Elena Votsi graduated first in her class from the RCA in 1991 with an MA in Jewellery & Silversmithing, winning the Bakri Memorial Award. Before that she studied painting at the School of Fine Arts of Athens, at the same time as undertaking an apprenticeship on mosaics.
Elena’s birthplace, the small Greek island of Hydra, continues to be an unending source of inspiration for the acclaimed Greek jewellery designer. Inspired by Hydra, her jewellery designs capture the serenity of the sea and the sky above Greece, where she lives and works.
Since the opening of her first store on the island, Elena has collaborated with significant Greek cultural institutions, such as; the Acropolis Museum, the Museum of Cycladic, the Benaki Museum and the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, while other collaborations include high fashion brands GUCCI and Ralph Lauren.
Elena’s work has also been showcased in exhibitions and projects alongside other artists, in Europe as well as in the USA. The highlight of her career – taking into account her Greek heritage – was being selected for the redesign of the Olympic medals for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games held in Athens. Her design is now used indefinitely for the Summer Games, with the host city creating a unique design on the reverse and their own size for the medal. She is also greatly honoured by the fact that her signature will remain on the front façade of the medals for all following Olympic Games, in this way incorporating her work into an important part of modern history.
Elena’s jewellery collections are housed in the world’s most famous fashion capitals and her contribution to the Greek art scene has also been acknowledged by the Greek president and the mayor of Hydra. In addition, Elena has been awarded two prizes at the annual Couture Show in Las Vegas and has been included twice in the 100 Most Important Jewellery Designers list.
You received a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation and that gave you the opportunity to come to continue your postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art. Could you tell us about that?
I still remember the day that I got a call from the RCA telling me that I was accepted. I was in Hydra and while the secretary was speaking to me on the ‘phone I was thinking that they had probably made a mistake. I was sure that they would call me back to tell me that they were wrong about their decision. At that time, I remember, only a few students from all around the world were offered a place on my course. I could not believe that I was one of them. The Onasis Foundation Scholarship was a big honour. It is the most prestigious scholarship in Greece and a dream for every student. I feel blessed for the honour and I thank the Foundation for believing in me during my first steps.
Your jewellery is recognisable by their oversized scale and iconic symbolism. What is your inspiration behind these elegant pieces?
I’ve loved jewellery for as long as I can remember. I always remember wearing big rings or bracelets when I was a child. I love the fact that a piece of jewellery can also be a small piece of art, that can make a statement on its own. Something you can just put on a table and admire for being something unique and beautiful. So, I love it when a ring, for example, cannot be ‘lost’ in your purse. As a young girl I was always admiring women who used to wear unique pieces of jewellery and usually those pieces were big. Those women were my inspiration for years. I am now glad that I can create my own jewellery that makes women look and feel special.
All your jewellery is handmade. What is the timeline from concept to final production?
Well, all of our products are handcrafted in Greece by Greek artisans, which is something that makes me feel very proud. Each piece receives special care and is made with love. We know that before starting its own journey it must receive the best care from us and we hold quality above all. Sometimes it takes more time until we can have the final product, but we are never in a hurry. It’s like cooking a nice dinner; it’s a slow process to the final result, but it’s worth the wait. A piece from the ‘ready to wear’ collection needs three to five days to be made, while some other pieces, especially from the ‘one of a kind’ collection, need up to two months.
You were born on the island of Hydra and still have your original shop there. Was it important to you to stay close to your roots even as your fame and popularity grew?
The island is my father’s home. It is where I had my first dreams, my first love, my first memories. And I am glad that my son Nicholas is now building his own relationship with the island, collecting his own memories. On Hydra I feel alive. I feel like I am going home. I am usually here for the summer, spending my winter in Athens if I am not traveling, since I want to be close to the workshop that is located in Athens. Most of my inspiration comes from Hydra. The light and the shadows. The waves and the sun. The lines from the hills and the leaves from the trees. The island is full of pictures and beauty. My career started from here and here is the place that I want always to return to since here I feel free and mesmerised by everything that I see.
Your work varies from the classical to the boldly modern. Do you draw on your fine art degree and jewellery degree in different ways for inspiration?
For me both work as one. I am inspired by the same things and express them in different materials. Sometimes it is on paper and sometimes on gold. I love to design; from a brand or a museum to a bespoke piece of jewellery or an Olympic medal. Lately I have also started my new collection ‘Elena Votsi – 18040’ with t-shirts. From a fun t-shirt to a bold diamond ring, the pleasure is the same. After being taught by the best professors both in Greece and London I see this knowledge as my ‘passport’ for this journey.
Your work is immortalised by your designs for the Athens 2004 Olympic medals and will be used for the front side of the Olympic medals for all future summer Olympic Games. You consider this is the biggest honour of her career. Tell us about your design and this great honour.
I hardly can describe the feeling. And the funny thing is that I was not sure if I wanted to participate in that international competition. I remember I travelled to Hydra and I stayed there for a week, almost imprisoned at home, making samples. I finally decided to give the first design I had in mind, out of the ten or fifteen I had tried. And that was the winning design. I feel very proud as Greek and as a designer for this honour. It’s beyond everything.
Did you know at the time your design was going to be used indefinitely for the Summer Games?
No, I had no idea. I thought, and all the other participants as well, that this was only for the Athens Olympic Games. It was a huge surprise when they called me to announce me that the International Olympic Committee had decided to keep the front side of my design for all the future Olympic Games to follow.
How important was it for you to capture Greek history and the mythology behind the goddess Nike?
I believe that when you have to design something so special and big you feel all the school memories coming out, all the history you have learnt, all the proudness of your country, all the best parts of you as an artist. You want to take them all and create something universal, timeless, and eternal. For example; Goddess Nike, according to the myth, was coming down to the earth to put the wreath on the head of the winning athletes, a moment very special and symbolic that had to be on the medal. My aim was to use the Greek elements, the symbols and the mythology, equally so I could create something that reminds us of the real mother of the games, the legacy of Greece, the power of the past to the present.
You draw on Greece and the symbolism around it in a lot of your work. This is particularly evident in your celebratory collection at the Benaki Musem for the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence which highlights the Greek flag, the evil eye, Evzones, certain dates and even sayings such as Freedom and We fought for these Marbles on amulets. How important was it in this collection and in general to highlight the Hellenic in these aspects?
We, Greeks, feel very proud of our roots, our antecedents, our history. And we had to wait so many years to be and feel free again. For me to be part of this exhibition for the Benaki museum, it was a chance to remind myself that I am still here, free and alive because some people fought for this and sacrificed their own lives for us and the freedoms we enjoy. The 200th anniversary of Greek independence is a very big and special moment for Greece and it was important to me to design things that can be useful and meaningful at the same time. Things that will have a place in our homes and hearts.
In your collaborations with international fashion giants such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren do you get to design differently to how you usually would?
Yes. Totally different I could say but always with my own personal point of view. In this case, when I design for another brand, I must consider their vision then drive things one step further. I hear what they need and then I have to present my ideas. It is like giving me a ‘problem’ and me trying to solve it. This is one of my favourite things to do and that’s why I am always open to new collaborations.
What is your favourite piece that you have designed?
Oh, there are many. I couldn’t really answer that. But I could say that I love rings. Because rings, with the movement of the hands, can dress all of the body.
On your Instagram you posted a picture of you on your graduation day with your degree saying Precious moments. Back in 1991. What was precious for you about your time at the College and in London?
I couldn’t feel happier for that ‘journey’. It was an experience that I could never forget. I always feel very touched when I remember that period of my life. The RCA was an open door for all us. It was a place that embraced you, your talent, your dreams, even your fears. It was the place that made us feel confident, capable, special. My two years I spent at the RCA were one the very best times in my life! And I must admit that I could easily take that route again and again and honestly there are times that I dream of going back in time, being again a student returning to RCA to take one more class. This is what that experience meant to me…
"I believe that when you have to design something so special and big you feel all the school memories coming out, all the history you have learnt, all the proudness of your country, all the best parts of you as an artist. You want to take them all and create something universal, timeless, and eternal."Elena Votsi