The Black Designers Shaking Up the Fine-Jewelry World

Jameel Mohammed was a fresh-faced 19-year-old student when he started making jewelry. Between spending his…

Jameel Mohammed was a fresh-faced 19-year-old student when he started making jewelry. Between spending his school year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his summers hustling from internship to internship in New York, Mohammed started to conceptualize a luxury brand with Black identity at the forefront.

“The initial idea was brass because Jennifer Fisher was all the rage,” says Mohammed. “But I wanted to have this luxury brand proposition, where it wasn’t regarded as just a fun thing to consume and forget. This was gonna be a luxury brand that’s all Black all the time.”

That’s how he landed on Khiry, which launched in 2016. The brand’s designs feel more like an abstraction of African history than just pretty shapes rendered in glossy metal. Cultural references are baked into each of his creations—like Khiry’s signature Khartoum silhouette, a tapered, curved design that alludes to the shape of cattle horns, a symbol of wealth and status in Sudan.

Stylists and celebrities have taken notice. Earlier this year, Zoë Kravitz wore Mohammed’s rings in a viral Instagram post. Issa Rae wore the Khartoum hoops ($450) on an episode of Insecure. And Alicia Keys wore Khiry earrings on a cover of Allure. In 2021, Khiry was selected as a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist and awarded a grant to continue upscaling operations.

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In a world where Black-helmed fashion houses are only beginning to sound less like an anomaly, Black-owned fine-jewelry brands feel even more rare. High-end jewelry tends to come from one of a few companies, the kind with storefronts on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. Whether the name out front reflects French or English heritage, it almost certainly derives from a man—a wealthy white one who lived at least a century ago. The history of producing fine jewelry is marred by colonialism and exploitation. The cost of entry is high, the pool of players low. But, hungry for an inclusive vision of luxury, new designers are breaking down the gilded barriers of the old guard, one diamond-encrusted piece at a time. Their brands embrace and uplift Black identity at every stage of the process, from design conceptualization to marketing campaigns, and there’s a demographic of customers who finally see themselves reflected in this space and are eager to support them.

Hungry for inclusive luxury, new designers are breaking down the gilded barriers of the old guard.

Brooklyn-based jeweler Bernard James launched his gender-fluid collection of mixed-metal pieces in 2020 and quickly found fans among the Black creative set in Brooklyn. “Both my husband and I have necklaces from Bernard James that we won’t leave the house without wearing,” says Telsha Anderson, the founder of experimental retail boutique TA and an arbiter of taste within the scene. James was raised in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, where he still lives today, and he’s infused his work with traces of his home borough. The abstract flowers and plants of the Flora collection, for example, were inspired by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; James grew up across the street.

Telsha Anderson and Justin Boone in Bernard James’s ’Family Portraits’ series

Courtesy Bernard James

editor tchesmeni leonard in the family portraits ad campaign for bernard james fine jewelry
Editor Tchesmeni Leonard in the same series

Courtesy Bernard James

At the heart of the label is the celebration of community. For a recent campaign titled “Family Portraits,” James photographed his patrons, supporters, and muses (including Anderson) wearing the brand’s pieces, à la Andy Warhol’s Polaroid series. Although simple in essence, the concept is powerful in the figures chosen to represent this genre of new luxury: Black and brown people. “The cool factor is that they make their own rules,” says fashion writer Devine Blacksher. “Unlike the older, larger brands, they are still learning and exploring what they can do and what works.”

Emerging designers have learned to leverage their smaller size into an opportunity to interact directly with their consumers, especially via Instagram. “I want to have direct relationships with people, as opposed to building relationships with institutional representatives,” Mohammed says. In some ways, a direct line to designers can be more impactful for young people than a billboard in Times Square. “Consumers are looking to find connection, not only with their clothes post-2020 but with their fine jewelry as well,” says Anderson. And what wearable object can be more personal than a piece of metal you leave on every day?

That intimate relationship between jeweler and customer was what appealed to Sameer Sadhu. A music executive in Los Angeles, Sadhu eschewed the big maisons for a Khiry custom wedding ring made in close collaboration with Mohammed. “We actually took one of his ring designs and rebuilt it. It’s intertwined into two so it shows my wife and I coming together, and then in the inlay we did these three pieces of custom diamond that were my mother’s that she wore before she passed away. During the design process, Jameel and I had this dialogue where we went back and forth. The whole thing was just an incredible experience,” he says.

Sadhu sees parallels between supporting an emerging jewelry brand and his own career as VP of A&R at a record company, where encouraging development is a part of the job. “So much of that sort of DNA is finding and meeting people younger in their development process and championing their creative endeavors,” he says. “Jameel was someone we just met, and I saw a lot of promise and was drawn in by it that. He has such an incredible voice.”

Jewelry as a physical extension of individual identity has put even greater demand for pieces that accurately and authentically reflect the Black experience. The new culturally minded jewelry designers have realized the importance of centering people of color within their work. It’s fine jewelry for Black people, by Black people. “It speaks to me more emotionally because you have that connection with the pieces,” says costume designer Shiona Turini. “I can see Caribbean influences in designs from a lot of Black jewelry designers. I like the type of yellow gold they use because it reminds me of the yellow-gold jewelry I had growing up in Bermuda. I just love the cultural references in their work, because that’s not something you’re ever going to get in one of the legacy brands,” she explains.

These jewelry designers have realized the importance of centering people of color within their work.

Yet dubious voices still exist. “One year I went on a trip to learn about fashion and retail in Japan, and a CEO of a huge international luxury-goods company told me that the only true luxury brands in the world were from Paris and Milan,” remembers Mohammed. “They said that given the unique history of craftsmanship that only exists in those places, I shouldn’t expect true luxury to come from other places in the world. That was the moment where I was personally catalyzed.”

In some ways, now is the ideal time to enter the jewelry market. There’s an intense appetite for high-priced baubles at the moment: Richemont reported a 38 percent increase in sales year over year, fueled largely by its fine luxury division including Cartier, Buccellati, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Similarly, over at LVMH, the conglomerate’s fine-jewelry division ballooned by 167 percent in 2021, over 2020. And young consumers—particularly young women—are leading the way. Still, it’s never been easy for people without family connections to start making and selling fine jewelry, particularly working-class Black people.

“Representation has not been to the level that it should on the retail side,” says Moda Operandi fine-jewelry buyer Amber Mitchell. “Traditionally, Black people have not been presented with the opportunities and resources to enter the industry and to grow within it. And the upfront cost of starting a fine-jewelry brand for a young designer is quite high.”

Pearls from White/Space 

NikkRich

Courtesy of White/Space

Khadijah Fulton, founder of the line White/Space, has witnessed these challenges firsthand. By the time she began working with diamonds and precious metals, she had been developing her line of minimalist pieces for years. “It took a long time to get to a place where I had proof of concept and where I had enough consistent revenue coming in that I could take a chance on more expensive materials,” says Fulton.

“When I started to get into fine jewelry, I never saw any Black fine jewelers,” she recalls. Fulton took metalwork and stone-setting classes at a fine-arts center in Seattle after moving to the city in 2010. She started out making jewelry in her garage, and her business has grown steadily, becoming a go-to for refined diamond-set pieces that land on the quiet side of luxury.

It’s a real challenge to create high-priced goods with limited time and income. Fulton used her day job as a technical designer at the Gap to funnel money into White/Space. “It was all self-funded. I started to take a couple of little loans here and there, but I really didn’t wanna get into a position of having a lot of debt,” she says. Trade shows are another unique obstacle for an emerging jewelry brand. “Depending on which trade show it is, it can get over the five-digit mark, up to $10,000, or $12,000 and up. We’re not just talking about the fee to do the show but also about the booth that you have to kit out and the stock that you’re bringing, etc.”

Bernard James of the eponymous jewelry line, Jameel Mohammed of Khiry, and Khadijah Fulton of White/Space

Images courtesy Bernard James, Khiry, and White/Space

Despite their varied origin stories, Mohammed, James, and Fulton all say that 2020 was a pivotal point for their brands. In the midst of a racial reckoning, retailers anxious to bolster diversity within their rosters began recruiting more Black founders. “Everything kind of exploded in 2020. I had my kids doing Zoom school, and I was working out of my home, juggling everything with the increased interest in the business,” says Fulton.

Less than a year after his jewelry launch, Bernard James saw his collection stocked at Nordstrom. “I had a really nice conversation with the Nordstrom team. They appreciated the jewelry for the aesthetic and not just because it was a Black brand,” says James. Whether it’s reactionary or not, there’s a bit of cautious optimism that comes with partnering with colossal companies. “I’m obviously extremely proud to be a Black brand, but I always want to be sure that we’re not being sort of used as a marketing tool and then tossed aside,” James says.

Net-a-Porter chose Khiry to include in its Vanguard program, an initiative launched in 2018 to help emerging designers set up their businesses for the long term. According to Mohammed, Mateo, a fellow Black jewelry designer, put Khiry onto Net-a-Porter’s radar for inclusion into the program. The extra support allowed Mohammed to delve into fine jewelry in a way he hadn’t before. “Before 2020, having a fine-jewelry collection was not a feasible possibility. It felt like a very long-term dream, but that changed because of Net-a-Porter and Mateo. I have to say they really did a lot,” Mohammed recalls.

Other luxury retailers have jumped in to provide support for designers of color. Last year Moda Operandi presented a trunk show in partnership with the Natural Diamond Council and Lorraine Schwartz centered around their Emerging Designers Diamond Initiative, with Khiry included as one of the featured brands.

For Black designers, there’s a constant push and pull between being an outspoken champion of Black culture and having complete creative freedom. Whereas white designers are given space to simply be, people of color often feel external pressures to address larger social issues in the context of their work. It’s a dilemma that always arises when you attempt to categorize designers by their racial backgrounds, but Mohammed, James, and Mitchell all welcome this mission in context of their work. As most Black people can attest, the power of representation can’t be understated. “My grandmother had amazing style and incredible jewelry, but she did not have Cartier watches. You know, we didn’t have that stuff,” says Fulton. In the Jim Crow era, owning a home could feel impossible for many Black families, let alone collecting Cartier Tank watches or Chanel flap bags. The Black fine-jewelry makers of today are creating the histories that will be passed to future generations.

“Wearing luxury brands like Bernard James or Khiry feels powerful because they are Black designers creating meaningful pieces that are meant to stay with you for a lifetime,” says Blacksher. “It brings me so much joy knowing that one day I’ll be able to pass down a beautifully crafted piece of jewelry made by a Black-owned luxury brand to my future children.”

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