Castro NYC: for the love of Jewellery

“Coz the ring you know, it was shooting the fireworks up in there, I had the Mardi Gras on, I was like if I don’t get this ring back to this person I am going to have a DOA certificate on my toe from either him or one of these guys” says Castro founder and creative director of Castro NYC and purveyor of the best jewellery related anecdotes I have heard in an age. It is not often a cocktail ring is the potential catalyst of a crime scene, but when it is made by a man whose aesthetic is instantly recognizable, who revels in using a multitude of techniques, metals and gemstones in any given piece and has a devoted clientele located on all corner of the globe it is somewhat unsurprising. Over the course of our conversation, there is a predestined mixed with self-determined energy as Castro’s story unfolds. He has first and foremost charted his own path, seemingly unconcerned by popularity or being accepted warmly into the industry’s embrace. Of his name, which sounds like a brand already he says “I’ve been Castro since I was a little kid, it’s my last name and my grandfather believed that the last name was more important than the first because it is the one that carries on.” He gives as way of explanation. For Castro, his work is a response to a deeper call, one where he maintains the youthful enthusiasm but also continues to test, challenge and push the limits of his craft. “I watched a documentary about Basquiat and it was saying that what made his art amazing was he would create from a point of view of almost like an adolescent.” Castro also possesses a joie de vivre about his work, that has taken him on a quest across continents seeking truths about heritage, creativity and art.

Decay Ring Turquoise, Lavender Jadeite, Turquoise, Diamonds, Coral, Sapphire, Ruby. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Decay Ring Turquoise, Lavender Jadeite, Turquoise, Diamonds, Coral, Sapphire, Ruby. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Nomenclature and Other Stories

“I am a creator. Or a builder, I guess I could say that” Castro notes. Nomenclature, both in how you present yourself and the industry perceives you has become increasingly important for those working in jewellery. Add the word ‘artist’ and galleries flock as your work is deemed collectable, throw in the word ‘designer’ and you run the risk of being perceived as a mere ‘seasonal’ practitioner, like those work in fashion who are governed by the weathervane of trends. “I’m trying to make at the highest possible level” explains Castro. And sometimes that leads to frustrations from clients or indeed stockists, a state of affairs he is refreshingly unapologetic about: “we have been working these earrings for like, one year, and they [the shops and clients] are so used to mapping things out, but I am like you know, my thing starts with a dream. It’s a vision and sometimes I have to see it the whole way through.” In an age where some creatives are only recently educating themselves or their clients on the benefits of consuming less, and trusting and respecting a slower pace of production, Castro had it ingrained in his creative process from the start.

Portrait of Castro, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Portrait of Castro, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

It was passion that drew Castro to jewellery. “In the beginning I actually wanted to possess some jewellery” he says with a throaty chuckle, “and then I met this guy who had a jewellery store, a big j and I was like how do I get in? And he was like well, why don’t you go to school and learn how to repair jewelry because this is the bread and butter of every jewellery store.” This seemingly inauspicious beginning was in fact the bedrock for his practice, as by mastering how to repair, he had to dismantle, and it is in the recalibration of old pieces that new methods of creating evolved. His first piece was in essence a customization, the aforementioned cocktail ring that landed him in a sticky situation in a dive bar, but it set him on a path where he made pieces that he sold on a sidewalk table in Manhattan, and Castro NYC was born.

Blood Sport Ring: Opal, Rubies. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Blood Sport Ring: Opal, Rubies. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Castro is quick to point out that dramatic arcs aside his is not a modern fairytale. Whilst impressive clients were drawn to his work “one customer was like a big wig at Macy’s and another one was a big wig at Tommy Hilfiger” he says in passing, fame and accolades were never his driver. Of the initial success he notes the tension it brought with it “I felt like I am just making it for the street, I didn’t feel like I am making it for me”. To decompress, he would read, research and attend exhibitions and it was the Met Museum’s Anglomania that became a turning point in his career. He reminisces “And so one of my clients was like why don’t you do a collection? And I was like, what is a collection? And she was like oh, so you love skulls, so why don’t you look up the word ‘skull’?” Back at the Met he notes “ there was one piece in there it was a rabbit skull and it had this cool like quartz crystal on top and if I am correct I think it was rutilated quartz and it had this wire wrapping around it and I was like that is fucking incredible. And I remember I called my guy and I was like, I want ALL animal skulls. And at that moment I was like I want animals, everyone does humans so it became human and animal skulls mixed together.” The piece he is describing was by Shaun Leane, and although Castro himself tries to avoid being overtly inspired by others work “they say never look” the visual motifs coagulated with his desire to make items that were not governed solely by commercial concerns.

Owl Ring, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Owl Ring, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

The decision paid off but not without challenges, particularly in how the jewellery industry would place him. On first name terms with the creative directors and founders of Taffin and Hemmerle respectively “my boy James de Givenchy, he’s amazing, I have been in his studio, we’ve hung out. And Christian you know, I talk to him sometimes” Castro has nevertheless faced the unconscious bias that manifests in incredulity that he as a black man could have conceived and made his pieces. He reflects: “The first time I had an interview with Barney’s back in the day the lady was like, Oh God when I walked in we thought you were some skinny white dude with a bunch of tattoos because it was back with the skulls collections.” That certain aesthetics or artistic concerns or methodologies should be the domain of or ascribed to a particular race is in many ways absurd. But it also speaks to how systemic racism can rear its head in even innocuous settings, and demand that a black artist must first clarify, justify and expand on the locus of concerns that govern their work. It is also illustrative of the challenges of how audiences in turn might receive black artists’ work. And whilst there is nothing in Castro’s manner that is indicative of a muzzled soul, he does pragmatically add “at one point I didn’t want my face shown because I was afraid it might affect the sales.” It is also indicative of how in many ways there is still a great amount of campaigning, lobbying and interventions to be done in terms of perceptions vis-à-vis race and what true inclusiveness will look like, even if artists themselves are willing and open to accept one another’s work on its own terms.

Dark Jewels Ring: Pearl Ruby, Diamond
Dark Jewels Ring: Pearl Ruby, Diamond

Who’s Design Language Is It Anyway?

Lazy assumptions are real. And no more than when editors, buyers and writers are quick to distil a creator’s design language and keep it moving. This is especially the case with black or brown creatives where, even in this post-BLM moment, mere ‘engagement’ with the so-called ‘other’ is hailed as extraordinary and groundbreaking and sweeping statements go unchecked without further intellectual interrogation. Castro’s work has been described as mediaeval, gothic, fantastical and other-worldly, but asked directly he says, “If it is one word then I would say eclecticism”, which incorporates all of the above and more. His padlocks and series of be-jewelled porcelain dolls have been seized upon as heavily influenced by European heraldry, Mediterranean architecture and Byzantine religious iconography respectively, but Castro is forthright in his clarification. “As I was doing more research for example on these cathedrals, where did that influence come from in Spain? Oh, it came from the people who crossed over from Africa. So I was like, oh okay so then it is fucking African. And you (in Spain) are just doing a bad version of the original one. It is still based on the structure, on the mathematics and geometry that you didn’t have. So, I am not really doing gothic I am actually doing African. I said to myself shit, that’s even doper.” Castro’s point might seem contentious to the art historian, however it is a critical point to make. Epistemological explorations are important and will remain so for as long as the western artistic establishment continues to stubbornly ignore or minimize African contributions and to acknowledge that migration flows in both directions will result in a mélange of influences and ideas with no location having intellectual or cultural supremacy over the other.

Porcelain Doll, Emerald, Diamonds, Gold. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Porcelain Doll, Emerald, Diamonds, Gold. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Fruit of the Loom Ring: Opals,, Amethyst, Tsavorites, Emeralds, Ruby. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Fruit of the Loom Ring: Opals,, Amethyst, Tsavorites, Emeralds, Ruby. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Custom Lock, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Custom Lock, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Castro is searingly forthright when talking about race, avoiding diplomatic turns of phrase when exploring the realities of being a black man working in the rarified world of high jewellery. He adds “I personally do not think you can be black, African and your work doesn’t reflect some part of Africa or Africanism because we live in this world where we have to think about so many other things that other people don’t have to think about in a day. So, it is going to affect no matter what, you cannot escape.” Some of his pieces reflect this reality in their totality. We discuss his Zipporah Ring and Dolly and the Benin Cat ring and he expands “Those collections were dealing with the Black Death and death itself.” Of his choice of crow’s skull he notes “it meant two things of course death but it also meant life because the crows only come around when there is something to eat…With the skull itself, it is in you it is part of you, it is part of life but it is also part of death. With some black people they will see a skull and they will be like oh God, it’s voodoo and evil and I will be like well that means you’re evil too because you have a skull inside your head. You are walking around with that thing” he says laughing.

Ziporrah Doll, Ruby, Tsavorite, Opal, Diamond. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Ziporrah Doll, Ruby, Tsavorite, Opal, Diamond. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Castro often leaves space for interpretation of his pieces. From his cryptic one-word captions on his Instagram handle to the intentionally discombobulating juxtapositions of forms on a single piece. The ambiguity or mixing of metaphors allows for a wide church of admirers as each client potential and existing sees and runs with what they connect with. He expands: “the doll was a combination of the old and the new revelation of things relating back to Africa. So the Z part became Zebra and the ears are zebra ears on the bird’s skull. People think it’s a rabbit or something but I am like no, that is zebra ears. So it was the cross breeding of things. Also with the doll the relation would be with juju and the amulets are all new like people grab the cross as an amulet and it just replaced your old amulet you know.” Jewellery as talisman is almost as old as human beings’ decision to adorn their bodies with objects but in Castro’s instance he proposes a different perspective, one where there is a constant need, in this instance the feeling of protection, but that how one feels protected is open to reinterpretation. Of the moving mechanisms within the dolls and figurative representations he explains “So it is the same idea of this movement in Africa of the festivals and we’re always dancing and we’re always moving. With the masks also represent the masquerade. And the binding of the two animals in European art it is figurative it is more actual for us in West Africa it’s more abstract. There are many meanings in one piece and unless you can talk to the artist you will never know the full meaning of that piece. And it is also about people being two-faced because also in there is the mask and when you lift it up there is another face under it.” Of the pieces names he adds “the whole collection was Hebrew names and so one name is Toam and Toamis twins and so it would be twin cat-skulls or whatever. But most people didn’t know what they meant so it was more about people having names and using names but they don’t know what they mean, especially in America, people have names but we don’t know what they mean.” It is rare that pieces dare to tackle the ontology of jewelery from an African perspective and how migration be it forced or of one’s volition has affected internal and external cosmologies, but Castro does so, and makes the ideas wearable with it.

Benin cat Ring
Benin cat Ring

Materialism is something that has been a hallmark of Castro’s work so far with collisions of metals and gemstones that might not ordinarily be used together. However, historicism played a huge role in his initial choices: “So at the beginning I was working with brass and bronze but that is how I started and they did things that I wanted. They were like gold and they had history. Because when I went to a museum you always see when they have a jewellery exhibit there will be silver, bronze, gold. To me they were historical materials that had been around forever. So, they became my choice metals at first.” Gemstones, both semi-precious and precious came later, although he concedes “I mean I love diamonds and pearls. Pearls are tears from the moon and diamonds I love because they’re hard that’s probably one of the biggest things.” And although he has become known for his liberal use of both, it did not result in an abandonment of his initial materials of choice. “Well I think it is sort of like, when I was seeing the JAR exhibition… he had his old pieces in there and they were silver because he started with silver, but when he got big he didn’t stop – he still kept working with this material.” He notes of one of one of the most celebrated living jewellery artists whose famed exhibition in New York and London remains one of the greatest visual highpoints for jewellery lovers who were fortunate to see it. Because of his status as an autodidact in terms of creating and making, Castro allows himself to be guided principally by emotion: “I just kinda feel there is no rules within thinking of what I want. If I want to use toilet paper I will use toilet paper but I will figure out how can I make it beautiful and how can it last, because I like stuff that lasts.”

Antique Porcelain Doll, Sapphires, Opals, Diamonds Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Antique Porcelain Doll, Sapphires, Opals, Diamonds Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Owl Ring, Mixed Metals, Ruby, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Owl Ring, Mixed Metals, Ruby, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Our conversation turns to the sort of clients he has and the feelings he wants his jewellery to elicit and his answer is as ever impassioned but with additional historical and sociological analyses. “I want them to feel like rap stars, not rock stars, but rap stars. I want them to feel like a rapper I want them to feel like they’re shining. I want people to pay attention to them. And be like where the fuck did you get that? What the fuck is it? I am always trying to achieve that. I love jewellery. I might not love all rap jewellery design, but I love the idea and the idea is to shine. Rap jewellery is a metamorphosis of the 60s, 70s and early 80s where all the rhinestones were on the clothing and the idea was you were meant to be like a star. Stars shine so it just changed from the clothing to the jewellery. That’s the only difference. That’s why on the stage you sparkle, when you walk up in the club, you sparkle so I want people to have that feeling.” On a personal note the Marauder Ring was an early favourite of mine a bold gold, diamonds and sapphire cocktail ring that is a jewellery companion piece to the A Tribe Called Quest classic Midnight Marauders. Like the flow and production of the aforementioned old-school hip-hop giant, it is at once showy, jazzy, confident, contemplative and not easily placed. Similarly, Castro’s clients are people who have a strong aesthetic sensibility as his are not ‘follow the crowd’ pieces. “If it is a woman she’s got to be strong already. One of my Russian clients told me there is two kind of Russian girls. You have got the one, they come from Siberia, they find a husband and the husband, he dresses her the way he wants and that’s it. And then you have the other one who is probably married but she aint taking no shit. She’s like you gonna be fucked up. I ain’t doing no fucking bunny jumpin’ no, no , no, no! She said that is the customer I’ve got here” he finishes with another throaty chuckle. And whether the clients are Russian or from any part of the world they are the sorts of individuals who exude confidence and certainty in their decisions. Who even if they don’t work in the performing arts, possess that superstar ability to shift the energy in a room upon their arrival and exit and create a memory to even those who have a passing encounter with them.

Marauder Ring Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Marauder Ring Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Pebble Ring, Coral, Opals Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Pebble Ring, Coral, Opals Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Third Acts and Future Adventures

Although his brand name retains the city where he made his name in the jewellery world, Castro himself is now based in Istanbul. “I was kind of done with New York, I was there and I was in a hamster wheel. So I went to my storage and a folder fell out and I look and I am like’ Oh shit!’ because it has my plan before I moved to New York. And there was nothing in that plan that said get rich or die.” As well as being reminded that financial success, although it had come, was not his principal motivation, his decision to move was precipitated by the series of racially motivated murders and protests in the USA in 2014. “So we were round the African Tea Shop in Harlem and everyone was saying ‘Oh, we are going to do this and do that and they went all around the table and they said ‘what about you Castro you’ve always got something to say.’ And I said actually, I am bouncing. And they were like what? I said, I’m out. I believe the source is in Africa, and I need to go to the source. Maybe I don’t stay but I need to go to the source. I need to make a pilgrimage. I was like everyone else in America makes a pilgrimage. People go back to Italy, they go back to Ireland, to Poland or Germany. We black people are the only ones that don’t make the pilgrimage. It just doesn’t make sense.” A visit to South Africa was problematic, “they had the xenophobia thing where they were killing Africans… they reminded me of Trump people but different face, with their ‘South Africa for South Africans.” A pitstop in Istanbul has started to resemble a more permanent arrangement “my plan was just to be here for 30, 60 or 90 days and then go back. But at that time I met a lady who had a gallery named Priyo she had this gallery and she became my first customer. So, things were good because there was no need for me to leave. I decided to get an apartment just to store my stuff in and before you knew it I had a table a chair and I started building.”

Exoskeleton earrings: Royal Purple Garnets, Green Sapphires, Emeralds, Black and Grey Diamonds Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Exoskeleton earrings: Royal Purple Garnets, Green Sapphires, Emeralds, Black and Grey Diamonds Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

New York has come back front and centre courtesy of his work featuring in Brilliant and Black the Sotheby’s New York selling exhibition that features the work of 21 black jewellery designers. The exhibition has resulted in a flurry of interviews, press calls and attention. And whilst overall the feedback for the initiative has been positive, there have been murmurings of the timing of its ideation. Is it merely a response to the summer of race protests that were triggered by the murder of George Floyd in 2020? And is it a case of a heritage auction house seeking to tick a box and keep it moving? “I am doing this because of Melanie. Melanie Grant is the glue and because of her that’s the biggest thing, it is like having Oprah’s name on it.” Castro says of the writer editor and curator who is arguably one of the most powerful black voices in the global jewellery landscape and who has activated her considerable clout and network to successfully spearhead the initiative with support from Sotheby’s jewellery specialist, Frank B. Everett. For Castro and undoubtedly the other participants, Grant’s involvement is an essential component as it is illustrative of Sotheby’s daring to do something different operationally. Heritage auction houses or any other custodian of culture have historically ignored black talent or indeed expertise. Subsequently, many black creatives have had a cautious or hesitant desire to engage because of it. However, by deferring to Grant’s knowledge as well as her established relationships and impeccable reputation, Castro observes “they were able to bring it together and that is pretty impressive”. It augurs well for future generations and for a shift in perceptions in who is included in the global jewellery canon.

Money Brooch, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Money Brooch, Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

There are further collaborations in development, “I can’t say who now but it’s with a stone brand let’s put it like that” is all Castro will reveal, and he continues steady production for the select stores and galleries he chooses to be stocked in. However, for Castro his work in and of itself is a visceral discourse on time’s limitations and the pursuits of perfection. “I need infinity…I want you know, the moon and it ain’t enough. I think what’s next? Learning new techniques, learning new ways and just pushing the envelope. Like every time I make a porcelain doll I am trying to figure out how can I make it more extreme. It is just a test for myself, like okay, how can I beat myself?”

Space Monkey, Opals, Amethysts and Black and White Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Space Monkey, Opals, Amethysts and Black and White Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Infinity Lock, Tsavorites, Emeralds, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Infinity Lock, Tsavorites, Emeralds, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

Yet underpinning this goal is his ongoing love affair with jewels and making astonishing pieces. “My Mum told me that when you are in a relationship you have to go back to the beginning of what brought you two together at that moment. Whatever that is… So, it’s the same with jewellery. I have to go back to that original thing and the original thing was when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. What was it that these people liked about me when I first started? They were looking at something where I was just creating. I wasn’t thinking about retail, I wasn’t thinking about will you like the colour, will you not like the colour. I was just creating something that I liked.” Castro’s approach is a mantra for life, whatever your chosen discipline. One where one’s vocation takes you on a series of creative adventures and there is a constant yet pleasurable questioning of what your contribution means in a wider context and how best to encapsulate passions. In his practice one sees this manifest in pieces that stand out in a crowded marketplace, that defiantly refuse to pander to trends and are collected and worn by people who are governed by a similarly singular approach to self-expression and the pursuit of beauty. In a world that has increasingly been cowed by consensus thinking and doing, artists like Castro are akin to the rarest of gemstones that illuminate, inspire and are unforgettable.

Serpentine Ring: Pearls, Opals, Emeralds, Rubies, Purple and Black Diamonds, Ebony. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC
Serpentine Ring: Pearls, Opals, Emeralds, Rubies, Purple and Black Diamonds, Ebony. Image Courtesy of Castro NYC

EdoEyen: Jewellery Creators and Culture Curators

“I always wanted to work with my sister because Edo and I are different in a certain way but we also have certain similarities, such as our love of fashion “ reflects Eyen Chorm who together with her sister Edo founded EdoEyen, a jewellery house that is experiencing the kind of industry buzz an army of PRs would only dream of generating, global pandemic be damned. Apart from a desire to work together – the brand’s name being a portmanteau of their first names, was a more serious aim to articulate, via the lens of jewellery, their own personal history, their country of origin Cambodia’s and weave it into their adopted home, New York. “Everything we learnt, everything we got inspiration from was from my Mum” explains Edo. Their mother was a classical dancer in the Royal Cambodian Ballet before the brutal regime change that was the Khmer Rouge and a relocation to the US saw the family build their life anew. It was the ornate pieces, worn by their mother and the other members of the classical dance corps that acted as the genesis for creating their brand. EdoEyen’s mandate goes beyond adornment, the brand acts as a conduit for the sisters to share and expound on socio-political and cultural themes and provide a space for amplification of a different and altogether more positive story of Cambodia. Edo elaborates “It was important to do something we truly care about and truly identify with and the jewellery is that because it is so strongly linked in story and style to Cambodia.”

Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen and Edo Chorm wear the Phkachhouck 1.0 and 2.0 Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Mrs Chorm wears Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Where Culture and Skyscrapers Meet

Brooklyn raised since moving to New York City in the late 80’s Eyen reminisces “there were not many Cambodians [but] we grew up watching movies and Edo learnt traditional dance…I am so jealous of that because I was still a toddler”. The Chorm household’s joyous and altogether celebratory approach to maintain links with their culture are diametrically opposed to the assumption that the country’s trauma under the Khmer Rouge was so great that anyone who fled would want to forget everything they left behind. On western perspectives they encountered growing up Edo recollects “Always they talk about the skulls, the skulls, and I get it but there is also a beautiful part of Cambodia.” Exploring and expressing this beauty as well as creating a timeless elegy to a culture that had been subsumed became a subliminal preoccupation.

Eyen and Edo Chorm Image: Courtesy of EdoEyen

The sisters are both preternaturally beautiful and possess the oft copied Downtown cool girl insouciance, something that has made them natural subjects for their own campaigns. Fashion was initially the lens in which they explored their visual language: Eyen worked as a model and Edo studied at the prestigious FIT before a career working for a global beauty behemoth. Of her fashion evolution Edo observes: “I am starting to gravitate to Versace now…I think as you get older and start to become your own person you are a little more fearless and make a little bit more of a statement.” Eyen for her part describes herself “as more Zimmerman and Alexander McQueen as I lean more to the dreamier side” Their seemingly opposing aesthetics found a home in their collections which they develop side by side “we are definitely both co-creative directors” Edo says smiling. Their first two collections are named Hand and Face and the nomenclature is a statement of intent, speaking directly of the body parts they wished customers to adorn, no further explanations required. Furthermore, they chose the road less travelled by launching with the Neang Neak ear-cuff rather than what might have been a safer choice such as a ring, or classic jewellery suite. “The reason we chose [to launch] with the Neang Neak cuff is because it is symbolic of our culture, and even when you go out now you don’t really see a lot of ear cuffs being worn” notes Eyen. By contrast, ornate pieces for the ear, hair and head are staples in traditional Cambodian jewellery. The risk was worth it as it positioned the brand as authentic and with a unique point of view.

Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Culture is the dominant theme throughout and the Kbang crown harks directly back to the Angkorian Empire; a kingdom that spanned modern day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and which was at its zenith from the 11th to 13th centuries. During those times status was denoted by the different features and ornamentation that appeared on a crown and in more contemporary times such regalia would only be worn at formal occasions such as weddings. To the Chorm sisters it was a situation worthy of a reboot and the artistic challenge of modernizing. As Edo explains “We want people to wear the jewellery out and about”. Picking up on this point Eyen adds “We are from New York and we know the fashion here and how everyone is just a risk taker. There is always a fashionista out there, a trendsetter willing to wear anything and make it bold and daring so we incorporated that New York lifestyle too.” Thus the crown was reimagined as a lightweight tiara-cum-bedecked headband, with Eyen designing a mechanism that negated the need for hair pins to keep it in place. Once completed the styling of the piece on their Intragram account irreverently and successfully removed the notion of ‘for special occasions only’. It was an approach might appear like an affected exercise, but in the Chorm sister’s hands is casually chic and genuine. Their campaign images and the New York editorial sensibility speak to the modern migrant experience; where home is a patchwork in thinking, dressing and being and where the confluence of style and identity merge between countries of origin and current locations. It creates for an atmosphere where pieces which might have felt like an act of appropriation if worn by those not sharing similar heritage metamorphose into an alluring option for all. As Eyen concludes “Whatever you want to wear just be yourself and be you.”

Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Edo in Kbang Crown in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, it is important to note that applying a contemporary twist to a mediaeval south east Asian aesthetic is not a mere marketing differentiator. For the Chorms, EdoEyen as a brand has a multifaceted role to play both now and in the future. “We wanted to start a movement to bring Cambodian art and culture to the forefront of the fashion industry” says Edo. For Eyen, the brand’s wider remit reached the realms of manufacturing and imagination and she relates “when we first started, even the people we gave our designs to make were afraid, they were intimidated but I was thinking if back in the day in Cambodia they can make this, then I am sure in modern days we can do it too.” To the veteran hands in New York’s jewellery district the sister’s pieces appeared as flights of fancy, but solutions were always found, including upholding transparent sourcing credentials and working only with United Precious Metals. Placing culture at the centre of their messaging and product has also allowed the sisters to challenge existing jewellery orthodoxy which is anchored in a specific western European aesthetic and its accompanying normative concerns. The pieces also act as a starting point for the intellectually and visually curious to discover more about what was happening historically and currently in the area that occupies Cambodia. As well as a rich metalsmithing and textiles industry, the Angkorian empire was marked by its ambitious architectural projects, most notably the Angkor Wat which remains the largest religious structure in the world. For the Chorm sisters achieving the goal of celebrating their heritage whilst creating a relatable entry point for people to participate was key. As Edo notes “I think our culture is so under-represented and it is about time for us to do something about it.” Choosing not to lobby for a seat but rather create a place at the proverbial table has resulted in EdoEyen being a defiantly stylish riposte to historic and existing acts of erasure.

Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Eyen wears Neang Neak Cuff in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Mythical Muses and Other Inspirations

“I have always been intrigued by anything mystical and anything goddess like” reflects Eyen. Cambodian origin myths, figures from history and religious deities have all been drawn upon by the sisters in the creation and development of the pieces which in turn have always been underpinned by their mutual love of fashion. Neang Neak for instance was the Queen Consort to Preah Thong and they were co-founders of the Funan Kingdom which preceded the Angkorian Kingdom and dated back to the first century AD. Legend has it that she was a Naga Princess who led her beloved by her scarf to her own father’s underwater kingdom to ask for her hand in marriage. With a compelling back story as a demi-goddess and a princess in her own right as well as an inventor of tradition (traditional marriage rites in Cambodia include the bride leading the groom in by the scarf) it was perhaps inevitable that the brand’s first and instant break=out piece would be named after her. For the Aroubei ring, which has a serpent like form, the goddess Sovann Macha is the muse behind its creation. She was a mermaid who married the Hindu deity Hanuman and she appears in the Reamker which is a Cambodian iteration of the more famous Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. The overall effect of these stories being woven into their creations is an internal universe within the brand where a woman’s power, allure and otherworldliness are the tools that allow her to realise the inconceivable and where pieces possess a magical quality that allows wearers to tap into the same. As Eyen summarises “You are part of and not part of this world but you are enticing.”

Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Aroubei Ring in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

However, there is a political agenda woven in EdoEyen’s genesis and vision, Edo reflects “throughout my college years at FIT I felt like we were under represented. I didn’t see any influences from our culture and I always felt that didn’t make sense.” Her incredulity is valid given the rich history of the Angkorian and Funan Kingdoms, and whilst much has been written about the systemic undermining of black people, similar acts of marginalization, exploitation and prejudice have occurred for centuries towards Asian communities. Of the lack of visibility and understanding Eyen notes “lack of visibility takes a toll and so does being stuck in being or being perceived something else and trying to belong.” From lazy acts of homogenization – assuming Cambodia, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Thailand are one and the same for instance; “we want to make people aware that south east Asia is more than just one culture” Edo asserts, to western designers’ careless acts of cultural appropriation or more sinisterly positing that Asian aesthetics or philosophies are interesting and of note but not on a par with outputs that originate from Western European traditions. The sisters are clear of the scope of issues they wish to tackle and where necessary challenge. Eyen notes “I feel like a lot of my friends are starting to understand our culture now because we brought the jewellery out.” As a gateway to a complex and rich culture jewellery is a beguiling means for illustrating how conquests and migration flows, Buddhist and Hindu thought and a highly sophisticated society utilized art, architecture, design and craft as a means of self-expression and self-determination.

Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Gbang Crown in 18kt Rose Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Inclusivity cuts across several metrics and one sees this most clearly on EdoEyen’s website where the same designs are offered in precious metal and gold-plated iterations. Edo explains this unusual decision further: “We wanted to start with high-end…but we know within the Cambodian community in general people aren’t as financially comfortable so we wanted to offer our fellow Cambodians a chance of shopping our products” They could have chosen to solve the cost quandary by offering a diffusion line with simplified designs but in making the decision to straddle the price points of fine and fashion jewellery as well as actively not abandon clients who would innately have affinity with the pieces they open up other questions around the democratization of luxury and what is considered art. “Our goal is to make people understand that this is fine art” says Edo but one could counter that surely art be it jewellery or created in any other medium needs to be expensive and difficult to acquire to have true value. The Chorm sisters’ decision challenges the industry to accept or at least consider that notion; one where concept, craft and execution are of equal import to the precious metals or gemstones used. More pertinently it also results in a more meaningful inclusiveness that goes beyond sloganeering.

Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Neang Neak Cuff in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Future Plans and Manifestations

As any social scientist will assert, culture is not static. History, current realties and future hopes and influences all play their part and for the Chorm sisters this is seen in the Phkachhouck 1.0 earrings and their updated 2.0 iteration. The earrings are in many ways the perfect distillation of the Chorm sisters taking inspiration from the two locations they call home. Inspired by Hevajra one of the main Tantric Buddhist beings, who wore earrings to render her deaf to evil words, the design which features lotus leaves but is an entirely modern imagining of what she might wear if she lived in New York city today. Edo adds “They don’t look like anything existing in Cambodian jewellery and the aesthetic is more influenced by our western upbringing.” As autodidacts the sisters do not feel bound by the jewellery rulebook and as Cambodian Americans they possess a lightness of touch when relating to their heritage, neither constrained or overwhelmed by it. “It is really fun to learn as you go along because each progression makes you feel proud” notes Edo of the duality of their situation.

Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 1.0 Earrings in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

Beyond jewellery the sisters see their product offering extending into flatware “we want to make utensils” Edo explains ”Like blessed bowls” Eyen finishes, in one of the many instances where they have completed each other’s sentences and stream of consciousness during our conversation, which took on the energy of a late night hang with friends over Zoom than a heavy discussion on culture and aesthetics. A major stockiest “like Bergdorf’s would be like hitting the jackpot to be honest” notes Edo, although their existing steady clientele is indicative that they have already happened upon a winning formula. Future collaborations with fashion brands is something they are open to. with Edo adding “Doing a Dolce and Gabbana runway would be amazing as it is always bedecked and opulent and I would just love that.” Style icon, mogul and noted jewellery collector Rihanna is Eyen’s dream client and they are currently in talks with other A listers who have are captivated by the jewellery and there seems a cosmic inevitability that it will be worn by them sooner rather than later.

Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen
Phkachhouck 2.0 Earrings in 925 Sterling Silver, Image Courtesy of EdoEyen

EdoEyen is in many ways a brand that is reflective of the present moment in time. The world, whether via socio cultural shifts or an internet that has made us collectively more curious about other places and said places accessible with a swipe of our fingertips has opened up avenues of discourse for brands large and small. Furthermore, the west is no longer seen as the lodestar of taste, civilization or even commerce, and attesting to this is the number of recent and successful launches of jewellery houses with founders of South East Asian heritage. “When we came into the jewellery world we wanted to create something that speaks to us and something that belongs to us and something that is our identity” says Eyen. As their line continues to expand with new pieces in development, their commitment has birthed a jewellery house that resonates and validates a community whilst making pieces that paint a more nuanced picture of Cambodia. Edo adds “Cambodia is not just about the genocide…we want to change the mindset, especially in America.” Places, like gemstones are multifaceted, and by highlighting this truism and how it relates to their home of origin and their home of choice, EdoEyen as a brand and the Chorm sisters as individuals are well positioned to play an important role in the further diversification of the global jewellery canon

Theresia Kyalo: The Jewellery Rule Breaker On A Mission

“It’s funny that people consider what I do jewellery because I don’t consider it that necessarily” says Theresia Kyalo the twenty five year old artist, maker and creative convener who in the space of three years has created a buzz around her work that has spread far beyond her native Nairobi. Kyalo and I speak after a devastating fire at the workshop in Kibera where many of the team of artisans she works with are based. For someone who has gone through something so harrowing she is remarkably calm. Beyond the logistics that getting back to work will entail; “I have other connects in a different area so I can work from there for now”, she offers briskly, her focus is on the artisans in Kibera getting back to work, both for her and their other clients. She is also concerned by the wider issues that a lack of infrastructure within the creative industries in Kenya causes. “In a different world what happened to us (the fire) should not have paralysed us as much as it has because there would have been systems in place. I really want to put systems in place that will sustain longevity.” For Kyalo, the creation and development of her own practise is just one part of the equation. Of equal import is fostering an enabling environment for artists to not only be, but thrive. It is a dual mandate that runs through the body of her work which she humbly downplays as ‘working with metal’ but which has presented those who have seen it with a radical take on what jewellery is and can be in the future.

Uso Jicho (face eye) Face Piece. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Uso Jicho (face eye) Face Piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Jewellery as Art and Cultural Barometer

Kyalo first came to prominence with her electrifying face pieces that walk the tightrope of adornment and sculpture. Part of her Body Pieces project and made of brass, each piece’s name in Swahili evokes the body part it is either adorning or resembles. Uso Mzunguko, which means ‘Spiral Face’ follows the jaw line before looping in the aforementioned spiral near the wearer’s cheekbone, Uso Jicho means ‘face eye’ and is an arresting  piece, Kinga Pua means ‘nose protector’ (and was a piece subsequently featured in the Beyoncé film Black Is King) and Kofia Kidole which means ‘finger hat’ – a stunning interpretation of jewellery for the hands – moving the viewer from the conventional base of the finger to its tip. The pieces are emblematic of the tension Kyalo has created in her body of work so far, where viewers’ perceptions do not always align with her conception and intentions. She sees herself as a creative custodian of culture, researching deeply, adding contemporary interpretations to age old concepts but also drawing deeply from her own imagination.“I think it is something that happens indirectly to a lot of artists, we end up extracting things from different sources and they inform our work in different ways.” Indeed for many who find the pieces that frame the face or different parts of the body as avant-garde, edgy, never-thought-of attire, they would do well to look at historical photographs which show that African adornment was not limited to what conventional jewellers present us, and how we have all been somewhat indoctrinated by western norms. Kyalo’s work challenges this, blends references freely, and makes the end results covetable across generations and cultures.

Kinga Pua (nose protector), in silver. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Kinga Pua (nose protector), in silver. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Returning to her conflicted state regarding jewellery and her place in the contemporary African canon of designers she reflects: “I really struggle with it because once you start describing yourself as a jewellery designer people expect you to make collections and to have pamphlets and booklets of things and that’s not my business model and that’s not how I work.” Kyalo’s resistance is not pushback for the sake of, but a timely questioning of a system that is neither kind to the planet or edifying to many in the supply chain who work in it. For makers the present commercial jewellery model is relentless in its demands of more product to sate the demands of an easily distracted but never fully satisfied customer base. Yet, even when we consider the end consumer, we have a finite number of body parts to adorn, so why the quest for more? For an artist who sees her work as having a permanent place in collectors’ hearts and minds, the notion of collections and drops points to the very opposite, and it is one that Kyalo bravely resists.

Portrait of Theresia Kyalo by Gatugui
Portrait of Theresia Kyalo by Gathigia Kinyua

An Autodidact Crafting a New Pedagogy

Kyalo did not study jewellery at university, but trained as a lawyer. “I was still in college and I wanted to embark on something different” she recalls, taking herself to Kibera, a neighbourhood in Nairobi that is known as much as a hub for the ‘juakali’ or informal sector as it is for being the largest slum in Africa. “I partnered with an artisan and I told him I want to learn, and he thought it so funny. He was like you are not just placing an order? You want to learn how to make the things? And I was like, Yeah! So we started making a bunch of things.” In her recounting one is struck by how socioeconomic class and access to knowledge play a pivotal role in the jewellery system in Africa and in many ways stymie it, something Kyalo herself is acutely aware of and wants to change. Of terms such as ‘craft elevation’ which has become something of a one-size-fits-all term, especially when designers, particularly those with some sort of western training or exposure talk of engaging local African artisans in work, she is neutral, but only to a point. “I think there isn’t anything wrong with these phrases, however, are you compensating your people well? It becomes problematic when people use these terms to their advantage and really do not give praise to the actual people on the ground doing the work.” She also adds the importance of authenticating claims rather than bandying terms and increasing the price accordingly adding: “You say you are using age old techniques but what are they? Have you talked about it? You say you are elevating, but how? What new thing did you bring to the table or are you just using the old stuff and calling it new?” We both laugh at this point cognisant of a trend that is only set to expand without further interrogation of the veracity of claims. Indeed, as the booths at international design and art fairs such as PAD and TEFAF become awash with creatives providing so-called love-letters to African craft, Kyalo’s pragmatic, transparent and respectful approach when working with artisans is not only admirable but necessary.

Kidole Kiboko (finger hip) finger piece and Saba Pete (seven rings) ring in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Kidole Kiboko (finger hip) finger piece and Saba Pete (seven rings) ring in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

However, Kyalo is not satisfied with carving a successful niche for herself. Looking outwards is at the heart of what she does. She notes how the heavy gender skew of male to female artisans needs to be addressed especially in light of youth under-employment in Kenya. Additionally, a reassessment of the juakali sector is urgently required. “A lot of girls don’t know that this is an option for them. And this goes to us really unlearning things. Going to high schools and showing young people that this is an industry because for a lot of people there is a misconception that artisans don’t make money, which is a lie. I know most of the guys at the workshop that when it is a good day, it is a GOOD DAY.” For her part, Kyalo is making skeletal plans of how her future studio will address this in a microcosmic way: gender parity, professionalising practical training, creating clear benchmarks and certifications, with an end goal of dismantling the status quo of artisanal work being only for men and for a particular sort of man at that. Kyalo is also a fierce advocate of safeguarding measures such as insurance, healthcare and pension plans for all workers.“That is my goal. That is my dream…a solid foundation so it doesn’t just come crumbling down.”

Duara Dogo Dogo (small small circles) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Duara Dogo Dogo (small small circles) Fascinator in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Belonging to a generation that has been digitally literate from birth has allowed Kyalo to successfully navigate Social Media and the opportunities it presents for artists. “Because I am such a storyteller I am very big on visual presentation. I can not just put work out for the sake of it. The aesthetic has to be strong, it needs to have a message and it needs to prove a point.” Scrolling through Kyalo’s Instagram page it becomes clear that this is not an abstract claim lacking evidence; there is nothing as basic as jewellery photographed on a white background. Instead stills photography and short films are all part for the course, creating a multi-dimensional conversation between artist, objects and the viewer. Her collaborations often riff on themes within her work making them more than a mere merchandising exercise but another lens from which to explore ideas. Particularly notable are 11 stages of awakening, an editorial conceived by Kyalo herself and photographed by Gathigia Kinyua, Sacred Faces photographed by Brian Siambi and the original campaign accompanying Body Pieces photographed by Edwin Njeru. The overall effect is immersive, intriguing and informative something older artist friends have been quick to compliment her on although Kyalo self deprecatingly adds “I think my youth works for me a lot of times because I am in touch with both worlds.”

Kidole Kufia (finger hats)  finger pieces in Brass. 11 stages an editorial, Photo: Gathia
Kidole Kufia (finger hats) finger pieces in Brass. Photo: Gathigia Kinyua 

Kyalo’s design process is anchored in meticulous research, as her series Ode to the Adinkra Symbol attests. Adinkra, symbols that communicate age old aphorisms and philosophies of the Akan people of Ghana were the starting point for her project that was crafted in cow horn (responsibly sourced from the cattle farming industry) and took as its central thesis the enduring truths rooted in African traditional belief systems. Although Kenyan, Kyalo is mindful when making based on her explorations of other African cultures and is passionate about artists being respectful in reinterpretations. However, she stops short at spoon feeding her audiences: “It is not my job to really make people catch up with my thoughts. …whether you get it now or next year that’s your problem but you will get it eventually. Some people will get it instantaneously… others will be like It looks weird , I don’t quite get it but she is doing her thing so that is fine” Being untethered to how her work is received has also allowed Kyalo to explore other disciplines, most recently textiles where her line drawings, that are often the starting point for her existing body of work have been re-imagined into embroidered curtains and wall hangings using dead-stock fabric. It is yet another example of her refusal to be boxed in by perceptions, and although her clients are equally split between Kenya and overseas, staying in `Nairobi is central to her long term plans.

Ode to Adinkra Symbol Earrings in Cow Horn Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Ode to Adinkra Symbol Earrings in Cow Horn Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

 

Custom Curtains by Theresia Kyalo: Image Courtesy of T Kyalo
Custom Curtains by Theresia Kyalo: Image Courtesy of T Kyalo

Working beyond Clout Chasing

We inevitably alight on the summer of race reckoning as 2020 will be known to future generations. Kyalo, like many black creatives experienced a spike in commercial and media interest as a result of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the global race protests it sparked. “It was problematic visibility…it was a backhanded kind of visibility” Kyalo notes reflecting back on the deluge of requests for interviews, lists collated and articles hastily written that put a spotlight on black excellence. Whilst some of the interventions might have been borne out of good intentions, one cannot ignore the precursor for the collective volte-face from a media which had placed many black artists actively or otherwise on the margins and always contingent to whatever their white counterparts might be doing. Whilst some black artists have chosen to ride the wave of freshly minted celebrity, and the attendant attention and commercial possibilities it might invite, Kyalo’s design and work process, pandemic and recent fire aside, remains unchanged: sketching out pieces first, experimenting with her team, road-testing samples herself and making final adjustments. “How I navigate this is I let my work speak for me.” It would be easy, indeed natural given her age for Kyalo to jump feet first into the media melee and performative posts that have flooded timelines, but her eyes are clearly fixed on her long term vision, one that will endure long before a hastily clicked like.

Mdomo Kipande (lip piece) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Mdomo Kipande (lip piece) in Brass. Photo: Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

.There was however, one list Kyalo was comfortable to participate in – the Beyoncé endorsed Black Parade. Explaining her rationale she states “it was made with a purpose…I really like that they considered looking at black people who are not only from America.” `For Kyalo it resulted in more US clients but she is cautious about seeing critical acclaim from overseas or intercessions from any other external advocates as the only viable routes for long-term success for artists working in Africa: “We are at an era where we can form our own visibility here in our own capacity” Focusing on the possibilities of her current and chosen location segues into the artists she admires who are all from Africa. Kyalo cites South African fashion designer Thebe Magugu, Kenyan fine artist and personal friend Peteros Ndunde and the Senegalese ceramics artist Faty Ly as holding particular resonance for her and inspiring her to push boundaries and improve in her craft.

Uso Mzunguko (spiral face) face piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Uso Mzunguko (spiral face) face piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

For Kyalo, the real work beyond building systems that create a healthier jewellery industry ecosystem is fostering and deepening continent and diaspora wide relationships. “The BrushTu collective have been very instrumental in my growth as an artist” she notes of the Nairobi based contemporary art collective which includes fine artists Maina Boniface, Lincoln Mwangi and Waweru Gichuhi among their number. Also up for discussion as she looks forward to future works are an expansion of materials Kyalo uses in her work, whilst maintaining her brand ethics of sourcing responsibly and consciously. “I am currently working on something that will use tsavorites” she shares, excited by both the prospect of departing from the familiar and the possibilities that a foray into fine jewellery might hold. She adds “I do want to source gemstones locally first, but anywhere else in Africa would be great for other stones, Zambia is a good example with emeralds.” Kyalo is in step with many younger interdisciplinary makers who are placing materials provenance, authenticity of intentions and working conditions on an equal footing to building a brand.

Duara Tatu (three circles) neck piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru
Duara Tatu (three circles) neck piece in Brass. Photo: Edwin Njeru

Curiously for this current age of instant everything, Kyalo is surprisingly old-school in trusting the process rather than rushing at top=speed to reach an imagined marker of success. She possesses a purposeful tranquility, both in her speech, where she takes time to respond to questions, seemingly sketching out the possible answers in her mind before giving them, and in her deliberate decision to be omnivorous in her artistic oeuvre and see where these explorations take her body of work over time. That she chooses to work on a human-scale level, with items crafted by hand, speaks to her desire to leave a tangibly positive mark on communities: from those currently in her employ to those that will be trained by her in years to come. As our time together draws to a close she returns to perceptions. “In terms of being an artist and being a jewellery artist I think a lot of westerners who dissect our work expect it to have a deeper meaning all the time. I hate that. I don’t want people to be ‘oh ah, it is an African designer, what is it that they meant by this?’ If I meant something, great. But if I didn’t it is okay. It doesn’t lose value because there isn’t a deeper meaning you know. Westerners do that all the time. They make shit and it doesn’t mean anything and people rally behind that. We can do that too.” Kyalo’s point is prescient especially in this age of increased visibility to creators living and working in Africa or from her diaspora. It is one thing to create, even to find stockists globally, and the attendant accolades. But when your work is always interpreted in a pre-existing narrative of what it is to be you, that has ironically been created by someone else, it irks and ultimately it disenfranchises. Pulchritude for pulchritude’s sake. Made for our gaze primarily, but others are welcome to the party and can participate should they wish. It sounds like wishful thinking, and a revolution.

Kidole Kofia (finger hats) in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo
Kidole Kofia (finger hats) in Brass. Photo Courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Emmanuel Tarpin: Nature’s Jeweller

“I put a part of myself in each jewel and it is always a new story to write and to read”  says Emmanuel Tarpin, one of the world’s most feted new talents in high jewellery. The poetic turn of phrase is in no way hyperbolic. Tarpin’s creations are not only adornment but also act as a conduit for communicating emotions, ideals and other truths. Ones that lucky wearers will have to wear and treasure forever. Serendipity may have played a role in the achievements his eponymous house has received since launching in 2017, with accolades aplenty, industry recognition, and a loyal client base. But whatever may be ascribed to good fortune and timing is underpinned by Tarpin’s own innate understanding of who he is, what he has to offer and how his processes, design language and aesthetic are pushing boundaries in what is expected in high jewellery and who can participate within that world.

Arum Lily Earrings: Aluminium and Yellow Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Arum Lily Earrings: Aluminium and Yellow Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

In Pursuit of Beauty

Paris based Tarpin has a melodious voice and is matinee idol handsome but seemingly unaffected by it. We converse for far longer than we had initially scheduled as he admits “I could talk about jewellery all day”, but our conversation is more of a reflection of his knowledge and vivid storytelling. Tarpin is passionate and delights in exploring creativity in all its iterations, drinking deep from the experiences of travel and observing and capturing the beauty therein. “I love music, I love dance, I am crazy about classical music as well and I practised sculpture for fourteen years, mainly working with clay.” This omnivorous appetite  did not diminish once he enrolled at HEAD, Geneva School of Art and Design, specialising in jewellery, accessories and watches as he reminisces “I even asked a glass blower to help me and I am always really inspired by talented people…To be curious is the best thing to be and to stay.”  Intriguingly, Tarpin is also a fan the Golden Age of Disney animated films, he says laughing, “I have been indoctrinated with Disney, it has been a big part of me, I know all of them. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, they taught me  to keep a child-like vision about everything” Indeed there is something otherworldly about his creations, that are fit for the chicest of modern Disney Princesses.

Emmanuel Tarpin in his atelier. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Emmanuel Tarpin in his atelier. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin

On graduation Tarpin joined heritage house Van Cleef & Arpels, but rather than the design studio, he chose to work in the workshop. However, after three and a half years the pull to start his own eponymous line became too strong to ignore “it was really nice because [in the high jewellery department] it was only one of a kind pieces [we were making] using really amazing stones so it was the best school to learn how to make jewellery.…but I was working on pieces for them and not mine and that felt a bit frustrating” Starting his own line, especially one dedicated to high jewellery was not a decision he took lightly “of course I was a bit scared as it is always complicated when you start your own brand but it was a feeling. Because I am someone who will always try things, who likes to evolve and so, why not?” He adds with a chuckle. Much has been made of Tarpin’s youth but what is not often dwelt upon is that his was in many ways a long apprenticeship; first in his own private study and appreciation of the creative and visual arts which commenced in childhood, then in his academic endeavours and finally in founding his brand. The tired trope that his is an indecisive generation finds an elegant rebuttal in his work and attitude to it. What is also telling is his choice of word, making his decision on a metaphysical ‘feeling’ rather than one that is governed by a conventional career trajectory. When he knew it was time, he simply trusted and acted. As he points out “I think it is ridiculous to think about age as there is no specific age to express yourself and to show your inspiration.”

Blue Orchid Earrings. Aluminium, Diamonds and Aquamarine. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Blue Orchid Earrings. Aluminium, Diamonds and Aquamarine. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

One might conjecture it is following his intuition, rather than what the crowd expects that has allowed Tarpin to have an avant-garde approach to his craft, experimenting with metals to stunning effect. Tarpin uses aluminium prolifically, in part because it is lightweight, he notes from his Van Cleef days, ”I worked on a big pair of earrings which were very beautiful and I remember hearing that one hour during the dinner the client had to remove them because they were too heavy and too uncomfortable for her and I believe that jewellery does not have to be like that.” However, he does not compromise on impact, choosing gemstones every bit as breathtaking as those used by the Place Vendôme stalwarts. Diamonds in all their colour iterations, Paraiba tourmalines, rubies and sapphires all feature in his work and like the German heritage brand Hemmerle he loves to play with patinas to create an additional textural layer to pieces.

Geranium Ear Pendants: Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Geranium Ear Pendants: Aluminium, Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Early industry recognition, courtesy of his much referenced Geranium ear pendants was testament to the dividends of developing a clear and recognisable design language. The story of how they ended up in the Christie’s Magnificent Jewels Auction in December 2017 and easily realised their reserve price has a Disney – The High Jewellery Version –  ring to it. Tarpin speculatively called the auction house to come in and show his work and the ear pendants were an instant hit and vitally, a last minute addition to the catalogue. For Tarpin however, it was more reflective of a commitment to a particular aesthetic for his work “I can be inspired by a cool shape of a flower or a plant’s really small detail.”  The plant’s verdant hue is mimicked by the aluminium and the round cut diamonds aren’t just an obligatory dusting of bling, but reminiscent of morning dew settling on leaves. Since the fabled Christie’s auction, Tarpin has chosen to keep his operation ‘human size’, making one-of-a-kind pieces for clientele who like him are drawn to particular and specific markers of special; “Quite often they are collectors of paintings or sculptures, they are very interested in culture..and love details…They will buy a piece because they have fallen in love with it.” Tarpin is adamant to not rest on his creative laurels and recreate pieces he has made before, even if a client requests it. Instead he ensures that energetically and aesthetically there is something of the client’s essence in the custom pieces he creates. Visits to his atelier often result in friendships as he delves deep into a client’s memories, passions and gemstone preferences, he notes” jewellery is something very intimate because it is worn very close to the body… so in this way I think it is important for it to be one of a kind as we all are…I like clients  to enjoy looking at the piece, wearing it but also to see it as a beautiful object..If jewellery is an art, which I believe it is, we don’t want duplicates. Just as with a painting we need only the one. The original.”  In a world driven by profit there is something romantic with how Tarpin approaches his work and treats his clients. This is not a conveyor belt exercise where celerity and efficiency reign, but a discourse, a dance between mood, cadence and connection. 

Hydrangea Brooch. Green gold, Pink gold, aluminium, rubies, diamonds, spinels
Hydrangea Brooch. Green gold, Pink gold, aluminium, rubies, diamonds, spinels

The Bucolic Dream Realised in Gems

Annecy, is an Alpine city in south-eastern France and Tarpin’s home town. From  the mediaeval era it changed hands between the Counts of Geneva (less than forty kilometres away) and the Dukes of Savoy whose territories stretched from modern northern Italy to south-western France. It is a city that in many ways is a chameleon with only the surrounding countryside a constant. French, Swiss and Italian in character, a refuge for fleeing Swiss Catholics during the counter-reformation, a crucible for ideation. Framed by the crystalline waters of Lake Annecy and nestled in the shadow of the Alps, the surrounding terrain has featured prominently in Tarpin’s work and continues to act as principal muse. “during my childhood we took a lot of walks in the mountains with my parents and I continue to do that because nature is a real passion for me.” The juxtaposition of beauty and danger present in the mountains is captured in Tarpin’s Foxglove ear pendants, a flower native to the area but also highly poisonous. His bejewelled version in red gold, yellow gold with a single rubelite as the dominant gemstone is the sort of piece that remains in one’s mind long after first sighting.

Foxglove Earrings. Aluminium and Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Foxglove Earrings. Aluminium and Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Tarpin’s use of gemstones in replicating flowers and vegetation is carefully considered. And furthermore, speaks of someone who adores wild open spaces and observing and absorbing the intricate details displayed for later use. Instead of yellow diamonds he selects yellow sapphires for the Globe ring which give an intensity of hue rather than the reflected sparkle of a canary diamond which would detract from the lush artichoke leaves with their patina. His beanstalk earrings play a similar trick, creating a coiling tendril of green garnets and tsavorites that seem to be growing from a wearer’s earlobe. Finally, an acorn brooch is an ode to Autumn, that like Keats’ famous poem one can hold close to their bosom. Although flowers are a motif many high jewellery houses return to from Van Cleef’s Quartrefoil to  Chanel’s Camelia, Tarpin’s fascination with foliage, often placing it centre stage, is novel and speaks to a profound notion – one where we are called to reconsider what is valuable and what is worthy of being deemed beautiful and eulogised as such. 

Beanstalk Earrings: Yellow Gold, Tsavorites and Garnets. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Beanstalk Earrings: Yellow Gold, Tsavorites and Garnets. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

His family are still based in Annecy, and they are all intrepid travellers: “we travelled a lot when I was young so I saw a lot of countries.…My parents always chose to travel in the non-touristic way and I still try to travel this way”. Tarpin, a keen diver, attributes the ocean and its bounty as another enduring inspiration indelibly realised in his seashell earrings, that were worn by Rihanna. Although honoured that she chose to wear them and cognisant of the favourable attention that resulted, for Tarpin, celebrity endorsement in and of itself is not a primary motivator.”You don’t see a lot of my jewels on celebrities because I don’t produce a lot and every time it is one of a kind so chasing them will not fit my business  model.” What the piece spoke of more was Tarpin’s own ideology of celebrating the natural world in all its guises but injecting modernity via the presentation, the kind that would get image savvy clients, be they famous or not, clamouring for more.

Rihanna wearing Seashell Earrings in Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Rihanna wearing Seashell Earrings in Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Leading High Jewellery’s Reset

High jewellery has been going through a something of an image re-boot of late, from the grand heritage houses of Place Vendôme transforming Haute Joallerie week to a companion to fashion’s Haute Couture week, to the proliferation of jeunesse doree being co-opted as brand ambassadors. Kaya Scodelario  for Cartier and Lisa Manobam  of Blackpink for Bulgari are two recent signings. These somewhat clumsy attempts to tap into a particular demographic are not Tarpin’s modus operandi, instead his approach is one of democratising the rules of engagement with his Instagram page playing a pivotal role. He expands: “My instagram is a window…a lot of people have told me and sometimes criticised me that it doesn’t look really professional, and I am like, I am not looking for a perfect page with jewels on a white background. I love to share final pieces of course, but I love to show my inspiration. I love to show some drawings, some different steps because I think that there are so many interesting things about jewellery.” The result is a page that is every bit as compelling as an influencer’s and a visual autobiography. Tarpin oscillates from beautiful still life drawings to images of him at his bench, to finished pieces occasionally modelled on the body, but more often than not photographed on their own. His contribution to jewellery industry and enthusiasts community, Gem X Club’s Advent calendar was a Spotify playlist,  and reflected his relatable nature and his more relaxed social media approach. He adds: “I feel we have to share, and I love to show everything because it is part of my process and it is important because it is a part of me and sometimes  to understand my work you have to understand me as well.”

Emmanuel Tarpin, sketching in his studio. Image courtesy of E. Tarpin
Emmanuel Tarpin, sketching in his studio. Image courtesy of E. Tarpin
Illustration of the Acorn Brooch. Image Courtesy of E.Tarpin
Illustration of the Acorn Brooch. Image Courtesy of E.Tarpin
Acorn Brooch. Bronze, Yellow Gold and Sapphires. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Acorn Brooch. Bronze, Yellow Gold and Sapphires. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

How people engage with high jewellery is also important to Tarpin who notes “people have to see jewellery as an art and to respect it is as such,…it is not just precious stones on a metal base and that’s it, there is more than that… sometimes a client can buy a piece worth millions and not understand why the price, what took time, what is interesting about it, they will just put it in the safe and not understand the story of the jewel and I think that is really sad.”  Owning an important piece is one thing, appreciating it another and still understanding how it fits in the  widen canon, where Tarpin cites the work of Suzanne Belperron and Rene Lalique as being particularly influential is the final aspect in the equation. Luxury has long traded on the cost of an item rather than its intrinsic value or even its contribution to widening the remit of design. Tarpin’s methods, showing his process and the ‘tricks of the trade’, for all to see on his feed could be viewed as radical, potentially harming the market, but they are merely an expansion and acceleration of his objectives to create high jewellery and a community within it that is untethered to existing rules.

Wax Carvings by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Wax Carvings by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Wax Petals by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E Tarpin
Wax Petals by Emmanuel Tarpin. Image Courtesy of E Tarpin

Tarpin has become a deft hand at cancelling out the noise, even if it is laudatory, “I just focus on my creations and don’t think too deeply about people’s perception or reception”. Consequently, it spares him being governed by critics’ reviews or client’s expectations, and allows him to retain what he cherishes the most, an open and uncluttered mind to channel his creativity best. He is equally as alternative in his thinking of how high jewellery should be worn as he is about how he should be received. “My clients can wear my jewels for big events with a beautiful dress by a huge designer for example but also they can wear it with a white t-shirt and a jean and the jewellery will be what creates the full outfit.” This insouciance, creating informal spaces for jewellery to be worn, taking it out of the realm of the ballroom or wedding banquet or indeed safe deposit box, is perhaps what is most revolutionary about Tarpin. Giving clients the permission to not have to wait for a special occasion but instead to make every day special by wearing their most precious pieces is thrillingly liberating.

Future Plans and Legacy Building

Tarpin’s eyes widen when I bring up the topic of legacy, “You know I am still at the beginning, I am not an old brand.” He says laughing. But it is not an entirely unexpected question given the opening four years and his prodigious talent. Unsurprisingly, Tarpin does not live and work in the city’s jewellery quarter but instead the  7th Arondissement, home of the Musee D’Orsay, Musee Rodin and the iconic Eiffel Tower. By picking a corner of Paris teeming with art and beautiful gardens, Tarpin is tapping into his perennial sources for inspiration, whilst still ensuring he is not too far off the beaten track. “I am finding a good harmony between my life and my work,” he notes and admits to savouring time spent in his much instagrammed rooftop garden tending to his plants. And although he has jeweller friends, industry gossip and the scene prior to the pandemic hold little draw. In many ways it is the recipe for a brand that will stand the test of time, as in choosing not to pander to a scene or clique he can quietly and assuredly hone his craft and deepen relationships with new and old clients who have come to understand and appreciate what he has to offer. It is however, not unreasonable to speculate that based on current form Tarpin’s star seems to be the sort that will attract a museum retrospective in the future. Maybe one as unforgettable as that held for JAR in London’s Somerset House in 2002 and New York’s Met Museum in 2013.

Globe Ring: Yellow Gold, Patinated Bronze, Yellow Sapphires and Diamonds:. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin
Globe Ring: Yellow Gold, Patinated Bronze, Yellow Sapphires and Diamonds:. Image Courtesy of E. Tarpin

We close considering the shifting relevance of jewellery in society’s eyes; from the proliferation of brands, to the unrealistic expectations for production, even in the rarefied world of high jewellery where clients are accustomed to waiting. “I take my time for each piece because if I want to do things well I have to feel it.” Is Tarpin’s succinct response to those expecting speedy turnarounds. We also touch on the fact that jewellery has itself had a moment of reckoning with conversations about ethical sourcing, mining, inclusivity and environmental degradation all no longer on the periphery but central to how those in the business work today. Tarpin reflects; “Our workshop uses very ethical metals and gemstones, I have to be very careful and that is why I don’t work with a lot of gemstone dealers” The net result is sometimes sourcing a particular gemstone might take longer for a client, but in today’s climate, where reputations can rise and fall in an instant, it is worth it. Tarpin also hopes a time will come where jewellery is no longer a mere addendum of the Red Carpet, “I  never saw a total outfit that was important because of the jewels.” He is equally enthusiastic about gender norms being more expansive, as they are in the global south where the notion of men bedecked in jewels is not considered subversive. Of his extensive research whilst studying in Geneva he observed “In Africa I saw a lot of pictures in the archives where the jewels mean everything and the men were wearing the most… and in India too there was jewellery that was only for men because it was a way to show power and masculinity which is contrary to its role in the west now.”

Seashell Earrings, Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin
Seashell Earrings, Aluminium and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Tarpin

Will Tarpin takes his initial findings as a cue to create pieces that speak to this and maybe reference the savannahs, rainforests, deserts, mountains and ever changing coastline of Africa and the Indian sub-continent? One can but hope. Tarpin believes that for jewellery to have resonance for future generations “we have to think and look again at what jewellery meant in the past.” Whilst this is clearly true, the industry also needs pioneers, lodestars of taste and discourses, and innovators of craft who work with a fearless spirit. High jewellery has found one such voice in Tarpin: an artist who possesses the talent, curiosity and dedication to continue enthralling collectors, appreciators and curators for many years to come.

 

Ute Decker: Jewellery Artist and Activist

“I grew up thinking I was not creative at all and it took me probably all the way into my thirties to overcome what I had been led to believe at school.” Ute Decker, jewellery artist and ethical jewellery activist is reminiscing about her earliest creative memories and I am surprised that there isn’t a strong biographical artistic thread. For an artist who since formally launching her brand in 2009 has experienced immense critical acclaim and commercial success with her work being described as ‘wearable works of art’ by the auction house Christie’s, and acquired for the permanent collections of both the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, it is somewhat puzzling that there were no early indications in her childhood of what was to come. Our Zoom meeting, which takes on the energy of a stimulating conversation with an intellectually curious friend who is as engaged with the world around them as they are with their craft, doesn’t feel like ‘work’ at all. In fact, we both agree that the whole interviewing business would be greatly improved with a glass of Grüner Veltliner, a wine we discover we both love. As our conversation progresses it becomes clear that Decker is so much more than an artist or a pioneer and early advocate of ethical jewellery practises; she has that rare quality of being equally a thinker and a doer. Her sculptural pieces possess the physicality of being made by her own hand, yet her ideological beliefs are imbued in the fact that the materials she uses are wholly ethical and traceable. We discuss her beginnings, her methodology and why she hopes that more in the industry will truly embrace ethical practises, especially if the jewellery industry is to truly shed some of the negative connotations that linger to this day.

Portrait of Ute Decker wearing the Orbit Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Portrait of Ute Decker wearing the Orbit Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

A Fearless Point Of View

Decker is unabashed about her beginnings; she says with a smile “I used to call it ‘winging it’ but of course nowadays I would say I am an autodidact…I went to evening classes just to have access to tools.” There is a pragmatism in her rationale for attending evening classes, but it also reveals a creative who is governed by process, knowledge accumulation and self-mastery, indicative of her previous job as a news journalist and researcher. That she came to her craft, via it being a passionate hobby also allowed her a more expansive, unburdened, relationship, something that she is quick to point out: “Making jewellery for myself [resulted] in me making it stronger because I didn’t come out of university with a jewellery degree and then have to earn money. I was completely creatively free.” Then as now, her pieces are not obvious ‘crowd pleasers’ but rather require a wearer who has an equally unapologetic approach to aesthetics as Decker. Indeed, bestsellers such as the Infinity and Orbit collections sit comfortably on the nexus of sculpture and adornment, and could easily be at home on a mantel shelf as they are on a wrist or finger.

Infinity Spiral Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Infinity Spiral Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Modern life has made many industries increasingly youth focused. We have become conditioned to saving our noisiest praise for young prodigies. Subsequently, creatives of all ages lose sleep thinking of ways to capture the eyeballs online and the money in real life of young consumers. However, Decker took a different approach: first and foremost she ensured her honoured her truth and pleased herself, she adds cheerily “I made very large sculptural pieces that commercially are a complete no-no..but I already had my own character, my own language. I didn’t want to please anybody.” This approach proved critical in tapping into a powerful and oft ignored demographic “ A lot of my clients are mature strong women” she notes when I ask her about who is drawn most to her work. By appealing to women like herself she ironically reflects our contemporary love affair with ‘relate-ability’, but in Decker’s case it happened organically rather than as part of a marketing strategy. Most pertinently, it has resulted in cementing, relatively quickly a client base that is neither driven by trend or, because they statistically earn more money, governed entirely by cost. Among her early collectors was the late architect Zaha Hadid, and the former Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones was another admirer of her work. But beyond attracting celebrity clientele and creative cognoscenti acclaim, her work connected on a meta-level. Formally launched in a group show in 2009, and significantly after the 2008 economic crash, it reflected a global yearning for jewellery that had depth of meaning. It also came at a time when there was a desire for original voices who could create something that stood apart from the offerings in the high jewellery meccas of Paris and New York.

Two Unicorns Rings in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Two Unicorns Rings in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

On Inspirations and Methodology

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Decker’s atelier is situated in London’s Cockpit Arts, a jewellery and design hub tucked between the city’s historic jewellery district of Hatton Garden and the leafy legal heartland of the Inns of Court of Holborn. Decker, who is originally from Germany was drawn to the space because of its sense of artistic community in a large sprawling city. However, although self-taught her design process is influenced profoundly by principles drawn from eastern traditions: “Are you familiar with Ensō?” She asks before continuing “I try to work as with Japanese calligraphy, with the Ensō  it is a circle that you draw…you have to be an apprentice and practise it for twelve years before you can put your name to it. I think that kind of practice is how I work. When I start off with the garden wire, I work until l have something that speaks to me and I am happy with and then I keep making the same piece, over and over again in brass. I work it out until I no longer have to think of the process and my hands now know by themselves. Once I have an intuitive feel, rather than doing and thinking through a lot of things, I make the final piece in metal, in one go. Like calligraphy, it needs to have that flow and dynamism and a natural end. And even if a client said I would love that brooch in gold or smaller or bigger I would still go back to the brass, to get my hands in the flow again. So it might take a few days. Sometimes the lines won’t speak to me and I will work on it for months and then just by chance I walk past a piece, pick it up, do one thing and there it is.” A process such as this is seemingly at odds with the western driven bottom line, one where a bestselling design would be churned out with celerity with the maximising of profits at the forefront of all activities. But like with much Decker does, it is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Supreme self-discipline in the repetitious nature of initial work is coupled with a spiritual harmony of intrinsically knowing when the piece is ready. As with the Ensō, the goal is mastery borne out of a lack of inhibition.

Chaos Neck Piece in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Chaos Neck Piece in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Warming to the conversation on eastern philosophies and beliefs she continues: “I am very interested in Zen Buddhism and I have tried meditating but I am not a practising Buddhist. In Zen, it is very much the idea of creating with an empty mind. So I sit there without any preconceived ideas. Without thinking, without an aim and without a goal for the end. My work is much more about a sentiment or a sensibility so I never have a concept in mind before, it is only later something might come.” She also invites her collectors to embrace a similar notion, where preconceived ideas are left at the door and instead they engage with a piece ‘empty’ and wait to respond to the emotions it might elicit. It is poetic and places Decker’s work more in the jewellery-artist category than the conventional jewellery designer. Of the distinction between the two she adds: “I don’t say I am a jewellery artist because I feel it sounds slightly pretentious. I tend to say I make sculptural pieces…or I hold out my hand or my neck and say, that is what I do. I try not to define it…If you consider that art it is art if you consider it jewellery, it is jewellery. It is about bringing your own perspective.”

Shadows Earrings in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image: Jamie Trounce
Shadows Earrings in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image: Jamie Trounce

Perhaps because of her circuitous route into jewellery, Decker steers away from labels or classifications being applied to her work. When I ask her of influences she pauses before responding “I admire the Padua School who are also quite minimalist but I don’t see myself as part of an artistic creative or jewellery school. But I would see myself as part of the ethical jewellery movement.” The Padua School under the unofficial leadership of Mario Pinton were at the vanguard of experimental gold smithery in the 1950s and 60s and like Decker, members such as Giampaolo Babetto were drawn to creating exploratory pieces that could be seen as both sculpture and jewellery with a minimalist sensibility. Intriguingly, the Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki also provides ideas that fuel her work: “I have read‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and although it has several political issues there are certain sentiments in the book that I agree with. Tanizaki describes how when you go into a Japanese house it is so empty but then the play of shadows is so powerful. Something so minimalist: the wind rippling through the trees, a gentle wave rolling in the ocean, looking into the fire…Those are the simplest smallest minimalist experiences…and because the process is so condensed and reduced that makes them the more powerful.” Relating it back to her practice she concludes: “I think quite often with jewellery people are thinking of where can they put another little diamond or another little swirl. For me, when a piece is done I am thinking what else can I take away to make it less busy.” This doing away with, condensing, distilling, until, one is left with a piece’s true essence is at the heart of all of her designs.

Curling Crest of A Wave in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Curling Crest of A Wave Ring in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

The idea of embedded energy is another concept that for Decker has great resonance, citing Alexander Calder she expands “…what really gives me joy looking at his work is you see little images and videos of how he makes things and that joy that he brings across. And every time I look at one of his pieces I see that maker’s smile.” Making and the physicality and personality she brings to pieces is what posits Decker’s work most in the jewellery-artist category. “My hands think in three dimensions so I need to actually make and experiment” she says adding “I never draw anything. I couldn’t draw this (she gestures to her wrist, where she is wearing an iteration of the Orbit bracelet),…I just play and experiment and by the end of it something completely different will fit.” She is happy to see her pieces as wearable sculptures but it was only when the opportunity of making a large scale piece for a client came about that she realised how wedded she was to her particular process: “It was a wonderful budget and I thought ‘Yeah, I always wanted to make larger sculptures and here is an opportunity, someone is commissioning me!’ But I must say that the process was less satisfying because I had to hand it over to a fabricator. I was no longer the person…for me it is really important that my hands, that I am involved, it is that joy in the creative process.” Just as with Calder, her energy, her essence, indeed her joy, are intrinsic to the completed work. “I don’t think I am a designer because it can’t be replicated. I can’t give it to someone else never mind do so myself.” Again, she resists easy categorisation: “I actually find it very difficult with the nomenclature thing as well, and it seems to be [more about ]what people are thinking.” And as already explored Decker is loath to allow external gazes to qualify or quantify who she is or what she does. She smiles before finally conceding “Jewellery artist is probably the closest term. There is an artistic expression. There are some thoughts and constructs and concepts that while not at the beginning of my process are certainly part of it…that is probably the main reason I would say jewellery artist. But I am definitely also a maker.”  Indeed, her work is represented at one of London’s most renowned galleries for jewellery-artists, Elisabetta Cipriani.

ManRay Swan in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image Courtesy of U Decker
ManRay Swan Ring in Bi-Metal (recycled silver and Fairtrade Gold) Image Courtesy of U Decker

 

Activism and Jewellery

Jewellery was never going to be just about adornment given Decker’s background. “I am very politically interested, I studied Political Economics at the University of Hamburg, lived in Paris, and spent some time at the UN in Vienna and was involved with the climate talks” Unlikely to content herself with trotting out superficial statements to her conscience or her clients’, Decker wanted to ensure that her jewellery was as equally imbued with her values as it was with her aesthetics. She expands: “Being part of a bigger picture, working with fairly traded gold, being part of the whole earth and community is important to me. I don’t just want to make art for art’s sake. I like to express certain sentiments but also be part of the solution of the issues that are important to me…When I studied there was a whole course on the meaning of work. Who am I in this world? How do I fit in? Do I fit in to the anonymous production or do I want my work to be more meaningful to myself and to the greater context?” It was these questions, coupled with her news journalism background that prompted her into deeper investigations on ethical mining, sourcing and production. The private endeavour resulted in a rejection of using gemstones: “The Kimberley Process ( the global agreement that came about in light of negative publicity on so called blood or conflict diamonds) is not worth the paper it is typed on. There are no ethical diamonds, there are no fair trade diamonds, there are some that are better than others like Canadian diamonds with more traceability, but…” She trails off and shrugs, incredulous that the general public has by and large swallowed the notion of ethical diamonds when many gemstones for the most part, still come from parts of the world which have either historically or are currently in the midst of political, socioeconomic and human rights tumult. It is for this reason that Decker herself continues to not use gemstones in any of her collections and subsequently focused her investigations on precious metals.

Calligraphy Rings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Calligraphy Rings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

We alight on the first online ethical jewellery directory that she created, that was previously housed on her brand’s website but now has a permanent home on ethicalmaking.org which is a partnership between Decker and the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, Scotland, she adds: “Metals have an incredible footprint, it’s an incredibly dirty business whether it is from the environmental perspective or in terms of human rights and exploitation…It’s an absolute horror story. And when I read about that horror story my first reaction was ‘Oh my God, I cannot be part of this. I cannot use these materials.’ Surely there must be some gold or some silver that has been mined in a more environmentally friendly fashion… I didn’t start off thinking I am going to build the world’s most comprehensive ethical jewellery directory. It was just one piece after the next piece…I put it all online and that opened up conversations.”

Chaos Brooch and Earrings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Chaos Brooch and Earrings in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

This is not to say that her activities were met with universal support within the jewellery community. In spite of sustainability and ethical having recently not so much become buzz terms as mantras that all must adhere to, there was push-back. Reflecting back on those early beginnings she relates: “I talked to other jewellers and some of them were like, ‘Yeah, I might be interested.’ But at the beginning there was a lot of hostility from other jewellers because once you start talking about ethical you open up a can of worms…. If you say ‘ethical’ [jewellery] there must conversely be unethical jewellery. So the jewellery world didn’t like it.” Of the ongoing trend for jewellery houses both small and independent and large conglomerates to tout their ethical credentials she warns that consumers should be “aware of ‘greenwashing’, which I now think is the biggest danger… what we have now is a proliferation of claims and the Responsible Jewellery Council which already sounds fabulous and if you go on the website you would think you were on the website of Greenpeace… but in fact it is just an industry association…all the big mining companies and a lot of the big diamond companies are in there and now everybody says ‘our diamonds are sourced responsibly Kimberley Process and our metals whatever are also responsibly certified or we are getting it from a Responsible Jewellery Council source.’ Both of them are utterly meaningless but as a consumer you think ‘Oh, fantastic all of them are sourcing ethically.”

Rolling Waves Moonlight Brooch in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Rolling Waves Moonlight Brooch in Fairtrade Gold. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Clarity of information is something of particular importance to Decker who in addition to her jewellery practice lectures and continues to lobby for greater traceability of where metals are from for both creatives such as herself, seeking to be ethical in their sourcing and consumers who want to be assured that what they are choosing to purchase is truly ethical. On her own journey one pivotal connection was with Greg Valerio an agrarian, artisanal mining and ethical trade activist. “Someone told me about Greg Valerio who really is the hero of the whole story. He comes from a human rights background and started an ethical human rights shop…. he also found out about a small mining co=operative in Columbia called Oro Verde – and they worked on the same values and principles such as re-foresting and such… And then he went to the Fairtrade Foundation and said ‘guys you must get on board, we must have something certified…because there are so many ethical claims’. So that is how the first fair trade gold came about.” Decker is also eager to qualify the difference between Fairtrade and fair-trade, something most consumers wouldn’t immediately differentiate between; “It is also very important to note that the word fair trade with a hyphen or small letters is not protected. But Fairtrade one word and capitalised is…Fairtrade standards involves women’s rights and also economic rights, strict environmental standards and the money is invested, so we are paying a fair price but we are also paying a Fairtrade premium. And that premium the community can then decide what they need….So it is the community that jointly decides what they need most. It is investing in schools and people need to understand it is not some kind of ‘aid’, it is paying a bloody fair price.” Her and Valerio continue to raise awareness and campaign, often appearing on panels together.

Rose Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce
Rose Ring in Fairtrade Gold. Image: Jamie Trounce

Empowerment, Conscious Consumption and Future Plans

For Decker empowerment does not stop with elucidating stakeholders of the ethical jewellery movement. It also comes via her invitation to wearers in the co-creation process. “I give my pieces relatively abstract names. I have a thought of what they make me feel or what they remind me of but then the title is abstract enough to invite others in.” She uses her collection Orbit to illustrate the point asking me what I think it reminds me of before concluding, “So when I said orbit, I was thinking in terms of the solar system but you were thinking of chemical elements and atoms and that is beautiful…individual empowerment and individual expression combine in my jewellery.”

Orbit Bracelet in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Orbit Bracelet in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Occasionally, with her private clients the tables will be turned. She reminisces, “There is one wonderful collector in New York who commissioned me for a piece…her brief was ‘wild and abandon’ but I have to be able to type in it’.” The process took a year but it was precisely because Decker had a plethora of ideas that she explored fully before settling on the one that she felt was best. Inevitably, she returned to her eastern philosophical principles adding: “There is a concept in Japanese philosophy aesthetic called Ma, which could be translated as emptiness…for us in the west emptiness is a negative. But the concept there is if it is empty, it has all the possibilities opening up.” Allowing time to be inspired, to play, to dream and ultimately make are key in her creative process, as she waits on ideas to have their full fruition. Clients in turn are encouraged to exercise patience and trust that the beautiful synergies and work will emerge. It can also ultimately result in a less exhausted earth as we are all forced to consume less and not expect every desire and whim to be met immediately.

Silk Folds Bracelet in Recycled Silver. Image: Elke Bock
Silk Folds Bracelet in Recycled Silver. Image: Elke Bock

As our conversation comes to an end I pose to Decker whether she sees jewellery as another pit-stop in her portfolio career or the arena in which she intends to stay. She pauses before responding: “We could say jewellery is totally unnecessary, we have enough stuff in this world and with the materials and the issues, do I need to make jewellery? But I think making very few pieces, making pieces that count, that are not just in and out of fashion before you can blink, is worthwhile. Sometimes clients come and say ‘oh yes, I bought this at your very first exhibition and I have been wearing it all the time’, and hearing that gives me so much joy.” Decker has a mind that is so agile and a seemingly insatiable curiosity and desire to share knowledge and beauty, that it feels unlikely that jewellery in and of itself will be an adequate framework for what. Has already been a considerable body of work. However, jewellery redefined and deconstructed within her broad locus of concerns and passions has become a much more nuanced proposition in and of itself. All creative disciplines need a dose of disruption to truly evolve, Decker is doing this for jewellery one sculptural, beautiful, ethically produced piece at a time.

Articulation Neck Piece in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker
Articulation Neck Piece in recycled silver. Image Courtesy of U Decker

Rabun The Radiant: A Career Observed, Part 2

“The most important thing that you can do is strengthen your design language. It takes time. It takes a lot of patience and practice, sitting down and asking yourself the same questions; why am I designing jewellery? Why do I do this and what do I want to say with my work?” It is mid afternoon on a surprisingly hot early Autumn’s day in London and Jacqueline Rabun, is in a reflective mood as our discussion moves on from her beginnings ( which you can read more about in the previous post) to legacies, impact and the work still to be done. When I ask what is the raison d’être to why she continues three decades on to design and create jewellery and objects for her legion of collectors and fans globally; unsurprisingly for an interview subject who has proved both profoundly sensitive and ethereally gracious, it is not a case of making adornments for the sake of. “I believe that it is important for jewellery to make you feel empowered, uplifted and calm. It needs to make you feel inspired and that’s really important in my work. [Subsequently] I also try to keep my energy in a certain place because I know when you are creating something, the idea needs to be born with the right energy. And when an idea is born out of the right energy, the world will embrace it.” It is a truism that would resonate with many creatives, the proverbial reaping what you sow, and thus the need to sow with the right ‘head and heart space’ but Rabun’s assertion goes beyond the jewellery she designs to the spaces it inhabits both before and after purchase. In this second part of a special retrospective, we look at the myriad of ways in which she has played the role of pioneer in the jewellery industry, how recent conversations on inclusivity have brought challenges and opportunities and how she sees her contribution evolving in the years to come.

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Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun, Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun, Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

Changing the Marketplace

Think High Jewellery and one’s mind wonders to rarefied rooms upholstered in tasteful creams and beige with impossibly coiffed assistants hovering to attend to your needs and discretely placed security, ensuring you don’t do anything dastardly. For the habitual client this set up with its unsaid codes of conduct might be easy to navigate, but for a freethinker like Rabun it was stifling and desperately in need of change. In many ways reflecting the seminal 1998 essay “Welcome to the Experience Economy” published in the Harvard Business Review by B Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore which stated that ‘An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage and goods as the props to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.’ Rabun’s stand alone jewellery store in Belgravia ( a first for a person of colour) was very much a retail event. Situated in a converted mews house, the interiors riffed on the domestic luxury experience, with a hanging canopy of plants, and jewellery positioned in unexpected places, such as inside an antique desk, ready to be ‘discovered’ by the browsing client. The store itself did away with the burly security guard at the front door and customers could wander around with a piece on their body and get a ‘feel’ for it in a seemingly homely setting. The space also opened its doors to artists with exhibitions, dinners and talks all part of the calendar of events. She adds “I wanted the store to be welcoming and a place where you were transformed the minute you walked through the door. I wanted the overwhelming feeling that you took away to be a sense of well being. A lot of clients would come in and they would say, ‘ooh I don’t want to leave and go out into the world’ because it was very calm. We were very conscious about everything, we always burned sandalwood for instance as sandalwood purified the air, basically it was about touching all of the senses in every way.” Of course now, we have gotten used to this sort of set up: from the Matches.com townhouse in Carlos Place in Mayfair and the Burberry flagship store in Regent Street and countless others in other global cities with their gallery shows, concerts and cups of tea and wine dispensed as much as any item we  might wish to wear. However, actualising this in the mid noughties, Rabun was arguably one of the first, and particularly so in the jewellery sector.

Interior of Jacqueline Rabun Store, Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Interior of Jacqueline Rabun Store, Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun is passionate about architecture and it has had a profound effect on her jewellery practice, both in terms of inspiration and how she presents her work. “I really love John Lautner…If you live in a John Lautner house it represents living as a free spirit and that is my attraction to it.” She notes of the Californian architect whose light flooded designs have inspired many since. She adds “Richard Neutra gives you the same feeling, it is that school of architecture that was centred around case studies about how we live , and how are we going to live in the future, [and] that is how they were thinking. Now when you look at those houses they are just as modern and so many architects have been inspired by that way of living. However, ultimately those houses for me represent freedom, serenity and the ideal way to live.” In her own way, Rabun has enthused similar concept into her retail spaces. When she moved operations to her loft-cum-atelier in Clerkenwell, the guiding principles of light filled spaces that were simultaneously welcoming and calm, was adhered to. And as is the way when what you’re offering is truly special both spaces had extensive features in World of Interiors and Rabun herself was invited by the global design and furniture pioneer store, Habitat to curate a space in their store that reflected her design aesthetic.

Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio: Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio: Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio, Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio, Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Finally, another area where Rabun is considered a pioneer is in the popularising of naming collections and not just ‘star turn’ pieces, suites or the gemstones utilised themselves. Reflecting on her long-term collaboration with Georg Jensen she notes that “Nicholas (Manville, Chief Creative Officer at Georg Jensen) said I was the first designer to start naming their collections and he said that you’re the only designer at Georg Jensen that has a story to tell that is emotional around your work. No one else does it.” In seeking to put a name to the emotional landscape that a jewellery series inhabits and the feelings it solicits and not just the gemstones involved or the pieces created, Rabun charted new ground for what has become standard practice today.

The Mercy Series. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
The Mercy Series. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Challenging Seasons

A career as long as Rabun’s does not occur without incident. Both on a global level; witnessing recessions, pandemics, conversations on racism and gender parity and inclusivity, as well as on a personal level: building and maintaining a business, raising a family and spending many years away from home. Inevitably, we alight on the topic of race, an issue that has been re-ignited with the murder of George Floyd and the unprecedented protests that occurred in its wake, but as Rabun points out, none of this is new: “African-Americans particularly have always had it hard because of the history of slavery in America. We really have had to fight for equality and the right to simply express ourselves. We have had to fight for the bare minimum.” When I ask her about how the recent protests, online debates and discourses affect the jewellery industry and the challenges therein her response is refreshingly frank. “I think that it has to start with us.” Expanding on her thesis Rabun adds “We have to develop our voice around our work. It has to be emotive… I think that is the big starting point…Also I really believe it is your experience and the road you travel down that actually develops your design skills and even those things that are negative such as rejection and being overlooked can actually be the most powerful fuel.” A lot of the discourses have been about inclusion based on past injustices and structural prejudices that work against people of colour. However, Rabun also points out that once space has been found at the proverbial table, the offering has to be compelling if it is to be successful long term. It is a piquant reminder that getting attention, press, accolades and even public apologies is very different to building a commercially viable and successful business. In our age of chasing likes, fame and mentions her approach which puts the work, development of a unique voice and building the client base back in the forefront feels almost novel.

Black Love Ring in Oxidised Silver. Image, Courtesy of J Rabun
Black Love Ring in Oxidised Silver. Image, Courtesy of J Rabun

This is not to say that her work has not been influenced by or responded to race and racial issues. Her ‘Black Love’ series ,designed in 2015 “was a symbolic gesture around the injustices met out to African Americans and was a response in particular to 2014, when so many young men were being murdered. It was also focused around the idea that we as black people simultaneously bring so much actual love, creativity and joy Into the world but also need to find space to live and to find the beauty in that struggle, which is not easy.” To evoke these varied notions Rabun reimagined the classic heart classic motif: “It is made from two seed forms as the seed is also a symbol of new beginnings and life itself. The seeds come together to form a heart shape and when they come together they cradle into one another.” The series is available in oxidised silver which takes on a black appearance, yellow and white gold, and in light of the tumultuous events of this year has gained added poignancy. She also hoped it would encourage greater self-love for black people, who could wear the pieces as one would a talisman, reminding them of how amazing, precious and valued they are in a world that systemically is designed to often make them feel the opposite.

Black Love Pendant in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Black Love Pendant in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun is quick to correct a misconception that hers has always been a charmed existence, thus making her out of touch with practitioners, particularly those of colour, currently struggling. “I was thinking about this, this morning. When I was younger, I remember that with my parents we never left the house unless we were immaculate and shiny which is quite a lot for a small person….[but] 1960s America was very racist so if we walked out the door looking our let’s say Sunday Best, that was our armour. They could hate us if they wanted to because we were black but they couldn’t get us on anything else…. So I obviously can understand what people are feeling, younger designers…I will speak about the jewellery world because in some ways it is a little bit more challenging than fashion as an industry. I think the art of patience and perseverance is really important and I think developing a strong design language, a strong voice, and imagery around your work is crucial. Fortunately, we now have amazing social media channels where you can do that. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune and I think that is what is so great about the moment that we are living in; you can have your own vision and your own world and you can express it on your platform and no one can stop you from doing that. And you can find your customers directly too. But I do think the most important thing is just developing your very strong identity so that when people see your ring for example they know it’s you. They don’t need your name. If you just put a piece of jewellery on the table they know. That is when you are winning to me.”

Beautiful Ring in 18kt White and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Beautiful Ring in 18kt White and Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Regarding the 2008 recession which hit hard in the jewellery industry community, she reminisces “Yes, it was a challenging time for me and my business but it was also great time for me to focus on my intention. On how I move forward with my business. Also I had more time to create new collections and I also took time to just research and come up with a new way to approach my craft. But I did have a few collections that were quite commercial and they kept my business going which included the Alphabet Series and also the Wyatt and Beautiful Series. I think with any business there is always going to be ups and downs and challenging times. It is just a case of figuring out how do you ride through the storm to get to the sunshine? I think that is the challenge, and if you do it gracefully all will work out as it is meant to.” In many ways it takes courage and tenacity to not be overwhelmed or fatigued by structural injustices, but Rabun’s whole career has been underpinned by a determined pursuit of excellence regardless of the obstacles she may find in her path. When I ask her of who in the current crop of black jewellery designers she is enamoured by she replies with a smile; “Emefa Cole is great. When I look at her work you can feel a lot of emotion and you can feel that she has a very distinct vision about jewellery, that she is really focused, that she has got her own thing going on she has a very clear language and you can see that she is developing it and it is beautiful.”

Alphabet Series in 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Alphabet Series in 18kt Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun also cites a memorable event where she met the feted jewellery designer Vivianna Torun as giving her a sense of perspective and a real life exemplar of resilience and its power. “I met Vivianna Torun during the centenary celebrations for Georg Jensen in 2004 and at the time she wasn’t very well so we weren’t sure she was going to be attending the press conference and later that evening the gala…Other jewellery designers were there including Nana Ditzel but then suddenly you could feel this very beautiful energy near the door and we all turned around and looked and there she was. She had such an amazing aura that the whole room went silent and…this powerful positive spirit just came in to the room.” She pauses, before adding “Some people have that ability to shift energy when they walk in the room and she was one of those people one hundred percent. I met her and and I met her daughter Marcia who is amazing as well and we had a lovely moment together where we took a tour of the exhibition that was being held at the National Museum in Copenhagen.” Torun’s work was featured prominently in the centenary exhibition celebrating the Danish heritage house, as were other designers including Rabun herself. She concludes: “It was just beautiful… the three of us at the exhibition…It was one of those moments where you know it was meant to be.” The meeting was especially poignant for Rabun as she had long admired Torun: “The only designer who I have actually bought their pieces is Vivianna Torun, I think for so many reasons I connect with it. I love it aesthetically, I love her work ethic and I love that she was courageous. She was a Swedish woman who married an African American man in the 60s and lived in France when that wasn’t such an easy thing to do. She had mixed race children and they got a lot of abuse and through all of that she continued designing. It would have been so easy for her to just stop, of course…and I know that she struggled..but she just persevered through it all and then left to live in Jakarta and set up a studio there whilst still designing for Georg Jensen and at this studio they created all her pieces so the community was thriving too.” Purpose and fortitude are a running theme and preferred connection point for Rabun, who in many ways possesses the same qualities.

Wyatt Love Cuff in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Wyatt Love Cuff in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

A Living Legacy

With numerous professional achievements under her belt, and zero desire to rest on her laurels, Rabun has been paying a lot of attention to her legacy and leveraging her influence to assist the next generation. Prior to the spread of Covid19 and the ensuing global lockdown, a trip to India precipitated a spiritual re-awakening, one which gave her a vision of how she could best use her talents to serve the greatest good. Collaboration and the power it has to unlock talent, create wealth and break down barriers to inclusion was at the forefront of her mind. She elaborates: “I do feel a responsibility to the next generation and mentorship is something that I do with a few design students…but we can definitely do more, particularly between African-Americans and Africans. I think that it’s very important that we collaborate on ideas that empower us and other people of colour in the world.” She has visited Senegal frequently and a recent trip to Nigeria and a trip to Ghana that was sadly postponed due to the pandemic were the beginnings of a framework she was creating to develop greater opportunities for cross pollination of ideas and expansion of opportunities.

Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Jacqueline Rabun Clerkenwell Studio. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

The season of self-reflection has also brought a strong tug to her country of origin, which is on the cusp of a potentially seismic change politically [since this interview took place, Joe Biden has won the US Presidential Election] She notes: “This is an important time for us politically. It is a very difficult time, it is a very challenging time but it is also the time for the work, for our creativity, for our talent, for our skills. I think that this is the moment. We are seeing changes and I am going to remain optimistic and say we will see more.” She is currently re-evaluating her own potential role in that story and is in touch with a number of her peers who share a similar vision such as architect David Adjaye who returned to Accra after decades spent in the UK and US: “I think it is important that David has gone back to Ghana, to be part of that new story, and it is my intention to spend part of my time in America as well. I have been in England for thirty years but I think it is an important time for me to perhaps inspire the next generation of young jewellery designers or young women that probably have no idea that it is possible to enter this realm. If I can open that door for them that [would be] very powerful and I think it is my duty to do that.”

Carl Aubock X Jacqueline Rabun Collaboration for SigmarGallery. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Carl Aubock X Jacqueline Rabun Collaboration for Wallpaper Handmade and Sigmar Gallery. Image courtesy of J Rabun

Although it has always been about the jewellery, and her work in its development, refinement and expansion of parameters speaks to this, Rabun has paradoxically always been so much more than a jewellery designer. For designers younger than her, she is an emblem of  what it looks like to be at the top of your game, without compromising your vision or pandering to systems or individuals that might think less of you by virtue of your gender or colour or both. Her humility regardless of her position as the world’s most famous and lauded black jewellery designer, is seen in how she neither courts or is occupied by the trappings of fame. She is grateful  for recognition but her eyes visibly light up when talking about the work itself, how it has developed or the themes explored in particular series. She is equally animated when speaking of the. transformative power jewellery has had on clients’ lives, how a piece has become a much treasured family heirloom, or takes a wearer back to particular point in time when they were happiest. She also loves setting herself a new challenge, as her continued interest in designing objects illustrates. She has always designed objects for her own personal use, but the remit has expanded, and was seen most notably in a collaboration for Wallpaper Magazine’s Handmade Project with the Vienna based studio of Carl Aubock overseen by Nina Hertig of  Sigmar Gallery. The finished pieces were first exhibited at London Design Festival in 2017, and Rabun is set to do more projects in a similar vein in the future. Tellingly, her Instagram biography describes her as an ‘artist’, and this feels the more accurate nomenclature. Jacqueline Rabun is an artist and jewellery just happens to be her preferred medium. Henri Matisse famously said “Creativity takes courage.” and courage has anchored the ethos and governed the methodology of Rabun’s career so far. It takes guts to move continents, without a golden parachute or a bulging contact book and build a successful business doing what you love. Coupled with undeniable talent and a quiet confidence that destiny was guiding her steps and she became an unstoppable force. Personal preferences aside, the best art and the greatest artists attempt to express truth and share truths with the world. Rabun, ever generous invites us to do so twice; first in the selecting of the truths we wish to reveal with our jewellery choices, and secondly in inviting us in the wearing, to share those truths with others.

Rabun The Radiant: A Career Observed, Part 1

“I started designing jewellery that spoke to me, because there wasn’t much jewellery I wanted to wear…I wasn’t really sure where it was going of course, but I knew it would find its place” reflects Jacqueline Rabun in the first of two Zoom calls in which we discuss her three decades and counting career in jewellery design. Immediately evident in her opening answer is the power of intent married with application. The impetus for designing began with her, she was neither creating with an ideal client in mind or at the mercies of a ‘market’ to court or appease. This unapologetic approach has brought dividends although not without challenges along the way. Rabun is motivated by a passion and desire to actualise an alternative design offering, one that is rooted in her own experiences and values. It is this distinct point of view that has seen her contribution to the jewellery world not only unequivocal, but also a catalyst for opening the doors to wider participation in the industry as a whole.

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Mercy Ring, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Ring in White Gold , Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Of course, it is easy to eulogise from the vantage point of a career of her length and breadth which contains within it the ‘holy grail’ of commercial success, critical acclaim and continued resonance in the here and now from peers and design aficionados alike. But Rabun’s is a story that is first and foremost anchored by jewellery that found it’s way onto the bodies of many and intriguingly varied clients; from rock stars and supermodels to business leaders and members of royal families all over the world. Coupled with this is her prodigious work ethic and a tenacity that hasn’t let setbacks, curveballs or racism, derail her from her goals. Rabun is softly spoken, with an accent that sits squarely in the mid-Atlantic but without any of the international-jet-set affectations that many have come to associate with such. Dressed in a deceptively simple yet perfectly cut white tunic, her hair pulled back, skin clear and eyes animated, she appears the embodiment of a woman seated confidently and elegantly in her power, who hasn’t been discombobulated by the uncertain, pandemic ridden times we are all living in. When I note this she laughs: “I carry on as I always have” which for her is working largely from home as she straddles her work for her eponymous brand and her long term collaboration with Scandinavian heritage jewellery house, Georg Jensen.

An Autodidact Finds Her Voice and Place

Rabun surprisingly did not train as a jeweller: “I studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute in San Francisco, that was the world I always thought that I would be a part of… My mother taught me to sew, and I actually knew how to cut a pattern and make my own clothes from a really early age. But as I was studying fashion design something came over me and I felt as though this wasn’t my world anymore… the fashion industry is amazing but I guess I was quite sensitive at the time…so I stopped and by pure accident I started working at a jewellery gallery, a very beautiful one in Los Angeles , called the M Gallery and it was like no other space I had ever been to.” In many ways the M Gallery was the perfect training ground for Rabun’s own as yet conceived design practice. Proprietor Michael Dawkins had a curatorial approach, with collections by jewellery-artists, architects and other interdisciplinary practitioners that didn’t fit the classic high jewellery mould, finding a home in his destination space that attracted an eclectic clientele who were drawn to contemporary and directional pieces. At home, inspired by what she saw, Rabun started experimenting: “I started teaching myself: first how to design and then how to actually make. I am a better designer than maker, but I can do it if I have to” she adds laughing.

Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Portrait of Jacqueline Rabun. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Romance precipitated a move to London in 1989 and it was here that her processes and her ideas solidified. Her first collection, Raw Elegance, launched in 1990 was a commercial triumph with Barney’s New York an immediate stockist – unheard of for a new designer, never mind a female black one. Rabun herself is uncomfortable with using the term ‘collection’, with its undertones of ‘in today, out tomorrow’, and prefers the term ‘series’ which hints to a continuum of states and a revisiting and exploration of themes, a notion that ties in with both her first and all her consequent bodies of work. Speaking of what it was that drew in a retail behemoth like Barney’s and the slew of luxury stores around the world to stock her immediately she expands: “I think it was because it was unlike any other jewellery they were stocking at the time. It was quite masculine but there were feminine undertones. It was very organic and natural using shapes and forms that follow the lines of the body and it was just very different for that moment.” Crucially, Raw Elegance coincided with the genesis of reimagining gender boundaries in fashion and beauty and that was to be a hallmark of the 90s: Calvin Klein’s unisex fragrance CKOne, was the scent of the decade, Jean-Paul Gaultier had a mixed gender fashion show in Paris for his Spring/Summer 1994 collections and indie bands with effete lead singers such as Blur with their anthem to blurred gender role boundaries Girls & Boys ruled the airwaves. For the jewellery world Raw Elegance was an early presentation of similar ideas – themes that many jewellery brands have since explored and developed.

A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Selection of Pieces from Raw Elegance Series. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

London in the 90s was arguably the coolest city on earth, with a creative renaissance not seen since the swinging 60s. It was the decade that saw the dominance of British fashion designers with John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe dictating how the world dressed. The Young British Artists or YBAs as they were collectively known, all featured in Sensation, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997 that placed fine art at the heart of pop-culture. In the jewellery world, Rabun alongside Shaun Leane designed pieces that were in diametric opposition to the ostentatious 80’s aesthetic and resonated with subcultures in what was then an edgy East London and bourgeois West London bohemians alike. Looking back at the cross-pollinating and dynamic energy of the city then Rabun remarks “when I first moved to London in about a week I met Judy Blame through a friend and he loved my work, so he immediately used a couple of my pieces for Neneh Cherry.” The fortuitous meeting with the legendary uber=stylist brought her into contact with others luminaries. “It all happened very organically, I have to be honest. It was all very word of mouth because of course we didn’t have social media, but pretty quickly I was connected with a few people at I-D Magazine and I had some articles in I-D, The Face, Dazed, thinking back I had a lot of publicity” The coup de grace was landing the cover of British Vogue’s September 1992 issue with Linda Evangelista adorned in pieces from the now extended Raw Elegance Series. “I guess that was one of the little signs that were a cosmic okay, you’re moving in the right direction. Because actually when you start off in a career where you haven’t actually studied and trained and you have taught yourself, you always question whether you are doing the right thing.” From there, her star was fully in ascendant, with musicians particularly drawn to her work. Madonna, Whitney Houston, U2 and Lenny Kravitz were just some of her many A List clients. Living in London, which at the time was the de facto laboratory of new ideas across multiple creative disciplines had an undoubtedly positive effect on Rabun’s own practise.

September 1992  British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh
September 1992 British Vogue Cover. Image by Peter Lindbergh

Distilling Her Design Language

Rabun is unabashed in her love for design and it seeps into every aspect of her life. The slither of her home visible on the screen, is dotted with beautiful artwork and artefacts picked up from her travels. She relates that her passion for mid-century furniture has resulted in a considerable collection, some of which is in storage. It is illustrative of a woman for whom aesthetics across all touch points are of profound importance. But for Rabun it is more than surface level prettiness informing her. “When I speak about design language it is about the shape and form of a particular object but it is also the story behind that body of work. For me, my whole design language is about the human experience…each one of my bodies of work is definitely inspired by what I am going through in my life which is probably what everyone else goes through as well,”.In many ways the clues are there in the names of the series of work: Love Distance  for instance features two rings with corresponding curves that unite when together but look equally beautiful on their own speak to a long distance relationship. And her first collaboration with Georg Jensen, Offspring, was inspired by the birth of her son: “Offspring is about the unbreakable bond between mother and child and a lot of women go through this…[and] the actual shapes of the pieces are taken from an egg form and eggs are the beginning of life, so it is symbolic of new beginnings. When you have a child your life begins anew and there are challenges but even when it is difficult you’re still in it. It is unbreakable.”

 Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Yellow and White Gold. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Love Distance Rings in Sterling Silver. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bracelet in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Bangle in Sterling  Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Bangle in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image courtesy of J Rabun

 

Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Offspring Earring in Sterling Silver. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Her collaboration with Georg Jensen is how Rabun is perhaps best known. Indeed many wonder how an American based in London came on the radar of the Danish heritage house that has been seen as the custodian of Scandinavian design. As with much of Rabun’s story serendipity met with an impressive body of work, she relates “I have a friend who is in fashion and I went out to dinner with her and her partner and they invited Mark Olm who is a Danish photographer and he mentioned that Georg Jensen were looking for designers and he thought my work would be perfect and he happened to know someone there, So he basically spoke to them the next day, gave them my telephone number and we emailed but it wasn’t a thing. I got a telephone call the next day the design director from the jewellery came to see me and then gave me a brief and we were working together.” The whole process from dinner to commencing work took ten days. Astonishing by any measure. But when I gasp in exclamation Rabun adds that she views it as manifestation for both parties as Jensen were looking for someone and she too was seeking to expand her horizons after by that point, nine commercially successful years in business. Most critical to the speed of engagement was her design language which she notes “has an equal dose of Scandinavian and African influences and interestingly there is a lot of Scandinavian jewellery where you can see the designer is very knowledgeable about African jewellery.” Certainly the collaboration which commenced in 1999 with Offspring launched in 2001 and then rebooted for 2018 has been beneficial for both parties. Offspring, is as time of publication, Georg Jensen’s bestselling jewellery collection.

Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Bangle in Yellow Gold. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Mercy Rings. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun continued to plough the myriad of human experiences and emotions for other series with the heritage house. Cave launched in 2002, a series celebrated amongst jewellery connoisseurs globally who are clamouring for its re=issue, featured concave circular forms occasionally with pave diamonds in a hollowed form. It was a comment at the need to sometimes retreat and find a place for quiet contemplation and reflection. Mercy was launched in 2019 but Rabun notes “I started developing it fifteen years ago and then Georg Jensen asked kindly if they could launch it under their brand. Originally, it was designed for them but we were working on so many projects that it just never happened…but if you think about the time we are living through now it really resonates…we need a lot of mercy. There is a big need for compassion and empathy for others and to walk in somebody else’s shoes for five minutes. It is about not being selfish. It is not that moment now.” To encompass those sentiments, the sculptural forms look different from each vantage point, for both the wearer and those viewing the pieces on the wearer’s body, resulting in an exquisite metaphor for Rabun’s intention. As ever with Rabun, diamonds when utilised are done so discretely, something that some assume given her African-American heritage is unusual as African-Americans and their biggest cultural export, hip=hop are intrinsically linked with the maximalist ‘bling-bling’ aesthetic. She laughs in recognition at what is ultimately a lazy assumption: “My design language is minimalist, but actually there is a lot of African design that in itself is quite minimalist. From art, to furniture, to jewellery. As with me, there is a lot of use of organic forms and that is my link. I draw more from my African heritage, rather than the popular media stereotypes of what black glamour is. I draw more from African jewellery and African art.” It is a reflection of what for many years have been the silos of expectations creative people of colour have oftentimes had to work in. The assumption that one voice, one style, one set of experiences fits all, when in actuality, things are more nuanced and varied.

Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring in Sterling Silver, Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

Cave Ring,  Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
Cave Ring, Yellow Gold and Pave Diamonds. Jacqueline Rabun for Georg Jensen. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

Rabun’s eponymous line has continued to expand on her thesis of jewellery that reflects, documents and harnesses the human experience. A recent special series A Beautiful Life for the PAD Fairs in London and Paris in 2018 included a re-imagined Beautiful ring in aventurine and yellow gold as well as one featuring rutilated quartz crystal and yellow gold. There was also a pendant with a yellow gold vessel form in which a removable aventurine sits, giving the wearer the choice of removing it and holding it in their hand for on-the-go meditative purposes. The choice of gemstones for these pieces was deliberate “my work always has to be honest, I have to like the stone, I have to feel an affinity with it otherwise I cannot work with it”. In the instance of aventurine Rabun was drawn to its historical healing properties which is said to aid the nervous system. Green aventurine in particular is known in the Hindu Chakra system as a heart healer that dissolves negative thoughts for the wearer. Rabun adds “jewellery can give you a sense of security [and] If you walk out of the front door without it you feel like something is missing, I think everyone has had that experience who wears jewellery, and so it is a form of armour and I think if we take that into a spiritual realm it calms you and it gives you comfort.” When we speak of her attraction to rutilated quartz, whose beauty lies in the visible inclusions that sometimes have the appearance of spun gold thread left to form a messy  yet captivating pattern, she adds “When you look at these stones you think wow, how did that happen? How did all that imperfection arrive in that stone? I like those imperfections. Because I think that is what we are inside we are not perfect.” It is in many ways a radical proposition, especially as there is a whole sector of jewellery that is dependent on gemstones of almost supernatural perfection that will imbue their wearer with similarly polished, beguiling powers. Rabun is offering wearers to feel comforted and empowered but also vulnerable and open enough to show and share their authentic self rather than a carefully crafted facade. If the gemstones can be honest so can we.

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

Present Realities and Future Series

Whilst many creatives have been emotionally buffeted by the ‘new normal’ that Covid19 has heralded, Rabun true to form has observed the peculiar needs the season has brought with it and created solutions. “I have been quietly working on some objects for the home and some furniture.. because the home has obviously become so much more important to everyone in the world.” Expanding her canvas from the human body to a room is a natural progression. She has also used the time to reflect on how she wishes to present herself and her work moving forward. She states “I definitely prefer to be known as an artist because whilst of course my speciality is jewellery, I have designed objects furniture and sculpture.” She pauses, before adding “This word designer, I think when you have worked for a long time and you have a specific recognisable look and feel to your work it takes you in to the space of being an artist.” Her oeuvre is ever evolving, but as with many artists, it is doing so on her own terms

A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Ring, Yellow Gold and Rutilated Quartz Crystal. Image Courtesy of J Rabun

 

A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun
A Beautiful Life Pendant, Yellow Gold and Aventurine. Image: Courtesy of J Rabun

.
We close our conversation with a question that Rabun is initially a little hesitant to answer, “you answer it” she challenges me jokingly, and that is how would she describe the Jacqueline Rabun aesthetic. She expands “A lot might say or think that my jewellery is organic and minimal. But it is important for me that those shapes and forms have meaning. I don’t design for design’s sake. I really need to have something to say when I am designing because there is an awful lot of jewellery in the world.” Suffusing jewellery with her own spiritual practises and beliefs is of paramount importance to her, far more than sales figures or public acclaim. “I really hope my work will have some sort of a positive impact on someone’s life, whether they feel empowered or inspired or comforted or cured. Recently, a woman who had cancer wrote to me and said she used one of my pieces as a talisman to get her through her cancer treatment. To me that is why I do what I do.” None of us fully knows how we will be remembered, but for the fortunate few such as Rabun, a body of work that speaks to her truth and resonates in such visceral and powerful way with her clients, provides a validating clue.

The Lustre of Melanie Georgacopoulos

In her 2007 Royal College of Art MA Degree show Melanie Georgacopoulos made modern jewellery history when she reimagined a string of pearls by doing something that at the time was sublimely subversive – slicing them. Reflecting back on it she notes:”It was a very instinctive thing. I wasn’t thinking conceptually what am I doing ? Why am I doing this now and what does it mean?” Her understated comment is typical of the London based Greek native who has been credited with reviving pearls as an option for the contemporary jewellery wearer; a gemstone that had hitherto felt preserved in the visual aspic of portraits of aristocrats and maharajahs, suddenly feels incredibly modern and appealing in her hands. With an eponymous line launched in 2010 and a successful and groundbreaking long term collaboration with heritage pearl house Tasaki now in its eighth year, her contribution to the 21st century jewellery canon seems secure, but like all great living artists, she continues to push boundaries and ask questions of her work, the material she has chosen to work with and the emotional energy and fiscal value we place on pieces made from these treasures from the sea.

Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Necklace M/G Tasaki (image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Craft Mastery and Pearl Discovery

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Georgacopoulos’ love of jewellery has been life-long. Growing up in Greece she reminisces: “I remember a lot of school trips we would always go to museums and in Greece all of the museums are filled with gold jewellery and artefacts.” Home was a creative one, with a French Interior Designer mother encouraging artistic endeavours although jewellery was at her brother’s suggestion: “I was always making things and leaving them around the house. We had a big desktop computer that had fallen apart and I found all those microchips that were inside and I started making smaller pieces with it and my brother said Why don’t you turn it into jewellery at least you can wear it and not leave it lying around. And this is how it started really.

Formal training began at the Mokume Institute in Athens and was in her words  “three years of intense and traditional jewellery technique learning. Not only were we hand-making pieces but we also [learnt about] production so we did casting, diamond setting, granulation, mokume-gane, all these jewellery techniques that we don’t really use  these days but it is very important to know..I  am very grateful for those years, although I didn’t enjoy all of it at the time” she adds candidly. Sadly, the Mokume Institute has closed, a victim of the Greek Sovereign Debt crisis of 2009 that ravaged the economy. However, the comprehensive training equipped Georgacopoulos for launching her own line in 2010, as unlike many of her contemporaries, she was able to do much of the  practical work herself, outsourcing for specific technical purposes only.

Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Loop Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Although now associated with pearls, Georgacopoulos’ gravitation towards working them was gradual. Post Mokume, she took a step away from jewellery design, embarking on a BA in Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art. However, sculpture expanded her curiosity regarding materials providing a wider remit for exploration, “[with] sculpture you are, just working with the material and figuring out what the material gives back or tells you or what you can do with your hands… You don’t start with a design in the same way that one might start in jewellery. You might have a design but you cannot force it, instead you treat the material in a certain way so that it translates into your design.”  Her methodology,  one that is simultaneously respectful of the materials involved yet at its heart is untethered to established norms and rules allowed her to be boundless in her ideation processes. Alighting on pearls was serendipitous, once enrolled on the Royal College of Art’s prestigious MA in Jewellery Design, one of her tutors noticed that many of her designs featured rounded forms that would lend themselves well to pearls and suggested she explore it. Critically Georgacopoulos adds “sculpture gave me the hands on approach and a certain degree of fearlessness”. And if she had thought too deeply about the act that precipitated the Sliced Collection?  “I would have been too scared to cut a pearl, because you’re not supposed to do that with gems in general, you are supposed to enhance their beauty and cutting something in half can feel like you are destroying it.” Or indeed rebirthing it as she did.

Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Sliced Bracelet, M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

From that much talked about Degree Show, Georgacopoulos settled into a dual professional life, one that she admits as a recent graduate in super-competitive London she was fortunate to find herself in: doubling up as a design assistant for Antoine Sandoz where work included designing for companies as varied as Boucheron and Tom Ford and continuing to fulfil orders from her steady stream of private clients. By 2010, a mere three years since graduating she was already stocked in Dover Street Market and met the renowned jewellery curator and agency owner Valery Demure, who immediately suggested they work together. The meeting proved to be a career turning point “I thought okay, I have to decide. I am either going to carry on designing for other people or I am going to jump in, create my brand and focus on pearls….redesigning them and reinventing them.” The three years between graduation and launch allowed Georgacopoulos to refine her initial thesis, dream of new possibilities for the gemstone and critically do market research, “people had just forgotten about pearls. They just didn’t want to touch them and they didn’t know what to do with them,” This perfect storm of early critical acclaim, prestige  retail stockists and a unique niche were all she needed to proceed.

Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Stretched Stud Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos’ methodology and ethos is reminiscent of the jewellery-artists of old, figures such as Rene Lalique, who she cites as an influence and other interdisciplinary practitioners such as Margaret De Patta, who like her had ambitions of dismantling the elitism found in jewellery design because it limited wider participation. When we speak about nomenclature and whether she perceives herself as an artist, jeweller or something else she expands “It is only in the last year or two that I have allowed myself to see myself [as a jewellery-artist]. I think before I was really keen to prove that I was a good designer” Influences on her own design journey are varied; “Of course all the big houses but also Greek jewellers like Lalaounis, Zolotas and Fanourakis.”  She also has  high regard for another female pioneer at a heritage jewellery house, who also worked extensively with Mother of Pearl during her tenure at Tiffany and Co., Angela Cummings; “I think she did everything before anyone did anything. And she has not really been credited, I am not quite sure why, but I absolutely adore her work.”  Going back further to the first female creative director during the Art Nouveau movement in Paris she references the House of Boivin which was at the forefront of it adding “Yes, I am a fan of Suzanne Belperron like everyone else but at the same time I think I gravitate towards jewellery that is not obviously expensive.” 

Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Tiles MOP Bracelet (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Given the trajectory her own work has taken, it is craft jewellery she returns to for inspiration: “Munich Jewellery Week or Schmuck for example, I find them much more stimulating.” The craft jewellery scene, particularly now, is where one often sees the most experimental work, with creators unburdened by the history, commercial demands and the sales and marketing expectations of large jewellery houses. For Georgacopoulos stimuli comes in many forms, “I tend to be drawn to work where I am not quite sure how it was made… For example David Bielander, his collection called Cardboard…it looked exactly like cardboard but it was actually made with silver and gold…I  also like pieces from certain people…like Taffin and Caroline Broadhead who was the head of department at Central Saint Martins for many years. I guess it is more about specific pieces rather than one designer’s repertoire for me.” What consistently appeals to Georgacopoulos and is echoed in her own work is a certain intellectual vigour either in concept or execution and crucially a singular point of view that translates in the pieces.

MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
MOP Cube Stud Earrings (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Democratising Jewellery and Celebrating Materials

Whoever thought that jewellery collections cannot involve an intellectualism or speak to deeper questions would find a riposte in many of Georgacopoulos’ collections for her eponymous brand. For someone working with pearls, hitherto considered one of the most conservative of luxury gemstones there are streaks of bold commentary and rebellion in her work. There is also an outright challenging of aesthetics and notions of value particularly in her work with Mother of Pearl as seen in the collections, Nacre, Tiles, Gemstones and Cube. Explaining the genesis of her ideas she relates: “It started as a very spontaneous response to the jewellery auctions that I was observing at the time, very big gemstones, coloured diamonds, the Blue Moon of Josephine ( a rare blue diamond that fetched $48,468,158 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2015) , I don’t know the other ones names,  but all these massive diamonds were fetching a ridiculous amount of money.” The auctions were happening around the same time Georgacopoulos was exploring ways that she could utilise Mother Of Pearl, hitherto a waste product of the pearling industry in her designs. “I feel about Mother Of Pearl the same way I felt about pearls ten years ago, which was what is going on and why was no one doing something interesting?” Unlike pearls, which have always held a high monetary and aesthetic value to collectors, Mother of Pearl has not. She adds laughing “Philip Sajet who is another jeweller says everyone always talks about the pearl but no one talks about the mother…[But] once I realised that I wanted to make a comment about all those crazy jewellery auctions I thought what is the simplest design I can create that people will immediately recognise and identify with, and that was the most common jewellery cuts. Which were the brilliant, the cushion and  seven other different cuts and I decided to make a mosaic of all in Mother of Pearl. The resulting Gemstones collection completed in 2016 challenged conventional thinking. What makes a faceted ‘stone’ covetable and desirable, is it provenance, cost, colour, rarity? And for those concerned with the environment, something that even the most reluctant have to concede some awareness of, isn’t using both the Pearl and Mother of Pearl a responsible and preferred way to consume jewellery? And surely in this age of inclusivity shouldn’t democratisation of participation in jewellery, as Mother of Pearl pieces carry less hefty price-tags, also be up for discussion? Georgacopoulos adds “There should be a cap in my mind on how much things can cost [as when prices get this high] … it almost doesn’t feel like jewellery anymore it becomes something else”

Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Emerald Cufflinks (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Gemstones MOP Cushion Cut Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

With Nacre, designed in 2019, Georgacopoulos has given the clearest indication of where she is heading both as a jeweller and an artist, with this deep meditation on the soul of the pearl resulting in a bold and uncompromising collection that hint at her  time at Edinburgh studying Sculpture. “I always joke I am trying to return the pearl to its oyster” she explains of the pieces that see pearls set in correspondingly coloured Mother of Pearl seemingly disappearing back into their shell. The collection represents Georgacopoulos granting herself the permission to surrender fully to where her artistry will take her: “I accept what the piece comes out as without putting restrictions; whether they are monetary restrictions, or thinking Oh, who is going to wear this? Or it needs to be a bit smaller or it needs to do this or it needs to do that. The Nacre pieces…can stand as small sculptures in a space. So it is that line between jewellery looking like jewellery, having jewellery elements but also being an object. And I think that is why it ends up being more expensive because one needs for example a thicker piece of gold as you need that balance for the piece.” The collection alongside Cube (designed in 2018) which also features a pearl juxtaposed with a cube of Mother Of Pearl have not only opened discourses around a material which was hitherto disregarded but also allowed Georgacopoulos to play more with proportions and task herself with a new challenge. “What people consider a beautiful and valuable pearl is usually perfectly round, no blemishes, perfect lustre to the point that it looks fake especially if it is a really large one . I thought it was a good idea to reunite the pearl to the oyster to show that this is actually quite amazing even if it is a cultured pearl, as it is still a little animal creating this.” In her able hands she fashions that reality into adornments that are evocative of this particular truth.

Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Double Ring (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

This is not to say that Georgacopoulos is satisfied with her pieces being worn by habitués of PAD Fair, Frieze Art Fair and the Front Row at major global fashion weeks, although her work has an obvious appeal to people working in the creative industries and those who already have strong aesthetic sensibilities. She expands “I want to keep the jewellery open enough design wise that it appeals to a wider range of women and not just have one specific art or design lady who earns a lot of money and has eclectic taste as my client. I think women, people, are more diverse.” Furthermore, Georgacopoulos is determined to take  pearl jewellery out of the for-special-occasions-only silo adding “I intentionally want to have very wearable everyday pieces that people can buy without having to save up money for them ” To this end the Essence collection designed in 2014 and aforementioned Cube fit the rubric as they have an informal feel without compromising on Georgacopoulos’ design language. She adds “I don’t want to lose that connection with people who like the pieces I design but are not able to spend five figures on them” 

Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Essence Rings, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Co-Creating with an Innovative Heritage Brand

Recounting how her long-term collaboration with Japanese pearl heritage house Tasaki came into being, the predestined qualities of the story shine through. “The director of Tasaki was in London and saw my pieces in Dover Street Market…And I think they tried to locate me through my agent and I got an email saying that they wanted to invite me to Japan to meet with them over a week but  they didn’t really say what it was about.” What ensued was a creative courtship, with Georgacopoulos recalling  “They took me to Nagasaki to their pearl farm where I opened some oysters, I found some pearls inside and then they took me to Kobe where their production facility is and I was completely blown away. I remember thinking I am in Japan, I am talking to a Japanese pearl jewellery company, they are interested in my work, how crazy is this? I am basically a Greek girl, designing pearl jewellery and I have a giant of the pearl industry contacting me.” What the comprehensive tour indicated, was that the team at Tasaki had identified the talent that would assist them in creating collections that clearly positioned them as the avant-garde alternative to their main competitor  Mikimoto. Furthermore, they were willing, in spite of their history as an established heritage house, to humbly court her until she acquiesced. For her part, Georgacopoulos, on signing her contract in 2012  handed her breakthrough  degree collections: Sliced, Drilled and Arlequin to be extended and produced under the new marque they created  for the collaboration M/G Tasaki, in 2013.

Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Drilled Earrings M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Arlequin Bangle, M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Georgacopoulos is remarkably calm about what many might perceive as giving away her trademark work, she adds: “I was thinking, well, through my agent, and through me wholesaling I can probably sell five or ten of these [pieces] , but Tasaki can sell hundreds of these. Which means that for hundreds of customers, maybe thousands over time, they will have embraced something that is to a certain extent quite radical.” Additionally, from a creative perspective “it forced me to say okay, I have done this but now I move on. I want to test myself, challenge myself. I don’t want to repeat, just because it works. I don’t want to do this for the x amount of years I am going to work as a jeweller.”

Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Wedge Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Subsequent collections have followed the same commercial success and the collaboration has availed Georgacopoulos with the opportunity to have two parallel careers in the same industry.  Tasaki provides production and development facilities that a smaller brand can only dream of, whilst Georgacopoulos continues expanding on her mandate of reimagining pearl jewellery, but keeping a keen eye on commercial considerations, such as using diamonds and other gemstones. Collections of note have included to name a few Segment (2016), Grain and Woven (2018)

Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Segment Ring M/G Tasaki (Image courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

For a company steeped in history she reports that neither her gender or her not being Japanese have impeded her progress or created logjams.“It is by far the best professional experience I have had in my life. Not because it has been easy but because it has been very straightforward from the beginning. They chose me because they liked my jewellery voice, so they never imposed anything. Whenever I am supposed to do a new collection…I receive a plan with certain price points and a list of what has sold well in the past. But they never give me any directions in terms of design, so I come up with the design directions, I send a huge amount of drawings and they tell me okay we feel this is right for us this season and we will develop that.” It speaks positive volumes of Tasaki’s corporate culture and in many ways future-proofs them for the 21st century. With call-out and cancel culture catching many a jewellery and fashion behemoth in the crosshairs, the arrangement between Georgacopoulos and Tasaki is one where mutual respect is forefront, exploitation and discrimination is entirely absent and she is availed the technical support and expertise to deliver products that customers will love. It is a collaboration template that many will no doubt seek to emulate as increasingly discerning customers seek out jewellery that is  both beautiful and made by brands that share their values.

Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Woven Necklace M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

Authenticity and the future of Jewellery

“I am very excited to see students working with pearls.” Georgacopolous says. As a Visiting Lecturer in the BA Jewellery Design course at Central Saint Martin’s, she works  principally with final year students. She is also quick to encourage them to be as audacious as she was adding “We should always try to imagine something different. There is no point in repeating the past… fine, it is not easy for anyone but what will make you stand out ultimately is your individual expression.” Authenticity, has become something of a buzzword in the worlds of jewellery and fashion with brands large and small, devising multifarious plans to engage and attract customers in an ever crowded marketplace. By teaching students to chart their own course early, Georgacopoulos hopes to provide them with a blueprint for a successful existence that stretches beyond the jewellery bench. And generous to a fault, she uses her own Instagram handle as a means of amplification, posting graduate and recent graduates’ work to followers.

Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Grain Double Ring M/G Tasaki (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

We close our conversation considering the luxury space in light of the Covid19 pandemic, which in addition to claiming lives, has laid waste to businesses globally. What does she feel this time means for the future of luxury and jewellery in particular? Georgacopoulos’ response is emphatic. “Whether it is fashion, jewellery, or objects , I really hope we are going to embrace more craftsmanship, handmade things and not just buying something that is made five thousand times and paying a premium because it has a nice big logo on. I just cannot identify with that for my own life.” `Conscious consumption aside, lockdown has also been  a season where Georgacopoulos has not only embraced the juggle of parenting, homeschooling and designing, but also questioned the way jewellery is currently marketed and the myth-making that goes hand in hand with it. She notes “I feel this moment is generally translating into people showing a bit more of themselves and not the image they think they have to project.” Discussing her forthcoming campaign imagery she expands “I really don’t want the beautiful woman with the perfect nails looking absolutely stunning and wearing matching jewellery pieces which is the typical stereotype…. I think as women we are relaxing a little bit more [in regard to] how we show ourselves and this idea of perfection that essentially men have imposed on us.” Pearls as the ornamental armour for the woman who is in control of her own destiny, rather than a debutante or grand dame whose identity is contingent on her provenance or who she married? It doesn’t get more modern than that.

Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Nacre Bangle, (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

Georgacopoulos’ trajectory is a masterclass in the power of focus and determined application. Each creative chapter on her journey so far seamlessly feeds into the next: from childhood experimental maker to student silversmith, sculptor, jewellery designer and now jewellery artist. Whilst her ascent may appear speedy, having courage in her convictions has also played its part. Few would dare to present a degree show with such a fundamental rule broken  or indeed continue to challenge pre=conceived notions in high jewellery. Her design explorations and collaborations also indicate a creator who although fortunate to find her niche early, has still remained open to widening its locus and the modus operandi of execution, as seen in her work for her eponymous brand, M/G Tasaki and special commissions, exhibitions and shows such as ‘Le Cabinet de Curiosites de Thomas Erber,’ held in Paris in 2015. Her humility in light of her successes is indicative of a creator who still believes there is much more to explore as hubris is normally borne out of complacency which Georgacopoulos is the very opposite of. Before we part company she leaves me pondering a profound statement that incapsulates the emotional connection people form with their jewellery and by extension the jewellery creatives they admire: “People buy energy…You buy the energy of a piece, the energy that you take from it, the energy that it gives you, the energy that you feel when you wear it or when you own it.” Groundbreaking designs aside it is her enduring optimism and candour that guides her work: “I try to be as honest as I can and I like the idea of opening things up instead of saying ah, this is a secret and exclusive.” In this modern age of inclusiveness, collaboration and widening the remit of participation, her career feels built to last.

Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)
Thomas Erber Rectangle Necklace (Image Courtesy of Melanie Georgacopoulos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Melanie Eddy’s Many Facets

“Any maker wants their work to speak first” says Melanie Eddy, but when the work ranges from jeweller, to academic, to international development expert and now educational change agent, it doesn’t just speak, it shouts from the rooftops. Amongst the jewellery cognoscenti Eddy is a noted voice: her atelier situated in the heart of Clerkenwell, London’s traditional jewellery district is a destination for collectors of her arresting pieces in gold and silver that are informed by her love of architecture and geometry. As a lecturer on the MA Ceramics, Furniture and Jewellery programme at the world renowned Central Saint Martin’s, she is stewarding the next generation of creative visionaries. Furthermore, her work in the development sector has seen her spearhead programmes that use jewellery as a socio-economic catalyst and cultural anchor in post-conflict territories. A Director for the Association for Contemporary Jewellery, Eddy is to some extent part of the jewellery establishment, although her Bermudan-New Zealander heritage have oftentimes made her the only person of colour with a seat at the proverbial table and brought with it attendant challenges. Our wide ranging conversation, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting global protests against racism and white supremacy, inevitably turns to the lack of diversity in the jewellery world and debates around inclusivity, something that Eddy is seamlessly addressing with a practical and professional approach.

Melanie Eddy image: Nicola Muirhead
Melanie Eddy in her studio. Image by Nicola Muirhead

Tackling Diversity, Challenging Perceptions
“I have been teaching for six years at Central Saint Martins…and since I have been on the course I have not seen a jeweller come on the course who is of black heritage.” Eddy relates, in soft spoken tones that convey razor sharp analyses and somewhat uncomfortable truths, sweetened by their delicate delivery. Considering the situation from the perspective of potential students she notes “if you don’t see many exemplars from your community…people don’t visualise themselves in that space because it is removed from their reality.” Rather than merely lament the situation, Eddy has put her relationships within the industry to powerful effect. As a co=founder of the Jewellery Futures Fund,  Eddy together with Rachel Garrahan, Jewellery and Watch Director of British Vogue and Annabel Davidson, Vanity Fair’s  On Jewellery editor are responding to the issues head-on: from providing bursaries for black students, to paid internships for graduates  across the jewellery sector and grants for emerging designers and makers of colour.  It is an audacious plan of action that is a continuum of conversations she has initiated throughout her career, but which came to a head in recent weeks. “When all of this stuff was coming out people were like oh my God, this is horrible, what can we do? And I kind of was like well, actually..” She says wryly laughing at the memory: “The jewellery industry is so frigging white….There are some of us here and there needs to be more of us.”  Eddy recognises her luck in being able to complete her studies via a combination of grants, bursaries and assistance from her family and is passionate that the fund expands the participation pool so that the jewellery industry truly evolves. Significantly, the fund takes the tripartite approach of education, work experience and investing in black students and thus has the potential to address the issue in a holistic and measurable manner long after the marches hashtags and comment pieces have ceased flooding our collective feeds and timelines.

Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Geometric Gold Rings: Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Eddy’s love affair with jewellery is lifelong; “my connection to jewellery definitely came from my Mum and my grandmother because they were very stylish and they had jewellery boxes full of all kinds of treasures” It was not long before Eddy became something of an autodidact: “I was reading about gems in the school library and stuff like that and then I made a bit of jewellery at high school but with bits of glass as I didn’t have gems” However, her route into the industry wasn’t linear, initially studying for a joint honours  in English and International and Comparative Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Huron University College, as in her words “I had the grades” rather than opting for the more precarious path of full-time creative. Yet, she found her way back to jewellery although not without experiencing first hand numerous micro-aggressions as a woman of colour: “I applied to the Royal College of Art and I didn’t get accepted but not only did I not get accepted in my interview I was talked to and treated in not a very nice way to the extent that another tutor apologised and helped me apply to other institutions…I was really ripped to shreds at the interview and it really impacted me.” Neither was this an isolated incident, Eddy adds: “As the years passed jewellery [making] had started to become smaller and my other work [in the industry] became bigger because I found it easier in terms of being heard…I didn’t feel the same kind of reception in the jewellery sector. I have been turned down for exhibitions, I have been turned down for things that I have applied for and people looking at my stuff would be like how is that possible?” But whilst she leaves the question open, it is clear that the unconscious bias and overt prejudice had resulted in many decision makers within the industry either unwilling or lacking in imagination to posit her among the vanguard of jewellery designers paving the way in the early 21st century.

Topaz Engagement Ring and Wedding Band. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Topaz Engagement Ring and Wedding Band. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

For Eddy, a clear design language has always been at the heart of her practice and has resulted in pieces that are immediately recognisable as her own. She elaborates: “For me it was really important to keep the message clear in my jewellery but it was also a contested space..people would say you are not making work about your experience or it doesn’t look like the kind of work they would expect from a black person or one from the Caribbean.” Further upending external expectations are her architectural forms and references, which for the lazy reviewer belonged to a male practitioner: “In terms of architecture two elements resonate for me: sacred architecture of all faiths and doctrines and the sparseness of Tadao Ando’s designs and how deliberate he was in terms of interaction and creating these very experiential spaces” In addition to Ando, she cites Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid as having influenced her work, as well as the avant-garde artist and pioneer of the Suprematist movement Kazimir Malevich. Indeed her jewellery, often includes geometric shapes and gemstones cut and set in such a way that they are evocative of abstract art. When worn, the pieces create new silhouettes on the wearer’s body, reminiscent of the way a new building transforms both the existing landscape it is situated in and people’s relationship to it. For those seeking pieces with intellectual depth of meaning Eddy’s work is consistent in its messaging and intriguing in equal measure. Not to say this has not gone without resistance or comment: “Why should I have to adapt to  perceptions of blackness?” She rightly asks. It is an important question, inclusion is only one part of the diversity equation, of equal import are expectations and narrow suppositions. Tribal references, bright colours and heavy ornamentation should not become the only aesthetic and design silo for the female jeweller of colour to operate from.

Blue Topaz and Palladium Ring. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Blue Topaz and Palladium Ring. Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Eddy is emphatic in recognising the pioneer women and black jewellers who are important standard bearers and touchstones for herself and future generations: “Top of the list has to be Jacqueline Rabun. I spoke to her for the first time yesterday and I was starstruck and surprised that I was even able to have a proper chat with her as I was grinning so hard.” she says of the African-American designer who in addition to her own private atelier has spearheaded a commercial and creative revival at heritage Danish jewellery house Georg Jensen.  Suzanne Belperron, a designer from back in the day [and] of course Elsa Perretti for Tiffany are also big inspirations.” Of arguably the first great black designer of the contemporary era she notes: “I didn’t know much about Art Smith until much later.” That Smith still remains relatively unknown is something Eddy is seeking to rectify via the lens of education and increased visibility for designers of colour: “It is important for us to come to the fore because it means younger people will feel validated and that the space is for them.” 

 

Jewellery as a Catalyst for Change

It is perhaps in Eddy’s roles in the third sector that has seen her work overtly cross over into the political realm, and curiously take her back to her first discipline of international development: “All of the projects that I have been involved in…have had a collaborative nature to them, a local component and the agency is there from the country side as supposed to a drop-in kind of situation because I feel uncomfortable {with that] and have actually interrogated that process.” Consultancies have taken her extensively across Central and South Asia where she sought means for jewellery makers, miners and artisans to create further value. She expands: “looking at real solutions to income generation in countries ravaged by war, debating the course of sustainable business practices for the creative sector, how we continue to provide opportunities to all spectrums of society to engage in that process for keeping art and design colleges diverse culturally and economically….that is when I see the value of my voice at those tables.” For countries such as Afghanistan with rich mineral deposits but limited capacity building mechanisms and where Eddy worked at Turquoise Mountain’s Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, practitioners who were conversant in the political and economic challenges, but committed to creating scenarios that glean the greatest good were a welcome boon, she notes: “Turquoise Mountain was different …they don’t operate that standard model..they wind things up and it becomes run by nationals which is the best way.”

Aquamarine and Gold Ring: Image Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Aquamarine and Gold Engagement Ring and Wedding Band: Image Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

However, even in these fora, western-centric thinking often proved problematic. “These cultures have a history of excellence and expertise we were just facilitating growth on existing legacies and craftsmanship… [For instance} they have a history of gold craftsmanship in parts of East and West Africa.. In Afghanistan there is a history of gem cutting…what is sometimes frustrating about some of these projects is not acknowledging what is happening in the communities. The [projects] that are done really well acknowledge the history, that it is not about bringing European techniques” She is equally scathing about models that see global marketshare increasing as the only true measure of success: “It is as if the only viable consumer is the international consumer, the western global consumer which is ridiculous. If you look at the demographics in regard to what is happening with the growing middle and higher economic classes  in Africa for instance, the market is there. The market is not abroad. Within 40 or 50 years people will wake up to this reality but right now they are still in a bit of a daze…Any strategy has to be cognisant of fostering a community, fostering growth and fostering engagement with local markets and growing local markets.” Perhaps black jewellery designers be they on the continent or in the diaspora would do well to explore emerging economies and territories rather than fix their gaze firmly on the west? What is most significant is how this body of work clearly illustrates how jewellery, an item deemed as a luxury and to some a frippery can be at the forefront of  enabling economic prosperity, political stability and cultural exchange.

 

Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy
Image: Courtesy of Melanie Eddy

Looking to the future of jewellery, particularly via the lens of black jewellery designers, Eddy is optimistic even though creating jewellery collections, campaigning for better terms of engagement within the industry, teaching her students and consulting in the development sector has resulted in fatigue and occasional disillusionment “ it is lonely and it is isolating” she says and it is in instances such as this that old friends such as the writer Afua Hirsch come into play: “she is really super busy but we will still connect and talk occasionally and she has given me the fortitude to stay the course.” Because Eddy’s work goes far beyond herself and personal and professional plaudits. It is about correcting historical injustices where opportunities to participate and recognition of the quality of work produced by black jewellery designers were limited at best and obstructed and ignored at worst. It is about expanding the locus of taste to incorporate aesthetic values from other parts of the world and halt the western gaze that sees difference as intrinsically inferior. It is about those working in the industry, especially in countries with considerable mineral wealth finally seeing equitable working conditions and pay. And finally it is about using her considerable talent as a designer and maker to create pieces that speak to her clients and transform their mood, ensembles and life from the moment they wear them. With her prodigious talent, crystal clear values and  tenacious spirit, the best from her for her collectors, students and the industry is yet to come.