Meet our Friday Muse Sarah Cotterall, founder and designer of Silk & Steel

4 October 2023
By Fashion Quarterly

Meet Sarah Cotterall, the founder and designer of Silk & Steel, whose love for unique combinations has helped her build one of the most recognised jewellery brands in Aotearoa.

Sarah Cotterall was always drawn to pretty things. Born and raised in London, the founder spent many of her formative years visiting local flea markets and antique stores, where she acquired a love for unique, high-quality jewellery. While Sarah always harboured dreams of creating her own jewellery label, it wasn’t until she met her Kiwi husband back in London and relocated to Aotearoa that this vision would actually come to fruition. Since launching her brand Silk & Steel in 2009, it is Cotterall’s edgy and enduring adornments that have garnered her a dedicated customer base, both locally and internationally. 

Below, Cotterall recounts the journey that led her to where she is today, gives us a glimpse at her daily routine, and shares the Silk & Steel pieces she’s currently wearing on repeat. 

In conversation with Sarah Cotterall

Tell us a bit about you, your background, where you’re currently based and your career to date:

 I grew up in London, where I studied art and fashion, and then went on to get an International Marketing degree. In my early-20s I lived and worked in Paris for two years, before moving back to London to work for an international advertising agency. That’s when I met my Kiwi husband before we settled in New Zealand. My mother is Italian, and most of my relatives live in Garfagnana in northern Tuscany, where I would spend a lot of my summers as a child.

When I first came to New Zealand (before having children), I worked in advertising as Head of Digital. It was once I had Ella (18) and Josh (15) that I decided it was time to start my own fashion jewellery label. Silk & Steel is now 12 years old, and I love it just as much today, as I did when I first created the brand.


What made you want to start your own business? Is jewellery something you’d always been interested in?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to create my own fashion jewellery label… in fact, I had chosen the name Silk & Steel, even before I had created the business. 

It was my long-time passion for creating beautiful, unique jewellery that filled a gap in the New Zealand market, which triggered me to start Silk & Steel over 12 years ago. I’m not a trained jeweller, which I think has allowed me to think about jewellery design in a more unconventional, creative way -which I still get very excited about. I also have a strong marketing background, which helped bring the brand to life.


What does an average day look like for you?

Each day is different, which I love, but it can also be a juggle being a mum and running a business. Now that the kids are older, it’s easier – but I still wear lots of hats. My day usually starts by checking emails first thing, so anything urgent can be actioned. Depending on the morning, I try to take a brisk walk/jog down to my local café, or early morning pilates, before starting my day. I’m then in the studio with the team, liaising with stockists, working on new collections, marketing, production, and general business admin.

You’re originally from London. How does this influence your designs? And how is designing for the New Zealand market different to the UK?

London is an incredibly inspiring city. From as far back as I can remember, I was surrounded by an abundance of culture, art and fashion and would spend weekends scouring the city for beads, collectable vintage jewellery and clothes that I could give new life to. I was also hugely inspired by iconic fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, who really challenged the convention of fashion. Her inspirations inspired me, and I was fortunate to have access to her archives and study her collections, during my studies in London. She created the unexpected, and I loved that. 

I would say that designing for New Zealand comes from my heart… it’s not so much designing for one market over another. I’m inspired by my own personal experiences and journey, what I love and what I feel others may also love. For me, jewellery is the perfect form of self-expression, it can personalise a look, but also carries meaning and sentiment, which can become very nostalgic. Each of our pieces is designed as limited-edition (we do not mass produce). Each collection is a continuation, to wearers to build their own Silk & Steel style and story. It’s all about being individual, being able to wear high quality designer jewellery, at an accessible price.


What can you tell us about the L’Amour collection? Why is it significant?

Over 25 years ago, I found a leather-bound book at a Parisian flea market, and inside it I discovered a century old love story. Inside the book was an inscription of love, a love note from husband to wife that was dated 1917, and held pressed rose petals still preserved within the pages. Their love inspired the collection, especially how their testament of admiration still lives on, more than 100 years later. So, L’Amour (meaning ‘Love’ in French) is designed as a love note to one’s self or loved one, to be gifted, and cherished by future generations. Each piece is handmade in sterling silver, with radiating baroque style hearts set with stunning Brazilian Amethyst and Black Spinel gemstones. These pieces are modern heirlooms.


You often use unlikely material pairings in your pieces and employ a lot of juxtaposition. Tell us why you’re drawn to design this way?

Our Couture pieces are very much about unconventional design and the beauty of juxtaposition. I love to use unlikely pairings of textiles and gems with hand-sewn detailing, as well as reworked collectable vintage pieces into new contemporary statement designs. Each piece is completely unique, handmade by me, and each an absolutely labour of love.

I use the same approach to designing our demi-fine jewellery line – which is easy to wear, everyday relaxed luxury jewellery. I love to look at the uniqueness of gemstones and decide on the cut and setting to give each style a unique, contemporary edge. Pairing the unexpected, like pearls and spikes, gives such an elevated edgy-luxe finish to any outfit. In terms of my favourite material to work with, I would say pearls. I love their iridescent lustre which adds perfect texture to any jewellery collection, and goes with everything! And, I love how they have become edgy and androgynous… They look great on everyone!

Silk & Steel L'Amour campaign.

Can you tell us about some of Silk & Steel’s milestones to date and why they were – or felt – important to you?

Probably New Zealand Fashion Week (2011 or 2012). It was seeing my jewellery on the runway that I felt like Silk & Steel had truly launched. Simply You was also the first NZ publication to feature Silk & Steel in its editorial pages, I still have the copy somewhere in my house now. All of a sudden, it felt real, and what I was doing had been recognised and legitimised.


What are some of your most memorable collections to date?

Talisman is probably the most significant one. This was a collection that I designed during a really hard time with my teenage daughter. We were in the middle of Covid-19 and Ella got very sick. Even though it was a very personal collection, it also had relevance to so many others who were also going through a difficult period during that time. I felt like it was a collection that pulled us together as we all needed a Talisman to guide us at that time.



How do you find life balance outside of work? Is there anything in particular that gives you energy or perspective that influences your work?

My friends and family give me so much joy, love and laughter… that fills my cup to the brim. I also love to travel and get immense pleasure experiencing new cultures, being amongst different architecture, learning about local art and fashion, and meeting new people.


Which Silk & Steel pieces are you most wearing on repeat?

I recently travelled to Europe during their summer, so I’ve been wearing a lot of pieces from the Venus collection. On repeat I like to include the Guiding Star Necklace and Venus Sleeper earrings, they’re great paired with the chunkier Nautica Ring and Guiding Star Ring. I love the white enamel designs – so fresh and elevated for summer! They have been absolute go-tos.

Quick-Fire Questions:

My go-to cocktail/mocktail and where you’ll find it… A margarita from Soul Bar.

An album/artist/playlist I return to time and time again… I love listening to an eclectic mix, it honestly really depends on what mood I’m in… From classical to rock and everything in between.

The three beauty products I can’t live without…The Elemis Pro Collagen Cleanser has an oil base and is absolutely life changing. I also love the Skin Wardrobe Anti-Age Serum and Tatcha Dewy Skin Cream.

Best current season fashion purchase… I simply love Aje, and recently bought a new black dress which I know I’ll thrash in summer. It’s just so versatile.

The next destination on my travel list… We’re seeing my family in London in December, and will be going via New York. Then my family and I are Euro-railing over Christmas, which will be amazing. I cannot wait to go to the Christmas markets.

My most cherished item in my home is… My artwork.

My current quote or mantra to live by… We are our thoughts. I truly, genuinely believe that. I always try to think optimistically and turn a negative into a positive.

If I could work in any other career, what would it be and why? A fashion designer. That’s what I really wanted to do. I always felt that fashion was sculpture on the body, I just loved that form of tactile. Jewellery is an extension of that, and it’s another form of personal expression.

Imagery: supplied.


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