For nearly 25 years Canadian jewellery designer John De Jong has inspired audiences all over the world with his unique brand of signature couture, studio collections, and bespoke designs. JdJ is a unique jewellery brand known for its quality craftmanship, simplicity, and vividly coloured stones.
John’s life-long passion for jewels and simple elegance is evident in his work, which has been worn by many notable Canadians including Madame Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who wore a pair of bespoke JdJ earrings to the 2016 White House State Dinner.
By carefully cultivating his designs and brand over the years John’s designs are admired by long-time clients and Instagram followers alike.
What inspired you to enter the world of jewellery design?
From a young age I was always interested in painting, drawing, and applied arts. You could also say it’s been in my family: my maternal grandfather was with Birks for over 30 years, and my uncle (and god father) also worked with Birks and then moved on to work with Tiffany & Co. Canada.
Growing up my mother had beautiful jewellery, and then everything came together when I was 13 and we moved from Canada to Switzerland. There are so many global jewellery makers there, and it’s a jewellery centre so it encouraged my interest.
Can you tell me about the education and training you completed to prepare for this work?
I went to high school in Switzerland and went to college in Boston where I studied Art History. Throughout my Art History course I was always drawing and sketching jewellery and my first designs were done before I entered college. After Boston College I started working with Tiffany and Co. in sales in Toronto as part of the original team to open the first store in Canada. Then I did my Gem and Diamond Degree at GIA (https://www.gia.edu/) in California and solidified the technical side.
I took an amazing program at Sotheby’s which was all about understanding jewellery. Next, I worked on jewel making in Italy for a summer to help me get my feet wet and make sure I had a solid understanding of how things were made and how different materials were combined, and then I started my own business.
What are some of the most important lessons in branding that you've learned over the course of your 20 plus years with JdJ?
In terms of branding, defining what you’re trying to do is important for the feel of your work. You want to make sure someone can easily identify your product out of a bunch of others. If you can do that and stay on message to grow from there, this is important. Looking at my pieces from 1995 to now there is a definite thread from now to way back then. It’s not to suggest you should stick with the same look for your entire career but have consistency in the way you present your product. My approach has always been simple, slightly graphic, and pared down. I think the simplicity of our brand is one of the most effective things.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to carve out their own brand?
A strong marketing message in the beginning is very important, but it goes beyond just that. One of my favourite colleagues says:
Go to the top floor (literally go upstairs) and look down on everything that is happening so you have a good view of what is going on within your business.
Taking this step outside of your own business is hard to do when you’re so close to it. When you’re independent it can be easy to be in your bubble. Expand your scope but be open to advice from others who have been in the business. If you are lucky enough, find a mentor to guide you through some pivotal decision making. When you are an entrepreneur and independent it can be difficult to make impartial decisions because you’re so close. When your name is on the label, keeping some perspective is very important in trying to think of it as an outsider.
How is Canadian jewellery design different than other places in the world?
It’s changed since I started. The Internet, Instagram, and online shopping has changed everything. As someone starting a business in Canada with a European background it’s very conservative here but over time tastes have evolved and shifted. It’s a healthy market here, but it’s a small market compared to other places in the world. It’s different since I began in the sense that their awareness and education has increased. People today are a little bit more adventurous and interested in something a little different. People are looking for statement pieces more than they were when I first started.
How do you help clients find the perfect piece (or create a bespoke item) to complete a look?
We have our JdJ Studio and Couture collections, and custom design which is a significant part of the business. People will come in and say, "I saw this on someone at a party" or they have a brooch that belonged to a relative they want reimagined into something that they want to wear every day. We start with our collections, people come to us because they’ve decided they like my work, and they reference a few pieces they like. Most people often come with a defined design in mind. Before I work on a custom piece, I ask the customer when they want to wear it, what it means to them, and try to get a sense of their style. All those things come together in my designs and we try to tell a new story...
What are some of the most personally meaningful pieces you've ever created?
We’ve made so many things for engagements, weddings, babies and anniversaries. We recently made a spectacular necklace, for a gentleman to give his wife for their her first baby and that weekend she wore it to Buckingham Palace for dinner . We’re frequently creating pieces for milestones, often with birthstones involved. It’s hard to choose just one as we’ve made so many memorable pieces. We had a lovely client in Toronto who was quite well known, who found out she was sick with cancer and wanted to gift her friends and relatives each something special. We made these goodbye gifts for her and all the people in her life. We made cufflinks and brooches, not all the items she gifted were custom, but it was a very special gesture from her and amazing to work so closely together. I am so flattered she chose us.
How do you stay on top of emerging trends in the industry? What are some of your favourite new trends?
I go to the Baselworld fair every year in Switzerland and that’s a great way to see what’s new, since it’s when all the brands are launching what’s new and you’re the first one. Unlike fashion, with jewellery it’s not seasonal trends, they move in years and not months. Diamonds look good all year round! There are so many visual options now that people can see what’s out there. It’s not that everyone is wearing emeralds, it’s more like there are five or six trends at one time. In modern jewellery people showcase capsule collections five to six times a year. They used to do it once annually and now it’s more constant. For example, we take the pulse of what people like through our Instagram posts. Our website is now being transformed to a mobile site, and we’re creating a platform for online sales.
Who are some of your favourite style icons? Why?
Some of our clients (not that I can name them) - but classic Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly come to mind. Nowadays I don’t think there are as many, sure there are fashionable people but it’s a little bit tricky with modern day fashionista types with looks that trend more towards promotion than style. Celebrities like Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett, when I see them in the press, I feel they have a chic and unique sense of personal style. I’d also add our own Madame Sophie Trudeau and her close friend Jessica Mulroney to that list... and of course Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton who I think look better and better all the time. I like their timeless looks.
What are some of the most common mistake people make in accessorizing their jewellery for formal events?
The daytime watch should not be seen at night. Unless you’re rocking a blinged out Bedat & Co watch, that’s a big no-no. I’d recommend for women when they go out in the evening to choose their key piece. If they’re wearing big jewels it should be layered properly. If you’re wearing big drop earrings with a big necklace, it creates a dated look. If you are going to wear a big cocktail ring, if you’re going to max it out that is a great look – Cate Blanchett did it for the Oscars and it looked amazing, but that’s because the scale was right – something a lot of people struggle with perfecting. Another example is if you’re wearing a big cocktail ring don’t clutter it up with bracelets because you are doing yourself a disservice, because you’re taking away the focus on the ring.
You've helped accessorize some very notable/famous people, what is it like sourcing pieces for celebrity? What are some of your favourite pieces that you've created for celebrities?
It’s always satisfying to work on celebrity pieces because often your work goes elsewhere in the world and you don’t see it anymore, so you don’t see the jewels being worn. But when it’s for someone in the spotlight you get to see what you’ve created along with everyone else.
The earrings we did for Martha Stewart were cool, and even included Canadian content with the Canada Goose, as they were gifted to her from a Canadian friend in media.
When Jessica Mulroney asked if I’d be interested in creating something for Sophie Trudeau to wear to the White House state dinner it was a wonderful opportunity. I got to see the colours of the dress before, and we custom made a statement of Canadian design that was seen everywhere along with the press of the Obamas and Trudeaus together. My phone rang off the hook from the press and when friends and colleagues saw the earrings in the media they sent terrific messages from all over the world– it was fun!
What is something most people don't know about you?
Probably that if I wasn’t a jewellery designer I’d be an architect or working in landscape design. Another thing that people who don’t know me socially probably don’t know is that I love the outdoors and am an avid skier. Each year I love spending time up north in Muskoka and in Switzerland. Where I ski a lot and also Hike – it’s a special place.
What are some of the most notable driving factors behind your designs? How has this evolved over the years?
We’ve continued to keep the simplicity there but my use of colour has become bolder in terms of colour mix. I would say In the beginning my work was more conservative, but over time it has become more adventurous. We’ve also been able to start using more interesting stones, as today my resources for stones is larger with nearly 25 years in the business. I often have things custom cut now, and on a technical level we’ve raised the bar on what we’re doing. The gem cutting that we do has elevated the designs in a way.
What current projects are you most excited about? Which past ones are you most proud of, why?
A few years ago, the director at Christie’s Jewels in Geneva wanted to inspire their collectors to start collecting pieces from contemporary jewellers and to add them into a fall auction. There were eight designers selected to participate, and as one of them it was wonderful to be included in this initiative and It was great to see my earrings sell for the high bid.
More recently, I just came back from Nashville and we’ve been nominated for the Swan Ball Jeweller of the year. The event supports Cheekwood Estates and Gardens in Nashville. The jeweller signs a contract to hold three to four events in a week and it culminates at a ball in the mansion showcasing the designs. The smaller events are trunk shows in homes connected to the event and then on the Saturday night we do our final presentation. This is an honour as the Swan Ball has never had a Jeweller from Canada before, and we get to be the first.