Constructing a legacy: In conversation with Francesca Grima

“I only design jewellery that I would want to wear myself and I lead an incredibly casual lifestyle.” says Francesca Grima, creative director of Grima Jewellery the fabled house that was founded by her father Andrew Grima in 1952 and he ran until his death in 2007. Casual is of course relative; now based full-time in London, a childhood in Switzerland and travelling as her parents’ de facto plus one meant hers was a lifestyle with a front row seat to the vanguard of late 20th century design creativity. Yet, from the start of our conversation it is clear that Grima is as far away as one could imagine from the creative heiress cliché that we have grown accustomed to hearing and reading about. She qualifies her statements with exemplum; not for her the trailing off sentence that is often indicative of foggy thinking. And in many ways it is reflective of her lifelong love of architecture, where design rationale and building methodology are of equal import to aesthetics and feelings elicited by the finished product. Her pieces, like her late father’s possess a singularity of vision, and simultaneously challenge and expand notions of what we can wear and indeed how we can wear it. As she elucidates further “rather than in the 80s where everyone enjoyed going to a dinner party and someone saying, ‘oh darling you have the same necklace as I do’ nowadays it is more about having unique pieces and the sense of discovery.” For Grima, holding close to a particular design brief is made complex by her twin roles as keeper of a heritage house’s flame and Firestarter in the 21st century.

Francesca Grima wears Nicholas Oakwell Couture, Image: Simon Melber
Francesca Grima wears Nicholas Oakwell Couture, Image: Simon Melber

When You’re the daughter of the Father of Modern Jewellery

“My mother and I both run the company and we both design.” Grima explains. Her mother Jojo is a scion of the Cullinan family, the South African mining dynasty best known for discovering the 3,106 carat Cullinan Diamond. Jewellery was and indeed still is an implicit part of the family’s day to day and she notes “having parents who worked in the business meant they never really switched off. Sitting around the dinner table they’d be talking business and I even had to tell them from time to time can we please talk about something else because aged six I didn’t really want to hear about the clients and the problems.” However, this immersive education, meant that Grima possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the mechanics of maintaining and growing a family business, where relationship building is as important as creating unforgettable pieces for highly visually literate clientele. Furthermore, she quickly discovered that it was imperative that one’s own clearly formed design language was the sine qua non of operating in the rarefied world of luxury.

Citrine Ring, Yellow Sapphire Ring, Citrine and Diamond Ring, Yellow Gold and Carre Diamond Ring, All by Andrew Grima. Image: Courtesy of F Grima
Citrine Ring, Yellow Sapphire Ring, Citrine and Diamond Ring, Yellow Gold and Carre Diamond Ring, All by Andrew Grima. Image: Courtesy of F Grima
Brooch Pendant Set with Natural Pearls, diamonds and white gold by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Brooch Pendant Set with Natural Pearls, diamonds and white gold by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

Andrew Grima’s sobriquet – and also the title of a book published in 2020 celebrating his career – was ‘the father of modern jewellery’. And whilst hyperbole of this kind is frequent in jewellery circles, in this instance it is no overstatement. Many aspects of the contemporary jewellers’ tool kit – the use of textured precious metal, the elevation of semi-precious stones, adventurous proportions and conceptually playful pieces can be traced to particular pieces he designed and ideas he realized. A pioneer of ‘the jewellery retail destination’, his first shopfront in London’s gentleman’s mecca Jermyn Street – designed by his architect brothers with a staircase by Ove & Arup – was feted as an experience in and of itself when it opened in 1966. In possession of ‘Old Hollywood’ good looks, he was also ahead of the curve regarding the notion of being one’s own brand ambassador; a fixture at the smartest events internationally, his celebrity status was immortalized in a starring role in a Campari soda advertisement. His most googled piece is a carved ruby brooch given by the Duke of Edinburgh to his wife, and he remains the highest recipient of De Beers Diamonds International Awards by any jeweller. His legacy, such was its breadth and depth could have been overwhelming for his daughter, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” However, rather than said crown becoming a creative millstone, she has chosen to wear it lightly. “I think my father because he was such an original would definitely want me to be an original and not to look back too much on the archives when it comes to designing, which I don’t do.” The net result is that whilst vintage Andrew Grima is often a hymnal to nature in all its forms, and the pieces designed by her mother Jojo act as poetic companion pieces to that design thesis, Francesca Grima’s design language in contrast is guided by a quest to make bold statements that are underpinned by minimalistic principles. Extrapolating on the theme, she adds “I’m very much inspired by product designers such as Dieter Rams who designed for Braun, he always said simple is better.”

Yellow Gold and Lodolite Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Lodolite Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Quartz and Yellow Gold Cuff by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Quartz and Yellow Gold Cuff by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

This is not to say that she arrived at this point speedily; reminiscing “My earlier body of work – oh my God I sound so pretentious” she says laughing “was very organic I would almost call it frilly which is terrible, but they would definitely not be my style anymore.” The clues to Grima’s continued design prompts are there in the work, and for those who prefer to decipher clues on jeweller’s Instagram handles, her timeline. “I am mostly inspired by artists or architecture. I photograph a lot and there are always shapes and textures that I come across in my photographic walks and that’s what inspires me for the simple gold pieces.” Brutalism masterpieces such as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London’s Kensal Green and George Marsh’s CentrePoint also in London are captured on her handle alongside classic cars and works of contemporary art that have particularly moved her. It is thus unsurprising that she feels comfortable viewing herself as a jewellery-artist. “When I look at a piece of art, I want the art to give me some emotion. I think I would like the person who wears one of my pieces to feel a sense of happiness by wearing it.” Grima recognizes that energetic exchanges be they in the built environment or on the body are constantly happening and her pieces act as a conduit to such exchanges. One recent piece that speaks to this is the Dot Ring which was part of Vivienne Becker and Phillips Auction House New Modernism exhibition. “So I’ve always been a fan of Yoyoi Kusama’s work and I have been wanting to do something that is inspired by her for quite a long time… then I came across this white agate and I thought it’s an opaque stone it needs a ‘pop’ design that is very graphic hence the dots.” Francesca is not a maker herself, “we use all the same goldsmiths I mean obviously there are some who have passed on now, but we still have goldsmiths who worked with my father and understand our process” In the instance of the Dot Ring her determination for a specific vision resulted in a temporary impasse but ultimately favourable result. “The goldsmith said, ‘Ok, I will just set those gold dots on top of the agate’ and I said ‘no, no, no it needs to be tactile, so you need to actually carve into the agate, so that the gold dots are flush and if you run your fingers over it feels good.’” Choosing not to surrender to compromised tactility is illustrative of how resoluteness and rigour often begets work that is consistently memorable. Francesca’s edict of optimized wearability is especially tested when making rings, as hands are in constant use and display but this did not deter her. Furthermore, it was not enough for the piece to be a visual paean to Kusama it was also a thematic one, a piece that points to abstract surrealism but is also reflective of two female freethinking artists choosing first and foremost to work and present their work on their own terms.

Coral, Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Francesca Grima. Image Coutesy of F. Grima
Coral, Yellow Gold and Diamond Brooch by Francesca Grima. Image Coutesy of F. Grima
Dot Ring by Francesca Grima, White Agate and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dot Ring by Francesca Grima, White Agate and Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Romancing the Stone

Who or indeed what determines a piece’s worth? One could limit one’s response based on the trading prices on the global metal exchanges and diamond bourses or one could add factors such as trends, the maison or house making the jewellery itself or the reputation of the artist involved in its design. Unusual gemstone choices were a key differentiator of Andrew Grima’s work and central to his initial success, and explorations in materialism continue to be part of Francesca’s own work. “The strange thing is the stones that my father used in the 60s and 70s had no intrinsic value then… tourmaline crystals you can’t find anymore, so they have actually become precious stones, so that’s quite interesting.” As well as the aforementioned tourmalines, aquamarines, moonstones and quartz were treated with equal reverence to diamonds by Andrew and it is an approach shared by Francesca whose principal intention when working with gemstones is “to highlight the stone and it’s beauty and make it the protagonist.” Casting gemstones as leading ladies in a supporting cast of metallic forms also highlights a historic and cultural aspect around wearing jewellery; when curative and spiritual powers were attributed to certain gemstones. It is a notion that still endures, even when not explicitly alluded to; as certain pieces and heirlooms become part of an individual or if inherited, the family’s talismanic armory. In her making process Grima asserts that “the stone just really needs to speak to you”, before she will consider making something with it and in a direct riposte to people treating jewellery like chips in a casino she notes “if someone shows interest in a piece and says ‘how many carats is this tourmaline?’, I will kind of know from then that they haven’t understood what we do.” In many ways there is a schism within the jewellery world that has been percolating for decades. On one side those who live for the high value, super large and rare gemstones that even before they are made into anything fetch for the tens of millions at auction, and those who are more interested in the artistic landscape, conceptual concerns and in some cases spiritual or social commentary a jewellery designer or artist is making with completed pieces. This is not to say it is a clear binary, with many houses’ bodies of work and clientele overlapping between the two concerns. However, for independent houses, where one sits on the cultural divide is important from an operational perspective. With Grima the remit is clear as Francesca concludes “what we do is not at all about the intrinsic value of the piece. It is about creating and selling wearable art and sculpture.”

Blue Topaz, Yellow Gold and Diamond Ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Blue Topaz, Yellow Gold and Diamond Ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dioptase mounted in yellow gold and framed by baguette diamonds ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Dioptase mounted in yellow gold and framed by baguette diamonds ring by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Textured Wire Bangle by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Yellow Gold and Textured Wire Bangle by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Assessing the contribution of the house of Grima to the contemporary jewellery landscape is a task that has been tackled most recently by William Grant magisterial monograph. Grima was also included in Mary Anne Wingfield’s Modern British Jewellery Designers, which contextualises the rise of many independent houses in the United Kingdom and how factors such as the price of gold, two royal jewellery loving ladies (Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret) and the challenging and in some cases dismantling of cultural and socioeconomic norms paved the way for radical jewellery design and its avid consumption. But not everyone who was ‘white hot cool’ survived this particular zeitgeist and Francesca notes “What I find when I look at jewellers of my father’s generation who haven’t been I will use the word as successful, is that with my father’s jewellery he somehow got all the proportions right.” To illustrate her point she references a citrine and diamond brooch of his design, “It is so stunning and it shows this organic movement and flow which just came so naturally to him.” For her part, Francesca has made many a piece which posits a stone as the main event but with her minimalistic approach. “I designed a pyrite ring a few years ago, which was really simple. It was a huge pyrite and then a block of diamonds that were mimicking the pyrite crystals.” Another personal favourite of hers is an ammonite necklace which she adds “just encapsulates everything I love at the moment. Which is sort of that brutalist design, very simple, just highlighting the stone, making it the protagonist and just really easy to wear.”

Textured Gold Wire, Citrine and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Textured Gold Wire, Citrine and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Pyrite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Pyrite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Ammonite Necklace by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Ammonite Necklace by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

The design techniques pioneered by Andrew Grima have been well documented especially his use of textured gold wire and his love of nature. But the thread that seems most relevant, and what acutely binds his and Francesca’s world beyond consanguinity is the mandate to make wearing treasure in one’s everyday standard but still with romance at its heart. On the landing page of the company’s website sneakers are adorned with vintage brooches and a basic singlet elevated with a tanzanite and diamond brooch as one does when one can. There is an insouciance but also a tacit permission to enjoy your jewellery as and how you wish, not to be dictated by its value or the importance of the event or the caliber of people who will appreciate what you are wearing. Because if not now when?

Earrings and Brooch Set in gold textured wire, natural pearls and diamonds by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Earrings and Brooch Set in gold textured wire, natural pearls and diamonds by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Gold Textured Wire and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Gold Textured Wire and Diamond Brooch by Andrew Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Tanzanite, Gold Textured Wire anad Diamond Brooch by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Tanzanite, Gold Textured Wire anad Diamond Brooch by Jojo Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

Heirlooms, Heritage and the Future Present

Heritage houses still run by the familial founders often rise and fall on the next generation of custodians. Economic factors and unsustainable expansions can also take their toll. One contemporary peer, Kutchinsky was ultimately bought out in 1991 by Moussaieff Jewellers and many others from the 1960s and 70s have stopped producing with their work only appearing on specialist jewellery websites or at auction. In many ways Grima under the co-steer of Francesca and her mother Jojo have the perfect mix of a direct link to the founder and a creative lead who is very much in touch with how modern clients enjoy their luxury. With contemporary conversations so closely aligned to traceability of gemstones few companies can attest as Francesca does “We have stone dealers who are actually the children of stone dealers who worked with my father, so the trust is there implicitly.” Furthermore, Francesca’s agility on social media platforms has meant the company is able to adapt to the 24/7 concierge service expectation that has proliferated the art, design and jewellery worlds. “I think that is where the responsibility lies in terms of innovating and bringing the company forward… If I put a photograph up on Instagram I respond to every message. And that’s what I love and maybe it is because I am a bit of a control freak, but I will see it through to purchase and I also do all the bookkeeping and the photography.” Personally grueling and potentially exhausting as this model might be, it allows for the family to cut through the middlemen and the PR machines and speak directly to the consumer. They also get to control their narrative, and in an age where authenticity is prized, it makes their brand enduringly compelling. For those who seek to have a private commission, an intimate atelier appointment awaits them where the client will be attended to without a jot of the snooty energy that is sometimes associated with high jewellery houses, it is an important consideration, especially as conversations around spaces being truly inclusive continue.

Disco Ring by Francesca Grima, Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Malachite. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Disco Ring by Francesca Grima, Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Malachite. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Orange Peel Ring by Andrew Grima, Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Orange Peel Ring by Andrew Grima, Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

However, it is not only Grima’s business savvy coupled with her social media and tech proficiencies and informality that bodes well for the company but also her ability to like her father create contemporary future classics. She says laughing “Timeless classics are something that are very difficult to design because you don’t really know you are designing them.” Indeed, it is a truism most evocatively witnessed in her own father’s About Time series of watches for Omega, a 55-timepiece collaboration that in the making in 1969 wasn’t foreseen either by himself or the watchmakers as creations that would birth a devoted and cult following independent of either brand. Owning one shows a different level of horology appreciation, and when pushed Francesca cites the ‘Elegance’ watch as her personal favourite. However, returning to her own oeuvre her numerous explorations in agate possess the elements of classics already in the making, as she dares to create a seemingly oxymoronic distillation of bold minimalism; an artist unafraid to continue returning to a medium and in each iteration discovering it anew. “I think it is the range of colours in agate that I am drawn to. I love when it’s frosted…as you don’t really have to add much to make it really beautiful…Also you can make a ring that is fully agate without having to be too worried about it breaking, which you can’t really do with another stone.” Her pragmatic approach is ever present but is a godsend for those new to jewellery collecting who might not even be aware of stone durability as a consideration when purchasing a piece.

Elegance Watch. Andrew Grima for Omega. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Elegance Watch. Andrew Grima for Omega. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Frosted Agate Ring with White Gold and Diamonds by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima
Frosted Agate Ring with White Gold and Diamonds by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F Grima

Grima does not see jewellery as a competition with an expectation for certain performative measures to ensure long term success. “I like us being different. I like us being niche and exclusive. And I don’t see how getting our jewellery on a celebrity is going to make us a bigger success if you know what I mean.” Perhaps, one might argue she is speaking from a place of privilege, a heritage house that has ridden the sartorial and economic waves with aplomb. But one only need observe how every heritage behemoth house has been quick to sign up a celebrity as ‘collaborator’ to see just how brave this approach is. When asked whether commercial success or artistic relevance are her principle driver, Grima responds without hesitation “100% artistic relevance”. She fearlessly elegantly pushes conversations around value and collectability. “I do believe one should look at a piece of jewellery as a work of art. You don’t question the price of a canvas when you buy a painting so why would you do that with a piece of jewellery?” In our peak consumerist information saturated age, when we are all in danger of to quote Oscar Wilde ‘knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing” proposing that jewellery speak for itself, no hashtags and hefty price tags bandied about in public as justification, becomes a radical act that places art as the highest conderation. But it is also a potent act of love, for the craft, for the ideation and process that comes in the making and for the clients who dare to put their heads above the parapet of what is expected and wear only what truly speaks to them. Principles that still bring profit are great, set in an unusual gemstone or none at all, they become truly luxurious.

Lychee Brooch by Andrew Grima. Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lychee Brooch by Andrew Grima. Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lodolite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima
Lodolite and Diamond Ring by Francesca Grima. Image Courtesy of F. Grima

And Then There Is Feng J: High Jewellery with a Different Locus

How does one get to speak to Feng J, one of high jewellery’s hottest properties, when time zones, an ever-expanding client list and perhaps most pertinent of all you don’t share a lingua franca? You wait for the calm before the Christmas storm but after a glorious success at Design Miami to set upon a time. Next, you negotiate a late-night call to Shanghai. Then you ensure that David Tsui, Feng’s Mandarin speaking business partner (who previously worked for advertising giant Ogilvy in New York) is on the call too in an interpreter capacity, allowing for our three way conversation, to take on a rhythm of its own and are always meticulously referenced with a Feng piece, a vivid anecdote or a witty sidebar from Tsui himself. And finally, prior and after the call itself, one returns intermittently to an Instagram page and website awash with otherworldly pieces with exquisite craftsmanship and an obsessive (in the best way) level of detail. Because at the heart of Feng’s story is a commitment to pushing the proverbial envelope; cost, time and established norms be damned, after all, this is how singular aesthetic voices and legends are made.

Feng J wears Coeur En Rouge Earrings Lacquer on Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels,  Image Courtesy of Feng J
Feng J wears Coeur En Rouge Earrings Lacquer on Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J

Journeying and trusting in the Destination

“As a person I have always thought about having the highest standards and being in the locations that reflect that I am operating at the highest standards. For financial people you would go to Wall Street in New York and for High Jewellery the only place is Paris…. I needed to be there to see the good things, the good people and start in a good place.” Feng J is an intentional creative and unapologetically so. The high-jewellery artist founded her eponymous brand Feng J Haute Joaillerie in 2016 and conscious of the opportunities and historical cultural lodestars of that world chose to insert herself in the heart of it, in this instance with an atelier in the Place Vendôme. Somewhat intriguingly, jewellery was not her chosen career, she explains; “My dream was to study sport’s car design, I applied to a very famous school in California, the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena. But there was a problem with my visa and it was rejected to the US. So, I decided to shift my direction to London, and I went to Central Saint Martin’s to study jewellery design for my masters followed by gemology in Gubelin in Switzerland.” Car design’s loss was ultimately jewellery’s gain but Feng’s artistic and creative background is more varied still: her great-grandfather was a court painter during the Qing Dynasty and her first degree was in furniture and production design at China Academy of Art, with Wang Shu, China’s only Pritzker Architecture Prize winner as her tutor. These seemingly disparate threads come together in Feng’s unique design language which she describes as ‘painting with gemstones’ and in her creating a setting technique to realise her complex designs.
Proudly Chinese and seemingly strongly influenced by her classical jewellery education, Feng who is originally from Hangzhou, felt it essential that her atelier in Shanghai act as the physical headquarters for the brand. Tsui interjects with a laugh that “Shanghai’s nickname is the Paris of the Orient.” But when explaining her choice of location Feng adds “Yes, Shanghai is very Parisian. And the atelier is in the city’s French Concession which is very interesting as it echoes our Paris location. But it’s larger. The building is five floors and we put a lot of paintings, sculpture and installations in this house showcasing the best of Chinese artistic creativity and pieces bought on my travels too. We also have the atelier the studio and some of the production.” Whilst the global luxury epicentre has tilted east with many Western brands openly acknowledging that sales from Asia are the lifeblood from which they survive, Feng’s decision to make her Shanghai location such a powerful destination place in and of itself is indicative of an agenda that seeks to expand the spaces and places we expect luxury to emanate from. Presenting her nation’s cultural and artistic excellence is not only “a little dream within my career I am happy to share” but also “very meaningful as we are a brand from mainland China that wants to stand on the global high jewellery stage.”

Maison Feng J: Image Courtesy of Feng J
Maison Feng J: Image Courtesy of Feng J
Flying Leaf Earrings: Diamonds, Opals. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Flying Leaf Earrings: Diamonds, Opals. Image Courtesy of Feng J

Feng’s rise has been extraordinarily swift and she is quick to note that she has not felt a victim of Sinophobia. At this point Tsui adds that from a business perspective “being Chinese now is not her big problem.” Furthermore, local and international press have embraced her work. “The Financial Times and New York Times, they all wrote features” Tsui adds. For her part Feng notes that her clientele is drawn from jewellery lovers and collectors globally. “Some are from New York some from Palm Beach and some from the Middle East and of course I have a lot of clients from mainland China and Hong Kong.” What is significant for Feng is their shared intent: “My clients buy my pieces in a way that art collectors do.” Positioning herself as a jewellery artist has been a boon. In bypassing the segments where jewellery is created with a more overt commercial aim, and thus having to be adept to thematic shapeshifting to reflect current trends and cultural conversations, Feng can focus on the things that principally interest her – her craft and artistry. She has also inadvertently created a Feng J collector community: just as those who are particularly interested in a particular artistic movement might run into each other in the various global auction rooms, Feng whose work most recently was part of the Vivienne Becker curated Woman to Woman selling auction at Phillips Hong Kong, as well as in the inaugural Design Miami, Shanghai Show in November 2021, has become an inevitable part of the jewellery artist landscape.

Calla Lily Ring, Emerald, Yellow Sapphires, Tsavorites, Diamonds. Part of Woman To Woman Exhibition. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Calla Lily Ring, Emerald, Yellow Sapphires, Tsavorites, Diamonds. Part of Woman To Woman Exhibition. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Velvet Leaf Earrings  2.33ct Triangular Emerald and 2.09 ct emerald, double rose cut sapphires, tanzanites and irregular shaped diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Velvet Leaf Earrings 2.33ct Triangular Emerald and 2.09 ct emerald, double rose cut sapphires, tanzanites and irregular shaped diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J

A Design Language Developed and Decoded

“From the very beginning I wasn’t looking for clients I was looking to develop my way of design. So, I developed my own design style which I call painting with gemstones. I consider it my creation.” In practical terms this meant also reimagining how the gemstones themselves were cut and set in order to realise her specific vision, something that brought her into radical thinking territory. She expands “The double rose cut is very special as it makes each piece of the gemstone very slim, it is only 1cm-1.2cm and the good thing is it can let the light come through.” This is evocatively seen in pieces such as The Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch, which have a translucent quality. As with any artist, certain motifs and techniques become synonymous with an jewellery-artist’s work and Feng herself raises this. “When you mention Wallace Chan the first thing you think of is his carving of the gemstones and also the use of titanium. And when you mention Cindy Chao you will think of the architectural style, with me I’ve loved the grey colours of gemstones [and] been drawn to the idea of tonality.” Feng is a huge admirer of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi and sees similarities in his techniques and her own, adding “In Morandi’s paintings there are a lot of grey colours, but every grey colour has different hues. It is very subtle and very sensitive with me; I use the gemstones to make a coloured tone for the piece.” At this point Tsui notes with a wry chuckle “Everyone was like what the fuck? Are you crazy? Because normally in jewellery you are thinking the bigger, the more vivid a colour, the more bright the more flashing is better. Because you can sell at a very high price.” But Feng was resolute in her direction adding: “Yes, it’s crazy and it’s disruptive. But when we cut this thin, you can have a lot of patterns and colours, it is like a woman’s lipstick counter.” She also cites the American modern master Georgia O’Keefe, who was also not afraid of large scale paintings of flowers which had a saturation of similar hues.

Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch: Diamonds, Purple Spinel, Opal, Topaz, Chrysoberyl, Moonstone, Tanzanite and Rock Sapphire> Image Courtesy of Feng J
Coloured Ginkgo Leaf Brooch: Diamonds, Purple Spinel, Opal, Topaz, Chrysoberyl, Moonstone, Tanzanite and Rock Sapphire> Image Courtesy of Feng J

Her most famous piece to date is the Jardin De Giverny Necklace, which in the true tradition of the highest of jewellery is multifunctional and can be worn as a bracelet and ring too. The centrepiece is a 19kt fancy pink diamond but the piece as a whole acts as a vivid exposition of Feng’s design language. Whilst in Paris, Feng visited the famed garden immortalized in Monet’s paintings and was struck by the natural beauty, and like Monet, how the light at different times of the day deeply affected the garden’s appearance. “I visited the garden in the noon time with the sun was just raised in the centre of the sky and the light was very strong and that scene left a very strong impression on me. So when I first saw the pink diamond, its lightness felt like sunshine in the middle of the sky, it is almost white, and I recalled my trip to the Jardin de Giverny [and] the rest of the necklace is the botanic, the plants in the garden.” To achieve this Feng used an assortment of gemstones: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines dance along the collar to enhance rather than detract from the sun in all its fulsome gemstone splendour. On completing the piece, Feng herself states “I felt like I had just finished a conversation with Monet. The time difference might be more than 100 years, talk less the geography distance, but I wanted to create a piece of jewellery that was an homage to impressionist painting and to create a removable garden for people’s necks.” The piece sold at Phillips auction for HKD 20,215,000 ($2,594,627) and made Feng the first mainland China designer and the youngest to achieve a multi-million dollar sale, but for her it was never about the price achieved but rather achieving her artistic vision.

Jardin De Giverny Necklace, 19kt Fancy Pink Diamond, Diamonds,: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Jardin De Giverny Necklace, 19kt Fancy Pink Diamond, Diamonds,: coloured sapphires, garnets, spinels, tsavorites, tanzanites, and aquamarines. Image Courtesy of Feng J

The piece also featured one of Feng’s other hallmark techniques; floating setting. “I was thinking of a way to liberate the gemstones from the metal…[because] if you put it on a metal base the metal will block and black out the light.” To solve this quandary, which was only half solved by slicing the stones extra thin she developed an almost invisible setting technique, she elaborates “With every piece I use a tiny prong and the tiniest loop to support the structure so you need to be very accurate about the strength. If you do it the normal way you will cast the metal base but with each piece floating you need to consider the physical curve and distortion. With double rose cut stones the shape is very organic you cannot control the shape..it is almost like gambling.” The end result are pieces with curvature and character as well as notably lighter and thus easier to wear. This final factor is especially important to Feng who at 37 often thinks of making pieces that will connect with younger collectors and are uncomplicated in the wearing, and it was a central thesis to the pieces she presented at Design Miami Shanghai which included the much photographed and talked about Vie En Rose bangle. “Jewellery is not about things in your grandmother’s safe…it is about mix and match, wear your high jewellery with your sneaker.” However, insouciant approach to how her pieces are worn aside, Feng remains very much inspired by nature, with flowers and the natural world being a theme she returns to frequently, and her travels, especially prior to the Pandemic giving her ample opportunity to sketch, observe light and movement, which in turn are reflected in the finished pieces and the names she gives them.

La Vie En Rose Bangle, Diamonds, Pink Sapphires, Purple Sapphires, Pink Spinel and Ruby. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle, Diamonds, Pink Sapphires, Purple Sapphires, Pink Spinel and Ruby. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle in production. Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Vie En Rose Bangle in production. Image Courtesy of Feng J

Although her work points to an innate inquisitiveness, notions and the reimagining of tradition are ever present, most notably in her pieces using Chinese Lacquer, a technique that she has brought boldly into the 21st century. “The Coeur Rouge bangle that Rihanna wears is painted lacquer on silver… it is a very interesting material, very organic as it is from tree sap and of course first used in China. I chose to use it and combine it with European gemstones because I wanted to do something that was east-meets-west.” To get the finished effect, takes time and patience, “at the very beginning the colour from the lacquer is black and it is only after weeks that it changes to crimson, then to red and bright red. I guess the look also fulfills my dreams of sportscar design” she says. But jest aside Feng is always setting an internal marker between herself and her peers, adding “I always like to do innovations for high jewellery, and this also makes me different.” Not resting on her laurels is something of a theme throughout our conversation, it as if Feng sees her work as being one part custodian and propagator of her home culture and the other part modernizer in terms of methodology, usage and appreciation.

La Coeur en Rouge: Chinest Lacquer painted Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J
La Coeur en Rouge: Chinest Lacquer painted Silver, Rubies and Red Spinels, Image Courtesy of Feng J
Rihanna wears La Coeur en Rouge Bangle, Image Courtesy of Feng J
Rihanna wears La Coeur en Rouge Bangle, Image Courtesy of Feng J

High Jewellery and the Next Gen

From the outset, Feng’s pieces have had as many younger collectors as older ones, in spite of a continued perception that high jewellery for the most part is an older client’s game. “Younger collectors’ tastes are more open. Older people will love a big stone from somewhere like Graff or Harry Winston, but the young rich love contemporary art and are more experimental…they have a wider world-view so they want something different, something unique.” Feng for her part aims to offer this in her pieces, that even when using the most opulent gemstones possess a lightness of touch. “Sometimes jewellers make with a loud voice but my pieces are not in that loud voice…I want my jewellery to give the wearer a spiritual power…it is nothing to do with any religion but I feel my pieces have a very subtle power.” It is a rubric that seems to have proven successful with celebrity clients such as Rihanna, Kylie Jenner and Victoria Song of K-Pop sensation f(x) among the many high jewellery enthusiasts who consistently seek her out.

Victoria Song wears Aqua Gingko Leaf earrings. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Victoria Song wears Aqua Gingko Leaf earrings. Image Courtesy of Feng J

However, future=proofing her business aside with Gen Y and Z buy-in, what is perhaps the most compelling reason for Feng’s speedy ascent since she founded her eponymous house five years ago is a commitment to her own aesthetic. Realising early that techniques and craft could be a potent part of the emotive storytelling that we have all become accustomed to seeing and hearing about in regards to high jewellery collections, she also actively chose to celebrate the interconnectedness of her lived experience and those of her potential collectors and ultimately wearers. China’s past and future, France’s artistic and jewellery heritage, the wonders of nature to be found in every corner of the globe and forces eliciting a kinetic energy are all part of the discourse. In turn they are observed, internally processed and a beautiful distillation is manifested in her collections. As the conversation ends one cannot help but concede that Feng may indeed be right; who needs loud when almost everything one feels hopes for and desires can be expressed in a double-rose cut painterly whisper?

Blue Anthurium Brooch, Aquamarines, Tanzanites, Purple Sapphires, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J
Blue Anthurium Brooch, Aquamarines, Tanzanites, Purple Sapphires, Diamonds. Image Courtesy of Feng J

Simone Faurschou; A Jeweller For Our Times

“I don’t even know how to explain how terrifying it is to start your own thing. There is just so much fear. But also, there are many amazing things about it…and it came to a point where I didn’t feel there is anything else I wanted to do.” Simone Faurschou, the Danish born and raised but now London based jewellery designer cum artist is a reflective conversationalist. No pithy one-liners here. Her responses, like her body of work are considered, simultaneously simple and complex. We initially started talking during the first lockdown, when a fortuitous DM slide led to a year plus intention to make time for a deeper dive. At the time Faurschou was busy launching her seminal Blockchain Series, one which has seen her expand notions of the way jewellery is used, viewed and purchased, with her delving into the world of crypto-currencies, NFTs and Augmented Reality. As a series, it has captured the imagination beyond conventional jewellery circles and has resulted in Faurschou (although she is personally more circumspect in claiming the title of artist) enter the contemporary and digital art world. Yet Faurschou’s approach is evidence of a shift in how many designers and artists, particularly those younger, are choosing to navigate the jewellery industry. The personal and the political are part and parcel. Interrogating notions of commercial and spiritual success are up for discussion, and neither the right retailer or most impressive editorial feature are sought after as much as they were a generation before. Furthermore, the questions Faurschou explores via her body of work and her modus operandi of creating pieces reflect shifting and current cultural norms, but still possess wider demographic appeal. Her work acts as a gentle reminder of how jewellery’s superpower lies in creating community from seemingly disparate individuals.

Simone Faurschou Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Simone Faurschou Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Manifestations and Magical Thinking

Faurschou initially felt her future lay in fashion design: “I always wanted to go to Central Saint Martin’s. It is quite a fun story” – she says reminiscing – “but I begged my parents to send me to this language school in England so I got this as a present when I was confirmed. At the language school there was a visit to Central Saint Martin’s. I was fourteen and I remember walking down the halls and thinking this is where Alexander McQueen and all these great designers went and I completely fell in love.” But this was not mere adolescent passion of the fashion kind, once decided she in her own words “called it into being”. A brief stint at Copenhagen Business School resulted in her dropping out and enrolling in an Art Foundation Course in Copenhagen and it was from here that she applied and got accepted into her dream school, initially still thinking her future lay in fashion before an inspiring tutor suggested jewellery might be for her.

Pangea Together, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea Together, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Faurschou is a compelling advocate of structured pedagogy and in particular how Central Saint Martin’s, both in terms of the teaching she received and the ethos of the school shaped how she continues to work. “One of the great things about Central Saint Martin’s is they encouraged us to not just work in metals There were projects where we had to work with something that was biodegradable and lots of different materials, resin, leather, plastic… I even made a piece from tampons which was, like, about femininity and the tampon tax, it was really such a great place to explore and just be.” An ethnically and culturally diverse student body not only offered her broader vistas of understanding and possibility but allowed for her to reflect on her own innate Scandinavian sensibilities and aesthetic. “One of my friends from Turkey, the way she worked was so detailed, there was wax carving and stones and just like a lot of details whereas my work is a minimalistic kind of style. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t love figurative work, I love it, but I always return to something that is quite simple and definitely Scandinavian, which I guess is my DNA.” London as a city was the ideal backdrop for her creative and internal explorations and she talks of those early years in the city with an animated tone, that hints at days of discovery that augmented her academic and subsequent professional endeavours. “I remember hanging around a lot in East London and just loving it, this whole creative vibe was so different from Copenhagen… But I also think moving to London and getting friends from all over the world made me more passionate about discussing how important our relationships are and kindness is…. I saw a lot more homeless people on the street and compared to Copenhagen, a lot of people have to fight just to survive.” In many ways, Faurschou’s body of work returns to these themes consistently, connectedness, cross cultural exchange, as well as – via how she makes her pieces – practical notions and actions that champion justice and compassion.

Pangea, Fragment Earring in 18kt Gold, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea, Fragment Earring in 18kt Gold, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

“It’s quite wild because I am not from a family with money or anything, but I have always been quite focused [and] when I see something that I want, I just really try and go for it.” Faurschou’s speedy ascent: graduating with a BA in Jewellery Design in 2016, landing a role as Head of Design at cult fashion jewellery brand completedworks and moving on to found her eponymous brand in 2020 has led many to mistakenly assume that she has a healthy private income or at the very least a substantial investor. However, neither is the case, diligence and boundless optimism have guided her in all of her successes thusfar. Of a dream-come-true internship with haute couturier Iris Van Harpen whilst she was a student, she explains: “I remember going for the interview and flying back to London on the same day and being completely exhausted, and when I got it, I was like, shit, I don’t have money for this and where to live in Amsterdam and I am going to be working for free.” She pauses and smiles before adding “But a friend’s Mum was willing to let me stay and we became really great friends [and] I got to be part of the Haute Couture show, and I worked on this particular dress with like twenty other people and it was fantastic.”

Pangea, Connecting Fragments in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea, Connecting Fragments in 18kt Yellow Gold, Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Bespoke Ring Using Client's Own Heirloom Gemstones. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Bespoke Ring Using Client’s Own Heirloom Gemstones. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Whilst some might roll their eyes at what on first listen sounds like a contemporary fashion fairytale, Faurschou’s active decision, not to be constrained by current circumstances and push forth regardless, holding fast to the notion, has segued into how she works – embracing the concept first – before working out the practicalities. It also anchors her design process which is rooted what she terms as “narrative driven pieces” and which results in jewellery that is expansive in its intentions. She explains “A piece of jewellery could be a whole-body piece. I don’t look at jewellery in a traditional way in terms of rings and earrings, but more as a way you explore the entire body…it doesn’t start with wanting to make something that looks good, it is more about making some concepts that might seem abstract tangible.” We alight on the much celebrated Daniel Roseberry for Schiaparelli Autumn/Winter Haute Couture 2021 which is replete with modern day body armour and Faurschou exclaims “I am obsessed! I was sitting with friends the other day and I was saying this is also my view of how to work with jewellery When I look at Schiaperelli I am like oh my God I adore that.”

Pangea ;Fragment Pendant, 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea ;Fragment Pendant, 18kt Yellow Gold. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Creating Communities

Small luxury businesses, particularly startups, rise and fall on their ability to attract the attention and patronage of the milieu that are both interested and can afford their wares. Faurschou concedes that “I definitely have a great network of creative people around me”. However, she is quick to clarify “but I don’t have a specific crew of people”. It is an important distinction. In an industry where the hiring of a prestigious PR agency, getting your pieces into the right showroom and having leading editors peruse the collection over champagne and canapes is oftentimes proposed as a must-do rather than an optional extra, it can cripple a company at the beginning of the journey. Instead, Faurschou has allowed for tastemaker word-of-mouth referrals for her bespoke work and her collections to do the heavy lifting of brand promotion and the results have proved more than exemplary. From Mimma Viglezio, the business strategic force behind numerous fashion super brands’ successes (and the current Editor in Chief of Tomorrow Crew’s Digital Showroom), to Kristine Loebner, the managing director of Cecile Bahnsen, a brand that has become the default pillar of the thinking fashion girl’s wardrobe, to actor and podcaster Cressida Bonas, the amplification potential is clear. And whilst many have commented on the cliquey nature of London’s creative classes, Faurschou has thusfar managed to not only avoid the potential pitfalls, but also thrive, growing a wide network of clients, supporters and co-creators. She adds “I feel like people are always keen on collaborating, even just meeting new people I think it is something very unique about London.”

Bespoke Mimma Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Bespoke Mimma Ear Cuff in 18kt Yellow Gold and Diamonds. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Mimma Ear Cuff on the Body Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Mimma Ear Cuff on the Body Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

However, connections is only one part of the equation. Faurschou’s jewellery resonates with a growing global demand for simpler pieces that have profound meanings attached to them. Jewellery that does not self-select itself into the ‘special occasions category’ by virtue of the size of gemstones used, or necessitate one have a security detail as one goes about their errands, is the preferred choice regardless of age or financial status. Furthermore, pieces do best commercially when they reflect the designer’s and prospective client’s values and beliefs. In Faurschou’s case it has resulted in the exclusive use of lab-grown diamonds, in response to environmental concerns and Fairmined gold. She adds “my work is about community and what I really like about Fairmined gold is their way of ensuring that the miners and the community doing the mining gets a really fair salary.” But the decision is not without consequences, “The gold is 20% more expensive, because you are paying premium price to ensure that everyone in the process is being fairly paid…so it means that my prices have to be even higher which is already hard if you are a new and upcoming brand.” The jewellery industry has received a lot of criticism due to the ambivalence of some of the big players to horrendous working conditions for miners and the communities they live in. Faurschou and other small independents have paved the way in supplying clients with greater transparency with regards to sourcing, sustainability (she often creates custom pieces using client’s heirloom gemstones) and ethical practices. “I don’t want to sound cliché, but I have big dreams. I would love to continue to create more jewellery and make more sales and I would just love to have my supply chain be fully traceable and to have a relationship with the miners who mine the gold.” For Faurschou, full traceability is the end goal rather than optics dressed in press release platitudes.

Pamgea Separating. fragments in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of  S  Faurschou
Pamgea Separating. fragments in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Pangea, Faurschou’s first fully conceived series was the break-out hit that distinguished her in terms of artistry, craft and messaging. Conceived as a socio-political and cultural comment on connection, it’s name, taken from the original mega-continent from which the existing seven continents separated, also acted as Faurschou’s design prompt, with all the pieces formed from fragments that tesselate together. “Pangea was very much about unity; I already knew that I wanted to do something about human connectedness. So then when the pandemic hit, I was like okay it is almost too obvious or too much to do something like this, but at the same time I already had plans and then I was super limited in terms of materials because I kind of lost all my freelance work and I was just hanging in there in my tiny room in east London.” As the city ground to a halt Faurschou was forced to think laterally. She relates: “My style is usually a bit more organic or slightly larger pieces maybe but I had to work with what I got and I couldn’t use casters or 3D printers . What I could do is cut up a sheet of gold.” Whilst Faurschou may have initially lamented the constraints, it resulted in a potent distillation of her design language. And with all labour done solely by her, it imbued all of the pieces an intimate energy and was a reminder of the fragility of connection.

Pangea, Connecting Fragments in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea, Connecting Fragments in 18kt Gold. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Because of the circumstances surrounding its creation, Faurschou is aware of Pangea’s long term historical and cultural significance. “Now I really appreciate that, because at the time I was thinking ‘oh no, it is not good enough and it’s too simple’ but now I am really grateful because it was such a picture of what it was at the time. I happened to have a bench set up in my room, a few materials, and my tools. But the collection also became about survival, about finding and having the time to do something that I was really passionate about.” With mental health around the world plummeting and anxiety skyrocketing in the midst of all pervading feelings of uncertainty, having her routine of creating the piece became a safe place for Farschou to retreat to. Promotional photography was done on socially distanced sets, “I just made it happen with friends who were also in lockdown who happened to be photographers and model friends and these people who had also just lost all of their work.” This was not to say it was plane sailing, she adds; “It was quite a hectic time because I was jumping from house to house when I lost my own place but I am really happy that I didn’t just sink….I could have just been in bed miserable.” The collection also had the pioneering and novel addition of an accompanying poem written by noted poet, artist and environmental activist Wilson Oryema. The poem was a poignant reminder of Faurschou’s overall intent to create new landscapes for discourses not necessarily associated with fine jewellery and those who love it.

Pangea Collection Poem by Wilson Oryema Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Pangea Collection Poem by Wilson Oryema Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Wilson Oryema Reads Pangea Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Wilson Oryema Reads Pangea Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

If Pangea was about reminding us of our shared community, Faurschou’s Blockchain Series continues with the thesis but illustrates how the brave new word of crypto-currencies and virtual realities needn’t be viewed as dehumanising forces but rather harnessed to create digital communities and allegiances that are anchored in compassion, curiosity and a love for adornment. A 3D circular block of Fairmined gold has been carved into twelve segments, with most pieces including a sprinkle of lab-grown diamonds from The Diamond Foundry. So far so standard ethical and sustainable luxury. However, Faurschou takes things up a notch. The pieces are sold as NFTs (non-fungible-tokens), and in addition to an actual Blockchain pendant, purchasers also receive a digital piece of jewellery. Faurschou reflects “If you had asked me two years ago whether I was going to do digital jewellery and NFTs I would have definitely probably said no.” she says before laughing. But second lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for her to satisfy her burgeoning curiosity with crypto-currencies and act upon it. “friends were talking about it and I guess the community that comes with bitcoin and these different things. And then I read about the art piece that was sold at Christies that was a crazy amount 69 million pounds or whatever and I was like wow, this is super interesting that someone can sell a digital piece of art. At the same time, I was really thinking about how technology has kept us connected in lockdown so I was already thinking about doing something for my next collection that was going to be around technology. When I learnt you could create NFTs I was just like, well if you can sell a digital piece of art you can also sell a piece of digital jewellery.” Typical of her process, once the idea was in place, realizing it became the adventure. She adds “I couldn’t find many people in the industry but there is a great woman called Cathy Hackl who was so kind to supervise me for a bit on the journey and so I was lucky to get in with some quite talented people in tech.” Hackl was a particular godsend as she is not only one of the world’s leading futurists but also an expert on the metaverse and the author of Marketing New Realities and the Augmented Workforce, two books that are the blueprint and roadmap of the sector.

Blockchain 18kt Yellow and White Gold and  Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Blockchain 18kt Yellow and White Gold and Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Of the naming the series Faurschou explains “when you start learning about NFT the first thing is the technology behind it which is blockchain. And it is now implemented in supply chains and it is really fascinating technology. When I heard the name I just visualized this chain of blocks.” Faurschou trades her Blockchain Series on Known Origin, a market leader in Digital Art, with collectors bidding for the pieces using their crypto-wallets. Faurschou is one of a handful of jewellery artists who have seen the potential of digital art and harnessing technology in order for collectors to experience their pieces beyond wearing them. The final interactive aspect of Blockchain is every collector has the opportunity of virtually meeting the next collector in the chain. The community, given that Faurschou is now on her 4th Series is thirty six and counting strong and spread across the globe. Does Faurschou conceive creating another digital jewellery artwork or Augmented Reality experience? She doesn’t reveal. But what she does say is the foray into digital art and crypto currency has opened conversations with her peers regarding value. “A dollar bill is only valuable because someone says it is.” Jewellery that precipitates discussions that question the very systems society is built upon is thrillingly subversive, and that it is as is Faurschou’s way, an easy piece that could become part of one’s daily uniform, an omnipresent reminder to think differently.

Blockchain Pendant 18kt Yellow Gold and Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Blockchain Pendant 18kt Yellow Gold and Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Journey Or Destination?

With her rising profile, Faurschou has had to navigate the expectations of the communities that have taken an interest in her and her work. The modern jewellery creative’s rubric demands the curated social media profile, good interview skills and a knack of looking preternaturally beautiful whilst at your bench, delicately furrowed brow an optional extra. Faurschou thinks this is rightly unreasonable. “For a lot of creatives actually it is a nightmare…but I do believe it should not be about us. It is about the work… I have done a few interviews in the past that I didn’t like much. I was like, ‘Oh my God I need to sit and talk about me, why can’t it just be about the work? Talking about oneself, is not really what it is about right?” It is a sentiment witnessed on Faurschou’s Instagram. There are no lengthy treatises of what she feels about issues of the day, or streams of consciousness on IGLive, and compared to the prevailing wind that has made compulsive over-sharers of us all, and demanded it of those we admire, just a handful of images of her in off-duty mode. What you will find is jewellery, both in progress and completed, her existing collections and posts of happy clients wearing their Simone Faurschou with pride.

Blockchain Series 4. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Blockchain Series 4. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

Faurschou’s progress given that her brand is only in its third year of full operations, with 18 months of those being during a global pandemic, is extraordinary. When asked how she defines success she pauses for some time before stating “To be completely honest, I have been asking myself that question a lot lately… If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would probably have said having my own brand or doing the things I am really passionate about and I am doing that now and it gives me so much joy. But then I have this element of the struggle in terms of economy [because] it’s really hard to make money and to make it consistently and that doesn’t feel very successful right?” She says laughing before finally concluding “My idea of success is based somewhere around community and being able to discuss some of the things that I think are important in my work.” With the Blockchain Series Four in the works and other projects that are currently percolating, Faurschou’s notions of success seem set to expand as her sphere of influence continues to grow.

Blockchain Pendant, 18kt Yellow Gold, Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Blockchain Pendant, 18kt Yellow Gold, Diamonds Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

We close on what makes Faurschou push herself and her practice forward. “You can have a Plan B but I don’t really.., I am making it work my way and just have faith that it will pay off. It is a tough journey but also beautiful at the same time. The people you get to meet and the stuff I get to do and the skills I keep developing. But there is never a guarantee. When I meet a lot of people the first thing they say is ‘you’re so brave’ but for me I don’t really think about it that way. It’s oh but I can’t do anything else. So, it doesn’t feel like a choice.” Whilst Faurschou’s career thus far might appear full of serendipitous happenings that are powering her steady ascent, one is reminded of the often-misquoted Seneca aphorism, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.” Faurschou does not come across as merely ‘lucky’ or as her friends observed ‘brave’. The word that springs to mind is tenacious. Her design process requires supreme levels of preparedness. Furthermore, the sheer resolve of knowing and pursuing a career in design since her teen years points to an individual that isn’t simply coasting through life on looks, charm and a sparkling contact book. Her work itself is underpinned with an optimism for a reimagined global community, and to some extent harks back to the political idealism movement that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and was at its zenith post the First World War. Where Seneca’s notion of opportunity comes into play is Faurschou’s creative brilliance of framing these ideas via wearable pieces of art. She has seen an opportunity to build a conscious community via beautiful jewellery and those who wear her work are as fortunate as the maker herself.

Blockchain Series 1. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou
Blockchain Series 1. Image Courtesy of S Faurschou

The Inevitable Satta Matturi

“Gosh, I don’t even want to consider the word success. I think I’ve just started, I probably haven’t even started yet. It takes a long time to build a maison and a fine jewellery brand especially.” It’s a late Friday evening interview over Zoom and Satta Matturi, founder of Matturi Jewellery, is being either a mistress of self-deprecation or a Herculean task master, depending on one’s perspective. Whilst other houses have barely fumbled through the post=pandemic uncertainty that has gripped many in the fine jewellery and to a wider extent luxury world, Matturi Jewellery has grown an already enviable client list, embarked upon a glossy rebrand and participated in not one but two ground-breaking selling exhibitions curated by the art-jewellery maven Melanie Grant: the first, Sotheby’s New York Brilliant and Black exhibition in September was a historic watershed for black jewellery creativity, the next the forthcoming Forces of Nature exhibition at the Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery later this month in London, promises to cement the house in the canon of highly collectable jewellery-artists. When I reflect this back to Matturi, she shrugs and insists that despite all the laudatory noise be it online or in real life, this is not a lean back and pop a bottle moment, “This is when you start to work.” And ultimately, she is right because plaudits and attention are only as good as their utility. As our conversation stretches into the night it becomes clear that Matturi has goals that are far-reaching and are about profundity, productivity and shifting centuries inaccurate perceptions of African truths.

Bayuda Earrings, 18ct gold, diamonds, morganite, and enamel. Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Bayuda Earrings, 18ct gold, diamonds, morganite, and enamel. Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

A Family Affair

Thinking back on her formative experiences with jewellery brings Matturi to her childhood and her parents in particular: “My Mum actually wore a lot of jewellery… And in west Africa we wear a lot of gold. And it is not even your 9 carat, 14 carat we are talking 22 carat and 24 carat gold.” Add to this a father who paid a pivotal role, first creatively: “My Dad was an architect, so that is where the creative comes in. He studied tropical architecture at Howard University in the US in the 50s.” and secondly as the catalyst to her exposure to the diamond industry: “He was involved in politics and later was Managing Director of DeBeers for the West Africa operation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, for twenty one years” she reminisces and Matturi’s journey into the jewellery industry feels predestined. Her home was a practical storefront to the mechanics of the mining industry. “At the time Sierra Leone was one of the most profitable producing countries for the company and I grew up in a house where I saw it all: we are talking paperwork, we had the valuers coming in to look at the production and the shipping team would come through. And I was there. I could see all these bright lamps, it was part of life and growing up.” Matturi followed her degree in Business Management from London Metropolitan University with a place on the DeBeers graduate recruitment training scheme “it was tough because it was two years of head down and learning about diamonds. I think it is one of the best things I have ever done” and thus began a career where she rose to be one of the most highly regarded rough diamond experts in the world.

Bayuda Earrings and Pendant: 18ct yellow gold, morganite, diamonds and enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Bayuda Earrings and Pendant: 18ct yellow gold, morganite, diamonds and enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Having an extensive knowledge of rough diamonds and an undeniable emotional connection with jewellery courtesy of her mother’s collection informed both Matturi’s entry point and continued engagement level in the fine jewellery world. Of the former she notes “I have a consultancy, so I still keep my hand in. 60% of what I do is on the rough [diamond] side but at the top of the value chain [and] it is so nice that we are having this conversation because people don’t know that about me.” However, it is her time at DeBeers that prompted her to reconsider or rather expand her contribution to the gemstone industry. Prior to leaving she notes: “I worked as a key account manager looking after huge, massive clients. Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York, Antwerp, it was all happening for me. We are talking turnovers of – well Tiffany’s was my client who I managed for years… And then I don’t know, I thought to myself there is no-one out there that makes jewellery that looks back to where a large majority of where the raw materials come from. Not a Graff, not a Cartier, not a Bulgari not a Chopard, none of them. And then I started making stuff for myself, for friends and family.” This seemingly low-key beginning precipitated into something more concrete when DeBeers instigated a large move of operations to Botswana. Matturi’s spouse (also coincidentally a DeBeers director) stayed on while she resigned and used the relocation as an opportunity to launch the business in earnest. Her calling card was being in possession of legitimate professional receipts that would allow her to navigate the diamond and coloured gemstone business. Meanwhile her unique differentiator would be a passion for African storytelling and artistry. “I didn’t just drop into this I know it.”

Satta Matturi Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Satta Matturi Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

The Diamond Lady 2.0

“They call me the Diamond Lady” Matturi says with a hearty laugh. However, hers is not a case of a career built on the back of pedigree with a side order of passion. Whilst Matturi leveraged her extensive gemstone industry knowledge when she was building her brand, she has also used it latterly to educate clients, particularly those who might be suspicious of her sourcing practices. For the doubting Thomas’ still stuck in a negative thought loop that equates her Sierra Leonean heritage with conflict gemstones and war atrocities she elegantly counters: “I actually buy the rough diamonds for the manufacturer who cuts and turns them from rough into polished and sells wholesale into Cartier. I sit in the diamond office and the Cartier buyers come into buy. The Messika buyers get their diamonds from a company that I consult for. So basically, it is the same stones that are going into my jewellery.” The casual mic drop resonates on many levels. Unconscious bias, or it’s uglier relative, systemic racism, particularly in the luxury sector may still exist, but Matturi by virtue of her background and exposure to said world chooses not to dwell on the semantics of people’s behaviour.

Nomoli Totem Mask Earrings: Rubelite, Diamonds, Gold, Baroque Pearls
Nomoli Totem Mask Earrings: Rubelite, Diamonds, Gold, Baroque Pearls

Her brand’s existence also challenges customers, particularly those based in the global south who would not question anything they were sold in the Place Vendôme or Old Bond Street from a European or American heritage house but are reluctant to patronize an independent fine jewellery house that has a black woman at its helm. As Matturi elaborates “we don’t trust what black people do…within the fine jewellery space, we have a long way to go. And it is not just me…other jewellers feel the same. So even with the Sotheby’s thing we just did one of the questions I asked was ‘where are all our black philanthropists when we need them?’ So, I sold, I sold two items and they were bought by white people. Where is Oprah Winfrey for example? Where are our people? Why aren’t we supporting ourselves? And it is not to say that they can’t afford it.” Matturi’s comments are pertinent because a lot of the discourse about inclusivity has failed to address black people, be they rich or poor’s own colonized mentality and mistrust of one another. A condition that leaves us innately suspicious of the credentials, quality and professionalism that another black person can provide, or that seeks white validation as a preliminary requisite before we support individuals, businesses or artists of colour. It is a complex issue but speaks to the heart of luxury where items perceived value and aspirational status are inextricably linked with the maker or designer’s reputation and brand capital.

Rubelite Bouquet Earrings: 18ct Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Rubelite Bouquet Earrings: 18ct Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Rubelites. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Matturi’s quiet and conscientious approach, which is at odds with modern mores has so far paid off dividends. “there are lots of things I don’t talk about – we’re stocked in a little gallery shop in the Place Vendôme and they also have a store in Gstaad.” As well as the very high profile patronage of Rihanna who is frequently photographed wearing her Nomoli Totem earrings, clients are drawn from the world of art, spouses of industrialists and lifetime members of the world’s 1%. “We’ve been on the super yachts in Monaco, we’ve been on the private jets, we’ve done it all, [but] It is a completely different space and you have got to keep on working at it.” Matturi doesn’t take anything for granted and knows that with the more commissions come greater expectations, a challenge she fully relishes. “If I have stones, I am like right we are doing something crazy. And you can send it to a client, they wear it for three or four months and they fall in love with it and then they go right let’s buy.” Matturi is in the business for the long haul. She understands that a maison that outlives its founder must focus on the craft, both resonates, is timeless and is not driven by trends. Finally, perhaps most important is that the high jewellery world operates in similar ways to contemporary art. Collectors and artists often interact, work might be bought as an investment but it also becomes part of a family’s heirlooms, and most pertinently, because it is worn, there must be an emotional connect.

Rihanna wears Nomoli Totem Mask Earrings off duty
Rihanna wears Nomoli Totem Mask Earrings off duty
Bird of Paradise Ring: Green Onyx, Rubelites, Diamonds, 18ct white gold. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Bird of Paradise Ring: Green Onyx, Rubelites, Diamonds, 18ct white gold. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

African Semiotics, Craft and Material Choices

“Everyone has been doing Egyptian jewellery but no one has thought of going further up the Nile and talking about the 25th Dynasty and Nubia.” However, Matturi did. Creating the Whispers of Meroe series she took as her starting point the Kingdoms of Kush, that neighboured Egypt and which seemingly merged during the 25th Dynastyy when Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt. Apart from the pharaohs getting more melanin in their skin tone, Kushite innovations included modified pharaonic headdresses, a bellicose and ambitious polity intent on expansion and an active restoration of traditional religious practices, architecture and art. However, the Whispers of Meroe series is neither a tribute-act to antiquity nor a lazy pastiche. In a creative sleight of hand worthy of the father of semiotics, Roland Barthes, it is in fact an exquisite African imagining of Art Deco. Matturi explains “my favourite can I say genre of jewellery is Art Deco. And I wanted to do Art Deco but I didn’t want to follow the norm, everyone does the same old thing so I had to interpret it with an African twist.” The twist, like in the best cocktails segues the familiar with an exhilarating element of surprise. Thus strong geometric patterns are witnessed in pieces such as the Nomoli Totem Obelisk earrings. Bold colourways are present in the Ta-SETI earrings and the use of monochromatic materials are evoked in the Kandake earrings which feature onyx, platinum and diamonds to stunning effect. For Barthes, signs are best understood in light of how they are interpreted by different cultures and societies. In her series, one which she sees as a continuum that she will return to, Matturi dares to and succeeds in interpreting European Deco Motifs and symbols (which in turn borrow much from the geometry of antiquity) via the African gaze. Nomenclature plays an important part of the process: Kandake was a Queen, Thebes the fabled Egyptian city and Bayuda a desert situated in Nubia.

Kandake Earrings, 18 kt white gold, diamonds, rhodolites, black onyx, enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Kandake Earrings, 18 kt white gold, diamonds, rhodolites, black onyx, enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Thebes Earrings and Pendant: 18ct White Gold, Morganites, Diamonds, Enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Thebes Earrings and Pendant: 18ct White Gold, Morganites, Diamonds, Enamel. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Matturi embarked upon extensive historical research for the series, mindful because although African her cultural roots and principal reference points lie in the western part of the continent and “I didn’t want to appropriate”. However, her noble intentions hit a roadblock when overtures to Sudanese historians, writers, academic and cultural institutions drew a blank. She relates; “I just wanted someone to be on this journey with me…and no one was interested and I don’t know why. So where did I go the Met Museum, the Smithsonian Museum and the British Museum.” In many ways the latter institutions would arguably have superior resources and more comprehensive collections of artefacts, but for Matturi ownership of our stories whether manifest in jewellery or anywhere else is an important and critical endeavour. Response to the collection has been in many ways the best of her career so far, but it also speaks to her greater ambition of altering perceptions of Africa not just from external eyes but internal ones too as she notes “As funny as it may sound, success to me would be going back to my business plan that I wrote at the start and seeing high net worth Africans buying from me, pushing the boundaries and creating something out of my comfort zone.” In Whispers of Meroe, Matturi has created a series that not only possesses the scope of creative ambitions but also has the emotional and cultural appeal to achieve this.

Ta-Seto Earrings , 18kt Yellow Gold, Morganites, Diamonds, Onyx, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Ta-Seto Earrings , 18kt Yellow Gold, Morganites, Diamonds, Onyx, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Amanishakheto earrings, 18kt Gold, Morganites, Diamonds Black Onyx, Enamel
Amanishakheto earrings, 18kt Gold, Morganites, Diamonds Black Onyx, Enamel

Craftsmanship has been a cornerstone of Matturi’s process. She works out of three ateliers and it as much a reflection of her peripatetic lifestyle as it is her seeking the very best in class. She is reluctant to describe herself as an artist in the purest sense, “Oh my God, do you know what when I started out, because I am my name I say I am an owner slash creative lead. That’s what I say I am. Everything doesn’t happen just because of me – I have got a team behind me. And I absolutely love my team.” In London, the lead in her atelier “is ex Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. He used to do all the Van Cleef Objet d’art and he is just insane. So I get him to do all of my one off bespoke pieces. The earrings we just worked on we have been in the making for eighteen months.” As with anything where the stakes are high emotions occasionally fray: “We work on it for a little bit then he gets pissed off tells me to piss off and I tell him to piss off and then we come back together and its hunky-dory.” Matturi says with a laugh. But it is her collaborative approach, sharing the peaks and troughs that keep her ateliers running smoothly.

Nomoli Totem Mask Whispers of Meroe, 18ct gold, black onyx and diamonds
Nomoli Totem Mask Whispers of Meroe, 18ct gold, black onyx and diamonds

Talk returns to gemstones and material choices in general. Lab grown versus real diamonds, ethical sourcing of coloured gemstones, navigating the plethora of options in the precious metal sphere and of course communicating those choices to clients are all up for discussion. “Now we’re really deep diving because sometimes I tend to keep my thoughts to myself , okay, let’s go… I have been approached by the Leonardo DiCaprio funded company , Diamond Foundry and many other lab grown diamond houses, it is the biggest thing out there and it is just going to grow exponentially for the next ten twenty years… and it was very tempting because here we are talking about a 1kt VS2 diamond, natural will probably cost you what $13,000 lab grown is a $1000 a kt, so it is very lucrative if you are a jewellery designer. You can create wonderful things right? But I don’t want to do that, I am not into that game and that is because I believe the communities largely depend on mining. Whether it be large scale mining, whether it be artisanal mining, whether it be the unscrupulous people who go and bribe and what have you – that’s a separate conversation we can have. If we take mining away, what do we replace it with? And it is not just like large countries like South Africa, Namibia and Botswana let’s look at artisanal mining in Sierra Leone people are poor and they rely on that.” The lab-grown lobby have gained traction in the main because of costs and also by cleverly attaching their messaging to conversations around the environment and the climate emergency. Yes, all gemstones and precious metals are finite resources but take away that income source from people and one faces a socioeconomic crisis of cataclysmic proportions, particularly in the global south. For jewellery purists, there will always be the pull of stones that have formed naturally but long term solutions for the long term the human capital consequences have yet to be conceived in a holistic manner.

Java Shield Earrings: 18ct Gold, Rubelites, Diamonds: Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Java Shield Earrings: 18ct Gold, Rubelites, Diamonds: Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Matturi is quick to point out that sourcing is far from straightforward. “There is a lot of talk about the diamond industry being opaque…but I didn’t realise how opaque the coloured stone industry is. It is insane with lots of dodgy people involved.” Issues vary, but one of the worst from an African perspective is provenance not being clearly stated; “I was in Hatton Garden and I said, ‘Ooh where is this sapphire from?’ And they replied ‘it is from Africa’. And I said, ‘Where in Africa, where?’ So I had to quiz them and a lady went to the back and she went ‘Oh, all our sapphires actually come from Nigeria.’ Then label it as Nigerian. People need to know this. So I push that a lot.’” Whilst nations in other parts of the world have been able to capitalize on their supposed superior quality coloured gemstones – from Colombian Emeralds to Burmese Rubies and Sri Lankan Sapphires, African nations with coloured gemstone reserves have largely not. Matturi is searingly honest about her sourcing “there are a lot of people rushing into recycled gold I don’t do that because it is far too expensive for what we do.” Equally she resists the temptation of mistruths to create sexier copy for journalists adding “There are a few big designers out there and I’m not going to snitch as my son would say, who when giving interviews will say ‘All my diamonds actually come from Botswana’ when that’s a big lie because the size of diamonds they are referring to isn’t manufactured in Botswana.” Instead Matturi chooses to shift the dial incrementally, returning to the head-down approach of her graduate traineeship days. “It was hard to find a supplier but I found one… they are part of the Coloured Gemstone Association we know where they are coming from and they are ISO certified and a couple of companies like Pomellato buy from them… We are a long way, but we are closing that gap. the next thing I am planning to work on is pearls. We use South Sea Freshwater Pearls but like I said to you I am being honest, I haven’t done that homework yet, it is my next one to do.”

Nomoli Totem Arc Earrings, 18kt Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Onyx, South Sea Pearls
Nomoli Totem Arc Earrings, 18kt Yellow Gold, Diamonds, Onyx, South Sea Pearls

Beauty and Belonging

There is an unabashed pulchritude in Matturi’s pieces, making them immediately beguiling. Her break-out series Artful Indulgence was a beautiful and evocative hymnal to Africa with inspiration drawn from the natural world and the more domestic such as waxprint fabrics that are worn across the continent. Yet when one looks at Matturi’s body of work it comes as no surprise that she is a great admirer of Viren Bhagat, the Indian high jeweller whose pieces have granted him the status of a living legend Speaking of a visit to his atelier that she took whilst still in her role at DeBeers she notes “It completely blew us away. Emeralds that were the size of a boiled egg and set in the most exquisite way… he puts a lot of thought in what he is going to do….They take a year or two to set one 10kt pink heart shaped diamond…he bonds in with the design and the stone and I think maybe I do practice that too.”

Birds of Paradise Earring: Green Onyx, Rubelite, Cabouchon and Rose Cut Diamonds. Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Birds of Paradise Earring: Green Onyx, Rubelite, Cabouchon and Rose Cut Diamonds. Image: Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Her considered process is one of the many reasons Matturi’s pieces are expensive. But she is quick to note that economic inclusiveness, granted at a relative scale is at the heart of what she does. “Jewellery that you keep in a safe or on a plinth, I am not one for that. I would like mine to be worn. I don’t want it locked in a safe I want people to connect with it.” With this in mind, Matturi shares an exciting new development – a diffusion line, launching in 2022, that will allow those of modest means to explore and enjoy her design universe. As ever with Matturi, her experience working with jewellery behemoths and alongside high-end independent houses came into play. “Even the wonderful Messika has got something in her stores for $800. So there is nothing stopping me, it is all about how you position it.” But this is not to say there will be any compromise on quality of materials or a dilution of her design language. She asserts “It will still be 18 carat gold, the same natural diamonds but we will do very clever designs and this time I am experimenting with ceramic. The ceramic allows us to play around and it is very hard wearing. And I’ll tell you what, I have been quite impressed with the prototypes that have been coming out” she adds with a smile. The move is also one that will appeal to younger and more fashion savvy clients, who like layering pieces, accessorizing in a more directional way and consuming luxury with carefree insouciance. It is also a canny means of future proofing the business, insuring the maison does not get associated with a specific demographic or era.

Constellation Ear Studs. Rubelites, Amethysts, Diamonds, 18ct Gold, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Constellation Ear Studs. Rubelites, Amethysts, Diamonds, 18ct Gold, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

For Matturi, expanding participation goes beyond customers and includes to the workforce itself. Since her spouse’s relocation took the family to Gabarone, she immersed herself behind the scenes in changing workforce configuration. “I work with polishing factories in Botswana and I sit on the board of two of them. I project managed the opening of one of them where I pushed the case for women. So, we now have women polishers, women polished diamonds.” Not content with tackling gender parity she moved onto less able-bodied personnel. “I specifically pushed for speech impaired and hearing impaired employees. In fact our blueprint is being used by DeBeers now because they want to start employing physically challenged people into their business. But yeah, we’ve brought them in and I have sat in all of the recruitment the HR manager brought in a sign language interpreter and stuff like that and I will tell you what? Their productivity levels are way up on an able bodied polisher..I push things like that because I am very passionate about fairness.” Mention of this is non-existent on Matturi’s social media and website and when queried she swats the enquiry away. “We grew up seeing that” she adds in reference to her late mother’s extensive philanthropic efforts in Sierra Leone, but when pressed she adds “Someone else told me ‘you don’t talk about this’ but I believe that if you are doing something good and it feels good I don’t think you need to shout about it.” Matturi’s modus operandi is in direct opposition with the modern malaise of virtue signalling. Her motivations are not being fuelled by the echo loop of praise online that constant documentation of ‘good works’ results in. A single image of female cutters on her website hidden in the ‘provenance’ tab is the only clue to this groundbreaking activity. There is an old-school noblesse oblige quality to it; being the change rather than shouting about change, getting results rather than chasing likes and ensuring long term positive outcomes rather than a buzz before the feckless social media crowd moves on to the next cause. As with the charity work sponsored by Matturi Jewellery itself (the maison also sponsor a football team in Matturi’s native Sierra Leone), Matturi is drawn to measurable and time bound activities. “It is not huge but we’re doing it in small bite sized chunks. We do our youth oriented work meaningfully and I hope it does, I really do.”

Electric Seahorse Chandelier earrings. Diamonds, Rubelite Beads, South Sea Pearls 18kt White Gold. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Electric Seahorse Chandelier earrings. Diamonds, Rubelite Beads, South Sea Pearls 18kt White Gold. Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

Meanings, Value and Aspirations

From the beginning of our conversation, it was clear that Matturi’s goals were not linear, but rather multifaceted. “I am a very spiritual person… but what drives me [and] I don’t know how you write this is showing people out there that a person of colour can actually run a proper fine jewellery business, that keeps me going. That drives me-“ She pauses before adding “and excellence I think that is the word I am looking for. I think being excellent and presenting a business and a brand out there that is just as good as what the others are doing.” She smiles as she recalls her original website which included African capital cities in the footer rather than the oft writ = Paris, London, New York legend, but it is again a subtle and important marker – there is life and wealth and sophistication beyond the global North. When the challenging days arise she says to herself “I am going to think happy thoughts and I am going to nail it.” Most poignantly is her late mother’s entreaty to “Just keep on pushing. When you love something and you are passionate about it you are halfway there anyway.” However, Matturi is ever mindful of commercial viability avoiding creating too many high six figure pieces “I like to keep in the sweet spot where people can buy it” and anchoring her legacy ambitions with profitability “Let’s be honest the bottom line has to be speaking to me too and not just the jewellery.” Matturi’s ebullient pragmatism is refreshing in an industry that can often be awash on people focused on the esoteric and conceptual. Create by all means, but better yet, create anchored in lived realities.

Zen Adinkra Ear Studs. Diamonds, Rubelites, 18kt white gold
Zen Adinkra Ear Studs. Diamonds, Rubelites, 18kt white gold

Who decides what jewellery means and is? Like many artistic endeavours that are rooted in the human experience, the answer shifts and evolves across centuries and is contingent on who one is asking. Contemporary conversations are focused on positioning jewellery as art and there are strong arguments to support this thesis. Others will still assert that jewellery is strictly adornment; but even that statement requires further clarification: is the adornment for beautification purposes? Spiritual raiment? A prop to bookend rites of passage? An outward expression of an internal emotion? A lucky charm? A cultural delineator? Or is it merely the best portable form of equity one can get their hands on? “Mum always used to say to us, whatever you do, buy jewellery, buy gold…because you can always grab the jewellery, grab your kids and off you go…a lot more women need to do that , it’s not just about handbags, it’s a store of value.” Certainly, in this post pandemic era we live in, gold and gemstone prices have remained remarkably stable compared with foreign currencies and a great deal more appealing in the wearing. But where Matturi excels is in the fact that she has managed in less than ten years to create a jewellery house that responds to all of those aspects and more. The 21st Century Maison has to work beyond the business of pretty. It must have a higher purpose. Matturi Jewellery with its self declared mandate of distilling African narratives, celebrating craft, expanding participation and championing equitable mining practices, has not only understood the assignment – it has mastered it.

Deben Earrings, Diamonds, 18kt Gold, South Sea Pearls, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery
Deben Earrings, Diamonds, 18kt Gold, South Sea Pearls, Image Courtesy of Matturi Jewellery

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.