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

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