‘Seeing my jewellery on passersby is what gets me out of bed in the morning’: How being humble helped Kiki McDonough build an empire

If a film were to be made about Kiki McDonough’s life, it would likely prove a hit at box offices across the country. The 64-year-old embodies everything we love to celebrate about British entrepreneurialism and commerce. And it’s a story like hers that would provide welcome relief from the tales of misconduct and poor governance – of arrogance and greed – which these days seem to dominate the business pages.

McDonough’s biopic would be about ambition, hard work and a healthy dose of risk. But above all it would be about humble success: few jewellers can claim to have their pieces in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Even fewer can say that their designs are favoured by several generations of royals. But almost none would be able to tell you all that without sounding even just a little bit boastful. This charming mother of two from Battersea is one of the few.

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On a muggy Friday morning in June, I meet McDonough in the basement of her eponymous flagship store, just off London’s chic Sloane Square. The term “basement” really doesn’t do the space justice. Carpeted in soft pastels, and with a huge sofa covered in cushions, the light and breezy room is a seamless extension of the shop upstairs, decor-wise. It serves as an atelier-cum-office-cum-lounge for McDonough’s team, and as I take a seat I can’t help but feel like I’ve been invited over to a very stylish, very classy friend’s house for tea. 

McDonough is a fifth-generation jeweller and her immaculate taste and eye for all things beautiful could have been inherited from either of her parents. Her father owned an antique jewellery shop off Bond Street and prior to having children her mother ran fashion shows at Paris’ Galeries Lafayette. Initially, though, McDonough didn’t seem destined for a creative career. After completing her A-levels at Queen’s Gate School in Kensington, where – she casually drops into conversation – she was taught English by Eliza Manningham-Buller, who later served as director general of MI5, she attended secretarial college and took an admin job in the offices of Vogue.

“I did what girls my age were doing at the time. But it was in the 1980s that I had what I call my lucky break,” she explains, sipping her coffee, long legs elegantly crossed at the ankles, and smiling at the memory a little coyly.

A floral octopus at Kiki McDonough on Symons Street at this year’s Chelsea in Bloom, London’s largest free flower festival in London (Matt Alexander/PA Wire/PA Images)

“A friend of mine had an antique jewellery shop on Grafton Street in Mayfair. He called me up one day out of the blue and asked if I wanted to design and sell modern jewellery for him. I thought it was a totally mad idea, but my then-husband, David, encouraged me to give it a go.”

And so, in 1985, Kiki McDonough the company was incorporated. In the founder’s own words, her first baby was born. With no design experience, she sat at her desk on day one, staring at a blank piece of paper with a pencil in hand. “I was clueless. The only thought going through my head was that this is completely bonkers,” she says with a laugh. But as it turns out, it wasn’t really as crazy as she suspected. 

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, attends the UK’s Creative Industries Reception at the Royal Academy of Arts on July 30 2012 in London (Ian Gavan/Getty)

The first pair of earnings McDonough ever designed – crystal hearts topped with gold bows – were inspired by an antique brooch she’d spotted in her friend’s collection. They now have pride of place in the permanent collection at the V&A, and even though they were created some 34 years ago, their style is echoed in many subsequent collections, including those that have caught the eye of royals.

In the mid-1990s, Diana, Princess of Wales, wore a pair of McDonough’s earrings to meet Barbara Bush. Over the last decade, scores of glossies have vied for snapshots of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in McDonough’s creations. In March, the Express splashed a story claiming that the Duchess has over £47,000 worth of jewellery from the brand. But ever the professional businesswoman, exuding poise and grace, McDonough is not about to be roused such reports, accurate or not. 

“Of course it’s flattering that she likes my pieces, but what really gives me pleasure is when I walk down the street and pass someone wearing one of my items,” she says. “That unexpectedness – that’s what really gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Our conversation mid-flow, I suddenly get distracted by an elderly lady in a striking suede coat with dazzling blue earrings who’s quietly entered the room and is now shuffling past us. I quizzically look at McDonough. “This is my mother,” she says with a touch of pride. “She’s 95 and quite deaf, but she works for me one day a week stringing necklaces. She’s always supported me. In 1989 she took over the shop when I had chickenpox.”

From everything that I’ve seen and heard, there’s no doubt that while McDonough success is obviously her own doing, support from her friends and family has been paramount to her ability to stay resilient and devoted despite the testing ups and downs of running a company.

Though neither of her sons, now aged 25 and 27, work in the industry, she says that from a very young age she made sure that they understood what she did, and appreciated that it was her hard work that allowed them to lead a comfortable life. She also speaks fondly of both her ex-husbands and describes how fortunate she was to have found partners that understood and promoted her passion. 

The business has just had its most successful year ever and as questioning turns to the future, McDonough says she’s confident that she can continue to expand in the years to come. Beyond her Chelsea shop, she distributes through some of the best-known department stores, including Fortnum & Mason in London, and Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus in the US. But it’s online where she sees the greatest potential for growth. Though the UK remains her dominant market, about 35 per cent of sales already go to the US and the brand has a strong following in Canada, Australia and Asia, predominantly because of the internet. 

Her international resonance and success might be at least partly attributable to the variety of her collections. Many of her pieces are elegantly understated with intricate florals and delicate pastel hues – “jewellery for everyday”, as she calls it – but others are show-stopping, unapologetic statement features in radiant greens, reds and blues.

That spectrum means that she’s loved by women of all demographics and backgrounds, seeking jewellery for all occasions. And while prices are certainly not cheap, it’s always been the business’s mission to make beautiful, high quality products available at a price point that’s affordable to as many as possible. Prices currently range from a few hundred pounds to several thousand.

As the interview draws to a close, I can’t help but mention a delicate gold bracelet that I’d seen some months ago and then spotted again on my way downstairs to meet McDonough. “Oh yes, I know the one you mean. It would really suit you.” Of course she’d say that. 

A few minutes later – my wallet a little lighter – I step out into a now sun-drenched Sloane Square admiring my birthday present to myself and silently vowing not to make a habit of bringing my credit card to interviews with jewellery designers in future. 

But Kiki McDonough’s charm really did win me over. There might’ve been a more economical way of finding whether she’s a good saleswoman too, but a little indulgence is sometimes necessary. I’m sure Kiki would agree.

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