It’s not often that you go to an interview and feel like you learnt more about yourself than you did about your subject. This is, of course, due to the inherent artifice of the interview process. You are meant to probe around the surface and find out as much as you can about the person without being intimidating or rude. You are meant to steer all conversation away from yourself. And, in the course, you are meant to make yourself almost invisible. That’s what you’re taught a good interviewer does, and that’s what you try and do. As much as possible. And, on the whole, interview subjects are quite happy to let you do just that.
Not so with Tanja Kovacevic. Not because she has nothing to say about herself and her successful jewellery label, Petite Grand. Its accomplishment in only a few short years is a testament not only to the void in the Australian market for high-quality and affordable pieces of jewellery but also to Kovacevic’s unique vision for the kinds of talismanic, charm-like bits and pieces of silver and gold that you never want to take off. There’s plenty to say on that front. But she doesn’t want to talk about it, not yet anyway. In fact, she’s more curious about what Talisa and I are going to do with our lives when we finish university.
“I’m so excited for you girls,” she says, sipping tea at her dining room table. “You’ve got the whole world ahead of you!”
It’s the kind of thing we had both been longing for someone to say to us, as we muddled through a variety of different internships and freelance gigs trying to find our way. And there, in a sun-drenched, airy apartment overlooking that multi-million dollar view of the harbour one long winter afternoon someone had said it to us as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “We’ve all got something in us, we’re all creative, we all have our different outlets,” Kovacevic muses. “I think that a lot of people struggle with that and can be quite confused. It’s not easy to find your calling but you can, and you will.”
Kovacevic’s calling is to make jewellery. She knew that she would work in fashion from primary school, when she would make sketches and illustrations in her free time. After school she worked for a variety of different brands and companies before she settled in for the long term at swimwear giant Zimmermann.
“Only about two months after I started,” Kovacevic says, “Simone [Zimmermann] said to me, ‘we need an accessories buyer for the stores’. I said, ‘I’ve never done it’ and she said, ‘I can see you love jewellery.” Kovacevic laughs. “I’d just come back from living in London, and I was wearing big crazy wooden earrings and all that kind of stuff. It was the London style!” So she started working in buying and development for accessories and stumbled upon something that she truly loved. “Simone saw it in me first before anyone else did,” she says.
After another stint in London, Kovacevic returned to Sydney and began making some jewellery for herself to wear. “It’s that typical story,” she says, “but I thought, I wanted to do something that I would want to wear myself.” That meant simple trinkets of fine, delicate jewellery that was totally in tune with her laidback, completely unforced style. “I want to be able to run around and feel comfortable in whatever I wear,” she says. Today she is wearing a plain sweater tucked into high-waisted jeans and comfortable ankle boots. It’s an effortless style that suits her no-nonsense manner to a tee. “Everyday I just put this on and I forget about it,” she fiddles with a pair of bracelets hanging low on her wrist. One has a leather strap connecting two thin gold chains, the other is a dainty mish-mash of flaxen-hued bit of metal. “You choose it, you put it on, that’s it.” Simple.
Kovacevic is sipping her tea, seemingly saying, enough about me, let’s hear about you. She’s genuinely interested in what we want to do with our lives, with what inspires us, with how we go about in our various avenues of creativity. She gives us advice about career choices (“If you really dislike something, let it go”). She asks us questions about our passions. She wants to know about the woman behind her jewellery. “Everyone’s got a story,” she says.
It’s this positive outlook that has enabled her business to strike a chord in a difficult retail environment. After friends started bugging her for orders she made a full collection, which caught the eyes of buyers from hip boutique Incu and online store My Chameleon. Now, Petite Grand has over 20 stockists around Australia and one in Japan. Kovacevic has a successful online store and a booming wholesale business, and her designs have found their way onto the slender wrists of starlets like Miranda Kerr and Pia Miranda, as well as the type of insouciant ingénues who dress in head-to-toe A.P.C and have breakfast every day at Bird and Bear in Elizabeth Bay.
All this, and yet Kovacevic is still running a one-woman show. “Yes, I am the designer,” she says, “but I’m also the dispatch girl, and the accounts girl!” She reels them off her fingers, laughing. “I was lucky enough to do a bit of everything before I started my label, which was why I felt so ready to start my own company.” It’s easy to forget that small businesses often operate like lone rangers, working out of home or little studios, completely by themselves. Kovacevic concedes that the hardest part is not having anyone to talk to, someone to sound ideas off. Now she has help a few days a week, just to keep up with orders.
“I’d really like to give the new collection a bit of time and think of wonderful new things – but there’s really not enough time in the day,” Kovacevic says. “As soon as I finish one collection I have to start on the next, and it just goes from there.” Next season sees the designer experimenting with thin, almost graphic wires and a range of anklets. The coloured beads and the charms are still there, but there is a touch of the urban this time around. Maybe it’s those anklets. They’re the kind that Ashley Olsen would wear, doubled up and hanging low over a pair of tassled loafers. “I don’t think that anything I do is reinventing the wheel, but it’s the subtle little things that I add that I know is unique.” Like most women who wear jewellery religiously, Kovacevic fiddles with it almost without thinking. Her hand gingerly touches the flat discs – Petite Grand’s signature – that hang from the clasp of her bracelets. “I don’t think that I need to complicate it. There’s no need to complicate it.”
To the end, Kovacevic insists that everything in her life so far has been building up to this point. “I still can’t get my head around it, it’s amazing,” she says. “I can’t believe that I am making a living doing something that I am so passionate about.” Talisa and I look at each and the words involuntarily tumble out. It’s the dream. “It is, it is, it is!” Kovacevic exclaims, laughing. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think that I am very blessed.”
Words by Hannah-Rose Yee,
Polaroids taken in Tanja's studio by me,