The store doesn’t look like a diamond mine, but when informed of the design inspiration, people agree that Jagnus Design Studio has captured its essence. Says architect Sonny Sunga, “Yeah, it doesn’t look like a cave. At Jagnus, we always do everything as abstract. We take a concept and interpret it architecturally, not literally, but abstracting the essence of the concept.”


Denovo store, a diamond mine abstraction by Jagnus

Jagnus Design Studio was inspired by an Arturo Luz painting, a black Armani dress, and a diamond mine.

  • September 14, 2017

  • Written by Judith Torres

  • Photographed by Ed Simon

“Most diamonds are heirloom pieces,” explains Jose Benitez. “They tell stories of the past, and they’re associated with women and weddings. We all know the saying ‘diamonds are forever,’ but it has to start somewhere. We want people to start their own diamond stories, which is why our name is Denovo, which stands for new beginnings. We have cufflinks and black diamonds for men, and diamonds for the independent woman—the message is, you don’t need a man to buy you a diamond.”

The young couple, Jose and Caryll Benitez, wanted a memorable store design unlike the typical jewelry store—neutral, with staff behind glass counters. Pleased with Jagnus Design Studio’s work for their bar and restaurant, The Keg at The Fort, the Benitezes approached principals Sonny Sunga and Arnold Austria again, with a concept brief to get any creative’s juices going.

How do you make a small space stand out? By enlarging the space through reflective materials, of course. “That’s an old strategy,” says Sunga, “but we didn’t want a hall of mirrors, and felt black was the most minimalist color.” Initially, the brand consultant wanted a colorful space, but the use of vivid colors was voted down because the precious stones would pick up the colors and mask their authentic hues. While the owners were very impressed with the all-black perspective Sunga and Austria showed at the first presentation, they insisted on adding more white.

The couple, working with brand consultant Amor Maclang, and accessory designer and goldsmith Georgina Teng-Ong, conceived of collaborating with local artists and ‘taste makers’ on the design of their jewelry collections. The concept was Denovo Diamonds as gallery exhibiting modern wearable art by the likes of Olivia D’Aboville, Leeroy New, Jinggoy Buensuceso, Neil Felipp, Maureen Disini and Cheryl Tiu. “Other than the size of the space we leased in Century Mall Makati, we didn’t set many parameters in the brief because we didn’t want to limit the architects’ creativity. We were very open to their inspiration and interpretation of our ideas.”

The design concept, along with perspectives and mood board, came a month after the initial meeting. “We go out, take long walks, go to museums,” Sunga replies when asked whether they observe any rituals during the conceptualization stage. “Darating din yan, after ilang sigarilyo,” laughs Sunga.

Says owner Jose Benitez: “We didn’t want the traditional jewelry store with attendants standing behind counters. Since the concept is collaboration with artists, we thought of the store as a gallery. There are chairs in the middle, which you can sit on and view the jewelry like art pieces.” According to Sunga and Austria, finalizing the design of the walls with the different sized display cases, light boxes, cabinets and drawers was a tedious process. “During meetings, we always had tape measures, so we could show them how wide, high or deep each volume would be. Mahirap kasi ma-imagine by giving measurements lang. It helped a lot that the owners were already talking to the artists and knew how big the jewelry pieces were going to be,” says Austria.

“We were inspired by an Arturo Luz painting, a black Armani dress, and a diamond mine,” recounts Austria, whose expertise, the color-blind Sunga says, is working with color, texture and material. They arrived at the concept of a diamond in the rough. Says Sunga: “Entering a diamond mine, you see the crystals attached to the walls, so we took off from that, abstracting the essence of a diamond mine to display the jewelry, which also suits Denovo because they’re new to the business of jewelry. They too are like diamonds in the rough… that’s the architectural allegory.”

“When they showed us their concept, it was so cool, parang lumulutang!” enthuses Jose. “From the perspective, it was as if the person in the middle was floating in air, you couldn’t see the floor or the walls because it was black. All black.” Which, unfortunately—but as Sunga had anticipated—was a problem.

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“We included a lot of pictures in our presentation, basically to rationalize the black,” laughs Sunga, who always wears black. “We had our counterargument ready, which was that all the best pictures of jewelry are set against black, and there’s a reason for that.”

READ MORE: The Office as a Design Playground by Jagnus Design Studio

Anticipating the clients’ reservations about an all-black store, Jagnus also produced an all-white perspective. A diagram of the layers of glass that would make up the display walls of the store shows how complex the manufacturing and installation processes were. Image courtesy of Jagnus Design Studio

At first, husband and wife indulged the architects, visiting upscale stores to compare neutral and white spaces with all-black spaces (they found only one, actually). “I found the all-black store too heavy,” says Jose, “so I said, ‘Let’s compromise. Hati tayo. Left and right, black. Up and down, white.’”

But that wasn’t the end of the black versus white/neutral debate. Right up until the installation of the glass panels—almost a thousand of them—husband and wife would nervously ask the architects, “Are you sure? Are you sure?”

“Even in the car!” Caryll Benitez recounts laughingly, “I’d ask, ‘Black ba talaga? Or white?’”
To which Sunga rejoins: “Yeah, and every so often, I’d send them pictures of sexy black stuff to make them love black!”

Thankfully, the Benitezes are perfectly happy with the result and have zero regrets. Proof is they’ve asked Jagnus to design Denovo’s second store at the Conrad Hotel under construction at the SM Mall of Asia Complex. “We want the two stores to look related, but we’re not after a replica,” says Caryll. “We want Sonny and Arnold to exercise freedom in creativity.” The Benitezes’ concept for the second store is that of a design studio for jewelry so that each piece is bespoke. “People can come in and talk about what they envision, and our artist will sketch the piece for them.”

Asked whether anything else was specified in the brief, the two architects grin from ear to ear, and reply almost in unison: “The GM of Conrad Hotel told us to use expensive materials!” Sounds like another Jagnus abstraction to watch out for. 

This story first appeared in BluPrint Volume 4, 2015. Edits were made for Bluprint.ph.