Jeweler Theo Fennell: ‘To be called the King of Bling is better than the Prince of Darkness’ | Autobiography and memory

JJewelery designer Theo Fennell, 70, was born in Egypt into a military family and educated at Eton. After attending art college, his first job was as an apprentice goldsmith at Hatton Garden in London. He has been creating jewelery and silverware for over 40 years, opening his first shop in Fulham Road in 1982. He lives in London with his wife, Louise, an author. They have two daughters: writer, actress and director Emerald and fashion designer Coco. his memoirs, I fear for this boy: some chapters of accidents, is out now.

How come you publish your first book 70 years ?
It was never intended as anything more than a sort of private promenade. The goal was to have 50 prints as merry Christmas gifts, just as a laugh for family and friends. A lot of people had said to me, “I would like you to write these damn stories because otherwise you’re going to tell them again. They thought it might be an act of catharsis, but all it did was make me feel a little ashamed in places – that horrible feeling of growing embarrassment that I used to have during the Hangover.

You write very vividly about hangovers.
Oh, that creeping remorse after a drunken giddy goat. Those phone calls to people where you said, “It was a wonderful evening, thank you so much,” hoping that if something awful had happened, they would mention it. If they didn’t, the way was clear. The sense of relief that you hadn’t killed a cat or messed up the stairs was so great that I would find myself tripping at work.

Was the book a containment project?
Yes. It turns out that the day the lockdown started, my daughters and their partners were all home, so we were all locked down as a family. We had a large collection of pasta varieties and nothing to match. And endless rolls of strangely colored toilet paper. Everyone seemed to be writing and I felt left out. We’d meet at lunch and they’d say, “I’ve done 10,000 words” or whatever. I longed to be part of the writers circle at lunchtime. I felt like an outsider in Charleston, probably Virginia Woolf’s maid or something.

How did the episodic style of your memoirs develop?
Well, first I decided to write a novel. Not just a novel but a trilogy. Except that I had arrived at page 60 and that I had finished everything. I realized it was too short for a novella, let alone a trilogy, but friends kept pestering me to keep going.

Who were these friends?
William Boyd, who always encouraged me to write, and Kathy Lette and Ruby Wax, who embody perseverance. I said to Will, “This novel writing business is really, really tricky.” He said, “Just write your stories in your own voice.” My three golden rules were: no celebrities, no sex – because I was going to show it to my daughters – and not be mean, except to my dumb friends who totally deserve it. So I wrote a few of these thumbnails and my wife edited them. After she stole them, I gave them to my daughters and heard them giggle. Then Will read them and laughed really, properly. There’s nothing happier in life than making someone laugh, so I kept going.

Wasn’t it rejected by publishers at first?
I sent it to a big publishing house who said, “What you did here is interesting, but it’s basically some old white jerk telling stories about things that will never happen again. . The world has changed dramatically. It doesn’t interest people who don’t live in a small Bedfordshire village.’ That was the main thing. Later I received a call from [veteran publisher] Richard Charkin, saying it made him laugh and he would like to publish it. I was thunderstruck.

Where does the title come from? I fear for this boycomes from?
The title was going to be Accident Chapters. Because that’s basically it. Then in confinement, we emptied it and found an old canvas bag with my school report cards inside. They were wonderfully overwhelming. One said: “The fennel nose and the millstone have not come close this year.” Another was: “This boy is really rustic for a scholar.” It was almost worth the trouble to get these sensational assassinations. And one page just said, “I’m scared for this boy.” Louise cried with laughter. I thought, this must be it. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

What did your Oscar-winning daughter, Emerald, think of the book?
She was very nice to her poor old father. His price [best original screenplay for Promising Young Woman] came during lockdown which was quite surreal. He knocked my ‘Tossing a Cricket Ball, Abbey School, 1963’ award off the top shelf of our trophy arrangement. I’m incredibly proud of her and still a little puzzled that she had anything to do with me.

When did you stop drinking and why?
Twenty-three years ago. My kids were getting to a certain age and noticed that the noise over there in the corner was their dad. It was not a good thing. My family suffered for a long time but it became unbearable. I loved the drinking culture, but I had friends who gave up and were just as sober as they used to be. It helped me realize that there was another country, where you didn’t need to be drenched in cheap Bordeaux and Cointreau. I had a few false starts but eventually it stuck and it made a fantastic difference in my life.

How do you view your education at Eton?
Still with ambivalence, more than 50 years later. I’m not sure I’m a natural Etonian. But I was not an unnatural Etonian, I want to make that absolutely clear. These days it’s full to the gunwales with Lamborghinis and screaming people. In my time, it was that old-fashioned English, shabby chic, too chic to wash. If your dad owned a pair of shoes under 50, he was immediately labeled an upstart. We had some not-so-brilliant boys there – most of whom got into politics.

Does Eton have too much influence?
Having produced 20 prime ministers, of course. I’m not sure that an absolute buffoon, a narcissistic child like Boris Johnson should be allowed to approach politics, let alone reach the top.

From left to right: Coco Fennell, Emerald Fennell, Theo Fennell and Louise Fennell. Photography: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

You turned 70 last year. How did you celebrate?
We had what was supposed to be a breakfast in the garden, but it got quite big. A kind of village festival with burgers and ice cream, funfair and karaoke. Louise gave a very funny and a little too talkative speech.

In your day-to-day work, you are often called “the king of bling”. Do you like this nickname?
I guess it’s better than the prince of darkness. Craftsmanship is what I fell in love with first. The apprenticeship and the integration of young people into this profession is what fascinates me now.

Do you have plans for another book?
If people like this one, I would be tempted because I enjoyed the process immensely. I’m already writing something about jewelry to accompany a retrospective. After that, I could try the fiction again. A fun pot this time. Before, I was aiming a little high – I was trying Everest when Box Hill is where I should be going. Or I could write another volume of accidents. I’ve had a few since the end of the book.

I’m scared for this boy: some chapters of accidents by Theo Fennell is published by Mensch (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply