For someone who found fame creating brightly coloured costume jewellery, Samantha Wills is surprisingly pared back.
In a white silk blouse and tiny gold earrings, her face framed with heavy, black glasses, she looks more like a New York architect than a boho jewellery designer. Even the pinboard in her office, which provides the backdrop for our Zoom call, is a tasteful symphony of beige and white.
“Yes, my friends joke that I’m allergic to colour. I live in a very muted world,” she laughs, before adding, “I’ve actually always leaned towards neutrals.”
That Wills – once the pin-up for boho style and turquoise gemstones – is actually a closet minimalist, is the first surprise. And this week, she’s released a book that’s filled with plenty more.
Of Gold And Dust: A memoir of a creative life charts the rise of Wills and her eponymous jewellery brand, which, at its peak, turned over more than $10m a year, won awards and was worn by celebrities. The book is liberally sprinkled with exactly the type of high-octane, A-list anecdotes you might expect from Wills, who is herself so glamorous she once fronted a Yellow Glen sparkling wine campaign.
But it’s the unexpected experiences that never made the social pages – Wills’ struggle with anxiety, her endometriosis and the shock discovery that her ex-partner cheated on her with eight different women – are most compelling.
“I think over the years I’ve posted too much glamour on Instagram,” says Wills now. It was more like [I wrote the book] to say, ‘What is in the silence in between those moments?”
One of the moments she writes about with candour is the decision to close her jewellery business in 2019. The way Wills tells it, she was left with no other option, having “lost the creative flame” for jewellery.
It’s been two years since the brand shut, and Wills says she hasn’t so much as designed or created a single piece of jewellery since then – and she doesn’t miss it at all. “I designed 12,000 pieces of jewellery [while at Samantha Wills]… it was one of those things where I just… exhausted my output.”
What’s more, she says now, she was never passionate about jewellery to begin with. “Creativity was always the thing for me. Jewellery was just the vehicle. I have this true love of the creative and business and branding.”
Certainly, Wills’ branding smarts are evident throughout the book. (That champagne campaign? Wills didn’t just lend her design skills to the label and her face to the creative; she came up with the entire brand, pitching it Treasury Wines in a proactive 72-page deck.)
And her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in early. Wills was in her teens when she started making jewellery to sell in her mum’s shop. Then, after finishing high school, a friend suggested hosting “jewellery parties” – the fashion equivalent of a Tupperware party – where friends could shop and order from her collection. They were a huge success.
Wills spent the next few years hustling – hard – to get her fledging jewellery business off the ground. Like plenty of fashion designers (Lover, Zimmermann), Wills had a stall at the local market and, at first, she painstakingly made every earring, every necklace, by hand. “People say ‘Oh, you were so brave to start a business’ but I think it was that element of ‘Ignorance is bliss’,” she says, “And back then I had nothing to lose”.
In those days, her definition of success was laser-specific. “It was very superficial – like if we got a celebrity to wear the brand, we were a successful brand. Or if we got print media [coverage], which was at the top of the hierarchy then.”
Right from the start, she dreamed big – and in her early twenties, even invented an accounts person called ‘Renee’ to make the brand business seem more impressive than it was. She also designed press kits intimating that she had offices in Sydney, London and – bizarrely – Munich. “It was brazen,” she laughs. “And probably highly illegal. It was just naivety.”
That naivety soon got her in trouble; by 23 Wills was $80,000 in debt. It was only a chance encounter with Geoff Bainbridge, the straight-talking CEO of mass-market surf jewellery brand Icon, that saved the business. He offered her a day-job at Icon while she re-built the brand, and eventually came on as director in the business, helping to steer it to success.
And successful it was. When asked to pinpoint the most glamorous moment of her career, Wills is momentarily stumped, and it’s true that, between moving to New York, attending fashion weeks, rubbing shoulders with stylist Rachel Zoe, and seeing her pieces worn by celebrities from Eva Mendes to Pink to Kate Bosworth, there are countless episodes to choose from.
But behind the scenes, Wills was consumed by anxiety and travelling constantly (she estimates she must have flown between New York and Australia 100 times).
Then in 2017, she discovered her partner of nearly three years – “Jasper” – had cheated on her, after finding messages on his phone. The news got worse: when she confronted him, he admitted he’d had “at least eight” affairs. Wills spiralled into self-recrimination. “A self-berating monologue played in my head,” she writes. “What could I have done differently? What was not good enough about me for him to stay?”
Today, Wills is in a two-year relationship, but, burned by her past experiences, prefers to keep the details private. “I keep it quiet. I don’t like to talk about things in the present. With Jasper, I was quite public about that relationship at the time…and I’m not saying that I expect everyone will behave like he did, by any means… but I’ve put so much of my life in the public eye, and I’ve chosen not to do that since then.”
In the aftermath of the break-up, Wills’ business went from strength to strength, but her enthusiasm for the brand, which had become inextricably tied to her own identity, began to wane.
When she closed the business in 2019 the move made headlines – particularly as she chose not to sell it. “I really didn’t walk away with much at all,” says Wills, who was told she could have made $8m if she’d sold out. “But I have not once – and I say this with my hand on my heart – regretted that decision to hand over my name.”
Really? Yes, says Wills. “It was truly my life’s work… I didn’t have a heart to kind of stand back and see what [another company] would do with the brand.”
After the business closed, Wills suffered a kind of identity crisis. “I was like, ‘Alright, well this name, Samantha Wills, goes to the business so I then get called SW’. If we close down [the brand] then what name do I get? Who am I?”
Two years on, Wills has found a sense of equilibrium, dividing her time between the beach and her laptop, where she works on creative projects and delivers online classes for budding entrepreneurs.
But in some ways, the brand that she’s most focused on is her own. Wills hopes that Of Gold And Dust has the potential to become a screenplay, and she has also become something of a social media star, thanks to her willingness to open up on subjects like endometriosis, anxiety (for which she is on medication) and her indecision over having children.
“It’s still up in the air,” she says of motherhood. “And I don’t say that lightly. I’m 39, and it feels like something I should know. But over the years I’ve seen my girlfriends be like ‘All I want to do right now is have children’. And I’ve never felt that way.
“In my life, there have been times when I’ve known with conviction that I want to do something, like start a business. But I have never had that conviction.”
When Wills posted a message to this effect on Instagram, she was deluged by thousands of responses from women who felt the same way. “As with everything, when we can speak out truth, I think it allows others to breathe out a bit as well.”
These days, she’s less fixated on achieving what her 21-year-old self might have considered “success”. “For so long, I had this pinpoint [definition] of success, where it was like if I don’t follow that one [path] then it’s a fail. And I think right now, I’m surrendering and reassessing what I think success is meant to look like. And hopefully it will present itself in its own way.”
Samantha Wills’ book Of Gold And Dust: A memoir of a creative life is available now.
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