Adwoa Aboah on Designing Jewels and Taking a Stand for Social Justice

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Barry Samaha
·10 min read
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Photo credit: John Hardy
Photo credit: John Hardy

From Harper's BAZAAR

Jewelry is personal for Adwoa Aboah. It’s a sentiment that certainly applies to most people, but it seemingly has greater resonance for the English model and bona fide It girl.

Speaking from her home in London, Aboah tells BAZAAR.com how the pieces she has amassed over the years are not mere trinkets to complement looks. Rather, they reflect her mood and personality, and act as reminders of milestones and loved ones lost. She is a jewelry devotee, a collector, and now, thanks to John Hardy, also a designer.

This passion for jewelry is clear in Mad Love, a 14-piece capsule collection that Aboah envisioned with the Bali-based fine jewelry company, her second since 2018. Debuting today, the new line consists of bracelets, necklaces, and earrings made of recycled gold or silver chain links that are woven together by local artisans. They feature openwork heart pendants modeled after Aboah’s doodles. But it isn’t romance that she is communicating here (though they’d make for chic Valentine’s Day presents). Instead, the scribbly shapes are meant to symbolize acceptance and inclusivity.

Photo credit: John Hardy
Photo credit: John Hardy

This message is also at the core of Gurls Talk, an organization Aboah founded to advocate for the mental health of girls and young women. Having gone through her own struggles with depression, she understood the importance of creating a community and a safe space that provided resources and guidance for those in need. She started it as an Instagram account in 2015 and, in time, grew it into an NGO with a weekly podcast and series of live events throughout the globe. But with the global pandemic, Gurls Talk could only utilize its virtual channels. Then, the Black Lives Matter movement resurfaced, and Aboah, who was initially hesitant to talk politics, began speaking out against racial and economic injustices in marginalized groups.

As much as Aboah is an in-demand model, designer, and jewelry lover, she says that she is first and foremost an activist. She uses her platform to encourage everyone to step outside the proverbial box and look at how they treat themselves and others. She continuously spreads the message of empathy, kindness, and, above all, mad love.

Ahead, Aboah elaborates on John Hardy, social justice, and finding immense joy in a tumultuous year.

What is your earliest memory of jewelry?

I've always been a magpie, I suppose. I've always been completely obsessed with jewelry. My dad always gave my mom lots of lovely jewelry, but she also bought her own. So I think one of my first memories was the fact that my mom bought her own jewelry. I also remember them giving me beautiful pieces for every big birthday, from my 13th to 16th to my 21st. I've kept them all. I'm a great believer in not really leaving anything in a box either. So that's why I'm usually covered in jewelry.

I've seen on your Instagram that you're a big fan of stacking.

Yes, I love to stack them. As I got older, I started buying myself amazing pieces of jewelry when I felt like I needed to celebrate an accomplishment in my life. I've also been given jewelry over the years. They all have stories.

Photo credit: John Hardy
Photo credit: John Hardy

Do you have a favorite piece?

Ones that I really cherish were given to me by my godfather, who was an amazing presence in my life, almost like a second dad. I have an amazing emerald necklace from him, and a lovely heart-shaped one. I've also started wearing pearls quite a lot. My grandma, when she died, gave me a string of pearls, and I've started wearing it. My signet rings that my mom and dad got me for my 21st birthday are also some of my favorites. I recently bought a 1920s Italian charm bracelet, a gold one, which I really love. I wear all of it. I don't really have a favorite.

Being such a jewelry lover, it must be thrilling to design them. How was designing your second collection with John Hardy different from the first?

My second collection is definitely my favorite out of the two. When you start working with a brand, you're feeling each other out. And I think for the second collection, they really gave me the space to really do what I wanted. I'm continuously looking at jewelry, whether it is my own collection or on other people. So I had a lot of references to base the collection on.

What were some of the references?

I only wear gold, so that's how I started visualizing it, even though we also have silver in the collection. John Hardy wanted to launch this for Valentine's Day, so I immediately started looking at different clasps, focusing on the idea of a knot. That got me to thinking about hearts, which is a repeated symbol in my work and a doodle that I've always done. It seemed obvious to bring that into the collection. I also wanted the collection to be inclusive and have a feeling of acceptance.

What do these words mean to you, and how did you reflect them in your designs?

By inclusion, I mean there are pieces in the collection that you really can buy. I wanted to focus on the idea of buying jewelry for yourself. Don't wait for someone to give it to you just because it's Valentine's Day or some other holiday. I want people to have an appreciation and respect for the fact that they are deserving of fabulous, beautiful things. So by inclusive, it means that there are pieces within the collection that are more affordable, I suppose. We spent a long time thinking about how we could weigh down the gold and the silver so that it was more affordable, making the pieces a little bit more delicate than what John Hardy has done in the past. That's the only way I do work. I am obsessive.

How about the word acceptance?

The idea of acceptance came from the collection’s name, which is Mad Love. That's something that I have said on every single podcast, write on every single text and letter, and say on every phone call. It's a phrase to use when you're so full of a feeling that you don't even know how to word it. It's as much for yourself as for everyone else. I use it a lot in the Gurls Talk community, who are very much an important part of my life.

The Gurls Talk podcast really evolved this year. Along with mental health, it really delved into social justice.

Yes, the podcast has taken many different routes since we started it. It really took on this amazing, newfound energy. There were so many different topics that came up, whether it be the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement or the fact that we were isolated and had to sit with ourselves. I wanted to talk about all these things, and I felt like, for the first time, I could really talk about race in its entirety; how I look at it, what it's done to me, and how I've thought about it in the past. I think there's been so much honesty in each particular episode, and I've had the chance to speak to a variety of different people who really wanted the platform to share what they want to talk about.

You said in a 2019 interview that you were hesitant to talk about politics. What changed that?

I just felt it completely necessary with a platform that I have to talk about a variety of different things. Talking about politics can be quite scary. I am very dyslexic, and I had this preconceived idea that I wasn't smart and couldn't articulate myself properly. I think I just felt strong enough to start verbalizing different thoughts. I've also learned so much from the different people I've spoken to, whether it be Future or Susan Burton.

Photo credit: John Hardy
Photo credit: John Hardy

After speaking with them, did you find that substantial changes were made regarding race, or no?

I really do think so. Much of the time, we focus on all the bad things happening in the world. And I think if you take a moment to really look at all the good things, whether they are big or small, you can see that lots of amazing changes have happened. We just have to look at the fashion world: Paloma [Essler] on the cover of a magazine, Emily [Ratajkowski] talking about pregnancy and being able to do it her own way, and me shooting covers with a majority-Black crew; seeing us all come together for Black Lives Matter, seeing figureheads that might've not been necessarily visible come to light that now everyone's listening to.

The major thing I want to concentrate on this year is the lack of empathy coming from the English government—and probably American—about what people are facing during this time. Obviously, stay at home, people are dying. But also, why not look at the fact that people are suffering? There's been such a spike in suicide rates. People are at home, isolated with their thoughts. There's been people who might have not even been diagnosed with mental health issues that are suffering.

And it's even more pervasive in marginalized communities.

Exactly. There needs to be some empathy. Sometimes it feels like our governments are completely inept in thinking about these things and that's quite sad. I think we are going into our, what, fourth lockdown? I can't even keep count. I think the lack of hope stems from the fact that we are supposed to be looked after by our government. And it doesn't really feel like they are taking every situation into account.

So what can people do about it?

I think we've got to reach out to each other. We've got to be kind to ourselves. At the moment, I'm finding it quite hard, not having a purpose. And I'm sure that there are lots of people out there that feel the same way. They love to work, to go out and see their friends, but can't. Also, many of us live in a bubble. We live in safe households, have family around us, and are financially stable. Not everyone has that. For people like myself, I think it's very important to step out of that bubble. Whether you understand what people are going through or not, we all need to have empathy for everyone right now.

2020 was certainly a year of reckoning, but did you experience any joys?

Some amazing people have come into my life, so that was really great. Being with my family, not being on a plane all the time, and having the chance to really be part of personal experiences, to take part in what my friends are going through, and to have the chance to actually speak to someone and hear what's going on in their life—that's all been a blessing. I also think that delving into heavy topics took some weight off me. It made me feel light. And being able to self-reflect, in a weird way, made me quite happy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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