A Lifelong Love Affair

Bijouterie Vanuatu is the culmination of a lifelong ambition to celebrate Vanuatu’s unique designs

Estelle Milfirer

Estelle Milfirer is nothing if not passionate. And for three years now, that passion has been focused on creating a unique aesthetic that melds the best of Vanuatu’s creative traditions with high-end jewellery design.

But the passion to create goes way back.

“I’m a designer,” says Milfirer. For years, she had been casting around, trying to find the best outlet for her talent, even dabbling in traditional tattoo design, before finally finding her niche.

Estelle’s husband, an Israeli, had been dealing in gemstones for years. Estelle dabbled a bit herself, and over the years began to accumulate a sizeable collection. “Too many just to have lying about,” she explains.

Years ago, she approached Francois Henon, the owner of a small jewellery factory—the only such operation in Vanuatu. Estelle wanted to collaborate with him and rejuvenate the tiny business.

Henon was less than appreciative. Milferer explains: “I offered to buy the business, and he was like, ‘No, you’re just a little Ni Vanuatu,’ you know?”

“It was a different business then,” says Milfirer. She describes how Henon ran the operation with draconian precision. “He was very secretive. You could not go to his factory, walking around, taking photos….

“Once we took over, we started doing things that they had never done before, that they were not allowed to.”

She is proud to flaunt her jewellery’s home-grown origins. The entrance to her Nambatu shop sports a picture window offering a panoramic view into the workshop. Her workers are showcased right alongside the glittering cabinets lined with finished pieces.

Bijouterie worker

Henon’s business had struggled for years, and eventually it went into receivership. At that point, staff members approached Estelle in an effort to keep their jobs. Some of the employees had spent their entire career in the one place, and they didn’t want to leave now.

Three years ago, Estelle purchased the contents of the jewellery factory: grinders, rollers, polishing machines, wire pullers… everything needed to take raw materials and transform them into fine art.

The factory has the capability to refine gold to exact specifications, to custom-cut and polish gems and semi-precious stones, and to roll, cast and work gold.

Where possible, they use local materials. They purchase semiprecious stones such as onyx, jasper and obsidian locally, and even source some of their gold from Solomon Islands. But their signature piece is something so emblematic of Vanuatu that it appears on the national flag: the pig’s tooth.

Using gold caps on tip and base, stone inlays and innumerable clever variations, she transforms the tradition and taboo into trend-setting wearable art. Her craftsmen—she has three Ni Vanuatu master jewellers on staff—design and deliver high quality, high-concept pieces, each of them unique.

A simple design can take a couple of days to go from concept to completion, but more complex works can take weeks.

Milferer shows off one particularly clever piece of workmanship. “I was thinking about the idea of the poison ring, and I came up with this,” she says, handing over a pig’s tooth whose onyx and gold base cap conceals a tiny hinged trapdoor. Flip the hinge and a tiny compartment is revealed.

Bijouterie jewellery making

The entire piece is hand-made from 18 carat gold, with a bevelcut onyx end-cap and pebble diamonds inlaid in the sides.

Relying solely on walk-in traffic at their Nambatu shop isn’t enough to keep a high-end business like this alive. Milferer explains that this is what killed previous efforts to build a homegrown jewellery industry. While the French-owned business was struggling to bring in hundreds of thousands per month when it went under, “we sell in the millions.”

Her business relies heavily on social media for marketing and advertising. And it’s clear she’s got an audience. Her Facebook page boasts over 100,000 likes.

Bespoke local work is a steady cash-winner, but she keeps her eyes up and her focus outward. This September, for the first time, she will be exhibiting at the Hong Kong Jewellery and Gem Fair. She was uncharacteristically hesitant at first, feeling that she couldn’t compete with the world class attendees. But after her husband visited the show to purchase tools and equipment, he encouraged her to consider it, confident that Bijouterie Vanuatu’s goods would compare favourably.

Milferer is intent on developing not just her business, but her people as well. Three of her staff came to her with decades of experience, and she’s taken on four apprentices, all of whom are progressing according to their individual abilities. One young woman already has her own workbench and is creating pieces of her own.

Her staff share in her success as well. Michel Mayeu, a master jeweller with nearly four decades of experience, will accompany her to the Hong Kong show in September. She doesn’t feel the need to explain. It’s simply a necessary element in promoting Ni Vanuatu craftsmanship.

Milferer’s father is of Vietnamese extraction, descended from the Tonkinese coolees brought here by colonial plantation owners. “They were treated terribly,” she says. “Ni Vanuatu, if things got too rough, they could run away. But the Vietnamese… no.”

Her mother is Ni Vanuatu. And Estelle is proud of her mixed heritage. She is fiercely supportive of the ability of Ni Vanuatu to achieve just as much—or more— as any other. And she’s quick to scorn people who don’t credit her and her compatriots with the ability to achieve their dreams, and to stand proudly on the world stage.

Estelle’s striking and far-toophotogenic features are an amalgam of Vanuatu’s uniquely mixed cultural heritage. Her free-thinking, innovative designs are not just a celebration of that heritage; they provide a bridge from past to future, from an island nation to the world.