It’s no secret Africa’s material and cultural wealth has been plundered by colonial nations for centuries. And, yet, although much of the world’s precious metals are sourced from Africa, there’s a striking lack of successful Africa-based or African-born jewelry designers. Now, a talented and driven group of female jewelers of African descent are working to shine a spotlight on the richness and diversity of Africa’s heritage and setting high standards for responsibly sourcing the continent’s natural resources.
Inspired by African heritage
Born in Guinea-Bissau, jeweler Vania Leles founded Vanleles in 2011 after working for De Beers, Graff, and Sotheby’s. “When I first started in this industry 17 years ago, I couldn’t find anyone who not only looked like me but could also relate to my experience as an African woman,” says Leles. Her Out of Africa series features rubies sourced from artisanal miners in Mozambique, while the Enchanted Garden floral earrings set is inspired by traditional batik prints and features beautiful emeralds, sapphies, and rubies. Leles is paving the way for future Africa-based jewelers. “The skills and riches need to be put back into the continent, and slowly there will be more African brands that are actually based there.”
Celebrating Nigerian fashion
“I’ve married my Nigerian half and my British half in my work,” says Lagos-born, Soho-based jeweler, Thelma West. Her Sade’s Embrace collection, in particular, uses flexible gold wire inspired by the woven-gold pieces traditionally worn by Nigerian women. West says big, chunky jewelry is a staple for Lagos women and complements their bold, patterned ankara fabrics. “You need confidence to be that authentic, to dig deep and say, ‘This is who I am,’” says West. On the other hand, beads are an important traditional element for many tribes across Africa, particularly Kenya’s Maasai, Turkana, Rendille, and Samburu tribes. Typically made from shells, glass, horns, stones, seeds, bone, or glass, the beads carry different meanings for different tribes. Wearing a hodge-podge of colors, however, represents family love and appreciation. Authentic beaded Massai jewelry can be purchased from Massai markets found all over Kenya.
Satta Matturi, a Sierra Leone-born jeweler, has also established a cutting-edge sourcing operation in Gaborone, Botswana, which uses local diamonds, cutters, and polishers. “It was my small way of showcasing that diamonds can be cut in a producer country, and a way of promoting the notion to the rest of the world,” she says. Similarly, Ghana-born, London-based jeweler, Emefa Cole uses only fully-traceable, single-mine-origin gold and gemstones from renowned Kenyan gemcutter, Marvin Wambua, who purchases and cuts rough stones himself. “The stones are beautiful, and I like that there are no middlemen involved so the provenance is not lost,” says Cole.
Fashion designer, Duro Olowu, is thrilled jewelers of African descent are gaining recognition while rejecting tired clichés. “Their work is not urban, it’s elegant,” Olowu says. “And they are giving back inspiration, dignity and work to young people in their respective countries of birth.”