A CONVERSATION with DEMETRA LALAOUNIS
As the story goes, after each of Ilias Lalaounis’s daughters were born, he took them straight from the hospital and past his workshop on the way home. “It was his way of making sure we didn’t escape our destiny,” Demetra Lalaounis explains with a laugh. Several decades after founding one of Greece’s most celebrated and prolific jewelry brands, Ilias’s attempt at steering the winds of fate proved a success. In 1998, Demetra, along with her sisters Aikaterini, Maria, and Ioanna, took over—the torch passed seamlessly, with barely a flicker.
Though born into a family of goldsmiths, Ilias, a student of law and economics, had no intention of entering the family trade. But the stars above had other plans. During World War II, he was summoned by an uncle with a jewelry business to help out. Participation was not elective. “He had no choice,” Demetra explains. Ilias spent years working within the company until an ideological rift pushed him in a new direction. “At some point,” Demetra continues, “my father decided what they were doing was very generic. There was no particular character to it. One day he said, ‘Well, this is crazy. We have such a rich heritage. Why don’t we create pieces that remind us of who we are?’” Ilias couldn’t convince anyone within the company to change course, and so he broke out on his own. LALAoUNIS was born.
“In 1967, my father basically had to start from zero to pursue what he thought was more meaningful and interesting,” remarks Demetra. For inspiration, Ilias, a bookish man with a passion for history, looked to jewelry of the past, with its beautiful and intricate handmade techniques. “He started LALAoUNIS by saying, ‘Okay, let’s try and see if we can reproduce what we see in our museums.’ Once he saw they were able to do that, he said, ‘Now let’s go further.’” Ilias’s pieces became immediately prized for their uncompromising craftsmanship. Filigree, granulation, weaving and hammering by hand—with LALAoUNIS, Ilias resurrected tried and true techniques of the jewelry-making trade, ones proven and perfected over centuries. In 1990, he became the first goldsmith ever to be recognized by the Institut de France, Academie des Beaux Arts et des Lettres, a testament to his remarkable contributions to the field.
The aesthetic achievements of our ancestors continue to serve as the brand’s North Star. “We very often build up on what exists because there is so much out there,” Demetra explains. “You cannot say, ‘I’ve done my Hellenistic collection; I’m finished.’ There is so much out there.” If one were fortunate enough to plunge their hands into a heap of LALAoUNIS pieces, it would feel less like raiding an ordinary jewelry box than it would unearthing the spoils of an archeological dig. It’s not difficult to imagine a LALAoUNIS snake ring curling up the finger of some Grecian princess, a pair of pendants dripping from the ears of Helen of Troy. Still, in its mining the archives of time, LALAoUNIS manages to make inspirations like Byzantine mosaics and Neolithic horns feel contemporary—necessary, even.
The trademark extravagance for which LALAoUNIS has come to be known is always tasteful to the utmost. Gold, more often than not, leads the way. Never will one find a gemstone placed unnecessarily, no diamond shining just for shining’s sake. “Trend” is not a word you’ll find in its aesthetic vernacular. The epitome of timeless, LALAoUNIS is an indisputable heritage brand, and a wise investment. At auction, the brand’s pieces command top-tier bids. In the world of jewelry, one could argue, LALAoUNIS is a blue-chip stock.
The brand’s confident sense of beauty has attracted the attention of icons and luminaries over the years. Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Barbara Streisand—permanent fixtures in the style canon—have all famously worn pieces from the brand. Today, LALAoUNIS remains a go-to for stylists and can frequently be found on the front covers of glossies like InStyle, Elle, and Vogue, gracing the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Kate Moss. The brand’s appeal, it seems, is destined to endure.
Below, our conversation with Demetra Lalaonis continues, wherein we discuss early apprenticeship, shared visions, and a special gift from a dance world legend.
Latest Revival: To orient our readers, could you tell me a bit about what each sister’s role is within LALAoUNIS?
Demetra Lalaounis: My sister, Maria, the third born, is our creative director and designer. Aikaterini, my older sister, is more into the retail business in Greece—our shops in Athens and the islands—as well as PR. My youngest sister, Ioanna, is the director of our museum, which my father created in 1994. I myself am the head of all international operations.
LR: I’ve read that all of you were very much indoctrinated into the brand from a very young age, is that so?
DL: My father wanted us involved in everything to really make us live and breathe the business.
From ever since I can remember, we would spend part of the holidays at the workshop. My sisters and I would be hammering away, destroying things rather than creating. The first piece I actually made was an enamel piece. I fell in love with enamel—it was just something to do with color. I love color. Later, when we were older, we helped in the shops with packages and parcels, just helping around. As soon as we became teenagers, we were given responsibilities in sales to expose us to different parts of the business. It was really quite intense from very early on.
LR: All of the Lalaounis sisters have their own role within the company, but is there a shared vision you are all working towards?
DL: I think the vision is to continue the tradition of what our father started. To be inspired by ancient art and our heritage and our culture, and create collections from there. What we do today is very much the same. Whatever has been created and was created by him is never finished. There is an ongoing story to be told and, depending on what the inspiration is, pieces are added to that collection. Of course, there are also new collections that we create but in the same spirit.
LR: It’s such a grand ambition your father had. Do you find there is pressure to live up to it? Or is it helpful to lean on the vision he established?
DL: It’s helpful, definitely, to have a vision that you share, and that you want to continue building on. At the same time, you want to create and bring a new twist to things. Sometimes it’s more challenging, sometimes it’s easier, but there’s always a challenge—though I think a lot of the challenges are within yourself, to see how you can do your best.
LR: As a heritage brand, you must want to keep elements that are familiar to people—those reasons why they love the brand—while also allowing yourself to evolve. There’s a balance to be had there.
DL: Absolutely. You want the freedom to depart from something and create things which are also different, but you need to keep your identity. You cannot lose that DNA. This is something underlying that we always are very conscious of. Even if we’re doing something new, you always have to keep something that is core to our identity. If it’s not the design, it’s the technique or the finish of the gold. There is so much out there today, if you forget who you are, you get lost.
LR: History really is the bedrock of the LALAoUNIS brand. Is there an era in history you’re personally drawn to?
DL: Byzantium—with all its richness and all its deep reds, blues, and greens—is always something that’s really attracted me. I love that time in history. But, having said that, anything that has to do with my heritage is always very attractive to me. Even though I look and enjoy the art of different cultures and civilizations, I do feel a pull towards where I’m from. There’s something that speaks to my soul, so I’m always attracted to that, maybe, a little bit more.
LR: Technique drives much of the collections. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
DL: A lot of our jewelry is gold. We are using more colored stones and diamonds to complement our creations, but our creations are never for the stone alone. Stones are complementary to design. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a gemologist. I love stones. But I prefer the combination—how one can bring out the best in the other. I would never do a big diamond ring with a small shank around it. I don’t find that fun, you know?
LR: Given the age of the brand, the LALAoUNIS archives must be extensive. Do you ever look towards them for inspiration?
DL: Definitely. I mentioned earlier that a collection never dies. As you go back to a piece later on, you see it with a different eye. Suddenly your outlook can be completely different on the same thing, on the same subject. It’s very important to look back and to see the history, then see how you would interpret it today. It also helps ground you sometimes. If you find yourself going too much in another direction, it can help take you back in again.
LR: There are many iconic LALAoUNIS moments—take Jackie O. in the Apollo 11 earrings, for instance. Do you have a favorite?
DL: Jackie O. was not my era, of course, but I did live through Elizabeth Taylor. She just absolutely loved jewelry. She loved jewelry of all different kinds. Some people just like pieces with stones, but she loved everything. That was lovely. But do you know Martha Graham?
LR: The choreographer. Yes, of course.
DL: This is actually a bit of a reverse LALAoUNIS story. Martha Graham had a close relationship with my father. They did a lot together because my father had done a collection called Choreography based on human movement—she was fascinated by that. She was such an impressive individual, such an extraordinary woman. When I met her, she was wearing these very bold pieces. She already had arthritis, so her hands were a bit troubled. I was given one of her own rings by her closest colleague and confidant after she passed away. It’s made out of stone. A very sculptural piece. It brings me close to her and reminds me of this relationship between herself and my father. There was so much shared vision between two different types of arts. I think it’s the only piece I have that is not LALAoUNIS.
LR: How do you prefer to wear a LALAoUNIS piece?
DL: I’m more of a minimalist. My sister, Aikaterini, the oldest, she’s a master in wearing a lot and being able to pull it off. When I see friends or I meet clients and they ask my opinion, I’m all for “What works for you and what do you feel most comfortable with?” Jewelry has to be complementary to you. It has to blend in with your personality. I could never wear big. Never. When I did, I looked wrong. My older sister could always tell. However you wear it, there has to be a feel-good factor. The jewelry has to give you that.
LR: My last question for you is where do you see the brand in 30 years?
DL: Of course you can’t predict the future, but I see the brand as something that can go on forever. There’s so much in our history. I can only see it expanding and growing, and also being more daring in some ways while staying true to who we are. We are a niche product. It’s something very specific and particular, but it’s lovely to see how young people take to it in their own way. In the past, you would never think to wear something with a turtleneck. You wouldn’t go out in the ‘80s with a turtleneck and big earrings. Today is different. I think the more people are open to different things, the more possibilities exist. With fashion and jewelry, there’s a great freedom. You can just keep expressing yourself in different ways. There’s no end to that.