. On a personal level, to find the love, companionship and friendships that support us all through life.
Three Instagram accounts we should follow now…
What’s the most challenging part of running your own business?
Top three business tips for those wanting to start a jewellery brand?
Keep an eye on cash flow.
Be brave and follow your instincts.
Try and trace the provenance of your materials to ensure the sourcing is not exploiting land or people, where possible.
Best career advice you’ve ever been given?
Do something you love – you only have one life.
What does the year ahead hold for Pippa Small?
We are very excited to be starting a project in Jordan in a camp of Syrian refugees, working with existing craftsmen and training others on traditional designs and a participatory collaboration with women on their memories of jewellery, home, etc. I would also like to start a project with the Roma Gypsies of Romania making jewellery at some point this year. In the meantime, trunkshows in Japan, the Hamptons, Beirut, as well as new collections to be designed in Burma, India and maybe Bolivia.
Pippa’s little list of loves:
I love riding in India and am teaching the twins.
I live to read, I always have at least two books going and am drawn into the worlds inside books and love experiencing the world this way – I love to read aloud to the twins too.
Travelling with the twins, seeing their minds open with each new adventure.
Walking in the countryside, letting them explore and climb trees, challenge themselves. Madu (my daughter) was very proud of herself petting a snake in India and feeding an elephant, these small things give her confidence in herself and the world around her.
Magnatiles! Magnetic tiles that with the twins we create whole worlds.