In Chele Clarkin’s life it is family first, but her passion for horses runs a close second and can often be matched by her passion for her business.
As the manager of the equestrian and fashion jewellers The Cambridge Collection, Chele has given her business acumen and artistic flair full rein, especially where there is anything equestrian involved. And it is this distinct combination which has made The Cambridge Collection the success it is today.
It was more than 25 years ago that the partnership between Chele and Geoff Taylor began. Geoff had a small jewellery studio in Cambridge and Chele started selling his handcrafted jewellery in the UK, where she and her late husband Paul spent the New Zealand winters as Paul played professional polo.
The horse jewellery began after Susie Ferguson – wife of famous Argentinean polo player Hector Barrantes and mother of the Duchess of York – brought some small gold polo stick pins back to England from Argentina.
“I loved them,” said Chele. “They were not big, and they were a little crude, but I told Paul I just had to have them.”
On their return to New Zealand, she visited Geoff’s workshop and convinced him to make polo jewellery – the equestrian range was born.
It was an exciting time for the young Clarkin family. Paul, Chele and their two young children, John Paul (JP) and Emma, were based in the UK for half the year during the polo season, and Chele would take a stock of Cambridge Collection jewellery with her to sell to the polo set. The range soon expanded from polo stick pins to include pendants, horse charm bracelets, bit bracelets… and grew from there.
After a couple of UK polo seasons they ventured to Oman in the Middle East, where Paul took on the job of polo officer to the Sultan, and Chele became the private secretary to the director-general of the Royal Stables.
“It was unreal,” says Chele. “We called it Disneyland. We loved the people but the extreme heat (40-50 degrees in the summer months) could get a bit trying!
“Each year we returned to New Zealand for a month and during that time I worked with Geoff getting more jewellery, creating more equestrian designs to satisfy the growing demand for horse-related jewellery.”
After second son Matt was born it was time for a base in New Zealand, which allowed Chele to formalise her role as manager of The Cambridge Collection, and the company moved into another growth phase.
Geoff is every bit the artisan or – as he likes to describe his role – jewellery craftsman. He’s had more than 47 years in the business. Working alongside him are Paul Williams and Geoff’s son Jesse, who helps with pattern designs and the website.
Chele has the ideas, inspiration and certainly the drive, while Geoff has the talent with his hands to make ideas into reality, visualising what people want and being able to put that into a dimensional form.
In the early days, each item had to first be hand-made either in a wax form or in metal so it could be moulded to become a pattern into which the silver or gold was poured. Each piece was individually put together, and finished by hand.
“Pretty and delicate just don’t work. Our pieces must be serviceable.’
The Cambridge Collection has now embraced technology, using CAD (computer-aided design); Geoff says it’s like “having a third arm!”
“Chele designs, we interpret and CAD helps us to manifest the end result. This innovation has opened our horizons,” says Geoff.
“Designs are limitless,” says Chele, “but they also must be practical.”
“Pretty and delicate just don’t work. Our pieces must be serviceable. The girls say they will only wear them for good… but they lie! They never take them off!”
Trends come and go, but Chele says she’s really enjoying the current vogue for personalising jewellery, using precious stones, two-tone metals, and horse’s names, as well as making bracelets featuring hair from your own special horse (see Valegro’s tale below). Plus, the re-purposing of vintage pieces has really taken off.
“Everyone has wonderful old pieces of jewellery sitting in a jewel box and they can be used in an inspiring new design. What was your grandmother’s old ring or brooch can now be your brand new modern piece of art,” she says.
For Chele, her first and most important love is her family, and now with six grandchildren she has a very busy time keeping up with the ‘loves’ of life even though most live on the other side of the world.
Eldest son JP, who plays polo professionally in the UK, is married to Nina who just happens to be the best woman polo player in the world. JP and Nina are now following the half year in UK, half back in New Zealand and with three-and-a-half year-old Elizabeth their lives are especially busy.
Matt Clarkin is married to Larissa, and has been living in France playing rugby for 11 years – the last six in Bordeaux. He is captain of the Bordeaux team. The French Clarkins have three children – Maxime (5), Lily (3) and Raphael (12 months) – to keep them busy.
Nephew Simon is Chele’s “third son” and his son Zach, her first grandson. Zach is now 10 and spends part of his year in NZ and part in the UK with his polo-playing father.
But the indomitable Chele has also faced some tough times, none more so than in April 1999 when 19-year-old daughter Emma was killed in a car accident not far from her parents’ home.
Emma was a larger-than life burst of sunshine with a wicked sense of humour. She was studying law. “She always said she would write the contracts for her sport-playing brothers, or she would be a policewoman,” says Chele.
And in July 2004, Chele received the phone call that all wives live in fear of. Her husband Paul was in the UK playing polo and there was an accident during a match.
“I got the call to say he was not good, in hospital on life support.”
She jumped on a plane and flew straight to his side. Unbeknown to her, the doctor said to JP, who was at the game, that he didn’t think Chele would make it in time.
JP told the doctor: ‘Dad wouldn’t dare go without Mum’s permission’ and he was right. Chele did get to say good-bye.
For the CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust’s 10th anniversary, The Cambridge Collection took a very special part in the fundraising efforts. Chele tells the story:
“I was in Las Vegas in April to watch Katie Laurie compete in the World Cup show jumping finals and what a thrill that was when she won the Canadian Pacific Grand Prix. While we were there we could not escape the buzz and hype around a dressage horse called Valegro and his rider, Charlotte Dujardin. For me this was an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about and so I bought a ticket for the World Cup Dressage finals. I was not disappointed. They were amazing and for me the experience of a lifetime.
“When Catriona Williams [founder of the CatWalk Trust] then asked if we could do ‘something’ if she managed to get some of Valegro’s tail, of course I jumped at the chance. A huge thank-you to Carl Hester and Charlotte for allowing us to have a little piece of their champion.
“This has been a real team effort and we were all very excited when the bracelet reached $12,000 at the fundraising dinner.
“The bracelet is 9ct yellow gold and has Valegro embossed on one side of the cylinder and CatWalk on the other. It has 64 diamond beads set into it and most importantly, it is Valegro’s tail, which was lovingly plaited by Eve from our team, and finished off with a handmade slide clasp.
We make a lot of horsehair bracelets and they all have a story to tell but this one was like a fairy tale…”
- This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony magazine