As a boy growing up amid the industrial buildings and postwar bungalows of Toronto's Scarborough suburb, Eric Petersen was drawn to the gleam of fancy car rims and his mother's own flamboyant jewellery and handbag collection.
"I've always had a fascination for flashy, shiny things," says the 29-year-old, who went on to study goldsmithing at George Brown College as a way of keeping his hands wrist-deep in bling.
Since graduating from the community college program in 2008 – and winning the Louis Frankian Jewellers Award in his final year for an exceptional use of diamonds in his work – Petersen went on to create a line of jewellery including a bold pendant necklace engraved with the words Please STOP the Violence. The inspiration behind the deliberately ostentatious design, which combined high fashion with elements of street culture and was later showcased in art galleries, was a close friend's murder. "My belief is to turn tragedies into triumphs," says Petersen, who used proceeds from sales of the pendant to purchase two guitars that he donated to Music Not Mischief, an organization working with youth in trouble with the law.
But despite this early success – and also because of it – he determined that his heart lay more in design than in bench work. "I realized that I did not want to be a full time goldsmith," he recalls. "My passion was mostly for design and I could bring my designs to life far more easily by working with a team."
Resolving to expand his personal brand to creating luxury accessories, he began applying his jewellery-making techniques two years ago to producing gem-studded handbags as a first step in this new direction.
"Handbags are oversized pieces of jewellery to me," Petersen says. "I am fascinated by the details of the designs, the process and the superior craftsmanship that goes into making each piece. I call them 'pieces' because I'm speaking of luxury handbags here, ones made by hand and by highly skilled artisans. They are works of art, and I'm a lover I guess."
The first samples, made of leathers sourced by his Toronto collaborator, Marko Neofotistos, were produced in Scarborough, where Petersen continues to work and live. The craftsmanship, he admits, was far below the standards of the luxury-goods world, but the design was compelling enough to catch the eye of a former manager at the Louis Vuitton store on Toronto's Bloor Street West, who advised Petersen to up his game by going to Europe to pursue his craft.
In 2013, Petersen arrived in Florence, drawn by the Italian city's centuries-old reputation as a centre of accessories production. There he visited long-established tanneries and the fabled ateliers of artisans specializing in hardware and handbag manufacturing. He also recruited a production management team, which today serves as as his agents. While in Florence, he created two leather handbags and one hard-case evening clutch produced in family-run factories. Using his background as a jeweller, his Skyline clutch sample started as a flat sheet of metal that Petersen soldered into a piece of delectable arm candy.
Describing his designs as "bold statement pieces for the discerning and stylish woman who rather than fitting in prefers to stand out in a crowd," Petersen hammers the point home that his handbags are unique. "They are wearable art, made with a jeweller's eye for detail."
Incorporating gold-plated brass and the highest-quality French and Italian leathers, Petersen's luxury handbags range in price from $2,600 to $4,900. Petersen sells them privately to a targeted clientele of affluent women and, in the "very near future,"expects them to also be available through Holt Renfrew.
"They could see that I live, breathe and love handbags," he says of his recent meeting with buyers from the luxury retailer.
But that'll just be the beginning. Next up for Petersen is the development of a full collection of hard-case evening clutches that he aims to launch in London and Tokyo. He also has his sights on other flashy, shiny things.
"As my company picks up momentum, I plan to introduce other products such as eyewear, belts, jewellery, fragrances and maybe even footwear. Cigar accessories are also of interest to me, and I would someday love to develop my own wine, cognac or scotch brand."
Given his Midas touch, it just may happen.