How This Ringmaker Went From '70s Rock ’N’ Roll Casualty To Modern Power Jeweler
Every ring designed by The Great Frog starts off as a block of wax in the hands of Reino Lehtonen-Riley. It might end up as a skull or an eerily lifelike eyeball framed in nine-carat gold, made by the same woman who creates prosthetics for the London Eye Hospital, or a simple silver wedding band. First the wax, followed by a master ring, a metal cast and then the final product, which will be worked into shape by one of the 40-odd jewelers inside The Great Frog’s windowless, subterranean Shoreditch workshop, beneath the coffee shops and construction sites of East London.
With his stubble and slicked-back hair, Lehtonen-Riley, 40, is the archetypal rock ’n’ roll jeweler. “I’m also the owner, designer, cleaner, HR, and shop-fitter,” he says. On the morning I visit him, he’s wearing a leather jacket, selvage denim jeans, motorcycle boots, a fistful of rings and nursing a hangover: “One too many last night, sorry.” He reposes on a leather armchair inside his dimly-lit shop, an American gas-guzzler — a 1987 Buick Grand National — looming behind him, glistening black and chrome. Cabinets that once belonged to Damien Hirst span the wall, stacked full of rings, bracelets, and necklaces of Lehtonen-Riley’s creation. This is The Great Frog’s flagship UK store; there are also TGF outposts in London’s Soho, New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, with one in Tokyo soon to come. The impeccably trendy fashion supermarket Dover Street Market is the brand’s sole third-party stockist.
The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Lemmy, Johnny Depp, Slash, Kate Moss, David Beckham, Lenny Kravitz, Debbie Harry, Michael Jordan, and Keira Knightley are just a selection of the famous whose fingers, wrists and necks have been adorned by jewelry from The Great Frog. But success was a long time coming. “I think the first time I felt like we were becoming successful was when the bailiffs stopped turning up at the door,” Lehtonen-Riley grimaces. “From the outside, we looked successful. Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell were wearing our pieces on the covers of magazines, but it never really worked. We were always struggling, never made any money.”
The Great Frog was founded in 1972 by Lehtonen-Riley’s parents, who turned its original tiny, black-painted cubbyhole off London’s Carnaby Street into a place of countercultural pilgrimage. A self-taught jeweler, Lehtonen-Riley’s father, Paterson Riley, started out importing cheap rings from Morocco, before realizing that, as first rock, heavy metal and then punk took hold in Britain, there was a new taste for outlandish but high-quality pieces he could make in his own improvised Soho workshop.
“People had never seen it before,” says Lehtonen-Riley. “A black shop, full of skulls and crazy rings. We used to have Christians protesting outside, holding Bibles because they thought there was devil worship going on!”
For years, Lehtonen-Riley resisted the pull of his parents’ business, as well as their lifestyle. After a childhood spent being ferried to school on the back of a Hell’s Angels-style hog, he rebelled by becoming a preppy. “I would be there in my pale blue polo shirt and neat hair, while my dad looked like Ozzy Osbourne.” He studied industrial engineering. “I was adamant, desperate not to get involved in the business.”
In 2002, while he was living in Australia, he received a call from his dad. The family business was folding. “He said, ‘We owe the bank all this money, they’re going to close it. Can you come home and help me dissolve the company?’
“I came back to England and had a few drinks with my dad. By then I’d realized that a future in industrial engineering wasn’t for me. I went to the bank and borrowed £80,000, which is a lot of fucking money! Assuming all the debt in my name. I just felt like we could make it work.”
He set about remaking the business and expanding its clientele. “It used to be you could pick out The Great Frog guys,” he says. “Huge, lumbering bikers and rockers with tattoos, standing out like sore thumbs on Carnaby Street. Now our clientele is 60 percent women.”
Today, The Great Frog is in rude health, favored by current celebrities including Jay Z and Gigi Hadid, who can sell out an entire production run of rings with a single Instagram post. Lehtonen-Riley has also created custom pieces for Kanye West and Harry Styles. There’s a Vans trainer collaboration in the works and a limited run of Harley Davidson motorcycles, finished with his own hand-engraving, which he is currently working on.
Lehtonen-Riley is now the sole owner. “We don’t have any investors or loans, it’s entirely self-funded and we’re still all handmade. I’d probably be a very wealthy man if I was to move our production to somewhere like China, but that’s not what it’s about for me. I’ve got everything I need here.” And not a bailiff in sight.
The Great Frog, 1–4 Holywell Lane, London EC2A and 2 Newburgh Street, London W1F
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.