When a loved one marks out a treasure for you at their passing, it is a precious moment that leaves you with an heirloom rich in significance. When Maria Leoni Sceti’s husband’s aunt passed away, her bequest was unusual both in size and in that it transformed Maria’s life, setting her on a quest to bring new vigour to the legacy of costume jewellery designer Sonia Petroff.
Sonia and the aunt were one in the same, and the bequest that was left to Maria and her husband Elio Leoni Sceti in 2015 was the designer’s 800-piece archive. Sonia, famed for her vivacious outsized fashion jewels and jewellery belts, started out in the markets of Buenos Aires in the 1950s before moving to Rome in the next decade, where she soaked up the glamour of La Dolce Vita lifestyle.
Sonia’s whimsical designs, inspired by her love of travel and life, captivated buyers for four decades, but when she retired in the 1980s, so too did the Sonia Petroff brand.
Maria Leoni Sceti relaunched the Sonia Petroff accessories brand in 2018
Pouring over the gift Sonia had left to her activated a stirring that had already started to rumble within Maria; she was looking for a fresh challenge in life, and this trove of brightly hued belts and brooches ignited a spark. “I was so moved by her incredible, yet under the radar, career that I wanted to ensure her legacy was continued, and pay tribute to her and her creative designs,” says Maria, who was in her 50s when she made this career U-tun and relaunched Sonia Petroff in 2018.
The designs within the revived Sonia Petroff offering echo those Maria found in the archives, either replicas with contemporary tweaks or fresh designs based on motifs lifted from heritage creations. For example, the iconic Sonia Petroff Aries jewellery belt that made 1970s Vogue fashion editors swoon is nigh on the same as that worn by Phoebe Waller Bridge over a flowing red dress as she accepted her Television Critics Award in 2019 for Fleabag.
“It happens to be one of my best sellers,” says Maria of the enduringly stylish bejewelled Aries belt. “I have revamped it a bit by adding a hidden way to make it adjustable in the back, making it more size friendly, and have also added a few new colourways, giving it a modern twist.”
Sonia Petroff Aries belt with twisted blue silk cords and buckle decorated with faux onyx and faux lapis lazuli, £775, Sonia Petroff
As well as bejewelled belts and bags, there is the Sonia Petroff jewellery. Stirring up visions of seafood dinners on the Italian coastline, the gold-plated costume jewels, laden with faux gems, brandish golden lobsters (the brand’s signature motif) – discretely on the wrist atop leather cuffs, or brazenly on the lapel as enormous brooches. Earrings, necklaces and rings similarly do not mess around when it comes to scale, colour and joie de vivre.
“I believe shoppers right now are looking for a bit of escapism and pieces which are colourful, creative and fun are a perfect way to do this,” says Maria of her bold jewels, all of which are made in Italy. “Couture jewellery opposed to fine jewellery also has the advantage that the price point allows the freedom to have a bit of fun when deciding on a purchase. A lobster dangling from an ear, blowing aquamarine crystal bubbles… why not?!”
While the designs are delightfully frivolous, Maria is quite serious when it comes to ethics. Sonia Petroff continued to support its Italian artisans during the first emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic that so badly hurt the country. “These family-run businesses had to close and most of their orders came to a grinding halt,” recalls Maria, who credits Matches Fashion for helping her sustain the workflow as it did not cancel orders when the crisis hit. “As we aren’t seasonal, they didn’t cancel their orders, but worked with us to push back the delivery dates until Italy was up and running again. The vintage, timeless feel of the collections mean they never go out of fashion.”
Sonia Petroff gold-plated and faux gemstone Lobster necklace, £369, Sonia Petroff
Maria is also a philanthropist, and every Sonia Petroff jewel raises funds for girls’ education charity Room to Read. In less than a year, sales of its escapist jewels raised enough money to fund 36,500 days of schooling for disadvantaged girls around the world.
Good vibes – both philanthropic and sartorial – are the aim for Sonia Petroff going forward, says Maria, and this means slowing down. “Our ethos at Sonia Petroff is to promote slow fashion in everything we do” she says, pointing out that Sonia Petroff offers lifetime repairs on its items to ensure they stay in circulation. “Slow fashion for me means: premium quality that will last for years to come; bold statement pieces that will make an impact, yet are sophisticated so they don’t go out of style; and, finally, ageless – we aim for all our designs to strike the right balance between fun and refined so they can be worn by women of all ages. With these three qualities, they will last a lifetime and transcend seasons.”
That Maria has been able to shake the Sonia Petroff brand from a four-decade-long slumber without a major design overhaul is proof in itself that these wild jewellery belts and gregariously cascading fashion jewels not only offer an escapism for now, but the promise of a slow-burning style endurance for the future.
Sonia Petroff gold-plated Moon Flower earrings with faux pearls, £195, Sonia Petroff