The cultural significance of Black jewellery design
Four independent jewellers working in an industry severely lacking in diversity discuss why their craft is such an important part of Black identity.
Courtesy of Khiry
In the glittering world of fine jewellery, exclusivity is paramount to selling precious jewels. However, something else in the industry is just as rare as the product: Black people. Whether in the glossy ad imagery or the predominantly white teams of the world’s leading jewellery houses, there‘s a severe lack of diversity at all levels. London-based jeweller Melanie Eddy recently pointed out that not one Black student has graduated from the jewellery design MA programme at Central Saint Martins (of which she is an alumna) in the six years she has been teaching the course.
Unfortunately this comes as no surprise — certainly not to the young people of colour for whom scaling the heights of the jewellery world is proving to be a daunting prospect, if not entirely impossible. The independent designers that have been celebrated in recent years almost always come from immense privilege. This is largely because it costs a lot of money to learn the technical craftsmanship and invest in the materials involved — then of course, you need a network of wealthy followers to buy it all.
And yet, people of colour are some of the biggest consumers of jewellery. In the 80s and 90s, a generation of African-American entertainers and athletes popularised bold statement jewellery, often commissioning custom-made blinged-out pieces, because traditional houses just didn’t cater to their tastes. For a time, there wasn’t a hip-hop track around that didn’t mention jewellery.
This influence has impacted the contemporary jewellery landscape, which is rife with chunky Cuban chains, colourful jewels, bamboo earrings, gold hoops and pavé-set ‘ice’ timepieces -- undeniably ‘bling-y’ designs appropriated from Black people yet sitting in the windows of Place Vendôme in Paris. According to Reggie Osse, co-author of Bling: The Hip-Hop Jewelry Book, the first recorded usage of ‘bling’ was in a Jamaican reggae song in 1969, since becoming a part of our modern vernacular via its use in hip-hop lyrics.
The jewellery industry’s long-standing issues with race become all the murkier when considering the history of the gem trade. As statues of Cecil Rhodes are being torn down across the world, it’s important to note that the imperialist figurehead was responsible for monopolising southern Africa’s diamond mines with his formation of the De Beers group, which, until recently, controlled 80% of the global supply of diamonds. To this day, questionable undertones can often be felt in the way that some jewellery brands talk about their mines in Africa. The question remains: who should they belong to and who continues to profit from them?
Here, four Black jewellery designers discuss their work and how they’re breaking down barriers with their handcrafted designs.
At the end of his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, Jameel Mohammed encountered a CEO of a luxury retailer who told him that the only true luxury brands in the world are either from Milan or Paris, insinuating that a Black aesthetic could not be considered ‘high fashion’’. This encounter spurred him on to create a Black-owned luxury brand at the age of 21. Four years later, Khiry is not only sold across the world at major retailers, but has been awarded by the CFDA and dangled from the ears, necks and wrists of Michelle Obama, Janelle Monáe and Serena Williams.
“If I’m going to put things out into the world, I want to be actively countering the predominant image of Black people in western visual culture, which is one of subordination or danger,” he explains of his Afrofuturist jewellery. Celebrating the symbols and motifs from the diaspora -- from West African masks and mosque minarets, to 80s hoop earrings and historical figures such as Nandi, mother of Shaka Zulu -- Khiry’s influences are far-ranging. At the brand’s heart, though, is “a people of immense historical and cultural wealth”.
“I didn't want to be the privileged member of the diaspora accessing cultures willy-nilly for a western market and audience to consume,” he notes. “The African-American experience, because of the slave trade, is not about being able to point to a historical place of origin. But your experience is unquestionably a Black one, and there are experiences that cross boundaries of time and place, commonalities of my African-American experience and that of someone in the Caribbean or in Africa.”
Working with gold and semi-precious stones, Jameel is a self-taught jeweller whose streamlined pieces are imbued with a sculptural quality. Like most jewellers, he’s interested in creating something beautiful, but he also aims to load his accessories with political meaning -- like some kind of golden Trojan Horse. “It’s about creating cultural change through the creation of tangible, desirable objects,” as he puts it. “Within the process of someone coming to believe that something is worth something, there are so many opportunities to educate. You might get the piece, and then one day you're sitting in your house and it's asking you to engage with someone like Aimé Césaire!”
Last year, when Indya Moore stepped onto a red carpet in New York wearing waist-skimming earrings depicting 17 Black trans women who had been murdered in the US in 2019, it was both a style and political statement. The earrings, custom-made by Areeayl Goodwin of Beads Byaree, were testament to the ways that an object of beauty can be used as a powerful storytelling medium for conveying something altogether darker to the world. “It took my art and gave it a greater purpose, a more radical purpose,” says Areeayl, who is based in Philadelphia. “I use my jewellery as an open journal to the world as a way to connect with other people who are going through the same thing. It’s a part of my language.”
During her second year at Howard University, Areeayl began freestyling with brass and beads to create jewellery that nods to her Yoruba heritage, as well as the emotional and spiritual connection to Black history. Having taken a few jewellery-making lessons “in an old lady’s basement”, she began giving pieces to friends, before demand rose on campus. Today, her jewellery is loved by Tracee Ellis Ross and Beyoncé — as well as Indya Moore, of course.
Beads Byaree taps into the talismanic nature of jewellery, both as a personal motif and a source of healing (she is currently experimenting with crystals). Much of her work is about large statement jewellery: cowrie shell mobiles to symbolise Yemaya; sculpted-wire ‘Thickums’ earrings that represent Black women’s bodies; exaggerated hoops dangling with saxophones and trumpets as a nod to jazz. “Coming from the Yoruba culture, most of our jewellery means something, especially jewellery made to honour deities and our ancestors,” she points out. “It's something that has already been done by my ancestors.”
Streatham-based Shola Branson is bringing a boldness to men’s fine jewellery that hasn’t been seen since the days when Kanye and co had Takashi Murakami design their big gold chain pendants. The 29-year-old’s pieces are far less intense, but no less extraordinary: melanges of brightly coloured stones (sapphires, tourmalines, amethysts, garnets, aquamarines and diamonds) set in the solid shapes of signet rings. He started his brand, which is now sold at Browns, after training himself in the craft following a wax-carving evening course. “I don’t think I would have ever felt comfortable to pursue jewellery through the traditional entry points,” he says, adding that it took him four years to raise enough money to even buy materials and be able to afford to experiment. “I had to come at it from a different angle, which is probably the same story for a lot of other Black jewellery brands.”
Shola’s jewellery, which also includes exaggerated Cuban chain bracelets and Art Nouveau-inspired rings, nod to the fashion influences of his formative years. Having grown up on a council estate just outside of London, he was in the minority in a predominantly white neighbourhood and spent a lot of his teens online. “I was into Pharrell and Bathing Ape, that whole early 2000s streetwear movement,” he says. “I guess my visual style was rooted in that somehow, mixed with my mum’s hippie, slightly bohemian taste.”
That era in question -- all brightly-coloured streetwear, an open embrace of luxury mixed with sportswear, and cartoon-bright graphics -- marked a turning point in fashion history with a new generation of Black male style icons. Jewellery, of course, was always as integral to the hip-hop aesthetic as sampling was to its sound -- who could forget Pharrell’s million-dollar chain with a diamond-encrusted portrait of himself on it? “I’m definitely influenced by that genre of jewellery,” says Shola. “My interpretation of it is a bit more subverted and more for my personal taste. I’m not using super in-your-face diamonds, but I do enjoy the colourful, the bold and even the ‘blingy’ to some extent.”
Across Houston-based jeweller Matthew Harris’ glittering offering of gold and diamond jewellery — sold under his nickname, Mateo — there are subtle clues to the designer’s upbringing in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Miniature diamond crosses; green emeralds and malachites paired with yellow gold and black onyx (the colours of the Jamaican flag); and baroque pearls that appear as though plucked directly from the ocean floor.
His designs nod to a distinctly Caribbean flair for style, not just in a literal sense, but in the more general notion of always putting your best foot forward -- fashion as a protective armour to the world’s prejudice. “My mum would never leave the house without asking me how she looked,” Matthew says of his formative years. “As much as my family were very religious and oftentimes homophobic, I grew up with a mom who was interested in fashion and would make all the clothes for the kids in the neighbourhood, and a father whose arms were always clad in chunky Cuban link bracelets.”
Matthew began making men’s jewellery 11 years ago after struggling to find jewellery for himself. “I wanted to find a Black jewellery designer, someone who understood my background and my dialogue, and there was none,” he says. “I didn’t want a heritage brand. There was a lack of a Black point of view in the jewellery world, and there still is.” He has since succeeded in building a modern American jewellery house that speaks to a generation who buy precious jewels for themselves. But, despite garnering international press, he’s also been subjected to casual racism in the jewellery world. “I’ve been to meetings where the buyers would walk past me in the lobby because they would think I was the courier,” he says. “Sometimes it’s ignorance, but that happened several times.”
Mentorship, he points out, whether financial or simply conversational, is important. In fact, Matthew nominated Khiry to be stocked at Net-a-Porter as part of a designer mentorship programme. That kind of inclusivity is paramount to Mateo’s success. “We’re making jewellery for my generation,” says Matthew. “We’re not an elitist brand, and I’m not from some aristocratic family. We just want young people to have badass jewellery that isn’t going to tarnish.”