A Touch Stone of Heritage & Home


By Monalisa Molefe

In the era where luxury is synonymous with hushed tones of exclusivity and covert opulence, a maven carrying a distinct voice representing the African continent shines. Vania Leles – the brains behind high jewellery brand, VANLELES – is not just an entrepreneur; she’s a storyteller whose history is laced with African heritage, ethical elegance, and unyielding determination. Our conversation feels like we’re tracing the intricate patterns of a finely cut gemstone, each facet and cut representing a pivotal moment, shaping the story of the businesswoman, wife, and mother she is today.

Born in what she dubs the ‘land of the mighty people’, Guinea Bissau in West Africa, Vania’s childhood was steeped in the safety of a close-knit community, devoid of material excess but abundant in cultural wealth. “My childhood was marked by simplicity and joy. I grew up in a small community in Bissau that had large, close-knit families. My roots are in a humble family with no political or elite connection. It was only when I went to Europe that I realised we were considered poor,” she says.

There’s a moment in life when you’re struck by a vision so compelling that it alters the trajectory of your path forever. Her path to starting VANLELES was unconventional, having first ventured into the world of modelling. “It wasn’t until I was modelling at a photoshoot in New York with fine jewellery on the table that I became captivated by it. I realised then that these stones and metals probably originated from Africa, and beyond the narrative of blood diamonds from Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, it highlighted the importance of telling our stories and connecting this wealth to its origins in a positive light. I wanted to find an African or someone like me in the industry who could share more insights. This would be the beginning of it all,” Vania recalls.

She pursued her studies at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and upon completion, a move to London would turn a crucial cog in her career ambitions. “I was determined to break into the industry despite lacking experience, connections, and wealth – three industry essentials. I diligently sent out my CV to every major brand, particularly focusing on Graff before graduating. At that time, we didn’t have platforms like LinkedIn to network easily, but I researched the companies extensively to see if they valued diversity – something not widely discussed back then. I sent my CV to Graff 15 times without any response. So, I decided to print my CV and would walk around Bond Street, where I knew Mr GraffSenior and Junior frequented. I hardly spoke English, but despite this, I approached Mr Graff Senior with my CV one day, expressing my eagerness to learn and work hard. To my surprise, he took my CV, and shortly after, I received an interview invitation. The head of security had noticed me persistently walking around and mentioned it to Mr Graff. This determination is what led him to call me in,” Vania recalls of her big break.

Her years at Graffwere impactful. “It was a dream job. Mr Graff, who built the company from nothing, was deeply involved, and it was the perfect environment for me. Had I started in a large corporation, I wouldn’t have learned as much. As time passed, my ambition grew; I wanted more responsibility. After being candid with Mr GraffSenior about my aspirations, I realised I had reached a ceiling there,” she explains.

Vania was then headhunted by De Beers, which soon became part of LVMH – a stepping stone into the luxury conglomerate world. Her time at De Beers was brief, and she moved on to Sotheby’s auction house, which rounded out her industry experience.

Over the years, Vania observed how at various fairs – despite the emphasis on Colombian emeralds or Russian diamonds – African gemstones weren’t highlighted. “Once, a manager told me we were there to work, not to question.” These experiences only fuelled her resolve to establish her own brand, and in 2015, she launched VANLELES – the fi rst-ever African-female-owned high jewellery brand. With modest savings, she managed to rent a tiny office on Belgravia Street near Sloane Square. “I invested in high-quality stationery and built a stylish website. The challenge was that I didn’t have a single diamond in stock. I reached out to industry contacts, and when I visited a family run diamond dealer in London’s diamond district – despite the typical practice of not giving new clients diamonds on memo – his wife encouraged him to trust me. He handed over $1.1 million worth of diamonds based on a handshake agreement. With these diamonds, I commissioned a trusted workshop to craft the jewellery, promising payment within 90 days.” Vania managed to sell the pieces and pay back her suppliers within a year.

It hasn’t been an even road though, and Vania recalls, “I had times on Bond Street, handing out my business card, explaining that my products were crafted in Italy, representing quality and prestige. Yet, sadly, these interactions rarely resulted in sales. I shifted my focus to events in Doha, Bahrain, and Palm Beach, catering to clients from Texas, New York’s Upper East Side, and London. I also have African collectors who seek more than just the brand; they resonate with my work, appreciating the bespoke pieces I create.

A notable example is George the Poet, a Ugandan British artist who chooses my designs for his significant life moments, underscoring the meaningful connections clients have with my creations. In 2024, I aim to engage more actively with the African continent.” Her collections have won the hearts of many, including global icons like Rihanna, HRH Catherine, Princess of Wales, and Queen Rania of Jordan. The ethical sourcing of African gemstones is a contentious issue that forms the cornerstone of VANLELES. Her brand is an expression of her philosophy that luxury should contribute positively to the regions from which it originates. “I advocate for the notion that Africa, with its burgeoning consumer market, should not only be a consumer, but also a creator of the products it consumes. There’s no need to look elsewhere for luxury brands; VANLELES for high jewellery, David Tlale or Sarah Diouf for garments, and Armando Cabral for men’s shoes. We must embrace and promote our own – we are more than equipped to contribute significantly to the luxury market.”

Visit VANLELES for more information.

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