Lorde of the jewels

Greg Fromont and Claire Hammon
Greg Fromont and Claire Hammon

You can understand why Greg Fromont and Claire Hammon might have felt a bit miffed when a cat stole their limelight. 

But the husband and wife team may owe a little kudos to their black cat Samuel for the good fortunes of their jewellery brand, Meadowlark.

Two years ago, they put the citrine-eyed feline in a campaign photo shoot for The Love Cats range. The image of a model with her ring-laced hands around Samuel went viral on social media.

Not so surprising, when cat photos are twice as popular as selfies on image sharing sites. And although it's hard to discern, their cat has probably dragged in a global online customer or two to the Auckland-based precious jewellery business.

He isn't the only celebrity pin-up model for the bold, cool Meadowlark brand. Teenaged star Lorde graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year, wearing her own Meadowlark favourites - eyeball and bone bracelets.

Kiwi-born Once Upon a Time actor, Rose McIver wore the double swallow necklace for a profile in Entertainment Weekly.Artists from indie rock bands Florence and the Machine, The Kills, and The Naked and Famous have also dressed in Meadowlark finery.

It's a smart move, to use famous folk as living mannequins, and almost everyone in the fierce fashion world strives to do it.  But Fromont and Hammon are particularly careful about how they do it.

"We don't give stuff away for the sake of it," Hammon says.

"When celebrities or musicians turn up in New Zealand, a bunch of brands throw their product at them. That's quite an expensive risk, and it's not very genuine either."

They try to make "personal connections", through make-up artists and PR people they know. They gave Lorde her pieces of silver "before she was famous".

"She wore our wreath necklace in her Royals video, and we've definitely had interest in it since then. I didn't expect [that necklace] to sell, because it's quite expensive," says Hammon. The detailed sterling silver necklace costs around $1379.

"But now we're selling them mostly to the US. I've had people call me directly to say they want the necklace Lorde is wearing.

"Although it's not easy to quantify how celebrity dress sense bolsters business, Meadowlark's popularity has definitely surged in the past six months. And they're bracing themselves for a new swell of attention from offshore.

Eight years after starting to create jewellery in the spare bedroom of Fromont's Grey Lynn flat, the couple is focused on infiltrating one of the world's couture capitals, New York.

"All of last year was a year of preparation, of getting our ducks all in a row," says Fromont, the hands-on jeweller in the relationship. "Now we're wondering how much to prepare for."

New York felt right for Meadowlark - online sales show Americans like the strong, clean lines of their silver, gold and semi-precious gem designs (more than 15 per cent of the business is online, especially to Australia, the US and the UK).

So Fromont and Hammon signed with a New York PR company and entrusted them with publicity and sales. Meadowlark has tried selling in Australia, but found a perplexing marketplace.

"If a jewellery brand is cool in Australia then it's found in every single boutique. They aren't willing to take a risk on something that hasn't been given the seal of approval by a bigger market, like the US," Hammon says.

"We sunk a lot of money into Australia, but it wasn't wasted. We have heaps of organic sales online, so there's definitely a market for us there."

At home, local jewellery shops took the risk, and New Zealand is still Meadowlark's biggest market. Fromont studied visual arts at the Manukau Institute of Technology, with the view to becoming an artist, but ended up majoring in jewellery.

"I just followed my heart," he says. He met Hammon through friends, but she recognised him straight off. Fromont was also a top skateboarder, sponsored to compete; Hammon was a graphic designer who worked on a skateboard magazine and she knew him from the pages.

One night over dinner they decided to "make jewellery together," Fromont says.

"We clicked so well. I used to hate working with other people. But I trust Claire, and I trust her taste."

Fromont had done night classes through a WINZ business training grant, and courses at Te Wanaga O Aotearoa in setting up a small business. Hammon already had experience in running her own business. Dropping out of school without qualifications in the fifth form, she started a streetwear label, Urchin Clothing, in Christchurch; it grew rapidly in nine years, here and in Australia, before she sold the company in 2004.

Fromont and Hammon designed their first jewellery range, Starwood Lane, based on traditional tattoos - anchors, love hearts and swallows - which are still among their bestsellers today.

He made the silver and gold earrings, necklaces and charms in his flat; she used her design nous to package them.

"We took them to the coolest shops around," says Hammon.

Although the jewellery was snapped up quickly around the country, they initially struggled to break into the competitive Auckland market.

What began as a small venture in jewellery-making bloomed into a profitable export business. All of the manufacturing is done in New Zealand, and Meadowlark now employs four fulltime jewellers, two part-time, and outsources to three others.

Around five people work in the white-walled office next to the new workshop above Auckland's Symonds St. It means the couple finally have their home to themselves again, and their three-year-old daughter Gigi.

"For five years there was more desk space than human space. It was pretty horrible," Hammon laughs.

There are other changes. Fromont, who draws inspiration from the structure of flowers and architecture, is now designing bespoke bridal rings, and that's reflected in Meadowlark's latest darkly romantic collection, Ritual.

"There's no other brand here doing non-traditional engagement rings," Hammon says. Demand has not let up after the 2013 Christmas rush, and after launching a new website, they've noticed a "fairly drastic" increase in overseas customers and in the average spend.

Fromont is still bemused by Meadowlark's scale of success, and he knows it's only brushing the skin of New Zealand's large jewellery market.

"Obviously, we're going to grow and I can't help that, and it's a good thing. But I'm pretty happy with where we're at now. I don't want for much, because I have my dream job. But I would like more time for me."

Just a little time to jump on his skateboard again.