During the Afghanistan War a decade ago, US army mechanic Latoya Boyd was strolling past a shop one sun-drenched day in Kandahar, when something spectacular caught her eye. It was a heft of lapis lazuli in midnight blue, gold-flecked with pyrite, and it beckoned her to come closer. Boyd had no interest in gemstones, but something made her go into the shop, buy a pocket full of the stone, and – back at her office – google the word “gemologist”. Her deployment ended in 2012, and when she left the army several years later, she became a jewellery artist, moving from Alaska to California to study jewellery design. She never looked back. She now hammers delicate shards of silver, copper and sometimes gold into submission as part of a tradition best encapsulated by legendary metalsmith Art Smith, who rose to prominence with his surreal biomorphic designs in ’50s New York. “The funny thing is,” she says, “I didn’t see myself as a Black jewellery designer until 2020.”

Protests ignited by the arrest and murder of George Floyd spanned 60 countries, and, from that inferno, a new age of enlightenment for Black artistry has manifested. It echoes an earlier period in history from the 1300s onwards when the Renaissance gave birth to a time of creative growth, freedom and intellectual reason. For jewellery, that has crystallised into an exhibition at Sotheby’s London featuring 25 contemporary Black designers called Brilliant & Black: The Age Of Enlightenment (from 22 September). I am its curator. The jewellery industry, and its obsession with European heritage, has traditionally alluded to but rarely acknowledged Black talent at the highest level. The events of 2020 triggered a surge of global interest which for many has now waned. To move forward, there must be an ongoing celebration of Black talent in bigger and better ways, and this will involve a mental and creative reset.

For Manchester-based Ndidi Ekubia, that meant exploring smaller-scale body sculpture for the exhibition when she usually makes functional silverware. A neckpiece was born from her drawings of moths and butterflies in accordance with the idea of renewal. “I’m inspired by Cubism, Impressionism and the Benin Bronzes, but I think the boldness of my work ultimately stems from the strength and beauty of Africa,” she says. The movement and hammer marks in her pieces form part of her emotional identity. Roxanne Rajcoomar-Hadden tells the story of her mother’s journey from Spanish Town, Jamaica to London as part of the Windrush Generation, with her Ashbury Road locket and 1976 earrings. The culture clash but also the happy times of that hot summer are played out in the pieces, reinforced by her love of making sentimental jewellery. She makes her models from Play-Doh or Blu Tack to keep her designs tactile. “I’m an imperfectionist,” she says, and her mismatched cadillac diamond, peridot and citrine earrings illustrate the beauty of being just that.

Shola Branson, a relative newcomer to jewellery having been a menswear fashion stylist and art director in London, is exploring his Nigerian roots with his first pair of drop earrings. Cognac, champagne and chocolate diamonds inspired by ancient West African trading beads juxtapose warm, smooth 18-carat gold. His work explores the balance between opposites – ancient history and future possibility, masculinity and femininity and the duality of his mixed race heritage. Cultural currency is forever evolving within his creative universe.

Another artist to find their true calling is lawyer turned photographer turned modernist jeweller Gina Love of Auvere. She has created a pair of towering arch earrings showered with diamonds in what amounts to an emotional revolution for her after the austere confines of the corporate world. She tried playing it safe, hiding away in the dusty realms of transactional law, but jewellery, which she started designing seven years ago, pushed her into the light. “You have to come out and greet the world,” she asserts, and she is, harnessing the power of 24-carat gold as beaten body sculpture. For Sewit Sium, jewellery was a coping mechanism. The Brooklyn-based artist didn’t feel safe as a child due to what she describes as a dangerous home life and a poisonous Eurocentric school curriculum. She developed anorexia in her teens which almost killed her, whittling her six-foot frame down to 27 kilos. She was hospitalised but art saved her. “Jewellery was my witness,” she says. Her gold Malcolm X medallion necklace is her homage to a spiritual icon and his struggle for freedom as well as hers. And for the ultimate freeing of the collective Black imagination.

In last year’s debut instalment of Brilliant & Black in New York, the winged bisque porcelain dolls created by Castro NYC were a metaphor for his soaring, avant-garde talent. Castro’s sudden death this summer was a devastating blow to those who knew him and a loss to jewellery as a whole. “He enjoyed uplifting the community, pushing his peers to be more daring and passing the craft onto new people,” says Castro’s son Sir King, also an artist. This selling exhibition honours a multitude of great talents like Castro and their journeys to the hallowed halls of Sotheby’s. From figurative designers Satta Matturi, Catherine Sarr of Almasika, Johnny Nelson, Harwell Godfrey and Vania Leles to the more abstract work of Jacqueline Rabun, Angie Marei, Lorraine West, Jariet Oloyé, Melanie Eddy, Pascale Marthine Tayou (via the Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery), Karen Smith, Ten Thousand Things and Disa Allsopp to the gem-encrusted jewels of Sheryl Jones, Thelma West, Lola Fenhirst and Maggi Simpkins – the age of enlightenment is here. This exhibition is a living testament to their genius in all its forms.

Brilliant & Black: The Age Of Enlightenment ran from 22 September to 2 October 2022 at Sotheby’s London.

Photography: DeMarcus Allen

Written by Melanie Grant for British Vogue on 5th September 2022.



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