As a 21-year-old, Samantha Wills founded her own, self-titled jewellery company. Her pieces have since been worn by the likes of Taylor Swift and Eva Mendes and appeared in the 2010 movie Sex and the City 2. Wills has been chosen to be a face of marketing campaigns for Optus, Yellowglen, Mount Franklin and Nespresso. This year, she was nominated at the Australian of the Year Awards. Wills, 33, chatted to me about the best advice she has been given, what she misses most about Australia, and how she turned her hobby into a business with $10 million turnover annually.
What is a day in the life of you?
When I’m in New York, it’s very creative focused [and I’m] in design mode. When I’m in Sydney, it’s very much team- and media-focused.
How did it all start for you?
I started the company when I was 21 – 12 years ago. Now we have offices in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris, Korea and Japan, and it started just as a hobby on my dining room table. I started selling down at Bondi Beach market and launched at Australian Fashion Week, very opportunistically, in 2004 with $17,000 of orders. As a 23-year-old, I threw everything I had, got myself into $80,000 of debt and refused to give up.
Did you always dream of becoming a jewellery designer?
I think when I was younger, I definitely always thought I’d have my own business in some capacity and it was always going to be creative. For me, jewellery wasn’t the be all and end all. It was more something that I could hand make myself without formal training, and so it kind of naturally evolved that way.
You’ve had many celebrities wear your designs. Who are some of your favourites that really stand out in your mind?
Definitely Taylor Swift is a huge favourite in American Vogue. Eva Mendes has to be a favourite. She made our signature Bohemian Bardot Ring [into] a global signature. Ever since she wore it [in 2008], it has been our bestselling item. And to have it appear on Sex and the City was pretty surreal as well.
How did the Sex and the City collaboration come about?
We were presenting to media in Los Angeles and … you hope that the right people come past. Patricia Field, the style assistant for the film, came past. They made some notes and then called some pieces in … You can assume those samples will be gone for a year or you won’t get them back because they go into the wardrobe department. About a year later, I had certainly forgotten about it, and we received a card with an illustration of the four girls on the front and it said, “One hand in the air for the big city, thanks for making us look so pretty. Love, Patricia” … I literally had to wait to go to the premiere of the film to see our products up on the big screen.
How did appearing in Sex and the City impact on your brand?
It kind of like evolves the story I think and adds credibility at an international level.
You are the face of Optus’ Small Business Campaign. How did that come about?
It was quite surreal. I think when you get a phone call like, “We’ve signed Mark Wahlberg on to do a campaign and would like you to sign on to the same campaign?”, I was kind of like, “Do you guys have the right number?”
Did you really think that?
Yes, it clicked to me that you really don’t know who is watching your journey and the team at Optus had done a lot of research on the last 12 years of my career and really felt that my story of an underdog from small town Port Macquarie to New York City would really resonate with small- to medium-sized business owners.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Working in fashion, people expect you to have attitude … [so] I think if you can be a nice person and treat everyone like they’re someone, it really goes a long way.
What would you tell your 19-year-old self?
I think about myself when I was starting the business and the anxiety and the fear and the 20-hour work days … I would try and tell myself that if you look up every once in a while, everything is going to be OK, but I don’t think she will listen.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face?
There are always challenges as your business grows or you become “procedure successful” – the challenges just differ. In the early days, being $80,000 in debt, as a 24-year-old is incredibly daunting. As the business grows, it’s people issues. You’re only as good as the people around you, so you’re continually managing people as well as the business.
What would your advice to someone starting out in the jewellery industry?
My overarching advice is you don’t want to be that person at the party, three years from now, being like, “Oh yeah, I was always going to do that”. Just start, even as insignificant as the action might seem, do something towards what you’re wanting to do.
Is New York home now?
It feels like home at the moment. I’ve got a great network over here and home is where you build your network. I say New York is my city, Sydney is my town.
What do you miss most about Australia?
Definitely the beaches. I think I was so spoilt growing up in Port Macquarie with these beautiful coastlines and then, in my 20s, in Sydney. When I come back to Australia now I know I look like a tourist because I’m taking a thousand photos of the ocean. I’m in it everyday. It just gives you a whole new level of appreciation for how beautiful our country is.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a lot of external projects outside of the brand, which is really exciting for a personal career perspective… [It has been] stimulating and inspiring to kind of step outside the business, but still have it as the backbone and, I guess, the foundation of everything that I touch.
WE WENT TO The Apollo Restaurant, Potts Point
WE ATE Walnuts filo pastry coffee cream dessert
WE DRANK Champagne and mineral water
SAMANTHA WORE Misha Collection jumpsuit