The world of high jewellery is not known for its inclusivity, but London-based editor and author Melanie Grant is hoping to rectify that by curating an exhibition dedicated solely to the work of Black jewellery designers. Held in partnership with Sotheby’s, the first-of-its-kind show – titled ‘Brilliant & Black: A Jewellery Renaissance’ – will bring together 21 of the world’s leading Black designers from across Europe and the US in a trailblazing sale set to shake up the haute joaillerie industry.
The show will feature over 60 signature designs and special custom-made pieces, all available to purchase online from Sotheby’s ‘Buy Now’ marketplace from Friday 17 September to Sunday 10 October, with prices starting at £1,000 ($1,500). At the top end of the scale is a custom-made ring by LA-based designer Maggi Simpkins which comes with a million-dollar price tag – if it sells, it will set a record for the most expensive jewel by a Black designer ever sold at a major global auction house.
The designers chosen range from pioneers in the history of Black jewellery design, including Winifred Mason, who is believed to have been the first commercial African-American jeweller, and her mentee, Art Smith, to a pool of critically acclaimed contemporary creatives from around the world, including London-based designers Vania Leles of Vanleles and Thelma West, whose Rebel Black ring featuring an exquisite pear-shaped diamond is one of the show’s highlights.
“This show represents a shift in thinking from ‘African-inspired’ to Black talent being the inspiration,” says Grant. “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 jewellery designers. These pieces have a depth of meaning which is emotional and important. With this exhibition we hope 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.”
Here, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about some of the key designers taking part in the show.
It all started with a lightbulb moment in 2003, when Guinea-Bissau-born Vania Leles was on a fine jewellery modelling assignment. After discovering that there were no African haute joaillerie designers working with the precious stones native to their continent at the time, the then-24-year-old decided she would establish the world’s first female-founded African high jewellery house. After graduating from the Gemological Institute of America and spending over a decade working for renowned brands including Graff, De Beers and Sotheby’s, Leles launched her own brand, Vanleles, in 2011 with an atelier on New Bond Street. Fusing her African heritage with her experiences of living in Europe and travelling the world, her sophisticated designs are made using ethical gems sourced in Africa: rubies from Mozambique, Zambian emeralds and diamonds from Botswana and Namibia. Among Leles’ best-known designs are her Enchanted Garden earrings, which are available to buy through the exhibition and were inspired by a bold floral pattern found in African batiks.
This fine jewellery brand takes a truly global approach to its collections, having been born in London, launched at the influential Colette boutique in Paris and now based in Chicago. Founded by French-Beninese designer Catherine Sarr in 2014, Almasika is known for its sculptural contemporary creations, which are handmade from 18-carat gold and conflict-free, natural diamonds and have been worn by the likes of Lizzo, Reese Witherspoon and Alicia Keys. As well as having worked for various luxury and diamond brands, including spending several years at De Beers, Sarr is an avid art collector and co-founded the Sarr Prize to support art students in Paris, so it’s no surprise that her designs draw heavily on artistic and cultural references. Taking inspiration from universal symbols and stories that span generations, her signature piece is a necklace centred around a cowrie shell, an ancestral talisman that has long been a symbol of spirituality, prosperity and abundance.
When Nigerian-born jeweller Thelma West first moved to London aged 16, she originally planned to become an engineer, but soon switched to a completely different path that saw her move to Antwerp to enrol in the city’s prestigious Hoge Raad voor Diamant school. It was here that she honed her diamond cutting skills, before moving back to London to work as a diamond dealer specialising in large, distinctive stones. It wasn’t until a close friend asked her to design an engagement ring centred around an antique diamond that she made the switch to jewellery design in 2012. West hand picks every gemstone that she uses in her one-of-a-kind pieces, which she creates from her Soho studio for a portfolio of private collectors, including the spectacular five-carat pear-shaped diamond at the centre of her Rebel Black ring, one of the exhibition’s highlights.
Diamonds are in Satta Matturi’s DNA: the Sierra Leone-born designer grew up among the jewels, with her father working as De Beers’ West African resident director and chief executive, and quickly cemented her love of the gemstones. Following in her father’s footsteps, she spent almost two decades working with De Beers in London herself before launching her eponymous fine jewellery brand in the city in 2015. Her pieces draw on her West African heritage for inspiration, like her spectacular Birds of Paradise earrings, which echo the African peacock with their rose-cut diamonds and green onyx, and her vibrant 18-karat gold earrings in the shape of calabash bowls. But she’s best-known for her Nomoli Totem earrings, inspired by traditional West African masks, which became her signature piece once Rihanna wore a black onyx asymmetrical pair to a Fenty event.
Pieces from ‘Brilliant & Black: A Jewellery Renaissance’ will be available to buy via Sotheby’s Buy Now online marketplace from 17 September – 10 October 2021