Black jewelers take center stage at groundbreaking exhibition
When Lorraine West told her mother about a new exhibition celebrating the work of Black jewelers, she burst into tears over the phone.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” she said over email. “I allowed myself to feel it and release the tears of joy and gratitude.”
The exhibition’s curator, writer and jewelry expert Melanie Grant, said she believes this is the first time a major auction house has spotlighted “pioneering Black jewelry design.”
Open this week at Sotheby’s New York, the show features not only contemporary designers but overlooked African American jewelers dating back to the 1950s. Works by Winifred Mason, believed to be the first ever commercial African American jeweler in the United States, are showcased alongside those of her later apprentice Art Smith, a mid-century designer known for his modernist bronze works.
A necklace and belt design, by jeweler Winifred Mason Chenet, crafted from brass and copper. The piece is stamped with her signature “Chenet” and the word “Haiti.”
Calling him a “founding father” of Black jewelry design, Grant said Smith’s brilliance went unappreciated at the time. “It was quite important for me to put a couple (of historic jewelers) in context (with) the modern designers. Without them, we would be in a different place.”
Ancestry and family ties run deep through the exhibition, with jeweler Johnel Jamison also attributing his start in the industry to his mother. The rapper turned jewelry designer wanted to bring a sense of “kingmanship” to his stage performances, so, before he set off for a European tour, his mother helped him create a wire wrap ring using a large black tourmaline stone that had once sat on their family mantelpiece.
Jeweler Johnel Jamison wearing pieces from his brand Johnny Nelson. Credit: Johnny Nelson Jewelry/Courtesy Sotheyby’s
For Jamison, who founded Johnny Nelson Jewelry in New York, the craft is deeply tied to Black culture — especially to the music industry where, he said, jewelry is viewed as a “sign of wealth.” He added, “It’s a sign we made it, like I’m breaking from poverty.”
Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond and actor Lena Waithe both wearing suits with custom Johnny Nelson buttons to the 2019 Met Gala. Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
The Let Freedom Ring four-fingered ring by Johnny Nelson, featuring what the designer calls the “civil rights Mount Rushmore.” From left to right, likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass have been hand-carved.
“I feel like we have to honor our ancestors, because these are the people that made it possible for us to do what we’re doing today,” he said.
A Black renaissance
While curating the exhibition and sale, Grant said she wanted to expand the perception of Black jewelers by honoring not only those paying tribute to African culture, but those who break away from tradition and innovate.
“Some are really into (African-inspired design) and some aren’t,” she said. “I think we have to give people the space to do what they want to do. Sometimes being Black is enough.”
While the sale focuses on successful high-end designers, Grant acknowledges that up-and-coming Black creatives face disadvantage and discrimination in the jewelry business. Reaching the industry’s upper echelons can be “so expensive,” she said, adding that getting “the big stones” requires “connections.”
Rihanna pictured at the 2021 Met Gala wearing the Rebel Black Ring a piece designed by Thelma West, one of the 21 jewelers featured in the new Sotheby’s exhibition. Credit: James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images
The lack of representation is deeply engrained, according to Jamison. Unlike White and Asian jewelers, “we don’t own fashion houses and we don’t have generations of manufacturers in our family,” he said, adding: “We have to do (what we can) to build the generational wealth within this industry.”
To overcome this, Black jewelers often share resources with one another, Jamison said, citing fellow creatives like Maggi Simpkins and Mateo New York founder Matthew Harris. “These are all people that had to work a little (harder) to get the same resources that their White counterparts have.”
But the fact remains, he added, that not many young Black creatives see jewelry design as a viable career option: “That’s not really in our scope. We’re taught to be the consumers and not the producers.”
A brass sculptural necklace by mid-century jeweler Art Smith, set to be displayed at Sotheby’s “Brilliant and Black: A Jewelry Renaissance” selling exhibition.
“Don’t just wait until there’s a big Black Lives Matter movement,” he said, adding that he hopes “compassion for Black lives wasn’t temporary.”
“Now we’re going to just talk about all the Black jewelers, but then not use any of the resources you have to actually get us into stores so we could create consistent income.”
West echoed the sentiment with her message to luxury buyers and the jewelry business at large: “Highlight us in the most equitable ways possible. Seek us out, which would mean the industry itself would have to share its platform.”
Top image: The “In Bloom” ring, by jeweler Maggi Simpkins, featuring a 2.43-carat pink center diamond.