Reverberations from the Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks have reached some unlikely frontiers, including the rarefied realm of fine jewelry ateliers. Suddenly, Black designers in the field have found themselves with elevated profiles, part of the wave of attention recently directed toward supporting Black-owned businesses.
The New York Times asked three designers who live on different continents to convene on Zoom (where else?) last month to exchange notes about their different paths to becoming fine jewelry designers and their perspectives on getting a professional boost from the tumultuous political moment, and to offer a few hopes for the future.
Castro, 47, an American expatriate now based in Istanbul, who creates about 30 one-of-a-kind pieces a year, often featuring a fusion of dark, moody animal motifs and medieval-inspired embellishment. Castro goes by only one name.
Lauren Harwell Godfrey, 45, a Californian whose two-year-old line Harwell Godfrey offers 18-karat gold jewelry decorated with touches of enamel, graphic patterns and precious gems.
Vania Leles, 43, a former model turned gemologist and jeweler, who founded her luxury brand VanLeles Diamonds in London in 2011.
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What are your early memories or experiences surrounding jewelry? Did it occur to you that it was a field with little representation of Black designers?
LELES I was born and raised in Guinea-Bissau, a tiny West African country. I had always thought of diamonds or gold or any precious stones as something so foreign. I didn’t link them with the beauty or wealth that the natural resources were creating outside the continent, the wealth, the employment.
When I modeled briefly I was on a photo shoot and mesmerized by the diamond necklaces from the Fifth Avenue jewelry houses. I was shocked that I had to come to New York to discover the beauty of resources I had thought of in a negative way. I decided to start a fine jewelry brand and inspire the people back home.
But even while I was studying at the Gemological Institute of America, I still didn’t really know any Black designers.
HARWELL GODFREY My story is very different. I grew up in California and came from a lower-middle-class family. My grandmother had an amazing diamond ring that she bought for herself when she was in her 30s, and I admired it so much. We connected over that ring. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, that ring was a precious object in our family.
Jewelry was really aspirational for me. I jumped into jewelry from a design point of view without really looking at the industry as a whole. When I showed up, I wondered, “Where is everybody?”
What is happening right now has been very powerful for me because I’m being exposed to other Black designers, and I’m so thrilled because I didn’t know who was out there.
CASTRO I was in and out of jail from the time I was 13 years old. I was just doing dumb stuff — a youth with too much time on my hands. While I was in work-release, I met a jeweler. I told him I wanted to get into the jewelry game and he told me I should go to school to learn to repair jewelry.
I did an accelerated course. When I got out and went to the same guy for work, he told me to come back in five years with some experience. I went home that night, took the drawers out of our dresser and built a jewelry bench and started making and repairing jewelry.
I decided to open up a jewelry store. A customer asked me to make a ring with his diamonds and I worked on it for two months. It was so dope I got the design bug.
Do you feel welcome in the business?
LELES I was lucky that my first job after studying at GIA was at Graff. I was given a lot of responsibility and got to know the suppliers.
I began to face difficulty when I got a small investor and started a proper brand. People assumed: “Oh, she’s African. She has corruption or dirty money behind her.” I didn’t come out of the blue: We’re a registered company in the U.K.
In the States someone once said to me, “African jewelry doesn’t sell.” My jewelry is African-inspired but it’s modern; the craftsmanship is there. The same hands that work for the big houses work with me — it’s the same workshop.
CASTRO You have to start from the bottom. As I got further into the industry, heck yeah, I’ve run into stuff. I’ve buzzed at doors to buy diamonds, and before opening the door someone will jump and do a double take and ask “Who sent you?”
At first I didn’t want to show my face in connection with my work because I was nervous it would affect sales.
HARWELL GODFREY I go into things naïvely. Maybe that’s a form of self-protection. I came from 15 years as a creative director and art director in advertising, and there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me in that industry, either.
My experience hasn’t been as dramatic because I haven’t gone into many places on my own. I went to [the gem shows in] Tucson this year to buy stones and I had a team with me. And I’m not at the point where I’m asking for big diamonds.
Building a jewelry line can be a tough climb for nearly everyone. Are there distinct challenges for Black designers?
LELES Getting investment is super hard. I think the majority of big brands we see — even ones started by people from our generation — they’re from families with long histories as jewelers or diamond dealers.
I’m not disputing their talent, but it’s so much easier when they have that platform to stand on.
HARWELL GODFREY Retailers are trying to make money and they want to have product that their clients relate to. And because of systemic racism, it’s not always the Black families that have money for fine jewelry.
This is a moment when lots of people are showing they want to support Black designers, so it’s an important time. The more our work is out there and gets exposure, the better.
Has the recent wave of support for Black-owned companies affected your business?
CASTRO There’s definitely more awareness of my work. I don’t think it’s been a financial impact, but my pieces are also particular.
It’s funny that the media, bloggers, have suddenly started paying attention to me, asking, “Where have you been?”
I’ve been here the whole time. They just never looked.
LELES What’s happened in last few weeks on Instagram catapulted things. In the U.S., our main market is 1stdibs, and all the sales I’ve made in the U.S. for the last three weeks have been to African Americans.
It’s a bittersweet moment. We are benefiting from a movement that comes from so much pain and anger.
HARWELL GODFREY I’ve been suffering from a lot of conflict about this because there’s death at the base of all this attention. I feel a little guilt about it.
My response is trying to create something that gives back. Creating a pendant whose sale funds donations to the World Central Kitchen to address food insecurity and another to support the N.A.A.C.P. is a way for me to take those eyeballs and do something productive.
Have your design choices been influenced by African or African-American culture?
HARWELL GODFREY My initial design aesthetic was about sacred geometry and healing gemstones. But what I wasn’t seeing was a lot of design from the point of view of Black designers.
My work has actually evolved into showing that ethos and embracing that more. I’ve been evolving my designs to reflect that.
CASTRO Everything I’m doing is African because I am African. If I draw a straight line, that’s African.
At first I was worried that if I did anything that referenced Africa …
LELES … It would be called too ethnic or too tribal.
CASTRO Yes! It would be dismissed as “tribal.” I was afraid of being put into a box, but it’s something we can’t run away from. I focus on doing jewels that are unlike what anyone else is doing.
When I started making jewelry with the shape of animal skulls, it was because everyone else was doing human skulls. Why shouldn’t I put rubies and diamonds and emeralds in bronze or make porcelain dolls with moving wings?
Every piece I make has a story. I have to work to make a connection with the customer to get past the color thing.
LELES I always wanted to name my collections according to the inspiration behind them: my memories growing up and traveling around the continent. It wasn’t so easily accepted.
The first public relations agency I hired told me I couldn’t name my collection Legends of Africa because the consumer wouldn’t relate to it, that I should find different inspirations.
I was advised not to tell people my emeralds were from Zambia. But the whole reason I’m doing what I’m doing is to honor the countries that produce these gemstones, so why wouldn’t I?
What about other parts of the industry? Do you find Black talent in behind-the-scenes skills like stone cutting or dealing?
HARWELL GODFREY I’m hoping we can start creating resources to learn about them, so we’ll know who’s out there, because right now I don’t.
LELES There are local communities doing amazing work. There is a group of cutters in Zambia, in Lusaka. They’re mainly women, and they polish and cut the most beautiful stones. They have the skills.
Nigeria has beautiful cornflower blue sapphires. They are polished and cut locally. Eighty percent of the colored stone market is mined by artisans.
These people need a platform. Big mining companies buy their harvest for peanuts. We need to join forces to exchange connections and suppliers.
CASTRO I need some of those stones!
Are you optimistic that the current wave of demonstrations and attention on Black-owned businesses will lead to sustained change?
CASTRO It’s a moment, and we’ve learned from history that they don’t last long. What’s going on in the world is the same thing my mother went through, my grandmother. It’s not going to stop, at least not in America.
HARWELL GODFREY I’m hopeful about the amount of speaking out by Black people and white people. The systemic racism that exists is insidious and hard to root out. There are tools in our hands like social media that are changing the game.
LELES I think this movement will last. People are getting informed. Jewelry isn’t as important as what is really urgently coming out of this movement — more fairness, less oppression — but I hope more Africans and African-Americans come into the industry and that there’s more respect for the cultures where the natural resources come from. Inclusivity and diversity are good for business.