Traversing the storied history of London's The Great Frog, END. sit down with Creative Director and head designer Reino Lehtonen-Riley to journey through the past, present and future of the legendary jewellery brand.
A historic brand with a client list a mile long, The Great Frog has remained an everpresent emblem of outsider British jewellery design - a symbol of an uncompromising vision passed from one generation to the next. Helmed for the past twenty years by Creative Director and Head Designer, Reino Lehtonen-Riley, the brand has found favour amongst some of the world's most infamous rockstars, artists and actors, building a repertoire of everlasting designs that delve into darker imagery synonymous with biker culture, heavy metal and the natural world.
Established in 1972 on Carnaby Street in the heart of Soho by Paterson Riley and Carol Lehtonen-Riley, The Great Frog quickly found favour as the go-to jewellers of rockstars and celebrities alike, offering handcrafted pieces made with silver and a visual style that didn’t shy away from embracing the esoteric, the macabre or the occult. Juxtaposed against the swinging sixties' colourful flower power imagery, the brand reflected the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the raucous attitude of punk and the rebellious spirit of biker culture - a counterculture for the era's own counterculture. Emblematic of the distinctive melting pot of countercultural influences, the brand has built a heritage of handmade jewellery style that champions dark aesthetics and quality craftsmanship above all else.
Remaining an ever-present symbol of rock’n’roll and biker culture’s continued influence on jewellery under the guidance of Reino Lehtonen-Riley, The Great Frog continue to honour their history in the modern day. With a fervent dedication to the aesthetic principles the brand was built on and a firm belief in handmade craft, the brand is instilled with a wholly modern ethos and attitude that underlies Reino's principles as an artist.
Visiting The Great Frog’s London studio and Reino's private workshop, END. dive into the history of the storied brand, discussing their design ethos, the confluence of traditional techniques and modern technology alongside the impact of ethical, local production.
The Great Frog has always been very much on the fringes of things, so we’ve got such a rich history of counterculture. Now, although its not mainstream, everything is accepted, so you can really be yourself and it doesn’t have to be niche. You can take reference from all different types of music – you can be someone who is really into hip-hop or heavy metal and still exist within that same space - whereas it always used to be one or the other. Now, the younger generation of people are taking stylistic references from lots of genres. People will organically find us, be it through music, tattoos, motorcycles. Before, you’d have to make the pilgrimage to Carnaby street, whereas now you can find us online. There’s something that is great about that, having these niche scenes that people live and die by, but I actually think that now it’s a lot more inclusive, it’s more interesting now it is less homogenous. You can take reference from anything that you’re interested in. For me, from motorcycle culture to cars to engineering to music to architecture to fashion to nature, any of these things will be references for me design wise. We had a sort of mould or a genre that we were pigeonholed in, with an amazing catalogue of reference material, imagery and iconography that we still draw from but if you broaden those horizons and open your mind to a wider array of influences, you can get even more excited about creating things. Even, for example, taking a radius from a certain angle of a sports car that could define an angle on a bracelet. Why define yourself with only one genre? I love carving skulls and getting into the anatomical nature of human anatomy, but I don’t just want to constantly create jewellery based on skulls for the rest of my life – there are so many other things that also excite me. It’s taking a piece from automotive design, or engineering, or an element of the natural world and combining that with quite simple symbolism and iconography that has a universal appeal, things that we can easily relate to, references that you know even when you’re a child. You can put your own spin on any of these things. I’m constantly learning my craft and it’s something that I have been working on my whole life. I always feel like I’m getting better from one piece to the next, but a random reference will suddenly become an obsession and I’ll end up dreaming about it and must make it. I’m not calculating what is going to sell – and sometimes some designs do tank – but it’s something that I really want to do.
I grew up around it and I was always immersed in it – but it was my parents’ life, it was my dad’s life, his dream. It was his vision, and he was so driven to create and make things. We all have a drive to take what is in our heads and share it with people. My dad discovered jewellery and he had these ideas and wanted to share it with the world – a desire that I also share. I didn’t have this desire when I was younger, I didn’t really ever want to be a part of it. Being a kid, you almost just want to fit in and be the same as everyone else, you don’t want to stand out. Both my parents were cool looking, and I didn’t like the attention, I just wanted to be normal for fear of bullying. When you get to a certain age, that feeling shifts and you realise how much more important it is to stand out. Growing up immersed in that world, it wasn’t always something that made a lot of money, so it was hard. It’s hard to do something that is that niche and there wasn’t a big market for what the brand was doing at that time, but my dad was so driven and dogged about what he wanted it to be, and the aesthetic. Because of that, I didn't really see there being a future for me with the brand, and I went the other way and became a bit preppy, went to university and wanted to study engineering.
As you get older, it becomes a bit more exciting to have that ability to create and express yourself. Not everyone has the opportunity and the luck to be able to express themselves in that way, or the freedom to do so. I feel extremely lucky – as a dyslexic kid, I don’t know what I would’ve ended up doing if I didn’t have jewellery. It’s something I think about a lot. I probably would’ve never discovered jewellery, so I’m very happy to have been pushed in that direction and to have learnt those skills from an early age.
"In this day and age, when we have instant access to absolutely everything, to have something that is a little bit slower, to understand and appreciate the craft of how something is made and not have it dropped to your doorstep by a drone in 30 seconds – there’s something special about that."
People have a lot more access to niche genre and subcultures now, so it’s almost as if these things don’t really exist anymore in the same way. I don’t know if mainstream is the right word, but I think that the accessibility of culture and the ease with which people can discover things is positive, to me. If we look at everything that has gone before, it's a great tool to reference and draw against. I’m excited to see what is new and take a new spin on it, drawing on that rich history and all of those things that we’re very much a part of with my own personal style and reference point. I think that all designers do that, and in lots of respects, it’s quite biographical. You interpret things through your own eyes. I always find it annoying when someone questions someone who is wearing a band t-shirt, for example, and asks them to name three songs. Don’t be that person! They might’ve just discovered them, everyone came from somewhere. Maybe they just like the artwork – what’s wrong with that? There’s something very old school about thinking that you have to pay your dues. With the accessibility that we have today, it’s not that world anymore. I can see exciting things coming from this change, because every bit of reference from music and design is immediately in your hand, on your phone. You can draw from anything. Having all of that knowledge in front of you, surely that’s going to be a way to carry out some really inspirational and exciting work. That’s why technology is moving on so quickly in this generation. With jewellery, for example, if we were to employ someone, they would’ve had to have been an apprentice and learnt jewellery design for many, many years. Now, people can learn a lot of the skills online. I don’t need to employ someone who has specifically got a degree or studied an apprenticeship in jewellery. That someone who has picked up a piece of wax or made a piece of jewellery and has come to an interview showing what they’ve made from teaching themselves via YouTube – I think that’s fucking impressive. They’ve had the drive and passion to want to teach themselves how to do something, on their own volition and with their own research. It’s amazing to me – that was never accessible to me, to have that whole world of information at your fingertips. It was all trial and error. Now, your skills can progress so quickly that you can take all of these references and use them. Before, I would have to go to a library, find a book on skulls, photocopy all the images and try to scale it etc. Now you can just find images so quickly. Some people lament the fact that that isn’t how it is done anymore, but I find that exciting – and you can see how quickly people can progress. It’s taking it from this very niche and protected thing into something that people can see and access much more easily. That’s got to be a good thing.
There’s a big conversation around “fast fashion”, especially throughout Covid, and looking at supply chains and how people buy things, as well as the volume – it creates a huge amount of waste with unnecessary products being produced. I, as you can see, am someone who hordes a lot of things – a maximalist I think you’d call it – but all of the things I have mean something to me and have an intrinsic value. If you buy a massive bag of items from Primark, you get no fulfilment from that because its soulless. You’ve got to think about the consequence of that sort of production. I hadn’t really thought about it when I was younger – as most of us don’t – I never really thought about how anything was made. I thought a shirt was made in a shirt machine – and a lot of people think the same about jewellery. Now that there is a huge amount of accessibility to information on how things are produced, that a garment or a piece of jewellery has to be created by a person who has skills and worth, we can see the negative impact in a more direct way. If you’re buying an item of clothing for five dollars, you’ve got to think about what harm that item has caused – to the environment, to the people who made it – they can’t be remunerated appropriately when an item is that cheap.
With The Great Frog, we could probably go huge and become extremely profitable if we outsourced the production to nameless factories, but I strongly believe, without being jingoistic or patriotic, that things should be locally made. Having people learn a craft, who train and get enjoyment from making jewellery and fulfilment out of having a job that pays a good wage and they can see something through from start to finish - people appreciate that a lot more now. The conversation is being rightly had about where your recycled silver comes from, or where your gold comes from. For me, I can say, hand on heart, that it is produced in London by people who – hopefully – enjoy their jobs. We have a great group of people who are extremely talented. It’s so important to me to have that workforce of amazing people, because it’s a part of the creativity and the whole process. There’s no relationship to receiving a box from a shipping company from X factory overseas, and there’s no accountability so you could be very stand offish and feign ignorance about what is going on behind the scenes. We’re so traceable in that respect. It's environmentally beneficial, too, as there are no delivery miles. We finish a piece in the workshop in the basement, walk upstairs then put it on the shop floor. To me, there’s something really special about that. In this day and age, when we have instant access to absolutely everything, to have something that is a little bit slower, to understand and appreciate the craft of how something is made and not have it dropped to your doorstep by a drone in 30 seconds – there’s something special about that. It gets you to think about where things are from – whether that’s a piece of clothing or jewellery.
50 years is a huge feat, and in marketing speak it's “heritage”, so you can’t help but reflect upon the past. I look around at all of these things, these reference materials that my dad collected over the years, and there’s so much collaboration and so many people that have worked in the business that have added their own mark to it. So, it’s constantly building on all of this past as a reference point. It’s like what I was saying earlier about having that access to the vast array of influences globally now, but on a smaller scale, we’ve got that through the people who have worked for the brand in the past. You can’t help but draw from all of that historical reference – I’ve got all of our old designs going back 50 years. I can sit and look at those and draw from that, but also, I’m excited by fashions that are happening now and some of the things that are going on virtually, or at least having the conversation about it. Modern technology, lasering and to some extent, 3D printing, all has its value in certain instances. I still like to design in the old way, but it doesn’t mean to say that I'm going to rule out a specific tool if it can be used to do something that I couldn’t do traditionally. Back in the day, you wouldn’t say that you weren’t going to use this torch because it's better, you know? All of these things are just new tools – it’s more about the person who is using that tool rather than the tool itself. I’m excited by the opportunities that new technologies can bring, although NFTs can get to fuck!
Creating things in an online space – that is quite exciting me to. It’s essentially another canvas, another outlet for creativity. I can be a bit of a grumpy old man when someone hands me a bit of wood with a QR code on it instead of a menu in a restaurant, for example, but largely I’m excited about technology and the conversations around it and what that can do to further what we do. It’s important to discover new methods and to listen to new takes on things. Methodology is always interesting – it’s progress. Look how far we’ve come, for good or bad for civilisation, in the grand scheme of things, everything is so rapidly advancing even when compared to 20 years ago because of accessibility and virtual spaces. There’s space for traditional craft alongside the modern. There could be a complete flip, with people rejecting the virtual world and really go back to basics, but they’ll have been enabled to do that by technology.
For me, it’s almost always the next project that we’re working on that becomes my favourite, because I feel like we keep getting better at what we do each time. I look back at previous pieces and think about how I should’ve done it in a different way. Working with The Rolling Stones was incredible – I love the band and grew up listening to their music, so to be able to work with them was a big achievement for me. Working with all these amazing brands with huge histories themselves on collaborations has been great. I love learning about the history and their heritage. With Cutler & Gross, for example, delving into what they do and how their products are made, I’ve learnt about a whole new craft with how sunglasses are made. It’s interesting seeing people working with very similar and transferable skills to making jewellery. Hand polished and handmade on similar machines with a craft that has been perfected over years. That’s what keeps it exciting and keeps it fun.
"People have a need for jewellery – humans have always chosen to adorn their bodies since the beginning of time – it's something that reminds them of someone, of a moment in time, of their heritage."
It really just depends on what day you catch me! Some days I feel like the brand has grown too much and there is too much responsibility – I lay awake at night thinking about how there are 70 people relying on me to pay their wages and their mortgage or rent. Before, I could make something that may or may not sell and the impact wasn’t as important, but now we really need to make sure we create amazing work, so there’s that pressure there. It’s a little less free in terms of creativity, but I really love the idea of taking what we do, our message, to show people that you can have a successful business without making it just about the bottom line - making money. It’s never been the consideration with The Great Frog to cut cost at every possible opportunity. For me, getting what I want to create and getting it to market, and being able to stand behind it is more important than the bottom line. But I suppose that does help us grow. People have a need for jewellery – humans have always chosen to adorn our bodies since the beginning of time – it's something that reminds them of someone, of a moment in time, of their heritage. We always attach meaning to these things, so it’s a massive honour that people attach meaning to the things that I create. It’s great to see that even when I’ve changed direction with the brand slightly, long-term customers are still coming back to buy our jewellery. It’s exciting to see where it’ll go, but the honest answer is that I don’t quite know where it’ll go. I do know that I want to stick to certain ideals and stick to being able to stand by what we do, with accountability, and be proud of what we create and the impact of our working practices. I'm very proud to be able to hold my head up and pride myself on how we operate as a brand, and I think that comes across in everything that we do.