Meet Maria Leão Torres, a contemporary jewelry designer from Portugal with a bold and colorful signature, whose inspiration spans from Portuguese tradition to Hieronymus Bosch’s, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, and Zaha Hadid.
Maria is the founder of Leão Jewellery, a brand that translates identity, cultural and material heritage with an experimental approach that merges jewelry with design, innovation, Portuguese iconography, applied arts, and fashion.
Her unique, handmade statement pieces are a fresh take on jewelry, reflecting her innovative, curious spirit. They translate her experience and influences in a very contemporary and deconstructed way, yet with a strong hint of tradition that makes them timeless.
How did your journey as a jewelry designer begin?
To be honest, I never thought I would be a jeweler! I went to Escola Artística Soares dos Reis in Porto thinking of becoming a fashion designer. However, it turned out that I wasn’t very good with textiles and sewing (and that was compulsory!).
On the other hand, my relationship with metal was like love at first sight; everything ran smoothly when I was in the jewelry workshop! I learned that I could convert my thoughts into metal pieces, and that really fascinated me. I like to make the pieces as much as I like to design them!
I then went to study Contemporary Jewellery at University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, UK. Being there, on my own, made me more adventurous and fearless. Perhaps my pieces translate that since they are very colorful and have bold shapes!
Who and what are your main influences and sources of inspiration?
My inspiration comes from different fields of practice and people: I absolutely love Bosch, Kandinsky, and Pollock as painters; Zaha Hadid was my favorite architect alongside Frank Gehry.
I believe that the influence of the colors, movement, and shapes of their works can be found in a lot of details of my designs because my practice is also closely linked to drawing.
The process of designing and making, to me, is a constant dialogue between two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations. I can’t make new designs without painting and creating 3D models first! I love playing!
While away from home, I found that I could deal better with homesickness if I created jewelry using elements from my roots.
I’m completely fascinated by Portuguese traditional crafts, not just by the filigree jewelry (which has a big influence on my work) but also by the embroidery (from Viana do Castelo), tapestry (from Pardilho), and tiles (a little bit from around the country with more expression in my hometown, Ovar).
Some of my biggest references are also from Barcelos’ ceramics scene, such as Julia Ramalho and Julia Cota with their grotesque and colorful characters.
The use of metaphor and images that come from my personal environments is a significant element of my practice, their people, buildings, traditions, and colors inform the development of new ideas and designs. I have a lot of fun deconstructing Portuguese imagery!
“As Marias” is a collection based on Portuguese traditional female characters and their personal objects, such as scarves, and aprons, with more emphasis on filigree jewelry.
One of the traditional female characters that greatly inspired me was my grannie Maria da Glória.
She was a fantastic woman, a proper Portuguese matriarch with large hips and sky-blue eyes that used to make the best food in the world and wore the most fabulous filigree jewelry: small studs or brooches on regular days, large pieces when going to church or on special occasions. The “Gloria Earrings” translate her strong personality, presence, and style.
The colors of the enamel and the shapes of the metal evoke amplified details of the analyzed objects. The “first name” of each piece of this collection is based on a woman in my family since each one of us is “Maria” something.
“Viana” Collection continues the celebration and tribute to the Portuguese Women and traditional filigree jewelry.
Back in the day, when people had no bank accounts, women used to invest their savings in gold chains and pendants. On special occasions and celebrations, they used to wear all their jewelry together to reveal their wealth to the world.
How would you describe your creations and design style?
I think my creations are playful, bold, and groundbreaking because they are quite different from everything that is out there. Every time I design, I am looking for innovative and unique solutions.
I think that I can achieve that because one of the focus points of my practice is to subvert and reinvent traditional techniques and processes… I don’t like to follow “ready-made recipes.”
I consider that the key to a good design relies on a free and curious spirit, testing, and problem-solving. For me, it’s fascinating to see how the materials behave and how they evolve themselves during the construction process.
I believe that my jewelry can be the outfit herself! I’ll explain: if you just wear a black dress and a pair of “Gloria” Earrings, you won’t need anything else. They’ll make you stand out in a crowd!
To what kind of person do you design for?
I design for open-minded people with no strict rules when it comes to fashion and jewelry. I design for people who want to wear something special and feel special in everyday events or on extraordinary occasions.
What are your favorite materials?
In my collection “As Marias,” I worked solely with Vitreous Enamel on copper. These materials really please me because they allow me to explore and use color.
The color value is essential when I am drawing and producing a piece of jewelry, as it often expresses the core concept with which it is associated.
Lately, I started a collection called “Viana,” in which I’m using finer materials such as silver and gold, and I’m exploring color and light through gemstones and positive/negative spaces in the materials.
What is your personal favorite piece of jewelry?
From my brand, I love the “Alzira” brooch because it was one of the first pieces of the collection and inspired all the other designs of earrings, rings, necklaces, and bangles that I made. It also inspired me to make a centerpiece sculpture that, in the future, will have another two large pieces to make an art installation!
My favorite pieces of jewelry from other jewelers (that always pop in my head) are:
Christoph Zellweger’s “Excessories, Let’s Talk About FAT”: Christoph was one of the first contemporary jewelers that I had contact with and really influenced the way I see jewelry and its relation to the body.
Zoe Roberston’s “Pixelmania Series”: Zoe made me want to play with materials and colors. When I first saw her designs and the scale of her pieces, I just wanted to understand how she made things, and I started thinking about jewelry with more volume and in a more three-tridimensional way.
Otto Kunzli’s “Beauty Gallery Series”: Otto Kunzli, for me, is a master! He made me think that anything and everything we want can become jewelry! Why should we have boundaries?
How would you like to see your brand and yourself as a designer ten years from now?
I would love to have my brand in different international markets and that people would recognize my pieces as being mine just by their language and details.
I also want to have my pieces in different fashion weeks and design fairs and make partnerships with big design/fashion brands. I want to be a reference in my field and for other practitioners.
The Brand ID | Leão Jewelry
Brand: Leão Jewellery
Launch Date: March 2015
Designer: Maria Leão Torres
Accomplishments/Awards: Top 6, GALP Create, Portugal (2015); Runner-up, Guild of Enamellers Bursary Award (2015); Top 10, “FAZ-IOP” Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Portugal (2014); Finalist, “Creative Challenge” UCA, UK (2014); Finalist, “Design Factory” Design Museum, London, UK (2013);
Influences: Medieval Surrealism (Bosch); Modern Painting (Kandinsky, Pollock); Modern Architecture (Frank Gehry); Contemporary Architecture (Zaha Hadid); Contemporary Jewelry (Christoph Zellweger, Zoe Robertson, Otto Kunzli); Portuguese Crafts, Imagery & Characters (Julia Cota, Julia Ramalho, Avo Gloria);
Products: Jewelry with mixed media; Enamel Jewelry; Fine Jewelry; Bridal Jewelry; Exclusive Commissions
Headquarters: Furadouro, Ovar | Portugal