Celebrating the Brilliance of Black Designers

Celebrating the Brilliance of Black Designers

Introducing four leading makers showing work at the forthcoming Brilliant and Black – A Jewelry Renaissance exhibition in New York
Introducing four leading makers showing work at the forthcoming Brilliant and Black – A Jewelry Renaissance exhibition in New York

A landmark selling exhibition spotlighting 21 Black jewelry designers, none of whom have sold directly at auction before, is coming to Sotheby’s New York on 17 September. Brilliant and Black – A Jewelry Renaissance, curated by jewellery expert and journalist Melanie Grant, will bring together makers from across the US and Europe, whose styles range from abstract Modernism to gothic Romanticism. Each designer is contributing roughly three pieces, among them a million dollar ring by Maggi Simpkins made specially for Brilliant and Black, and archive pieces from the estate of leading 20th-century jeweller Art Smith will also make an appearance. Grant describes the line-up as the “pinnacle of Black excellence”.

"Jewellery design has always been an area of art in which often when there is a show, Black artists aren't necessarily involved,” she says. “I want to create some kind of platform so that these designers have access to a global collector base. The talent is there, but the opportunity hasn’t always been”. Meet four of the designers below.

Castro NYC

A photograph of a man wearing a necklace featuring jewels shaped like figures
Castro NYC. Photo: Simon Groenberg

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Castro founded his namesake brand in New York in 2006, before relocating to Istanbul, where he is currently based. Grant describes his work as strange, dark and brilliant – think ceramic rag dolls with jewels for eyes and fur talisman paws with diamond claws. “I’ve never seen anything he’s done that I haven’t wanted myself,” she says. Past clients include Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (Castro describes meeting the latter as a career highlight – “he was so cool and real”). When asked what inspires his work, he simply says: “everything that is African, plain and simple”.

A piece of jewellery shaped like a hybrid bird-human being
Castro NYC, Antique Bisque Doll

Vania Leles

A photo of a woman wearing earrings and a ring
Vania Leles. Photo: Vania Leles

Raised in Guinea-Bissau, Vania Leles is motivated by the desire to create a “high jewellery house founded by an African woman to rival any of the heritage houses of Europe”. She started as a model before “stumbling upon” the world of jewellery, launching her eponymous brand, Vanleles, in 2012. Today, she sells online, by appointment from a private showroom in Mayfair and via online luxury fashion retail platform Farfetch’s concierge service. Like Castro, Leles's pieces are inspired by African culture, history and architecture. Seventy-five percent of the natural diamonds, precious gemstones and metals she uses are sourced from the continent, and her best-known collection, Enchanted Garden, is a vibrant ode to traditional African fabrics.

Rose-gold and titanium earrings resembling flowers
Vanleles, Enchanted Garden Titanium Ruby Flower Earrings

Jariet Oloyé

A woman working on a piece of silver jewellery
Jariet Oloyé in her studio. Photo: Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company

Jariet Oloyé’s intricate metal, wire and glass creations are inspired by her childhood in Nigeria when, surrounded by a community of craftspeople, she learnt the arts of textile weaving and basketry. Oloyé launched her brand in 2013, and is contributing three pieces to the exhibition; the Monumental Ring, the Serene Glass Bangle and the Dimple Broach. They variously use recycled sterling silver, black and white rhodium, 14 karat gold and glass, and are inspired by the “optimism, tenacity and resilience” of people in her home country. “Everywhere we are, no matter what one is going through, we always try to bring happiness,” says Oloyé. “And that is what I like to create – joy.”

A ring with a gold band and silver centre stone
Jariet Oloyé, Monumental Ring

Maggi Simpkins

A woman in her studio surrounded by designs, jewellery and other items
Maggi Simpkins in her studio. Photo: Daniel N Johnson

For the past 10 years, LA-based designer Maggi Simpkins has used ethically sourced stones and, where possible, recycled materials to create her ornate, vintage-inspired jewellery. In 2015, after creating an engagement ring for a friend, she was inspired to focus on one-of-a-kind commissions. “I get goosebumps every time I talk about the moment I handed him that ring – his joy was palpable,” she says. “I have an affinity for creating objects that represent significant and monumental moments in people’s lives. I love the excitement, and sometimes the challenge, of always making something new and different.” She weaves elements that are specific to her clients' requests together with her signature style to create truly unique pieces. The million dollar ring she has created for the exhibition is inspired by a flower blooming. It contains a 2.43ct fancy pink, internally flawless, cushion-cut diamond centre, surrounded by three shades of pink sapphires and rubies.

A ring resembling a flower in bloom
Maggi Simpkins, In Bloom Ring

Brilliant and Black – A Jewelry Renaissance is on view at Sotheby's New York from 17–26 September. Customers can purchase pieces online and in-person until 10 October

LEAD IMAGE: A view of Maggi Simpkin's workshop table in her studio. Photo: Daniel N Johnson.

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