It’s hard to believe but I met Tanja Kovacevic in 2010, around the same time that she was launching jewellery label Petite Grand. These days she has a cult following for her delicate yet complex pieces, each one handcrafted out of gold, silver, silk cord and precious stones. Recently she invited us into the brand’s bright, open studio in Surry Hills to chat about her design process, expansion from a one-woman show to a team of five and the quest for work/ life balance.
What’s on your to-do list right now?
Make and send out all current winter collection orders. Start designing new summer collection. Don’t forget to breathe in between!
How did you become a jewellery designer?
I worked in fashion for 15 wonderful years until the urge to make something using my own two hands took over. I enrolled in an evening jewellery course and it ignited something within me. I cried when I made my first ring — I just couldn’t believe I [had] made it with my own hands! I knew I should pursue it instantly as it came to me so effortlessly and made me feel great. It gave me such a high, which I still get in equal measures when I’m at the bench today.
One of the things we love about Petite Grand is that every piece is made by hand. Why is that so important to you?
I started Petite Grand from my love of the hand- made process and this is what rests at the crux of the business. I’m an emotional person and I get a lot out of making something so personal for someone, something that connects with them and becomes a part of them. I now have a team of people working here who feel the same way.
Walk us through the design process.
I work on two collections a year, Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. I start by designing prototypes and surrounding myself with a lot of different metals, beads, leather and cords and then it really is a process of playing around. If I like what I’ve created it goes in the ‘yes’ pile; if not, I rip it apart and start again.
It’s usually around this point while I’m in the thick of it that a theme starts forming in my mind. This helps me focus on providing a stronger and clearer collection otherwise I’ll keep designing and won’t be able to stop! Generally, themes come naturally from experiences in my life. The collection I’ve just finished working on is called ‘The Woods’ after Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw the play in London and happened to come across a beautiful copy of the book. I love the sensory nature of the play, its charm and cheekiness. That was enough to set me down an Edwardian- inspired road.
Once I am happy with the collection it’s ready to be photographed. We choose a model and get to see how the pieces interact with each other when worn — there is a real sense of relief and accomplishment when the catalogue is finished.
I then take a deep breath and start selling it. We cross all our fingers and toes and hope it’s as well-received and loved by others — by this stage we are all very attached to what we have created.
How far in advance do you start working on the pieces for a new collection?
Around one month, not long! For me now it just works to have intense periods of designing, it’s invigorating. Ideally it would be great to allocate two months however that’s not possible when you are simultaneously still running the rest of the business and I’ve become used to this.
What are some of your favourite tools and materials to work with?
I love my pliers, they are the staple of any jeweller. They are a stronger extension of your hands and allow you to bend wire at will. Working with gold and silver is always rewarding and I am a big fan of cord and leather. I love using both materials to add interest and depth to each collection.
Are there any new techniques and materials you want to try out?
I am always playing with different beads, metals and textures for each collection. Material possibilities are endless and I love coming across new forms and textures when I’m travelling. I’m always inspired by ancient techniques and I would love to do more stone setting.
Is everything made to order?
Yes, everything we produce gets sent out straight away. We keep up by being extremely organised and doing a lot of prep work, so when an order comes in we are ready to roll. I like the immediacy of this process, we know who we are making each piece for, essentially, and I think this adds to why we love making it.
Are there any practical considerations you need to think about when designing?
These are always at the forefront of my mind because wearability is key to a piece becoming a part of someone’s everyday life. Initially when I’m designing I just focus on the visual experience of a piece, however in the later stages it always comes down to these practical considerations.
Tell us about your studio. Do you need your environment to be a certain way in order to feel productive?
I just love our studio. It has all the things we need — natural light, wooden floorboards, open windows, lots of plants, always a beautiful candle burning, music and great creative neighbours. High ceilings and large windows help the space feel bigger, which is really important when you’re hunched over a jeweller’s bench for half the day. It’s also close to a park so I can take my dog Max out at lunchtime for a walk.
Is it hard to stay inspired?
Never. I’m inspired every day.
Do you feel like you’re able to express your creativity and not be limited by what needs to sell?
The secret is that I design what I would like to wear. Sometimes this is on trend, sometimes not so much. Being on trend is not a priority for me, my priority is that I design pieces that are unique and beautiful, easy to wear and are as affordable as possible. If you follow trends too closely you risk losing your edge and I think it takes you further and further away from the initial vision.
Have you ever worked on a project you weren’t excited about? How do you deal
with creative blocks?
If I’m not excited about it then I just keep going back to it. It’s always an intuitive process. I keep trying to make something that gives me that butterfly feeling in my stomach and I don’t stop until I get it.
How do you deal with work/life balance?
For the first three years there was no work/life balance, only work. You can only do that for so long and then you have to find a balance. It took lots of time and one little dog for me to adjust my priorities. My days off are spent seeing friends and family, gardening, eating good food, drinking, and walking/playing with my dog Max. I have recently moved to Alexandria and have been doing lots of discovering in the area on the weekends. There’s no shortage of places to go here.
Is there a particular piece of advice you received from someone that you always come back to?
I have been very fortunate to work with some truly amazing businesswomen in my career. I am constantly considering their advice. Four things I try to work and live by are:
Don’t look too closely at what other people are doing.
Don’t get in a habit of doing overtime.
Don’t grow too fast . . . don’t run before you can walk.
Keep on top of your accounts!
Finally, is there something you haven’t done yet that you would really love to do?
I am constantly itching to travel to new countries. I would really love to do the Inca trail — I’m also positive that the experience would inform the following collection!