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'I'm so aware that we're the lucky ones. We're the people that IVF worked for'

Chupi Sweetman-Durney has turned her passion for designing jewellery into a multi-million euro business, but when it came to starting a family it took three years and three rounds of IVF for her dream to be realised. She tells Bairbre Power about building her eponymous brand and the highs and lows of her fertility journey

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Chupi wears: Dress, €89, & Other Stories

Chupi wears: Dress, €89, & Other Stories

The queen of romance: Chupi. Dress, €725, Helen Steele, exclusively at Costume Dublin, costumedublin.ie

The queen of romance: Chupi. Dress, €725, Helen Steele, exclusively at Costume Dublin, costumedublin.ie

Chupi at her wedding to Brian

Chupi at her wedding to Brian

Attention to detail: Chupi's home

Attention to detail: Chupi's home

The entrance hall at Chupi's home

The entrance hall at Chupi's home

Chupi wears: White top, €69, & Other Stories; skirt €179, Samsee & Samsee at Arnotts. Photo: Kyle Tunney

Chupi wears: White top, €69, & Other Stories; skirt €179, Samsee & Samsee at Arnotts. Photo: Kyle Tunney

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Chupi wears: Dress, €89, & Other Stories

'I'm so aware that we're the lucky ones. We're the people that IVF worked for. I've so many friends who are going through it and it hasn't worked - and for some people it never will."

Jewellery designer and mum-to-be Chupi Sweetman-Durney looks down at her expanding waistline and smiles. The 35-year-old is 20-weeks pregnant and she and Brian, her husband of five years, plan to celebrate their big news next weekend. And the couple have plenty to celebrate. Valentine's Day is her 36th birthday and after 14 years of renting, they've finally bought their first home.

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But sitting in her dusky-pink dining room, the last thing Chupi seems is smug. She knows only too well the challenges, stresses and personal toll it takes to get to where she has. Starting out, the businesswoman worked for four years without taking a proper salary in order to build her eponymous jewellery brand. It paid off, and the business awards and accolades soon came flooding in. However, when it came to starting a family, the couple's hopes and dreams were not so easily realised.

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Chupi at her wedding to Brian

Chupi at her wedding to Brian

But after three years and three cycles of IVF, the couple are delighted to be expecting their first child.

"Hearing the heartbeat at seven weeks was very special because I remember how anxious the nurse was. When you go in, you have your positive test but it doesn't feel real. I think quite often they cannot hear a heartbeat and I remember the nurse held her breath while she was checking, and I remember hearing the heartbeat and hearing the nurse breathe. I remember the relief and the joy.

"I had booked us a weekend away in Bellinter House in Co Meath. Brian and I have been going there for about 10 years and I'd booked us a weekend away for the weekend we found out. If it was good news, we'd celebrate - and if it was bad news, we'd mourn.

Chupi feels strongly about the invasive questions people can lob in about babies and pregnancy without a second thought.

"I remember someone asked me in my late twenties when was I going to have a baby and I was quite upset by it. It wasn't complicated at that stage - but it just wasn't on my radar because I was building this business," she says. "I don't know how we did women's lib and suddenly decided that babies were up for discussion all of the time."

When they were trying to start a family, questions about babies took on a new significance.

"I didn't need to talk about it. We were dealing with it. That was our job to get through it. We didn't talk about it in work. My best friends knew, obviously, but Brian and I didn't need to mourn in public as well as in private.

"There's that thing where we think career or babies - and you can't have both. I definitely got the feedback that it was like, 'Oh well, she's not having babies because she's obsessed with work,' whereas for me, work was an incredible escape valve, it was a protection during a time that was really, really hard. My work gave me safety and strength and it gave me somewhere to escape to."

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The entrance hall at Chupi's home

The entrance hall at Chupi's home

Earlier this week, the 35-year-old shared the couple's good news on Instagram. She was overwhelmed by the response.

"One of the last things we keep secret in the world today is IVF and the struggles with infertility and some of the direct messages I got on social media were heartbreaking, from people who are in for IVF, going through cycles and from people for whom it hasn't worked for."

While Chupi was happy to share their infertility issues, Brian, who she describes as her "rock", was a little more reticent.

"It's very different for Brian because he's very private and this was my thing that I needed to do. Every day at work I get to empower women and make beautiful things that make them happy and bring hope - so, for me, telling our story, I wanted to tell the truth. Brian would have been okay with saying, 'Hey, here's our baby'... for someone who is very private, it's so different having your wife say, 'Actually I want to tell the whole world that we went through three years of misery to get here and that it was bloody complicated'.

"But Brian was really touched by the messages. Although he is very private, he also acknowledges that it is crazy that it's so taboo."

Chupi Pell-Sweetman met Brian Durney at his cousin's Holy Communion when they were teenagers. They had been set up on a date - except nobody had told Chupi.

"I had no idea we were supposed to fall in love. I was 16 he was 17, and that first night Brian told me he loved me. He's very romantic. That was 20 years ago this April and after we got married in Mount Druid in 2015, I didn't want to have three names, so I went for Sweetman-Durney. My mum, Rosita Sweetman, who is a journalist and writer, kept her name and I always thought it was a really nice idea. I think it's so weird to surrender your surname. Brian was very egalitarian so he took my surname, too. It was his idea. So he's Brian Sweetman-Durnan."

However, when it comes to first names, that was different matter. Chupi admits she "hated" her unusual name from a very young age. "From the age of 10, I just thought it was the worst thing in the whole world to be cursed with a weird name that you have to explain."

Chupi means 'baby' in Spanish and the name was chosen by her parents after they spent time living in Guatemala.

Ironically, the name Chupi has proved to be a dream in terms of single-name brand recognition. It's something she shares with Bono, Guinness and Kerrygold and now the foot is on the pedal to further grow her jewellery brand, which sells into 67 countries, with a special emphasis on only using recycled gold and ethical grey diamonds.

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The queen of romance: Chupi. Dress, €725, Helen Steele, exclusively at Costume Dublin, costumedublin.ie

The queen of romance: Chupi. Dress, €725, Helen Steele, exclusively at Costume Dublin, costumedublin.ie

The numbers behind the brand fronted by the impossibly positive Chupi make for interesting reading. From having just one staff member in 2013, today she employs 49 with a core studio team of 35, of which 31 are women. About 14 of her staff are makers and the rest work mainly in marketing, digital and tech.

"Growing the business from three people to 10 people nearly killed me. It was really, really bloody hard," Chupi recalls.

In their first three years, 100pc of their produce was made from gold-plated sterling silver. Solid gold pieces accounted for less than 2pc of their turnover four years ago but today, gold accounts for more than 70pc of what they make. They have produced somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 pieces of jewellery in the last six years and last November, they shipped to 32 different countries over the Black Friday weekend.

Chupi's jewellery is all about marking the moment, whether it is a major ring - she recently had an order for a €70,000 diamond engagement ring - or the more affordable pieces which run from €99. The business had a turnover of more than €1m for the first time in 2016, and now that figure runs into the multi millions.

With the business in such a good place, the mum-to-be can afford to take a little time to kick off her shoes and enjoy the happiness and calm of this middle phase of her pregnancy and her new home, which they moved into just eight months ago.

"When I walked in the door of this house, I was like, 'This is it'. We just fell in love with it," Chupi recalls as she settles down for hair and makeup before the photoshoot we're doing in the couple's south Dublin home.

"We both always knew we really wanted a really quirky house. We wanted something that had real soul. The deal was I wanted a south-facing garden with grass and Brian wanted off-street parking - and we got both.

"I think that because we were so much older when we were looking for a house, we really knew what we wanted. I'd grown up in ancient, freezing cold, beautiful houses my whole life and so we took all the plaster off the walls here and re-insulated the entire thing."

The house dates back to 1905. The light-filled front room is painted a rich grey and parked in the window are their dogs, Rufus and Poppy.

"We got them from a rescue centre in north Dublin. We went out for one dog and when Brian saw Poppy standing alone at the back, he couldn't leave her behind. They were already named and we knew that when it came to dogs, we wanted old and delightful rather than new and shiny," says Chupi.

The couple opted for a German brand of breathable paints in striking, yet soothing, colours.

"It was Brian who decided that we needed a pink room, which I thought was very funny. We painted the back room a dusky pink and it's home to an armchair and beautiful bureau which were birthday presents from Brian."

On the main wall hangs an array of personal pieces including a drawing by her great aunt and a Turkish flag that Brian's grandfather, who served in Cyprus with the Irish army and the UN, was given after he saved a man's life when he was in the Medicorps. Pride of place, though, goes to their wedding photograph, with all of the family in there including Chupi's two half-sisters - Freddie and Teuta.

The kitchen units, a bargain buy they found online, are painted a dark grey. It is still a work in progress, Chupi tells me.

The hallway is painted a vibrant raspberry which the couple love. Hanging in it is an astrological chart of the sky the day the house was built in 1905 with their two star signs, Aquarius and Capricorn, at the front.

In everything Chupi does, there is romance and storytelling. However, one should not presume she is a hopelessly romantic pussy cat. Inside beats the heart of a business tiger who is ferociously competitive.

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Chupi wears: White top, €69, & Other Stories; skirt €179, Samsee & Samsee at Arnotts. Photo: Kyle Tunney

Chupi wears: White top, €69, & Other Stories; skirt €179, Samsee & Samsee at Arnotts. Photo: Kyle Tunney

Chupi was home-schooled by her mum in Hollywood, Co Wicklow, along with her brother, Luke. She remembers a friend of her mum's giving her a piece of advice early on - 'You can't win unless you try'.

"I really, really like winning. I love being the best. I never got a grade that was below a B. I'm just one of those weirdos who loves being the best at what I do. I don't need to win in my personal life. I've always thought about them as two separate things because I don't need to beat anyone else. It's about proving I can do it to myself. So I've never needed to beat someone else at something. If we're in a race, I don't mind if you win but if I'm competing against myself, I want to be number one."

She takes great pride in scooping the prestigious Image Businesswoman of the Year last year in the category of €250,000-plus turnover.

"It was phenomenal because I'd lost out on a creative award in 2013 and that was my favourite loss. I remember the nomination was a total shock. Brian and I went along and we were so young, people kept asking Brian where the bathrooms were and could they have a glass of champagne. We were just such kids and losing made me ask did I want to win, what did winning look like, why did it matter, why did I care, and it made me think, 'Okay, actually, I want to build a company that people can see the value of outside'. I've always known that I wanted to build something big and that loss was the most powerful motivation."

"I think I always wanted the peace of not just creating a lifestyle business but creating something that had strength because, ultimately, what we want to do with the business is around building a sustainable business that can offer jobs and success and growth."

Pregnancy is not slowing down the business queen and she is even finding time to give a little back by way of a mentoring programme.

"This year, I'm going back to mentor on Going for Growth which is an amazing programme. Now it's in its 15th year. Essentially, the idea is that as women, you build a network and you support, and you foster, and you mentor younger businesses to grow. In 2014, I was one of those young businesses. I went back in 2017 and was lucky enough to have Breege O'Donoghue, formerly of Primark, as one of my mentors.

"Now I'm going back and getting to make a contribution back into the network. I have 25 days allocated a year for mentoring, so that's my give-back, because I feel like I've met so many amazing women who've supported me. It's really important. I've got a group of nine brilliant female-led businesses who I will be supporting, mentoring, coaching, kicking ass for the next six months."

It all started for Chupi after she decided to study fashion in Sallynoggin.

"It was this tiny little college and I think it was exactly what I needed at the time as well. It was the perfect thing for me because it was so small."

So does she think she would have got lost in Trinity?

"I think I would have conformed and I think that would have been worse."

As it happens, Chupi was scouted by Topshop during her first year in college and became the youngest designer to ever work for the company. But despite this early recognition, when it came to starting her jewellery business, she didn't have much in the bank.

"My granny had given me a couple of thousand quid to start my fashion business working with Topshop and I came out with not much more by the time I finished working with them. From the time I decided I was leaving, I spent about 18 months with Topshop learning, growing, studying and then I spent another 18 months after I left learning and studying and living on absolutely nothing. There was no State aid, and there shouldn't be. It's commercial. If you want to start your dreams you kind of have to start them yourself."

Chupi met Kate Nolan when she was selling her fashion samples in The Loft in Dublin. Kate subsequently became an important part of the enterprise and is now a business partner in the company along with Brian and Chupi. In 2016, they opened Atrium Dublin together on the second floor of Dublin's Powerscourt Townhouse Centre which sells fashion as well as Chupi's jewellery.

There was a whiff of fate about it all because 15 years earlier, in exactly the same shop unit, a 17-year-old Chupi and brother Luke launched their cookery book, What to Eat When You Can't Eat Anything: The Complete Allergy Cookbook. Living with food allergies and intolerances meant they had a restricted diet and the siblings set out to compile recipes to put the joy back into eating.

Putting the joy into creating jewellery came on her horizon later. Chupi explains how the day Brian proposed to her nine years ago with a ring of recycled gold and a grey diamond he'd found on the ETSY website, was "an actual road-to-Damascus-like conversion".

"I remember wearing my engagement ring for the first time and thinking, 'I own a piece of the future. This is like nothing else in the world, it's like nothing else I've ever owned, nothing I've ever made. I have something that one day my daughter will wear. How incredible is that?' I remember saying to Kate, 'I just need a creative outlet, I need something that's not my commercial design job, I need to be making something lovely.'"

Chupi went off and did a silver-smithing course with Cormac Cuffe in Monkstown. When her eponymous business launched in 2013, she was fortunate because Brian is "this absolute tech whiz so it meant that from very early on, I had his advice and support and we started in e-commerce pretty much from the start."

Donal Bolger, a finance director who has worked with a wide number of companies including that of the designer Simone Rocha, is now the company's external Chief Financial Officer. Looking back on how she turned her dream into a business, Chupi admits now that she made plenty of mistakes.

"I think the one in those early years was being afraid to ask for help. It was the worst version of imposter syndrome where I couldn't figure out how I'd gotten there. I didn't want to have to show anyone and explain that I wasn't entirely sure how to run a certain part of the business. Midway through 2017, I remember sitting there with this multi-million euro business and not taking a salary yet because I knew it needed my money. I knew that we couldn't afford to rent offices. We had rented a gorgeous little house in Portobello in 2014. We loved it, but by the time we moved out two years later, every single room in the house belonged to the business except our bedroom.

"I always say to Brian that we basically gambled our lives on the business and I'd do it again tomorrow because it was the right decision for us. And if it had failed, it would have failed, and we would have had to pick ourselves up and start again."

Brian became involved in the business more and more over the years and five years ago, he went out on his own and set up his own digital company. "I felt that was such a powerful decision because I always knew he would be brilliant working for himself and he's done some incredible contract jobs over the years. I think why we work so well together is we've very different disciplines, very different interests and very different personalities. I'm the world's most optimistic person. I see the glass half-full, Brian sees the glass half-empty. He's much more cautious. I say he's a pessimist and he says he's a realist."

Sales of grey diamond rings, which cost on average around €3,500, have grown exponentially since 2016. The next big development, Chupi says, is "augmented reality".

"Our tech team are delivering digital and innovative solutions so we're building our augmented reality where our customers are going to be able to sit in Dublin or New York or Australia and think about what their Chupi heirloom ring looks like. You will be able to hold your phone up and see what your ring looks like on your hand. People kept coming back and asking us to make solid gold pieces and now we've started an upgrade programme where customers who started out with us and bought our affordable gold-plated pieces in the past can send them back and we take the original price off the price of the new item.

"I hope our global brand is going to change the world for the better. We want to make a difference and want to help people think about how they shop, how they mark their moments and celebrate big things. We want to empower women to celebrate their future and their own successes. It used to be that he would buy you your engagement ring, wedding ring and eternity ring but our idea is that we can chose to honour our own achievements and celebrate your wins. We reckon that 50pc of our heirlooms rings are serious rings that women are buying for themselves."

This spring, the company are partnering with Dress For Success, the charity that supports women to enter the workforce, and will gift them pieces for their clients. There are also plans for a pop-up shop in New York next year and one in California too.

And for Chupi, planning for the future has never been so important.

"I love the idea of a forever business. It's incredible now that I'm pregnant, how much I'm thinking about the future and the idea of creating heirlooms especially as we are going to have a little person arriving that will be part of our future."

Are there any names in the mix?

"Well, it will definitely be something unusual, and short," she laughs. "I remember my mum saying she found it hard to name me before I was born because she didn't know who I was - and I think there's a kind of truth in it."

Weekend Magazine