It’s safe to say that Maria Sole Ferragamo has leather in her DNA. She is the granddaughter of Salvatore Ferragamo, the founder of the iconic Italian luxury brand that made its mark crafting high-end leather shoes. When she was young, Maria Sole would take scraps of leather from her grandfather’s factory in Florence and create jewels with them. You might say she was into upcycling before it was cool.
After leaving college with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a masters in jewelry design, she turned her childhood passion into a business. In 2017 she founded So-Le Studio in Milan where she fashions large, colorful, architectural-inspired jewels from leather trims, brass shavings and enamel. She still sources unused materials from various factories. She has showcased her pieces at major art exhibitions and had them placed in museums.
Most recently, Maria Sole is serving as the guest curator for Sotheby’s global “Luxury Edit” series of exhibitions and live and online auctions in London, New York, Paris and Milan. The series combines watches, jewels, handbags, film posters, wine and spirits, and footwear. The London and New York exhibitions and sales are completed. The final two sales in Paris and Milan will be held, September 23 – 28 and October 14 – 15, respectively.
As curator, Maria Sole selected 47 of her favorite lots in all categories. They range from handbags by Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermes; to jewels by Italian brands Bulgari, Marina B and Pomellato; and a group of Nike sneakers. The sale is designed to attract new and younger collectors, which is one reason why Sotheby’s chose the 31-year-old designer to be the first curator for the Luxury Edit editions.
In addition, Maria Sole created a capsule collection inspired by the three major cities of the Luxury Edit: London, New York and Paris. They are available on the So-Le Studio website. What follows is a conversation with Forbes about the Sotheby’s partnership and her work as a creator of leather jewelry.
Anthony DeMarco: How did the collaboration with Sotheby’s come about?
Maria Sole Ferragamo: We started a conversation early in March about creating a tiara with my brass shaving for an exhibition. It didn’t work out because the exhibition was all about fine jewelry and I work with non-precious materials. Then they became interested in my work and my aesthetic, and they offered me this opportunity.
AD: Were your selections based on any criteria?
MSF: I selected the lots by following the principles that guide my work and my aesthetic. I went for items that have a particular engineering behind them, a particular aesthetic, or a unique story.
AD: Among your selections, which ones do you think stand out?
MSF: I’m a big fan of Marian B jewelry, so I chose four items that define her aesthetic. I had to look into sneakers, which was actually quite fun and interesting. It’s remarkable how much excitement they’re generating. I chose six pairs of Nike sneakers.
AD: What does it mean that Sotheby’s has chosen a young designer like yourself to curate this project?
MSF: I think the idea is to attract a younger generation of collectors for items that are not as expensive as other collectibles, such as the sneakers. Also, it brings a spotlight on a different approach to design, such as designs that try to solve larger issues such as sustainability. And if you think about it, the whole habit of collecting objects has a lot to do with sustainability because it’s all about the longevity of use. It’s also related to the fact that these pieces were made many years ago to last over time. It helps in remembering these great techniques used in the making of these products.
AD: How do you describe your job and your work?
MSE: It’s really my main passion. I could not live without doing this. I was lucky to discover it when I was young. I was nine years old when I fell in love with the whole process of making jewelry and transforming materials. Of course, in the beginning it was very simple objects. But then it evolved over time. I studied architecture, but I realized quite early that the scale of the building was too distant for me. So I went back to some leather that I collected over the years and turned it into a necklace.
So, what I do for a living is I try to elevate and transform material that I find abandoned, such as leather or brass, shape these materials into easy to wear architectural and sculptural jewels that have embedded into them lightness, illusion, versatility, provocation, joy, playfulness and a bit of humor.
AD: How do you describe your jewels?
MSE: They are really statement pieces, yet they are so effortless to wear and they become a life companion. They take on the soul of your personality because our role is to express and expand the aura of the wearer. They’re always conversation starters. They’re easy to wear although when you first look at them, they could seem a bit intimidating.
AD: What is the process of making these jewels and how is it different from traditional jewelry making?
MSE: First, I capture geometries and patterns from the world around me. I sketch them and put them on paper, then I transfer them to AutoCAD (designer software). From there we make the original prototype. The craftsman does the final prototype, but it moves back and forth between us where we are creating several physical models and additional sketches. It’s a long process to get to the final prototype. From AutoCAD I transfer these patterns onto the leather with a cutting machine that has a blade instead of a pen and it cuts the pattern onto the leather. Then I’m able to reform it and transform it and move it from a two-dimensional surface to a three-dimensional object.
AD: How long does it take?
MSE: It depends. For some pieces, it could be years. I don’t stop until I get to the moment where I think it’s completed, and every element is in harmony and the right technique is found. Other pieces are like magical moments of enlightenment, and they come out at the first prototype and they just need a bit of an adjustment. It’s really very different for each object. What I like to say is that each piece of jewelry is an organism to me. Each jewel is almost like a living being and each has a certain story and life.
AD: How important is sustainability?
MSE: It’s the starting point. For me it is a state of mind. It’s a commitment. It is never a point where you arrived and you feel you’re done. There’s always more that can be improved. It’s about always asking question and being aware of the consequences of your actions. There are limits imposed by upcycling, so working with what exists is actually very stimulating from a creative point of view. I believe that with a creative mind challenges can become opportunities.
Having said this, I don’t scream that we are sustainable because I want people to fall in love with them for their qualities, their emotion and their practicality. Then the fact they’re made with the leftover leather. This value arrives afterward.
AD: Do you get your materials from shoe manufacturers?
MSE: I would say they are workshops that produce leather goods, like wallets or small bags. For the leather, I work mainly with one person. He really takes care of my work since the beginning. Recently he opened his own studio, and we continue to work together. I work with other artisans for the metal elements. Each has its own specialty.
AD: I heard that at first people told you that you couldn’t create jewelry with leather. How did you react to that?
MSE: I don’t really accept it. Let’s try to see if we can find a way to make it work. I’m very stubborn. It took a lot of effort and determination. In the end even the person who first said it wasn’t possible was surprised by the results of the work. It opened his mind. He came to me saying “you know, actually, this is very exciting.”