Growing up, Esme Young’s creativity was not always appreciated. “I used to make necklaces for my mum for Christmas and, one year, I didn’t have time so I gave her a glass vase,” she recalls. “She said, ‘At last, a proper present.’”

One half of the judging duo on BBC television show The Great British Sewing Bee, in which amateur sewers compete in clothes-making challenges, Young co-founded the London fashion shop Swanky Modes with three friends in 1972. The now defunct label’s black Lycra Amorphous disco dress is in the V&A museum’s collection. She has made costumes for commercials, music videos and films, including Renée Zellweger’s scene-stealing bunny outfit in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), and teaches pattern-cutting at Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London.

While her career is in clothes, however, it is the large necklaces she wears that are her signature style. “The thing about a necklace is it makes a statement,” says Young.

Esme Young necklace (2020)

five plastic bottles hanging off the colourful metal clip
© Charlie Bibby/FT

Her interest in jewellery started at school, where she learned to make a necklace from wooden beads. As a teenager, she bought a necklace that reminded her of that first piece and made necklaces for her mother, who Young wrote in her 2022 autobiography was “great fun” but “struggled to show us emotion”.

Young says her mum “didn’t really like” the gifted necklaces. “I don’t think she ever wore them,” she says.

Undeterred, Young makes necklaces when inspiration strikes. While contestants on the Sewing Bee upcycle old clothes into new garments during the show’s transformation challenge, she gave a new lease of life to empty hand sanitiser bottles and carabiners used by the crew. She made a necklace, comprising five plastic bottles hanging off the colourful metal clips, during a break in filming.

She wore the piece in an episode that aired in 2021. “It was [making a statement] about Covid and it was humorous,” she says. She has not worn the necklace since for fear it might leak: each bottle contains a different colour paint.

Fiona Espenhahn necklace (c. 2022)

© Charlie Bibby/FT

Having noticed that Young was wearing large necklaces on television, her sister Fiona, a textile artist, offered to make her one. The resulting knitted wire piece features imitation pearls from one of their late mother’s necklaces. “A lot of my jewellery does have meaning to me,” says Young.

She wore the necklace to a screening hosted by English National Opera of The Mysterious Register: A Journey to the Edge of Possibility in London last month. Produced by Young’s brother Jeremy, the documentary film features the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. “Everywhere I go where I wear [the necklace], everyone goes, ‘Wow’,” she says.

Six necklaces (c. 1950s-1960s)

six imitation pearl necklaces
© Charlie Bibby/FT

Young wears six imitation pearl necklaces as one piece of jewellery. Five belonged to her mother, who enjoyed dressing up, while Young bought the sixth, which features “whopper” pearls, at a vintage fair. “I’d never wear one on its own,” she points out. “It’s all to do with a statement, as you’ve probably gathered.”

Her jewellery is a form of self-expression. “When I was a child, I was quite deaf — I expressed and communicated through being creative, drawing and making,” says Young. “When I was a teenager, I expressed through what I wore — and I still do.”

Sparkly necklace (date unknown)

Imitation pearls adorn a costume jewellery necklace
© Charlie Bibby/FT

Imitation pearls adorn the costume jewellery necklace, made of metal and glass, that her friend Patrick Lee Yow gave her. “I do love a bit of sparkle,” notes Young, who wore the piece for the 2022 Christmas celebrity special episode of the Sewing Bee.

The pair first met more than 20 years ago as colleagues at Central Saint Martins. Young reckons he has since given her about 25-30 necklaces: “He would see a necklace and he’d buy it for me.”

Bead necklace (c. 2018)

a flower necklace, made of beads
© Charlie Bibby/FT

As a teenager, Young started going to London street markets to buy jewellery but now finds fewer chances to do so as many have been “taken over by food”. She found her flower necklace, made of beads, in a jewellery shop in east London’s Ridley Road market area.

Young has “no idea” as to the scale of her collection, although the drawers she bought to store her necklaces are “full up”. If something catches her eye, as the flower necklace did, she buys it, as long as it is not too expensive.

Her eye is drawn by all kinds of objects. She also collects animal skeletons and has the skulls of a boar, goat and sheep. Perhaps her next jewellery project might embrace this interest.

“I do have some bones from a snake . . . I could make that into a necklace actually, a snake’s backbone,” she says.

Now that would make a statement.

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