In September, Sotheby’s staged a groundbreaking jewelry exhibition featuring pieces by 21 of the world’s leading Black jewelers. Entitled “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance,” the selling exhibition, which continues online, was part of a constellation of recent initiatives—including De Beers’ “Black Is Brilliant” designer-stylist partnership—intended to draw attention to the rich body of work created by members of the Black diaspora.
Robb Report checked in with a handful of jewelers who took part in the exhibition to see how the past two years of lockdowns had inspired them, and what they are creating now. While their aesthetic signatures differ, all four designers are quietly forging reputations as tastemakers, and turning out some of the industry’s most collectible jewels.
Catherine Sarr, the Chicago-based designer behind the fine jewelry brand Almasika, loves 18k yellow gold, and it shows. A hallmark of her work is an emphasis on sculptural shapes and curved lines that lend her precious metal pieces a deeply sensual quality.
Which isn’t to say Sarr is against using a few diamonds here and there, particularly in her more rarefied jewels. “The most luxurious piece I’ve created was a commission,” Sarr says. “It was a stunning neckpiece made using 18k yellow gold and graduating round diamonds that totaled 24 carats. It was an incredible moment to see the piece come to life.”
Born and raised in France to parents from Benin in West Africa, Sarr often draws on symbols from her personal heritage, as well as universal signs and motifs, to inform her work, as in the Universum cuff. Part of Almasika’s Sagesse collection, the 18k gold bracelet is distinguished by concentric circles representing the universe, a motif common to cultures around the world, from the Sahara to the Sonoran Desert.
In the end, however, Sarr always returns to her core mission: designing jewels with an ergonomic sensibility. “In terms of scale, high jewelry pieces, of course, become bigger but nevertheless retain these signature sculptural elements,” she says, “because it’s about designing pieces that echo the contours of the body and come to life against the skin.” almasika.com
When she’s designing a spectacular, one-of-a-kind jewel, Lauren Harwell Godfrey almost always begins with a colored stone that she has most likely discovered herself, probably in Tucson, at the city’s annual gem shows. From there, the piece takes on a life—and a journey—of its own.
“My high jewelry passes through the hands of skilled artisans with different specialties before completion,” says the Northern California-based designer. “The stone setting alone typically includes pavé, bezel-set and burnishing all in one piece. There is typically also a lot of lapidary work including detailed inlay and carving.”
For an example of the multitude of techniques that go into a signature HG jewel, look no further than Harwell Godfrey’s Cleopatra’s Vault collection. Introduced in 2020, the line was the product of her partnership with Muzo, a mining company that specializes in sustainably-sourced Colombian emeralds. The talking piece was the designer’s Emerald Totem necklace, featuring 8.63 carats of Muzo Colombian emeralds, black onyx and diamonds set in 18k yellow gold.
“I used three different emerald shapes, so coming up with the unique motifs around each of them—using my signature inlay triangle design—was a big part of the process,” says the former creative director.
The emphasis on triangles and other sacred geometric forms is so intrinsic to Harwell Godfrey’s ouevre that a piece of her jewelry is recognizable from across the room—no small feat for a designer who found her way into jewelry just a few years ago.
Matthew “Mateo” Harris, the founder and designer of Mateo, introduced his first jewelry collection in 2009, but it was expressly designed for men because the aesthetic that dominated men’s jewelry at the time (so. many. skulls!) didn’t resonate with his sensibility.
Harris, now based in Texas, has evolved his collection since then to include a big focus on pearls (“I’m a June baby—pearls are my birthstone, so I’ve always been obsessed”). The organic gems figure prominently in Mateo’s brand new high jewelry collection, which includes a magnificent pair of diamond wheel hoop earrings set with Japanese akoyas.
“I was inspired by the horses and carriages that make their way to Central Park every day,” says Harris. “When I was in NYC full time, I lived on 8th Avenue and 55th St. and each morning the sound of the carriages would wake me up all the way on the 16th floor.”
While Harris offers more accessible designs in 14-karat gold, his high jewelry perfectly captures the mixture of art, couture and architecture that defines his work. “Each piece is beautifully handmade in New York City by only the most skilled craftsmen, many of whom have worked for heritage jewelry houses with decades of experience,” says Harris. “This collection has been a long time coming. Hundreds of hours have been invested in creating it, but each piece came together very thoughtfully, one step at a time.” Mateonewyork.com
For Thelma West, the silver lining of the pandemic was the time it allowed her to devote not only to friends and family, but also to the creative process—and there’s no question she made use of it.
“Embrace, my new collection of bracelets, was born out of lockdown,” says the London-based jeweler, best known for doing private commissions, often involving very large diamonds. “I began sketching various concepts for a bracelet that would feel like a hug, something we were all missing so much at the time. Quarantine allowed me to take my jewelry obsession to a whole new level. I was looking at each Embrace and making changes. I was dreaming about every little detail. It had to be flexible. The inside, which never gets eyes on it, had to be as beautiful as the outside. It had to work for a wide range of people.”
“In the end, I designed a bracelet which literally hugs your wrist,” she adds. “The slightly rounded shape of each link allows maximum comfort on your skin, while a gold wire running through the bracelet acts as a spring which creates that special hug sensation.”
The recycled 18-karat gold collection features ethically sourced natural trapeze diamonds and infinite opportunities for personalization, on size, metal colors, stone types and/or number of stones.
With any luck, West—whose Rebel Black solitaire ring was a highlight of Sotheby’s Brilliant & Black exhibition (just ask Rihanna, who wore it to last year’s Met Gala!)—will soon find time for a rest! thelmawest.com