Paterson Riley was not thinking decades ahead or even months ahead when in 1972 he opened the Great Frog, a small alternative jewellers off London’s Carnaby Street. All the New Zealander wanted to do was make a quick buck, which is funny because hand-making jewellery isn’t the easiest route to that, particularly when you’re not a jeweller. But having acquired the shop in some hazy 1970s deal that was never entirely clear to the rest of his family, and realising that jewellery was what sold best there, jewellery is what he sold. “And if a customer asked, ‘Can you make me one like this?’ he said, ‘Yes,’” laughs his son, Reino Lehtonen-Riley, today. “He taught himself to make jewellery, because he needed the money. He never turned down a sale.”
Almost half a century later and Reino is running an international jewellery brand, best known for its handmade gothic designs in sterling silver or gold – grinning skull rings with hulking gemstones, ace of spades ear studs and dagger pendants. The Great Frog has been worn by Motörhead’s Lemmy and any number of heavy metal royalty you can think of, not to mention the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, Alexa Chung and Jared Leto.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the shops – there was also one in Harrow and both were run by Paterson and his wife, Carol Lehtonen-Riley – came to the attention of bikers, goths, rockers, musicians and any one who harboured dreams of wearing a leather jacket. Now there are Great Frog stores in Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and Shoreditch, as well as a concession in Dover Street Market.
While there are homages to the Great Frog’s signature styles everywhere today – under designer Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s jewellery collection shares some of the same gothic sensibilities – back in the 1970s, no one else was making jewellery like this. It quickly became the ultimate accessory for the counter-culture. “You’d see a certain type of person with tattoos and long hair walking down the road and you knew where they were going,” says Reino. Family life was alternative and haphazard, too. “There were always a lot of adults around. They showed me how to fix bikes and forage for mushrooms – and my dad showed me how to make jewellery. It was normal to me, but you look back and realise it was like growing up in a Wes Anderson film – turning up at school aged 10 wearing cowboy boots and a fringed leather jacket,” he says. “Getting picked up by a Hells Angels biker on his chopper or by a car that’s painted matt black to look like a hearse. These things were massively embarrassing.”
It was then only a matter of time then before the teenage Reino developed a taste for the exact opposite of his parents’ lifestyle and look. He took refuge in a short back and sides and a suburban preppie uniform of lilac polo shirts and chinos. He chose to study engineering at college. “My dad would look at me and say, ‘You’re no son of mine.’” Reino ended up in Australia working for Giorgio Armani – which is about as far from heavy metal jewellery as you can get in fashion. But it gave him a chance to learn more about retail on an entirely different scale to the Great Frog, and that gave him a useful perspective when Paterson called him back to England to help him close down the failing shop.
Reino looked at the debts and realised they weren’t that big. “I knew it could be salvaged if we cut everything right back,” he says. “I knew the business and how to make jewellery, and I looked at the heritage – I’d find these bags of press cuttings and hear my dad’s stories – and I knew we had this amazing history. So we honed it down to the good stuff.” Which makes it sound easy, but many years of inter-generational tension were to follow. “Every inch was hard. It was a huge personal battle between me and my dad. He thought I was losing the soul of the business. He was like: ‘People want skulls! More bats! More fangs! More blood!’ He’s like Ozzy Osbourne. Imagine talking to Ozzy about your business!”
Reino officially took over the Great Frog in 2002 and now with his wife, Danielle, handles all aspects of the brand, from the creative to the office. Each new ring design starts with him at the workshop bench with a piece of wax. “I do all the carving and design in the same way it’s been done since Roman times – just three hand tools, scratching away. I make a piece and then we make a mould from that.”
The majority of the collection is made in silver (smaller rings start at around £110) with more expensive options in 9ct gold and a small amount of bespoke – including a £40,000 ring made for Jay-Z in collaboration with artist Wes Lang in 18ct gold, inlaid with diamonds. The collections have gone through an evolution and the new pieces Reino has introduced, such as his “Mum” and “Dad” signet rings, are hugely popular. “I thought people were going to sneer at them, but they love them. I loved becoming a dad myself. A lot of the stuff I do is autobiographical.” (Reino has a three-year-old and Danielle has another child on the way). The brand recently branched out into wedding and engagement rings. “People who get married want to buy a ring that’s part of their lifestyle. Maybe Tiffany doesn’t reflect that for some people and I like the fact that those people can come to us, subverting the traditions and making things beautiful in their own right.”
When we speak, London is well into coronavirus lockdown and Reino is anxious about his company. “We’ve got 40 employees and we are like family,” he says. “We’re dealing with rent in Japan and Los Angeles, and I don’t know how long we can go on for, but the online customers have been brilliant. I’ve actually said to some: ‘Are you sure you want to be spending money on this at the moment?’ But they’ve all said yes. I’ve wrangled with what I do for a long time, but then jewellery just means so much to people. It means so much to me.”