Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance
21 of the world’s leading Black jewelry designers
T he first of its kind, Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance was staged at Sotheby’s as a selling exhibition, curated in partnership with celebrated jewelry writer and authority Melanie Grant. The exhibition closed September 26, 2021 and featured approximately 60 pieces by 21 of the world’s leading Black jewelry designers. Shop selected pieces.
In Grant’s words, “This show represented a shift in thinking from ‘African inspired’ to Black talent being the inspiration. I’ve loved working with Frank (Everett), Sotheby’s, as well as the designers who have surpassed all our expectations. I think we’ll look back at this moment as a game changer, amplifying the often overlooked and sometimes underappreciated talents and stories of Black jewelry designers. These pieces have a depth of meaning which is emotional and important. With this exhibition, we hoped to introduce these designers to a new audience of enthusiasts and collectors and to dismantle the boundaries that still exist. To essentially help them make their mark in history.”
P aris-born, Chicago-based jeweler Catherine Sarr celebrates the symbols, stories and forms that unite people across cultures and generations, through fine jewelry that combines art, design and storytelling. After a decade in London working in the highest echelons of the luxury diamond industry, Catherine founded ALMASIKA with the aim of creating jewelry that is not only beautiful, but meaningful.
An avid art collector, patron and co-founder of the Prix Sarr in partnership with Beaux-Arts de Paris, Catherine has long been inspired by the power of art to spark dialogue and tell stories. Having lived on three continents, she is fascinated by the universal significance of shapes and symbols. Her designs are rooted in symbolism that transcend culture and connect people who share an appreciation of creativity, craftsmanship and form. ALMASIKA has adorned the likes of Issa Rae, Alicia Keys, Zoë Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon.
B orn in 1917 in Cuba to Jamaican parents, Art Smith and his family settled in Brooklyn in 1920. Smith was one of only a handful of Black students who received a scholarship to Cooper Union, where he majored in sculpture, cultivating an interest in commercial art. After graduating, he took courses in jewelry-making at NYU and was mentored by Winifred Mason Chenet. He became her assistant and opened his own shop on Cornelia Street in 1946, but moved the shop nearer to Washington Square Park due to racially motivated vandalism.
In the mid-1950s, he sold his jewelry through department stores such as Bloomingdale’s. An avid dance enthusiast and supporter of Black and gay civil rights, Smith was greatly influenced by choreographer Tally Beatty. Through Beatty, he was commissioned to design jewelry for dance companies, encouraging him to make bolder, more theatrical designs. His work has been featured in Vogue, and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and Cooper Hewitt, among others.
Smith’s style was inspired by surrealism, biomorphism and primitivism, crafting pieces that were grand in scale yet light enough to be worn by dancers. He is considered one of the leading modern jewelers of the mid-century.
B orn in Toledo, Ohio, Castro came to NYC in pursuit of a career in fashion. To support himself, he began selling handmade jewelry on the streets of SoHo. Building his reputation there and encouraged by a loyal client to start his own line of jewelry, Castro founded his business in 2006. Today, his fans include such icons as Steven Tyler, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.
Currently based in Istanbul, Castro designs jewelry that are epic creations with limited output — only 35 pieces a year. Choosing unusual gemstones he translates his vivid dreams into gem-encrusted doll pendants and designs with biomorphic and avian elements, all with a haunting edge reminiscent of antiques, the Medieval Times and African culture. His work has been featured on the covers of Forbes, Hamptons and Vogue Mexico, among others, as well as in the book Rock Star Chic.
A ll the colors of the rainbow radiate positive energy in Harwell Godfrey’s line of jewelry. Lauren Harwell Godfrey worked as a creative director in advertising and trained as a chef before founding her company in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Her burgeoning label was inspired by her love of ancient textiles and patterns as well as an affinity for mid-century modern geometric shapes. She conveys a sense of history through references to the Four Elements, block printing and weaving. Endowing every detail with symbolism, she handcrafts her collection in 18k gold, using precious gemstones and vivid enamel.
Politically mindful, Godfrey designs her jewelry with healing messages, thoughtfully placing gems to express Black unity in the aftermath of George Floyd. Many of her pieces feature inscriptions on the back, reinforcing the intentions of each design. A dedicated philanthropist, she has created charity heart pendants with 100% of the proceeds going to the NAACP, No Hungry Kid, World Central Kitchen and Human Rights Campaign. Harwell Godfrey also helped establish the Art Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund to support Black students concentrating in jewelry at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.
J acqueline Rabun describes her passion for jewelry-making as a desire to express the need for more compassion in the world. Using ethically sourced gold and silver, she creates pieces that tell a story through organic and architectural forms. Having studied fashion in Los Angeles before bridging over to metalwork, Rabun launched her debut line in 1990 with the “Raw Elegance” collection of hand-sculpted forms, which earned immediate acclaim among collectors of contemporary art and design.
Inspired by nature and universal life themes, such as birth and the passage of time, Rabun’s creations often have movable pieces in poetic silhouettes imbued with meaning in different configurations. Rabun has a long-term collaboration with Georg Jensen, sharing an intuitive understanding of Scandinavian design; other collaborations have included Halston and Studio Mama, and she’s a consultant for Zaha Hadid Architects.
G rowing up amid a community of Yoruba weavers in Nigeria, Jariet Oloyé watched and participated in the art of woven textiles and basketry. These skills led her to studying at the Cass School of Art, Architecture & Design at London Metropolitan University, and she graduated with honors in Jewellery & Silversmithing. Basing her business in London, her education informed her own visual language of weaving with metal wire.
Working with recyclable materials, Oloyé creates thought-provoking sculptural jewelry and objects that explore the happiness of people and the serenity of public spaces. She also explores the relationship between the mediums of glass and metal. Her jewelry is influenced by her African upbringing and is inspired by art, architecture and the natural world. Oloyé’s experimentation with metal alloys has successfully yielded one-of-a-kind art objects in abstract colors and textures, depicting the beauty of nature.
B orn in England and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Johnel Jamison launched the Johnny Nelson jewelry brand in 2017, influenced by the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and hip-hop culture in the 1980s and ’90s. Each piece is handcrafted in NYC, using various fine metals and stones. Jamison’s journey from emcee to jewelry designer happened while on tour, when he realized he wanted to look as good as he felt on stage. His first piece was a head-turning three-finger ring, drawing attention from celebrities such as Mary J. Blige, Nick Cannon and Lil Nas X.
Inspired by his diverse passions in punk, hip-hop and spirituality, Jamison’s work honors Black empowerment. His line features rings of sculpted portraits of Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, as well as necklaces emblazoned with the All Power Fist. A recent collaboration with Pyer Moss resulted in a 21-piece “Sister” collection, commemorating such icons as Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. These statement pieces spark conversation among the politically minded, as well as those who want to express themselves with “wearable badassery.”
L istening to her creative impulses, Lola Oladunjoye left her law career in Silicon Valley to found the independent, small-batch fine jewelry company Lola Fenhirst, which is based in Paris. The British-born Oladunjoye was drawn to jewelry design because she felt that it strengthened the connection to her family heritage, fondly remembering the rings worn by her great uncle, who once helped negotiate Nigeria’s independence from the UK.
Known for its iconic Sybil series, the Lola Fenhirst brand creates striking jewelry that merges angular British sensibilities with the distinct essence of Oladunjoye’s Yoruba ancestry. Her work explores the contrasting energies of tradition and modernity, femininity and masculinity, strength and fragility. Her company has taken the value of sustainability to heart, as each piece is crafted from recycled metals and ethically sourced stones by highly skilled artisans who combine traditional techniques with the latest technology.
F or over 20 years, Lorraine West has crafted limited-edition jewelry in her NYC studio, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a BA in illustration. Enamored with the hip-hop culture of the 1980s and ’90s, the Central Islip, NY designer lovingly handcrafts palette earrings with striking dimensions, cuff bracelets and custom engagement rings. Her work has won the adoration of such trailblazers as Ava DuVernay, Alicia Keys, Serena Williams and Erykah Badu, and it was worn by Beyoncé in Black Is King.
West’s signature style is both bold and minimalist, and made from various fine metals along with precious gemstones. Inspired by her Caribbean roots, symbology and geometric shapes, she creates elegant jewelry that connects the wearer to their inner beauty and power. Her work has been celebrated at New York City’s Jewelry Week and she recently launched her first capsule collection at Greenwich Street Jewelers.
A ttuned to the materiality of precious stones and the power of the passage of time, Maggi Simpkins sees her pieces as talismans that help us tell stories, outliving us. Based in Los Angeles, Simpkins focuses on one-of-a-kind engagement rings. Born in Portland, Oregon, she had no traditional training in fine art or jewelry, but she grew up in a home that bloomed with creativity. Her artistry is 100% intuitive, which starts with a simple sketch, whether it’s for a piece of jewelry, apparel, interior design or landscaping.
Known for her narrative-driven engagement rings and family heirlooms, she believes that bespoke jewelry celebrates the unique union of each couple, and listens to their stories before dreaming up the jewelry design that will best celebrate their commitment. Her distinctive, dramatic pieces, such as in her “Permission to Shine” collection, allow the wearer to be unapologetically bold, to freely take up space and celebrate their inner magic. Her pieces are handcrafted modern treasures that embrace both luxury and ethically sourced and recycled materials.
E gyptian-Dominican designer Angie Marei was born and raised in NYC, acquiring a degree at the Pratt Institute in NYC in communications design. She has experience as a creative director, having worked for global luxury brands such as Gucci, YSL and Tom Ford. Marei discovered her love of jewelry tracing back to her Egyptian ancestry, which inspired her to enroll in a fine jewelry school in NYC. Her passions include wax modeling and metalsmithing, while collecting rare gems. Her fans include Rihanna, Beyoncé, Demi Lovato and Billy Porter.
Known previously as Diaboli Kill Jewelry, Marei Fine Jewelry was launched in 2013. The brand is distinctly sexy with a dark edge for those daring to redefine elegance. Channeling the spirit of her Egyptian-Dominican heritage, tapping into the experiences of growing up in NYC and traveling the world, and combining her passions for vintage occult films and Old Hollywood, Marei experiments with a hybrid of architectural Art Deco-inspired design and spiritual mythology. She creates luxurious pieces that include talismans in the shape of horns, Aphrodite pendants, skull earrings and crucifixes.
A self-taught designer, Matthew Harris was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica, before arriving in the U.S. at age 16 to attend college. After completing his studies, he discovered his true passion for the art of jewelry-making in NYC, immersing himself in the jewelry district. Harris founded Mateo New York in 2009, originally focused on men’s jewelry, inspired by the concept of a working man’s toolbox. With the success of the men’s line, a women’s collection soon followed. Harris was a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and was selected by the Smithsonian Museum to have his collection sold at the Hirshhorn and National African American Museum.
Mateo’s signature style is sophisticated minimalism, drawing inspiration from modern art. Each chic yet unpretentious piece is made with precious metals, pearls and gemstones, with the intention of being easy to wear. Jamaican colors are subtly featured in malachite, yellow gold and black onyx. The brand’s timeless aesthetic has been regularly featured in magazines such as Vogue and Elle.
T rained in Bermuda, Canada, New York and London, Melanie Eddy holds an MA in jewelry design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, where she is currently an associate lecturer. Specializing in bespoke services, Eddy undertakes commissions in precious metals and exceptional stones imbued with personal significance to the wearer and giver. As curator of a British Council exhibition, Eddy was involved in bringing contemporary jewelry and gemstones from Afghanistan to London and Edinburgh, and she has also worked with Future Brilliance, the Afghan NGO and UK charity, granting apprenticeship-style training in Jaipur to jewelers and gemstone cutters in Afghanistan.
Eddy describes jewelry as a “form of intimate architecture,” likening it to the angles of the buildings and landscapes around us. Handcrafting pieces from her London-based studio, her sculptural jewelry uses geometry as a tool to explore the relationship of form to the human body.
R ising to prominence at the early age of 21 from the “Freestyle” exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Chicago-born Rashid Johnson has been part of an influential cadre of American artists whose work explores a wide range of media and themes in art history, individual and shared cultural identities, literature, philosophy, critical history and personal journeys.
Having collaborated with Liz Swig of LIZWORKS, his jewelry draws upon his distinctive visual language. Images from Johnson’s Anxious Men series have been emblazoned onto gold and titanium cuffs, rings, dog tag necklaces and pendants, all in limited editions. Merging art with jewelry, Johnson embeds a personal narrative in everyday materials and objects, referencing his childhood as well as aspects of Black intellectual history and cultural identity.
B ritish-West African designer Satta Matturi is originally from Sierra Leone, where her father was the director of the De Beers operation in the 1970s and ’80s. Working for De Beers in London as a diamond valuer for nearly 20 years, she traveled the world for her diamond clients to bid on tenders. The Matturi Fine Jewellery collection was launched in 2015.
Drawing a celebrity following that includes Rihanna and Halima Aden, Matturi’s collection uses powerful motifs from African history, culture and traditions. Her “Whispers of Meroë” collection was the culmination of many hours of research inspired by the capital city of the Kingdom of Kush, and her “Artful Indulgence” collection contains her signature Nomoli Totem pieces, based on West African wooden masks. Responsibly sourced raw materials from Africa are a key value to the brand, and it has strengthened its commitment to working with African-owned companies to source some of its diamonds, including Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi.
S heryl Jones began her career in fine jewelry in 1999 and established Sheryl Jones Designs in 2002, after working for a decade in the entertainment industry as a film and television publicist. Striking a deal with the Belgian manufacturer Grunberger Diamonds, she learned how to sort gems under the mentorship of David Grunberger in order to break into the industry. In addition to designing jewelry, sourcing gemstones and running her own retail outpost on 47th Street in NYC, Jones also writes a monthly column for Rapaport Magazine.
Bringing to life her dream of creating jewelry that resonates with the vitality of music, Jones is known for her connoisseur’s level of craftsmanship, quality and detail. Attracting a client roster such as H.E.R. and Andra Day, Jones’ work is known for its timeless appeal that illuminates the owner’s individual style and inner beauty.
S hola Branson reinterprets the designs of antiquity for today, aspiring to create the artefacts of tomorrow. After working in various creative roles in fashion and spending countless hours perusing museums, he discovered his passion for jewelry and launched his eponymous line in 2017. The London-based, self-taught designer creates pieces that combine the simplicity of modernity with the rich textures and silhouettes of ancient times. Branson has also collaborated with other young Black designers, including Eastwood Danso and Motherlan.
The style of Shola Branson Jewellery is inspired by the meeting point of early civilization with high technology. His line of playful colors and chunky silhouettes is created with recycled gold, finished individually or in small batches. His uplifting collection includes rings clustered with gorgeous gemstones, Cupid rings and bubble necklaces.
N amed after a line of ancient Chinese philosophy from the Tao Te Ching, Tenthousandthings was founded in 1991 by self-taught designers Ron Anderson and David Rees. After successful careers in fashion retail, Anderson and Rees ventured into jewelry design, drawn to its small-scale sculpture, emotional value and infinite artistic realizations, establishing their NYC storefront on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village.
Working exclusively with natural gemstones and pearls, the jewelry line is known for its meticulously handcrafted heirlooms inspired by abstract shapes found in nature. Their sculptural forms in silver and gold are meant to best highlight expertly chosen stones, including Sleeping Beauty turquoise, opals and American natural pearls. Their raw yet refined jewelry has recently graced the cover of VMAN Magazine, with Lil Nas X sporting a long fern earring for the September issue. Constantly innovating and perfecting their craft, the duo has established a collaboration with craftsmen in Jaipur, yielding luminous shapes carved with subtle detail that will resonate in their work for years to come.
B orn in Nigeria, Thelma West moved to the UK when she was 16 years old, with ambitions of becoming an engineer. But the siren call of design and jewelry-making beckoned her to a life less ordinary, and she moved to the diamond capital of Antwerp to train as a gemologist. Armed with her expertise in diamonds, West founded her eponymous line in 2012, located in the heart of SoHo, NYC, drawing the admiration of such celebrities as Zendaya and Uzo Aduba.
Her jewelry combines the traditional big, bold and chunky African aesthetic with more modern, minimalistic styles popular in Europe. The signature “TW” look includes a combination of fine lines and curves, such as the delicate black ceramic curlicue that hugs a 5-carat pear-shaped diamond in her “Rebel Black” collection. Her beautiful and unconventional aesthetic has earned her a reputation for using diverse materials and techniques. While diamonds are central to her work, West also incorporates emeralds, sapphires and rubies.
C elebrated as the world’s first female-founded, fine jewelry brand with a deeply rooted African heritage, VANLELES champions an unwavering commitment to ethically sourced gemstones and precious metals with an unparalleled belief in the benefits of responsible mining. Founder and creative director Vania Leles is a gemologist with a rare mix of vibrant African heritage, European panache and American dynamism. Born in Guinea Bissau and educated in Lisbon and London, Leles graduated from the GIA, spent over a decade working for GRAFF, De Beers and Sotheby’s, and launched her brand within an atelier on London’s New Bond Street in 2011.
Infused with rich color and sophistication, the brand’s collections are designed for the modern international woman. Each piece is crafted from an inspiring story of Africa’s past and present, interpreted through shapes and colors, and is united by the unmistakable VANLELES elegance. Crafted by the world’s most skilled jewelry makers, the designs from VANLELES, such as the “Out of Africa” collection of rubies and rubellite, are inextricably linked to Leles’ heritage and have become a reference among collectors and connoisseurs.
B orn in 1918 in NYC, Winifred Mason Chenet was raised by immigrant parents from the West Indies. She is believed to be the first commercial Black jeweler in the U.S. Receiving a BA in English literature and an MA from New York University, Chenet discovered her talents as an art jeweler while teaching metalsmithing to children at Junior Achievement Worldwide, where she also met her future assistant and mentee, Art Smith.
With a grant from the Rosenwald Fund, Chenet immersed herself in West Indian and Haitian cultures and expressed her discoveries through jewelry. Her first piece appeared in 1940 as a pendant composed of bronze, copper and silver, which attracted commissions from friends in intellectual art circles. In 1943, she moved into a studio in Greenwich Village, where she began working with Art Smith and selling her pieces to stores such as Lord & Taylor.
As a self-taught designer, Chenet was a pioneer in the industry, working primarily in copper, bronze and silver. She sometimes invented her own tools to craft each one-of-a-kind piece. Her jewelry was exhibited in the U.S. and Haiti, cultivating a larger audience and winning the attention of celebrities such as Billie Holiday.