Ninotchka: “Our pieces should say more about us than we can say about ourselves”

Is there a single, memorable word that is associated with Russia? For Evgeny Glagolev and Timur Ibragimov, a creative duo of jewellers from Moscow, it is the name of their company: “Ninotchka”. You might have seen the Ernst Lubitsch film of the same name starring Greta Garbo. It was this film that Renata Litvinova, the famous film star, client, muse and friend of the jewellers, recalled when she suggested they name their jewellery company after the main character “Ninotchka”. And so, six years ago in 2014, a new star called Ninotchka began to shine in the jewellery firmament.

I imagine your knowledge of Ninotchka is at best patchy, otherwise non-existent. There are several reasons why this is the case. “We never used to talk about ourselves because our own freedom, privacy and independence were important to us. We were doing our job, but now we have decided that the time has come for us to speak; this is what is scripted to happen next, this is how we see our brand developing. There are many examples which prove that exposure is not absolutely necessary. Greta Garbo herself was incredibly famous but she preferred to go out wearing dark glasses and to socialise with only a narrow circle of friends,” Timur tells me. Evgeny continues his train of thought: “Garbo argued that the roles spoke for themselves, better than she could. In the same way, our pieces should say more about us than we can say about ourselves.”

Generally, private jewellers like Evgeny and Timur do not seek out publicity, but they don’t completely close themselves off from the world. And it is true that high jewellery at this level should not always be accessible to anyone and everyone. However, if treasures like this are hidden from the rest of the world, how will discerning buyers ever discover these museum-worthy items for themselves? Timur and Evgeny are well aware of this, so when they received an invitation from jewellery historian Vivienne Becker to take part in Geneva’s GemGenève exhibition, they happily agreed and joined the dozen private jewellers from around the world who were at last presenting their work to the general public.

Ninotchka Ivy earrings with emeralds, yellow and colorless diamonds

It was at GemGenève that I first saw Ninotchka jewellery with my own eyes and realised that Russian high jewellery art can easily compete with any French haute joaillerie. The creative duo have all their jewellery crafted in Russia by skilled masters entirely by hand from various colours of gold, silver and even steel. Goldsmiths, woodcarvers and gemcutters have the same high attention to details as Evgeny and Timur do that contributes to the quality of Ninotchka jewellery. It is interesting that to create their own eccentric (and, according to one client, “wicked”) jewellery, young people often turn to specialists in other industries that have nothing to do with jewellery. For example, the expertise of spacecraft builders was required when a pair of bracelets was being made, something I will talk about a little later. This is all necessarily dictated by the boundless imagination of young people and a stream of what are often very unusual ideas.

This design duo come up with ideas for new jewellery designs in a variety of ways. “Once we bought a miniature, a portrait of Marie Antoinette that was painted by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the French queen’s favourite artist. Following Marie Antoinette’s dramatic execution, Élisabeth left France and started working in Russia. Inspired by this story, Evgeny ran his finger along the neckline of the necklace and said that this is where we needed to hang ruby drops,” Timur tells me as we discuss the creation of the “Guillotine” ruby necklace. Of course, when it comes to complex jewels, you need to create a drawing first or a preliminary cast of the jewel itself, but “sometimes you just need to lay out the stones to see it.”

Ninotchka box in carved petrified wood and gilded silver with carnelian mushrooms and an agate snail

Surprisingly, some of Ninotchka’s jewels come from... fairy tales! Timur has been writing them since adolescence to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but sometimes they are an unexpected source of inspiration for new pieces of jewellery. “We have a bracelet that features petrified wood and a diamond flower which is intended to reflect childhood memories, when the sun shone brightly and you ran past a house in the village, knocking a stick along the ivy-covered fence. These childhood memories have become an inspiration for us as adults.”

While we are on the subject of this bracelet, I want to ask: how often is it that you see petrified wood in precious jewellery? Or other uncommon jewellery materials such as cobalt glass or uncut gemstones? The use of cobalt glass was a first for me personally, and the other two I have only come across a few times and only in the works of the most creative jewellers, so I suggest taking a closer look at the choker made with Ural amethysts, coloured diamonds and cobalt glass elements. I think you will appreciate that this is far from the strongest, and therefore a very risky, material, but that did not stop Timur and Evgeny who continue to bend the creative boundaries of jewellery art.

Ninotchka bracelet in titanium, gold and silver, decorated with stained glass enamel, modern hand-carved antique cobalt glass, 400 Russian unheated demantoid garnets and 2 portrait diamonds with a secret message. Photo: Simon Martner

“This was inspired by the last unfinished work of Carl Fabergé: a blue glass Easter egg engraved with the Leo constellation. For the necklace, we found antique cobalt glass, which, unlike modern glass, perfectly matched the shade and texture we were looking for. If you put it near a lamp, the room will become immersed in a Klein blue colour with slides of the starry sky,” Evgeny explains. “When the necklace was finished, we realised that it was absolutely impossible just to give it to the client; someone does not simply buy jewellery, they are also buying the sensations of their purchase. It is such a valuable and venerable moment!”

In the living room of the client’s London apartment, there was an old Russian Empire-style table. The jewellers placed the necklace box on it, gave the customer headphones, and placed a iPad opposite. “She opened the box and a video call started: a choir from Moscow appeared on the screen. It was an online concert for one listener. She was thrilled, and so were we. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about an online concert nowadays, but back then it was something out of the ordinary,” says Evgeny.

Ninotchka ring in gold with more than 14 carats of Russian alexandrites, plus round and baguette-cut diamonds. Photo: Isabella Antonio

The client did not stop at the choker: she followed it with an order for a pair of titanium bracelets - a design inspired by traditional Russian costume. “In the past, these cuff bracelets would have been richly decorated with precious stones and worn on the wrist, a place that was exposed for all to see. To achieve precision with the titanium frame, we went to a factory that produces spacecraft components. To cut the glass, we approached diamond cutters because the angles had to match, down to the very last micromillimetre. The bits of glass are themselves hand-engraved with cornflowers, and the skin-touching gold hoops are decorated with Ural demantoids on both sides. But the most interesting thing is that we applied a special “vanishing” engraving to the portrait diamonds set in the clasps. When the client puts on the bracelets, we asked her to breathe on the diamonds. She exhaled and a word appeared, but after a couple of seconds it disappeared.” Exactly what the inscription reads is a secret.

I think by now you must be impatient to learn something about the backgrounds of these geniuses, who, it should be said, came to jewellery via completely different routes. Evgeny’s grandmother was a geologist who instilled in him a fascination with gemstones from an early age: “She would lay out in front of me the mineral samples she had found on scientific expeditions and I had to arrange them according to the Mohs scale. Not all of them were bright and pretty, so one day I took out paints, added “beauty” to them and affixed them to plasticine frames. No one shared my enthusiasm but that did not stop me from wanting to become a jeweller.” Once an adult, Evgeny worked as a journalist for several years before moving to Russia’s State Depository for Precious Metals, where to this day he manages public relations and participates in exhibitions.

Since he was a child, Timur wanted to be either an actor, a designer or a writer. He moved from Dagestan to St Petersburg, and then to Moscow, working in journalism and television. In 2011, while working for J&W jewellery magazine, Timur met the like-minded Evgeny, his Ninotchka co-founder: “I left J&W for Vogue Russia’s culture department just as Timur was being hired. We continued to communicate, started working together and never missed an important jewellery event; we just “lived” in museums,” recalls Evgeny. Timur plunged more and more into the world of jewellery and eventually went to Paris to master the basics. “I wanted to work in a maison on Place Vendôme that had a long history, but it was during a meeting with a leading expert from one of them that I was advised to nurture and hone my own style. I then focused on self-education, and I was lucky enough to receive private lessons from some of the great masters.” The apartment in Paris where he lived overlooked the Musée d’Orsay and he spent all his days in museums, lessons and antique shops.

Evgeny Glagolev and Timur Ibragimov. Photo: Charles Thompson

After returning to Moscow a year later, the inspired Timur and the equally motivated, like-minded Evgeny laid the foundations for their joint creativity. They boldly began to create their first works, encouraged by their mutual understanding and similar tastes. Or is it that their dates of birth are only three days apart? Perhaps this played a fateful role in all this?

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