Sophie Bille Brahe is shifting the mood in Danish design
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Hans Wegner, Borge Mogensen, Verner Panton; think of Danish design and a roll-call of midcentury masters more than likely springs to mind. And walking around Copenhagen, the city is still framed by this design ethos, with minimalist teak cabinets and Swan chairs filling shop windows and restaurants. But look to the people on the street and you’ll see a new design language taking hold: a look that’s being fostered by a group of creatives from the worlds of jewellery and fashion.
This aesthetic is epitomised by fine jeweller Sophie Bille Brahe, one of the driving forces behind Copenhagen’s new design era. When we meet at her studio, the 41-year-old is wearing a candyfloss-pink dress that seems to hang in the air like a cloud, paired with rubber Bottega Veneta wellies. She looks both slightly dishevelled and done-up; her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and there’s not a skerrick of make-up around her icy blue eyes, yet a strand of diamonds encircling her neck nods to a quiet opulence.
Said jewel, called the Collier de Tennis, is one of Bille Brahe’s bestsellers and a totem of her signature style: elegant, yet with something intentionally “off” about it, a tension between pretty and ugly. Instead of the smooth graduation of stones usually seen in a tennis necklace, there’s an abrupt stop where the tail end meets the head. Then there are her Botticellis – earrings that come in pairs or as a single giant style – made with pearls in varying sizes that are bunched together like grapes. “I really love when big and small meet in jewellery, or when you use something classic like pearls, but you have this twist to it somehow,” says Bille Brahe.
Her vision has earned her acclaim both in Denmark and abroad, with stockists ranging from Lane Crawford in Hong Kong to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Dover Street Market globally (DSM vice president Dickon Bowden describes Sophie as a “pillar” of the retailer’s jewellery department). It’s allowed her to sail through a decade of business, which she’s marking this year – especially noteworthy within a fine jewellery market that is well and truly saturated (despite the pandemic, business last year was up 27 per cent from 2019).
Bille Brahe grew up with her brother Frederik, now a well-known Copenhagen chef, to a surgeon father and nurse mother, in the affluent suburb of Hellerup, in the north of the city. Descended from nobility (some of her family still live in a castle) Bille Brahe was always surrounded by beautiful things, sparking her creativity from a young age. “I would always be sitting, drawing, or redecorating things around the house, using my hands and my eyes,” says Bille Brahe. “I think being dyslexic, I found other things that I could do, that I was good at.”
After high school, Bille Brahe did a goldsmith apprenticeship, which she describes as “craft education without any creativity. It’s four-and-a-half years and it’s just measurements, measurements,” she adds. “Afterwards I somehow felt very limited by all that I had learned. It was about the right way of doing things, in a very old-school society. But I didn’t want to make jewellery like this.” She went on to do her masters in jewellery making at the Royal College of Art, London, where she met fashion designer Cecilie Bahnsen, a fellow Dane and friend who is within the group of creatives shaping Copenhagen design today. “We used to hang out together in the art bar,” says Bahnsen, “and from day one I fell in love with her beautiful, feminine and playful work – it was not like anything I had ever seen before.”
Bille Brahe’s first design was the Croissant de Lune, a crescent of tapering diamonds that hugs the curve of the ear. Due to its popularity over the years, she’s recreated the style in big and small versions. “The Croissant was something so new and cool, it had a punk vibe but with beautiful crafting,” says Barbara Maj Husted Werner, owner of Copenhagen fashion boutique Holly Golightly and one of Bille Brahe’s first customers. “I have always been intrigued by the way Sophie can combine hardcore and classicism – it’s a rare skill to be able to keep an edge in jewellery making.”
The night sky often fires her designs (her ancestor was the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) as does the sea (she swims almost every day, even in winter). She also draws on her family’s heirlooms; she has handwritten notes from Hans Christian Andersen, whom her ancestors supported, while a relief sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen, titled The Three Graces Listening to Cupid’s Song, hangs in her studio.
To mark her 10-year anniversary, Bille Brahe has created a collection of 10 diamond styles, some new and some recreations of previous hits, which launches at Dover Street Market in London this month. It’s the first time Bille Brahe has used one- and two-carat diamonds, the latter forming the centrepiece of the Diamant de Royale, a ring with a twisting band set entirely with pavé diamonds. This twisting motif carries through to the Royal Ocean Ensemble ring, with graduating diamonds that snake up and around the finger. Bille Brahe’s tennis necklace features, too, this time made with diamond flowers that get bigger and bigger around the neck.
“I’ve never met anyone with such a distinct, self-assured and sophisticated sense of what is tasteful,” says Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of Ganni and Sophie Bille Brahe chairman, who is also among the aforementioned Copenhagen group. “Sophie could literally spend a year in a dungeon only to resurface with a clear idea as to not only what her next collection would look like but also knowing which flowers, which food, which china would complement her endeavour.” Indeed, her interests extend beyond jewellery; her showroom is filled with Gio Ponti chairs, sofas designed by Kaj Gottlob for AJ Iversen and sculptural vases by Danish flower artist Tage Andersen that are always filled with hydrangeas.
There’s also a cloud-shaped steel coffee table, designed by Bille Brahe herself, which is a sign of what’s to come: she’s planning an objects line – decorations and homeware – to complement the jewellery. “Growing up in Denmark, there is this tradition of craft and artisanship, and whether that’s with furniture or jewellery, it’s the same history of knowing the craft and using the craft to do what you want to do.” Adds Reffstrup: “Our Danish roots are essential in our design. We have a heritage that has managed to democratise design without compromising quality or aesthetics by effortlessly combining looks with ability.” Evidence that no matter the medium, Danish design has and always will be at the cutting edge.