Some people say that the best things start by chance. That might just be the case with Yunus Ascott and Eliza Higginbottom, an artist and a sculptor that in 2009 started Yunus & Eliza, a jewelry studio that creates intricate, handmade pieces, in an unique blend of goth and mythology, somewhere between light and dark.
It all started with the Poseidon Ring, an almost accidental creation that pushed them into the strange world of fashion. From then on they have defied fashion’s normal conventions by delivering timeless creations that, in such a short period of time, have already granted them with the BFC/Elle Talent Launch Pad among other honours.
Never forgetting their artistic background, this award-winning duo also explores jewellery’s most traditional boundaries through collaborations with other equally minded individuals, from the headpieces for Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaur to the face sculptures for Fyodor Golan’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection. If this was not enough, their expertise was more recently put to the test as part of the team behind the figurehead for the Royal Barge: a sovereign distinction that not many can match...
You come from a Fine Art’s background and suddenly you start creating jewellery together. How did you end up working as a team and what made you start doing jewelry specifically? 
Eliza: We struggle with the answer to it. We’re not totally sure. We starting doing some collaborations just for festivals and then more serious bits of work for private clients and big sculptures, and the first piece of jewelry was… you had an idea for us just to do a Poseidon figure hadn’t you?
Yunus: Yeah, a figure with a beard that wrapped around the finger.
Eliza: So we did that but not really thinking about the fact that it was jewelry. And then a friend who worked for The Independent said ‘Can I put that in the paper?’ It was only in that moment that we realized we had made a piece of jewelry. The first one was really huge, quite unwearable.
Yunus: And it was more like a piece of sculpture actually, and then we kind of adapted it to become a ring.
So how did you go from something that got featured in The Independent, to actually starting Yunus & Eliza? People just started contacting you asking for more pieces?
Eliza: It was a couple of weeks before, obviously, the paper came out so we…
Yunus: And she was like yeah, “So you’ve got a… What’s your name?” and we were like “Hum, ok.”... “What’s the website?”… Ok, shit… So we put a website together. So we got everything together really quickly in a couple of weeks.
Eliza: But completely on the back foot, and then it snowballed really quickly. We obviously started making some more pieces because it had been really enjoyable and then we kind of got a collection together but we weren’t aware of it as a coherent form. And then some stockists came and started being interested and then we applied for Elle Talent Launch Pad.
Since your starting point is not fashion, what do you think has made a difference for you to get all of these awards and all this recognition being still such a young brand?
Eliza: I think we don’t have to be too concerned with what’s trendy or what’s the next big thing because we just haven’t got a clue and we don’t particularly follow fashion. We do a bit more now, but we can be a bit more rebellious because we’re not concerned with making something that’s only going to last a season. We’re concerned about making something that someone is going to have for their whole life. I think there’s a lot of value in that.
You did come from an artistic background so it’s was not completely out of the blue. But the fashion world is still different from the art world. Things work slightly different…
Eliza: Yeah, yeah… But I think that merging it’s what has made us successful, although a lot of people talk about the fact they’re doing that. And even the way we make a collection, where it’s never from a specific starting point which is much more how an artist would work than a fashion designer.
I was just going to ask about your creative process… How does that work? You said your first collection was kind of random… But how is it now? Do you have a concept, or you just start making specific pieces straight away?
Eliza: More like the second thing you said. We consider each piece an individual artwork. They sit together in a kind of unity but they’re not like matching earrings, matching pendants in that sense. And it will never be “Ok, this collection is about 50’s Manhattan”. It’s something that is much more idiosyncratic and kind of harvesting things from all our experiences and theatre and literature and film. There might be as much sci-fi in one collection as mythology.
But you do give names to your collections... You do seasons; you do try to put them in different compartments…
Yunus: And quite often when you’re working on a piece it soon becomes three or four different pieces. You find an idea and you run with it and then you have something in a kind of a similar language. And by the end of it you get ‘Ah, ok, that influenced that’ and they kind of work together.
Eliza: And the logic becomes clear in the end, doesn’t it? But while we’re doing it we might not be aware that we’ve done it.
Yunus: Quite often we produce a lot and then we cut it to what works well together as a collection.
Because you mentioned literature and sci-fi and all those things and the Fall/Winter collection is called “Brave New World”: Is there a connection to the book?
Eliza: Yeah! I mean, in there somewhere. I read it a long time ago. Something that I was reading at the time was Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. Oh, I love her! It’s just so exciting, and because that book is so much about, you know, triumph.
I guess you’re now working on your next collection. Do you want to say something about it?
Eliza: Nope. I’m afraid not.
Yunus: Well, we kind of loosely spoke about it today.
Eliza: No, no.
Yunus: Can I talk about? No? Oh man, there are some things I want… Yeah, ok. All I’m going to say is that there are a few pieces that I’ve wanted to create for a very long time, that they’re quite ambitious and we never quite had enough time to be happy with the end result and hopefully this time around.
Eliza: Also when you’re launching you’re kind of chasing your tails for a long time and like, catching up, before you’ve got everything in place so that production of orders is not so dominating. More time to design…
Yunus: Yeah, thank god!
Something I’m very curious about is when two people work together you always have to take the other person in consideration. So I wanted to ask you who brings what and what there’s of each of you in your designs?
Yunus: We’re very lucky that we speak a similar language when it comes to our creativity, and that we trust each other and respect each other’s work and we’re very free with pieces we pass in between each other. It’s really helpful having someone you can bounce ideas off.
Eliza: The really clear divide is that I bring a kind of darkness and Yunus brings a kind of beauty. And so he’ll often go to me and “Why so dark?” and I’ll often go to him and “Why so beautiful?” and then somehow we find a compromise.
Yunus: It’s a real contrast actually.
Eliza: And that’s what’s nice about the way they meet, because it’s definitely different from what we do on our own. And also I might not have the patience that Yunus has. I might have an idea and be able to do a kind of sketch and then Yunus will be much more patient than me turning it into something actually wearable.
Did you ever happen to have pieces that one of you had an idea for and then they never came through just because the other one wouldn’t agree?
Yunus: Quite a few actually. Which is quite difficult but also is quite nice when we’re really indecisive and you can just go “Is this any good?”. You kind of being so close to it for so long…
Eliza: The “Jungle Fever” cuff which is actually now one of my favourite pieces when we were making it I was like “This is such a shit! No way we’re putting this through!”.
Yunus: And normally I might take that on the chin and go ‘Ok, yeah! It is a bit shit. Is not quite right’ but I was persistent with that one and in the end you worked on it and you loved it.
Eliza: Yeah, I loved it.
You also collaborate with other people and that has been quite frequent. This last London Fashion Week we witnessed one with yet another team, Fyodor Golan. You guys designed the face sculptures for their Spring/Summer 2013 show... How was this? They contacted you?  
Eliza: Yeah, they contacted us and we wanted to do something for catwalk for a while but we were waiting for another brand that was equally theatrical. And so they approached us. We looked them up and thought “Yeah, let’s have coffee.” Had a few drinks, got on really well, I think maybe there is something about them being a duo as well. It’s just a really easy dynamic, and yeah, we were on the same wave length. Obviously we knew the theme and we knew the looks it was to go it but yeah, I was going to say it didn’t really dictate what we made but of course it did. And it’s new to design with an outfit in mind, definitely. It was really fun.
Yunus: It was a pleasure.
Eliza: A pleasure, because we didn’t have to worry about reproducing what we made.
Yunus: Quite often it’s hard to reproduce what we make maybe because they’re really complex and very difficult to reproduce and it’s very nice not to have to worry about that. And the only thing we had to be concerned was that obviously it would be comfortable, light and that they stayed on properly. And we achieved that.
One of the collaborations you’ve done was with your brother [Orlando Higginbottom a.k.a. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs]. How did that one come about?
Eliza: It was more like he said “Oh! That’s really cool!” We had already started making headpieces and he borrowed one we’d made anyway, for a video, and then it was kind of organic, no? I mean it was just like hanging out with him back at my parents and I don’t know! But then we conceived an idea to get some funding from Swarovski to make a specific piece for a new video. So that one we did totally for him. And he just left us do want we wanted to.
There was no pressure? Didn’t you find it harder to do something for him than to do it for somebody else? Because you obviously have a more personal relationship with him...
Eliza: I’ve had that before doing a sculpture of my dad. I found that very stressful but that was a portrait sculpture. But with Orlando it was just really fun and I knew we would like it. And I think I know him well enough to know.
And what about working on the cast for the Royal Barge? That was something quite impressive. How did that happen?
Eliza: Well, it’s more complex than that because we were part of a big team. There were the guys who sculpted it; there was the guy who designed it which was Joseph Bennett from the RSA. That was the first stage. They did the big modelling and we came in as casting experts in the second half. And again we were in a big team, but we were certainly very integral to getting it completed.
Yunus: Not that many people who worked on it had that many experience. We were kind of brought in as experts, I guess, and also background, yeah.
Eliza: Definitely! It was seriously hard work!
You also do bespoke pieces. How different is your work, from what you present in your collections?
Eliza: Not very. If someone wants something really different we usually say “Get someone else!”
Yunus: Because it takes so long and so much energy to make bespoke so we’re better now making sure it’s worthwhile.
Eliza: And mostly people come to us because they love the aesthetic. It’s nice when people have a little bit of input and then we’ll work like that, but quite often what we do bespoke is sort of a bit of an interior thing. Maybe, a sculpture for someone’s house, a light. We’re working on a chandelier at the moment. And we definitely want to develop that. Eliza & Yunus’ studio is really a concept isn’t it? We’re working on a chaise lounge as well.
You’re still a young brand but at the same time you already have a few years on this, a few collections done. What lessons have you already learned? What would you have made differently?
Eliza: Stay confident in what you’re doing even if it’s different and stay honest to it. I know it’s a cliché, everyone says it. We’ve tried something a bit more commercial, accessible and it was quite shit, wasn’t it? We didn’t enjoy making it; we didn’t enjoy what it looked like.
Yunus: And that was kind of influenced by people who tried to give us advice within the industry.
Eliza: But in fact what we were doing was working anyway!
Yunus: It’s a really nice industry. A few big egos but generally the designers are absolute sweethearts, a few are very competitive and that can be a bit of a shame sometimes but I think there’s nobody doing what we’re doing so nobody see us as a threat or as competition.
BFC has been really supportive and really nice. That’s kind of our main introduction into that world, isn’t?
Eliza: Yeah! So we’re doing Rock Vault right now.
Yunus: It was the first time we had a home at Fashion Week. This time all the jewelers were together and had their own space. I’m really happy about it.
Finally, did you ever consider doing a collaboration with a high-street brand, or did anyone ever approach you for that?
Eliza: There have been a couple of vague talks. Nothing we particularly wanted to pursue yet. But I think as our identity gets more established we’ll be up for it. It really depends on the shop, but if someone want to throw some big money in taking the brand somewhere more high-street as a diffusion line, I think we both would be open to it.