“I have been designing jewellery since I was a kid, it’s been a love affair since I was little,” says Ileana Makri as we discuss the origins of her career. Born in Greece, Ileana found a passion for gemstones that would stick with her into early adulthood. Even after pursuing a degree in business administration, she couldn’t shake the lure of jewellery and continued to design and produce one-off pieces, and work with private clients. By 1996, she began studying at the Gemological Institute of America and, just two years later, she was collaborating with Barneys New York, which is where her rise to prominence really began.
You might say it was fate: Ileana was designing for herself – marching to the beat of her own drum by way of her Athens atelier, workshop and concept store – not fazed by the more maximalist jewellery aesthetic of the moment. Buyers at Barneys were presented with her delicate, eternity-style Thread band from the Classic collection and saw something different in its simplicity. The result was a 23-year collaboration and point-of-entry in the enormous American market. She explains: “My work was with very small diamond melee, which was not considered anything special at the time. The Classic collection set a trend for a more minimal look. As a matter of fact, our Thread band is our bestselling piece still today.”
From the late 1990s to today, Ileana Makri has continued to expand her repertoire with pieces that showcase the “extraordinary in everyday life”. This is especially pertinent phrase for the designer, whose pieces continue to have a pared-back, essential feel, like they can be worn to the supermarket or a black-tie evening dinner. “What’s changed is that my collections have become more diverse; I don’t stick to one style religiously,” she tells me. And even though more than 20 years have passed, Ileana can’t quite bring herself to archive a collection – they’re always being added to. She says: “It’s difficult to walk away from any of my collection. I find it difficult because it was a moment of inspiration, and it was a moment in my life that is a part of me. I always go back and add a piece or two to an old collection because I get back into that mood, so I can develop and expand on that. Then, of course, new ideas come.”
Although the Classic collection is the anchor of the Ileana Makri ship, she has other icons to her name, including the Snake motif that formed early in her career. Part serpent, part love-knot, the Ileana Makri snake didn’t immediately strike a chord with Barneys. “I took my Lucky Snake pendant to Barneys and they said, ‘Our client doesn’t really like snakes, so we can’t sell them’. I left three pieces with them on consignment […] then all of a sudden, all three sold. The Snake collection is huge and sells all over the world; people love it.”
When browsing the Ileana Makri website, you’ll no doubt notice a plethora of decadent yellow gold, which has been the designer’s preference for the past three years. “There was a period that I did a lot of rose gold, and there was a period that I did a lot of white gold, but at the moment I am attracted to the warmth of yellow gold,” she says. Right now, Ileana is almost religiously wearing a necklace from her Tile collection, launched in the autumn of 2022. This homage to uniform squares of yellow gold draws inspiration from her home on the Greek island of Patmos and its medieval monastery, paved streets and sun-soaked views. “To imitate this is what inspired me,” she says of her Aegean island home. “I tried to make something that would lead me to this feeling [of being there].”
This sense of being transported through jewellery is important to Ileana, who’s something of a globetrotter in both her personal and professional lives. Prior to Tile she launched the Cascade collection, with intricate golden rectangles flexibly arranged like bullion bars to envelop the wrist and flow from the ears. The collection is inspired by an experience Ileana had in Ecuador, led by a shaman who guided her to the top of a sacred waterfall to spend a day in contemplation. “It was a feeling that I will never forget,” she recalls, noting that her Cascade bracelet won the Best in Gold category at the Couture Design Awards in 2022. We are reliably informed here at KaterinaPerez.com that Ileana is now working on additions to the Cascade collection, but with additional flowers inspired by the wild blooms she saw on her Ecuadorian adventure!
It seems fitting that nearly 25 years after launching in Barneys New York, Ileana Makri is now stocked in Saks Fifth Avenue and has recently added another Big Apple icon to her portfolio: Bergdorf Goodman. She says: “Bergdorf has such a beautiful jewellery collection, and they really present jewellery in a lovely way.” Across the pond, the brand sells on Net-a-Porter, Mytheresa, and Matches to reach a mix of European jewellery lovers. It also has partners in the Middle East and Japan. “Every country has different aesthetics and different needs. Japanese women like more delicate, feminine pieces, American women are bold, and European women tend to be more conservative,” she explains.
Finally, what is on the horizon for the brand? Ileana shares that her only aspiration is to “continue to bring style” to her customers and the world of jewellery. “This is always the difficult part - we need to draw inspiration from everyday life! Although everyday life becomes harder and harder because we live in a world where a lot of things are happening that are not as happy as we would like them to be, but nevertheless, I still find moments and places where I draw inspiration.”
She concludes: “I have learned in life that you never know what happens tomorrow, so I take everyday as it comes. My real wish is to continue to be inspired. I think that would be my biggest achievement.” As goals for the future go, this is one resolution we can get behind here at KaterinaPerez.com.