It’s no secret that the glittering world of haute joaillerie has traditionally favored ‘Africa-inspired’ design over designers of African descent. But Melanie Grant, journalist and author of Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, hopes to remedy that with a first-of-its-kind selling exhibition, in partnership with Sotheby’s New York.
Opening on September 17th, Brilliant and Black: A Jewelry Renaissance will showcase the work of 21 Black designers from across the US and Europe. The show, curated by Grant in partnership with Sotheby's director of jewelry Frank Everett, will feature roughly 60 pieces, with prices starting at $1,500. At the top end of the scale is a million-dollar ring that has been custom-made for the occasion by Maggi Simpkins. If it sells, it will set a record for the most expensive jewel by a Black designer sold at a major global auction house.
This landmark price tag reflects Grant’s belief that, “economic power is the basis for real change,” and represents a watershed moment for an industry which has historically been dominated by the white, wealthy, and well-connected. There are various reasons for this. For one thing, high-level collectors are far more likely to buy from established brands. “Why would they choose you over somebody they've already spoken to for generations?” Grant says. That’s not to mention the fact that getting your hands on the biggest, best stones requires relationships, and these are often centuries deep. Then, there are the financial resources required to buy said stones. “[Jewelry designers] might have a piece that sits there for over 10 years and doesn't sell,” says Grant. “Who can afford to do that?”
All of this has ensured that high jewelry remains an exclusive club. But there is a certain irony in the fact that Black designers remain underrepresented, when a sizable chunk of the resources used are sourced in Africa. Many of those involved in Brilliant and Black are inspired by the continent and seek to promote genuine, African-led artistry. Vania Leles’s work for her label Vanleles, for example, is an homage to her home country of Guinea Bissau. She sources gems responsibly from African mines, and her ‘Enchanted Garden’ earrings, embellished with dazzling Mozambique rubies, are a nod to African fabrics. Castro NYC—purveyor of uncanny, gem-encrusted doll necklaces—is inspired by the continent, too. Castro has been making since the early 2000s, but tells me that showing at Sotheby’s ultimately means more exposure, the opportunity “to show a prestige audience what they might have ignored or be ignorant to.”
For independent designers without a hefty marketing budget, building a profile is challenging, and the other designers involved in Brilliant and Black echo Castro’s sentiment. London-based maker Thelma West is contributing a ring called ‘Rebel Black’, so named for its inky band and longer-than-average pear-cut diamond. “As a creator you need your work to get enough eyes,” she says. “This exhibition gives this group of incredibly talented designers from different walks of life unprecedented international visibility and recognition.”
The exhibition comes as part of an industry-wide push for accessibility and diversity. In 2020, an agenda-setting report on the experiences of Black jewelers found that 44 percent felt they lacked role models, while 77 percent had experienced a lack of funds. In the UK, Grant is a judge for the Roxanne Rajcoomar-Hadden Diamond Academy, which pairs emerging talent from diverse backgrounds with industry-leading mentors. And earlier this year, celebrity designer Lorraine Schwartz and the Natural Diamond Council launched a $1 million fund for up-and-coming BIPOC designers.
Countless more schemes have been launched since 2020’s racial reckoning – from New York Jewelry Week’s Here We Are initiative, to the BOMA fund – and Grant marvels that she’s, “never seen this much appreciation for Black jewelry design.” But she notes that even now, there is a dearth of opportunity for even established names. “There are great swathes of designers who have been around for quite some time, who just need support in order to get to the top level,” she says. “[Brilliant and Black] is about them. There's no point in establishing a pipeline, if once you get to a certain point, you drop out of the industry.”
The exhibition will spotlight contemporary design and archive pieces alike. Conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, for example, is showing a ring from his collaboration with the jewelry imprint LIZWORKS. Titled ‘Anxious Men,’ five rubies are embedded in a 9-karat gold band, with faces scratched into the surface. Meanwhile, Satta Matturi’s ‘Nomoli Totem’ earrings were inspired by African masquerade—two yellow gold masks adorned with brilliant cut natural diamonds, emeralds and South Sea Pearls.
And that million dollar ring? It boasts a 2.43-carat fancy pink, internally flawless cushion-cut diamond, surrounded by three shades of pink sapphires and rubies. Created by the LA-based designer Simpkins, it was inspired by a flower blooming, and will be sold alongside two other pieces as part of her ‘Permission to Shine’ collection. “They tell the story of my coming of age as a designer, and allowing myself the permission to realize my greatness,” she says. Simpkins will be sharing the spotlight with contemporary brands such as Harwell Godfrey, Jacqueline Rabun, Johnny Nelson, Lorraine West, Mateo New York, Almasika, Melanie Eddy, Sheryl Jones Jewels, Ten Thousand Things, Lola Fenhirst, Jariet Oloyé, Angie Marei, and Shola Branson.
Perhaps most exciting, though, is a selection of pieces by Winifred Mason and Art Smith, two pioneers of Black jewelry design. The former is believed to have been the first commercial African-American jeweler, and the latter—her mentee—was a giant of 20th century modernist design. “I think for me, [Smith] is a bit of a figurehead,” says Grant. “He encountered quite a lot of bias as a gay Black Cuban-Jamaican. I'd love to see him get a bit more recognition for what he did, because it was hard to do it then.”
Through Brilliant and Black, Grant aims to inspire the Art Smith’s of tomorrow, and hopes that the exhibition represents a permanent shift in power dynamics. “Traditionally high jewelry was worn by royalty. if you owned certain diamonds, you ran the world. To have that chance being given to somebody who traditionally wasn't considered powerful, that's a massive shift,” she says. “I just want kids to see it and to think, ‘I can do that.’”
Pieces will be available to buy in-person, or via Sotheby’s Buy Now online marketplace, from September 17 - October 10th. The collection will be on view at Sotheby's New York, from September 17 - September 26.
Originally Appeared on Vogue