ES Magazine - 10 November 2006

Breakfast at Rosa's


She was a rock to her friend Princess Diana, and she brought Tiffany to London. But Rosa Monckton's current jewellery venture is a little closer to her heart. Kate Reardon finds her Sussex farmhouse the perfect setting.


Rosa Monckton has just launched a range of jewellery. Unlike the thousands of twinkly new jewellery lines unleashed every year, this one is something special. The woman most famous for being Princess Diana's best friend is also the woman who had the nerve to ring Tiffany & Co out of the blue and suggest she set up the company's first store in England. It was an enormous success and, after running it for 14 years, Apsrey was so desperate to lure her away that she was offered a helicopter to take her to and from work every day. It's safe to say that when she starts something in the jewellery department you want to pay attention.


After leaving her Belgian convent school at 16 (where she was sent to be close to her family, as her father, who was in the army, was stationed in Germany), Rosa spent eight years travelling and dabbling in various jobs before starting work in London at Cartier, in sales. Three years later she went to Monte Carlo to work for a Lebanese jeweller, where she stayed for two years before returning to the UK to run the marketing department at Asprey. 'One night I went back to my little flat in Battersea', she says. It was 1985 and there had been a bit in the papers about a management buyout of Tiffany. I thought, 'Why aren't they in London?' Having had not a very good day, I rang international directory enquiries and, after my bottle of wine, asked to speak to the chairman. I didn't get through to him, but spoke to someone and said, "I hear you're going to expand into Europe and I'd like to do it with you". After five days they actually called me back and asked me to go to New York two weeks later.'


In the end Tiffany said, 'If you can find the money, we'll start this as a joint venture.' Rosa told them, 'No problem.' She says, 'I have the least financial brain, but my father simply said, "Just get behind yourself and push." Rosa did just that, raising money from six backers. 'We opened on 18 September 1986.' The store was a success. After two years, Tiffany bought out the six backers, all of whom made a profit. In 2000 she was poached by Asprey. Even though she knew the staid brand was 'a makeover waiting to happen', she didn't really want to do it. 'Which made them want me all the more. Ultimately,' she admits, 'I made the leap out of a mixture of boredom and greed.'


Rosa stayed with Asprey until 2004 and, in the past two years, she has been mulling over what to do next, resulting in the launch of her range. Knowing a thing or two about jewellery, you'd expect a woman in Rosa's position to begin a new venture with scores of assistants, spiffy offices, tip-top media plans and people chucking money at her. But the money thing has been the rub. 'I found it hard to find a backer because my intention has always been to give five per cent of sales to four charities I'm involved with,' she explains. 'They all said, "No, it must be five per cent of profits,' but it could take years to be in profit.'


Rosa enlisted her friend John Studzinski, ex-CEO of HSBC, as chairman of her company. 'He understand why I want to do it this way.' He also understands the other motive behind this new business. 'I think once people have met Domenica they understand why I do it,' she says. Domenica is her 11 year-old daughter who has Down Syndrome. Rosa continues, 'If I can have some fun, make some money for my charities and make some money to secure Domenica's future then I'll be happy. Every parent of a disabled child thinks,"What will happen when I'm gone?"'


Although Rosa, 53, and her husband, Dominic Lawson (ex-editor of The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph), are clearly not on the breadline, she is determined that Domenica should never be a burden on their elder daughter Savannah. The Lawsons didn't know that Domenica had Down's before she was born. 'We had none of those tests,' says Rosa. 'I wouldn't want to, because then you're confronted with a terrible choice.' As a Catholic she believes, 'Medicine does try to play God a little bit too much. Even now I get people ringing me for support who have had the test and are told to abort.'


As well as being the driving force behind Rosa's new business, Domenica is quite a force herself. 'It's like living with a cartoon character - you're never quite certain who she's going to be today,' says Rosa. She's tiny but she's got a real sense of who she is. She's fiercely competitive, but it's difficult for her now as she's realised she's different. She's now coming back from school saying, "I can't do hockey because I've got Down's." It's affected her quite a lot. She's very effervescent and she longs more than anything to be a model or pop star.'


Rosa continues, 'She's either very happy or very, very cross indeed. There's no emotional thermostat. She gets frustrated as she's often not understood, but she's absolutely enchanting and I do thank God for her every day. But I didn't at first. It's a long journey.'


As well as providing for Domenica, Rosa hopes to make as much as possible for her chosen charities: Kids, The Acorn Children's Hospice, The Down Syndrome Educational Trust and Downside Up. A prospect she finds galvanising, 'as it means I can't run it as a kitchen-table business.' Which it very much is at the moment. And you sense that she's really quite enjoying it. I've had so many years of corporate life that it's fun to be a little more creative.' So right now, this new venture is being run by Rosa, and Rosa alone, from her office at home in East Sussex, which is not far from where she was brought up, at her parents' family farm in Kent.


Rosa and Dominic bought Cox's Mill eight years ago, and it's absurdly charming. Think cosy, messy, rambling family house set in 130 acres; a pond with two rowing boats and an island in the middle; swimming pool, waterfall; five dogs, three goats and three miniature Shetland ponies, including a stallion who sometimes needs an inhaler for his asthma.


There are toys and photographs everywhere, many of which feature Princess Diana who was Domenica's godmother. Rosa was introduced to Diana by the then Brazilian ambassador's wife Lucia Flecha de Lima, whose daughter Rosa employed at Tiffany. Lucia said to Rosa, 'I'd like you to meet (Diana) because she needs someone she can trust, someone she can talk to.' They first met in Harry's Bar in early 1992 and remained close friends, 'right until the end in 1997.'


Among the photographs there is a particularly touching one of Dominic and Rosa, taken on their honeymoon in Barbados, with him standing behind her, tickling her. 'We met at a party given by the then editor of The Times who invited Dominic, and the then editor of Harpers & Queen who invited me,' says Rosa. It was pretty much love at first sight and they married a year later, on 30 December 1991, at St Mary's, Cadogan Street. She says: 'On the same day, in the same church as my parents had, 40 years before.'


Fifteen years later, Rosa's domestic life at Cox's Mill is the root of her business. One group of jewellery, called Attitude (which includes rings engraved with 'Make my day') was primarily inspired by George, her goat. 'You have to meet him,' she says. 'He's completely mad. It came from him, but it also came from all this political correctness we're mired in. Not being able to do things or say things.' She explains: I do lots of public speaking, and I deliberately use the word 'handicapped'. People come up to me and say, "You can't say that"; you're supposed to say "special needs". I think these euphemisms are very dangerous. It's Orwellian. It's removed compassion from everyday life.'


Another collection is called Love Hurts. It started from a garden gate in which Rosa suddenly saw the shape of a heart. She thought, 'How can I do hearts in a different way? Well, no one's honest about it; love does hurt.' And so there are heart pendants with diamond teardrops pierced out, and hearts with safety pins, 'For when you just can't hold it together.' There are vast semiprecious stones called Rosa's Rocks, and a collection of 'the important things' called Faith, Hope & Charity using crosses, anchors and hearts.


All the jewellery is heavy, sleek and tactile. That's because, after years in the business, Rosa has built up a stable of incredible craftsmen. And uniquely, she names them all in her catalogue, 'Because other brands don't. That could be why all of these people aren't using their skills any more, because the wider world has never heard of them. It's such a privilege to work with them and to be able to put their names out there.'


And they're all British, which is the other point behind this project. 'The gap I saw was something wonderfully British. Not all red letterboxes, but that cutting edge, quirkiness and eccentricity.'


She also has no desire to be anywhere a full five days a week, so initially she will sell through the catalogue (which also includes possum throws and lavendar bags) and from a little workshop she's using in Bond Street. She will have selling exhibitions a few times a year and plans to have a first-floor showroom, possibly on Sloane Street. 'A little first-floor boudoir would be lovely. I don't want to be a shop, I've done shops. But just three days a week, where people know they can come.


And come they probably will. Because if anyone knows how to sell jewellery to Londoners it is Rosa Monckton.


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