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Photos by Ely Hopkins Oyemade

Ely Hopkins Oyemade, The Entrepreneurial Jewellery Designer

The Mexican-born designer shares her journey on creating three brands, and discusses the three most important lessons learnt.

Before Ely Hopkins Oyemade was ever paid as a jewellery designer and built multiple businesses, she juggled three low-paying jobs, flipping burgers at McDonald’s, scrubbing toilets as a cleaner, and working as a nanny.

Ely’s work ethic was not so much driven by a desire to get rich, buy fancy things or even gain fame. But instead, it was a calculated move and considered a necessity towards building a successful, long-standing business. “I was a very hardworking girl,” shares the 30-year-old designer, as she reflects on her humble start. “I worked at everything to generate my own money, and I think you have to learn such values that help you create a business properly.”

Indeed, Ely is no stranger to experiencing life’s most challenging and painful lessons, which have cast a dark cloud on her earlier years. But, like doing odd jobs to get from one point to another, such trials have played a significant role in shaping the designer’s outlook on life and sharpened her business mind.

What would otherwise be a difficult roadblock to overcome for many, is most certainly viewed as an opportunity to transform pain into power in Ely’s world. Each trauma – whether personal or business-related – has solidified itself as the primary influence behind businesses like Culture Concept – a pop-up company co-founded with friend Georgina De La Guardina – Jill Hopkins Jewellery and Jill Jill Accessories.

Born in Mexico to young parents, Ely’s upbringing was tumultuous and covered by a blanket of abuse. Both mental and physical. Meanwhile, her father was an absent figure for most of her childhood as he was serving time in prison. Ely only learned of his true identity and exact whereabouts after she turned nine.

Yet, somehow, despite all the hurt inflicted by this chapter in her life, Ely emerged not as a resentful, self-pitied woman, but rather as someone determined to turn rubble into something beautiful.

At age eighteen, Ely left her hometown of Tepic to learn English in London, with dreams of building a much brighter future for herself than she had witnessed growing up. Her grandmother and mom provided some financial support for school fees and rent. However, the majority of her income came from working as a nanny five afternoons a week – after lectures – taking shifts at Mcdonalds and cleaning at Zara.

A year later, Ely moved back to Mexico for a short stay. But, returned to London, soon after, to study experimental jewellery and business at Central Saint Martins. Unfortunately, this period was cut short due to an immigration issue. Ely recalls, “I couldn’t renew my visa, so I had to go back to Mexico and start uni from zero.” The designer enrolled in a four-year course at the University of Centro De Dise in Guadalajara to study Fashion Design and Marketing. She never considered giving up on her ambition and says, “I continued working on the side and selling clothes to get my own money.”

“I was working from Sunday to Sunday, 8 am – 11 pm, doing everything myself; from creating new pieces for clients to doing deliveries. I had to be my own PR, Marketing team, Creative Director, Jewellery Marker, Sales Person. I even created the website myself.”

The unexpected move back to Mexico would eventually prove to be the making of the designer. As part of her final year university project, Ely opted to create an accessory brand consisting of five necklaces. Hand drawn on a piece of paper was the name “Jill Jill,” (renamed Jill Jill Accesorios) and next to it was a shoebox consisting of all the materials. “My workshop was literally a box of shoes,” she laughs. But despite the ungrand, somewhat underwhelming setup, Ely’s lecturer loved the concept so much that she encouraged the designer to pursue the vision.

And that she did! Remaining forthright and most certainly relatable to the multitude who are in the beginning stages of their business journey, she expresses, “I didn’t start with all these plans and programs, like, ‘I am going to do this and that.’ It all just started as a passion, an idea. It was me and my shoebox.”

All the money made from sold pieces, with the addition of income earned from side jobs, was quickly reinvested into the idea. And over time, what started as a simple student project slowly gained traction among friends and family. “Things were going well, and I started getting new clients,” says Ely. “People were recommending me to their friends. My business started to grow, and I started to reinvest in it. If I needed something that would make it better, improve the quality of my products, and make the process quicker, I invested money in that.”

With progress, however, came a new wave of responsibilities that were required to maintain a high level of customer satisfaction and ensure that all wheels were turning in the right direction within the business. Ely recalls, “I was working from Sunday to Sunday, 8 am – 11 pm, doing everything myself; from creating new pieces for clients to doing deliveries. I had to be my own PR, Marketing team, Creative Director, Jewellery Marker, Sales Person. I even created the website myself.” She continues, “I think this is important,” because it helps you learn how every area of a brand functions.

Eventually, with hard work, good fortune was finally upon the designer and the business grew, expanding into a physical store within the heart of Tepic. She expresses, “at the peak of my business, there were about eleven or twelve employees.” During this time, Ely also launched an exclusive line as part of the Jill Jill Accessories brand, which later morphed into the Jill Hopkins Jewellery brand.

The designer’s second business that sells high-end, luxury pieces. Ely says, “it was amazing for the first six years and I never had a bad experience. I was very lucky and was able to buy a house because of my business. But things cannot always be like a fairytale. You need to be prepared for setbacks and know how to fight them.”

In 2015 Ely resettled in the UK with parts of her business still operating in Mexico. Her ambition was to grow the brands outside of Mexico, but this did not come without challenges. She shares, “I was focused on expanding my brands here [in Britain] and started selling in a shop in Brompton Road, next to the High Road.” 

But unfortunately, the British customer base did not fully understand statement jewellery pieces and as a result, it took the designer nearly two years to find a footing within the local market. She says, “sometimes, people just wait until trends coincide [before] doing something.”

“People have a business idea, and they want it assembled tomorrow,” says Ely. “But if you want excellence, success and to build a brand legacy, you have to be very, very patient. You have to do many hours of work and wait to see results because it’s not going to happen from one week to another unless you have a lot of money to invest.

Shortly after, Ely’s personal life changed in a way that altered the course of her businesses, even more. A difficult pregnancy and birth of her daughter brought about a decline in Ely’s health, which left her hospitalised. The impact of this period meant that the business suffered losses, accumulated debt and had to let go of staff. 

“My mom had to repay my business partner because when all this happened, I thought of closing my business in Mexico,” shares Ely. “I was like, ‘okay, I’m just going to keep my business here [UK] and I’m going to focus on my business where I live.’ [But] my mom said ‘no, you have so many clients in Mexico, that’s where your business came.’ So she joined me as a business partner.”

Recovery had been gradual, until with the arrival of Covid-19, which has had a universal effect on businesses, particularly small ones. Ely’s focus throughout the crisis has been to look after her daughter, but equally so, to plan and build a strategy that equips her to remain connected with customers while expanding the businesses. 

So what have been some of the most important lessons learnt during the designer’s business journey?

PASSION IS KEY

Every kind of obstacle has accompanied Ely’s life. From physical to mental abuse, rejection at the hands of family members, losing life-changing opportunities (rejected visa application), being on the brink of losing everything she had worked hard for due to ill health, and facing vast amounts of debt. Irrespective of all the knock-backs, the designer persisted and remained focused on her ultimate vision. What was the driving force behind her decision to keep going? Her passion for what she was doing in her business. Ely says, “it’s very important that you have a passion for what you do.” Passion is vital as it equips brand owners to push through challenging times.

INVESTING IS KEY

The designer’s first ‘collection,’ consisted of five necklaces in a shoebox and a handwritten brand name. Still, this start equipped Ely to invest the funds from each sold piece into the growth of the business. Asked, how she makes investment decisions, Ely says, “I think it is whatever your business is telling you. You have to ask, what is most important for my business?” She explains, “when I was getting those [first] orders, it was step-by-step. I was basically like, ‘okay, what sold very well? What am I going to do with this money? Okay, I really need to spend on a delivery system’, and that’s what I would do. I would invest in delivery.” The designer also advises independent startups to focus on the product quality and packaging, because ultimately, this is what customers identify with a brand.

PATIENCE IS KEY

“People have a business idea, and they want it assembled tomorrow,” says Ely. “But if you want excellence, success and to build a brand legacy, you have to be very, very patient. You have to do many hours of work and wait to see results because it’s not going to happen from one week to another unless you have a lot of money to invest. But even when you have loads of money to invest, it still may not work. So patience is key in the process. The mistake that most startups make is that they want to do it all right now.”