The family-owned jewellery business talks going global and limo rides with Motörhead.
With collaborations with monolithic rock bands, Iron Maiden and Motörhead comes traditional family-owned jewellery company The Great Frog. For over fifty years the pioneers for unisex jewellery have been notorious for establishing the skull ring as the go-to motif for outlaws and rebels. Attracting the attention of legends and high-end fashion brands over the years, The Great Frog have brought their collection to a global stage with stores in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans growing into a culturally significant force with designer Reino Lehtonen-Riley taking over the company from his father Patterson Riley in 2002.
Born with a natural artistic curiosity, Reino first delved into the world of jewellery at just eight years old and carved his first ring at eleven. Innate and creative talent was showcased at a young age, but Reino went opted for a more traditional career and studied Industrial Design before going on to work for luxury fashion house Armani in Sydney. These skills came together and led the young designer to become the sole designer and director for The Great Frog, transforming the company from an underground shop to a global brand. But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, “As I got older I was adamant that I didn’t want anything to do with the business.” Reino types out over email “As a kid/teenager I just wanted to be ‘normal’ and I was embarrassed by my cool parents – looking back on it now being picked up in a hand-painted black VW or chopper wearing cowboy boots was pretty rad, but in late 80s suburbia you were marked out for ridicule.”
Read the full interview below….
Where did the name The Great Frog come from?
The name The Great Frog came from my Dad’s love of psychedelic west coast comics illustrated by the likes of Robert Crumb, usually featuring intergalactic psilocybin-induced astral plane like scenarios where the protagonist takes LSD and goes on journeys of self-discovery and enlightenment. In this one issue he asks the big question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and naturally, the given response was ‘all the waters of the earth are contained within the armpit of the great frog’. I guess this cryptic sentence struck a chord and had a suitable gravitas. Lucky really as it’s better than the other name he had ‘The Pheasant Pluckers’.
Who is The Great Frog customer?
The Great Frog customer was easy to identify back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s. Mainly rockers, bikers, punks and goths – real stand out sub-cultures at that time. But now with such a crossover of styles, accessibility and relative freedom to express yourself however you choose it’s hard to pinpoint one TGF customer. We now see that about 60% of our customers are female, and the age range varies from late teens to late 70s.
You’ve done amazing collaborations – how do you go about scoping whether they are a good fit?
A lot of the time a collaboration comes from a happy accident and I end up working with friends and companies I admire. When it’s right, it just clicks. In the past, I have taken jobs because we needed the money to make the rent and if I wasn’t totally keen on the fit I would always feel compromised and it would eat away at me. For me, one of the biggest measures of success is being able to politely turn down what isn’t right for the brand in my eyes. And after 15 years running the company I just know what sits right with me. It’s not always commercially successful but that’s not my main motivation. I am immensely proud of the artists and brands we work with.
You’ve just opened a store in Tokyo – I read this has been a lifelong dream… why Tokyo?
Tokyo has always been a dream for me since I took over the company. I have been going to Japan since I was a kid and everything about it left a huge impression on me early on. Even now, every time I go I’m massively inspired by the culture, the people, the style, the elegance and integrity that goes into everything. Our Japanese customers really appreciate the handmade nature of our work and take the time to understand the history behind the brand.
And you recently collaborated with Neighbourhood – what made you think that the Japanese brand and the brand DNA of The Great Frog would marry up?
Neighbourhood have been one of my favourite brands since I first heard of it almost 20 years ago. Back then it was out of my reach, but what I didn’t know was Sin Takazawa – owner and creative director of Neighbourhood – had a similar experience coming to our Carnaby Street shop 10 years prior, purchasing our infamous Evil Skull ring. Cut to 2007 and my ability to pursue my love of custom motorcycles lead me to Tokyo and the huge car and bike show Mooneyes, showcasing the world’s best custom hot rods and choppers. We finally got around to working together as the time just seemed right, and to have Sin Takazawa and the Neighbourhood endorsement gives us instant credibility for our new Japanese store. It’s really been a dream collab, and Sin even let me buy one of his custom Vincent motorcycles.
And you have a collaboration with Harley Davidson coming up – would you mind telling me a bit about this?
Being a lifelong fan of the American motorcycle company Harley-Davidson this upcoming collaboration really is a dream come true for me. My Grandad rode a Harley in WW2 and my Mum spent her early 20s rebelling against her parents riding around Italy, so it’s pretty safe to say the motor company is in our family blood. My cousin Imogen Lehtonen who is a prolific rider and model in her own right (she runs our Los Angeles store) has been modelling and riding for Harley for the past few years. She called me up towards the end of last year to tell me Harley asked if we want to make official Harley rings and a joint apparel range! I couldn’t sleep with excitement, again it really is another total dream come true. It was just as I was working with Harley Europe for the 2019 Mooneyes show – I customising one of their new Sportster hand engraving the whole bike which also coincided with the TGF Tokyo opening so this was the icing on the cake.
What has been your biggest pinch-me moment so far?
Every day is a pinch-me moment, I can’t believe I get to wake up every morning and do something I love and work alongside my best friends and family to create a brand that is going from strength to strength and doing it with integrity and honesty. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved and where we’re going. On top of that, getting to partner and work closely with brands and people who I admire and creatively buzz off, as well as being able to shoehorn my love of motorcycles in the mix, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.
What’s the coolest brand story you can think of (which involves the many artists and friends you’ve dressed)?
The coolest brand story so far has to be the Lemmy moment. So I’m flying to Los Angeles for the first time to meet with my friends Dean and Matt. I arrive at LAX immigration only to see Lemmy of Motörhead walking towards customs – I had to seize the opportunity to meet him, as we already had the Motörhead collaboration selling and I’m a huge fan – so I ran over to him and said something stupid like ‘You’re Lemmy’ and started rambling on asking if he remembered my parents and The Great Frog. We got chatting, I told him I was here to open a shop with some friends and he promised he would come along to the opening party, he then offered me a lift. I could hardly contain my excitement and tried to act cool, accepting the offer a Marlboro red whilst waiting for the limo to arrive. When it turns up, we are sped away into the Los Angeles sunset heading for the sunset strip and Lemmy opens a bottle of Jack Daniels and offers me a glass with coke and asks his regular limo driver to put on his favourite oldies station. “The Wanderer” comes on the airwaves and Lemmy starts singing along in his signature gravelly voice. I get a private gig whilst downing a Jack and Coke in a limo watching the pink sunset sky, trying to slyly text Alex (Arctic Monkeys) to watch out for Lemmy in a black limo because I was on my way to his for a few days. If ever there was an omen that things were going to be ok, this was it! And true to his word he came to our opening party, stayed for a bit chatted to a few people then said goodbye and told me he was heading to the strip club across the road and I was welcome to join him – but I had a launch party to host and it’s still one of the biggest regrets of my life, not going to the strip club with Lemmy!
What’s the most ambitious jewellery piece you’ve ever worked on?
The most ambitious piece of jewellery I have worked on so far has been getting into fine jewellery and custom engagement rings. It’s been an extremely satisfying challenge and I’m learning every day as it’s so different to what comes naturally to me. I’ve also finished the AW20 runway show for Dilara Findikoglu, which was a first and proved to have its own set of challenges engineering full-body pieces to a crazy deadline – but what an incredible experience and an insight into another world.
What is it about The Great Frog jewellery do you think has made it so legendary and long-lasting?
I feel The Great Frog has been so long-lasting and legendary because of its integrity and by sticking to its core values. It’s a simple message – cool shit, made well by good people. We don’t follow seasons
What’s next for you/what are you excited about?
We are about to launch a clothing line to go with our new leather jackets which I am really excited about. Throughout the year there will more in the way of collaborations. There might also be a new shop on the horizon if the right space in NY pops up, other than that I’m just going to keep on pushing myself to learn more about the craft I love. It’s all pretty exciting, but we’re constantly learning and evolving and forever being inspired creatively.