A Groundbreaking Exhibit of Black Jewelry Designers Comes to Sotheby’s This Week.
Over the past few years, the auction houses have celebrated the under-appreciated work of artists of color across disciplines, yet there remained a noticeable absence of exhibitions featuring contemporary Black jewelry designers—that is, until now. This week, Sotheby’s New York unveils Brilliant and Black: A Jewelry Renaissance, the first selling exhibit of its kind featuring 21 Black designers. Brilliant and Black will be open to the public from September 17-26, and available on Sotheby’s Buy Now online marketplace through October 10.
It’s a collector’s dream exhibition with more than 60 unique pieces from 21 mainly under-the-radar artists. While all the designers are Black, that’s where the commonality ends. The international roster is remarkably diverse in style, artistry, and price points, with pieces starting at $1,500 and going up to $1 million for Maggi Simpkin’s pink diamond ring.
The exhibit came to fruition last year, following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, when London-based journalist Melanie Grant, who specializes in luxury with a focus on jewelry, decided it was time that the often-overlooked Black talent had a forum. “Suddenly, we were talking about things that we never spoke about publicly, like how hard it can be and the barriers we faced as people of color,” she says. In the insular jewelry world, where designers often rely on connections to access costly stones, it’s especially challenging to get a foothold. That disparity is obvious in the fact that none of the 19 living designers in the exhibition have ever sold a piece at auction.
Grant’s goal was to amplify talented Black designers—those creating artistic, limited-edition, and one-of-a-kind pieces—and to tell their stories in the same way that fine artists are introduced in galleries and at auctions. She brought the idea to Sotheby’s director of jewelry Frank Everett, who championed the effort without hesitation.
“It’s been inspiring and enlightening to learn about these designers and their stories,” says Everett. “Some are classically trained and apprenticed at Graff, others are self-taught, and others have a fine arts degree in an entirely different discipline.” He points to Guinea Bissau-born designer Vania Leles of VANLELES as someone who elegantly imbues the African spirit in fine jewelry. “She finds inspiration in African batik prints and uses bright African gemstones to create these beautiful floral earrings.”
When it came to selecting the jewelers, it wasn’t difficult for Grant, who personally gravitates toward artists who have a “bit of an edge.” “I chose people who stand out in a crowd, who have a really strong signature style, and are doing something different. There is an intelligence in most of the work and everything is symbolic.”
Johnny Nelson’s Mount Rushmore ring features the stony heads of civil rights leaders rather than images of the presidents. Castro NYC is known for taking his vivid dreams and realizing them in exotic creations like his signature gem-encrusted antique porcelain Dollies, “which are quite gothic but romantic and fun,” says Grant.
British designer Melanie Eddy’s pieces reference living urban environments and are “boldly geometric and abstract, modernist and big,” says Grant. Other artists include Harwell Godfrey, Shola Branson, Winifred Mason Chenet, Lorraine West, Marei New York, MATEO New York, Lola Fenhirst, Jariet Oloyé, Maggi Simpkins, and Shola Branson.
“The mission for Melanie was to show that designers deserve attention beyond the color of their skin,” says Catherine Sarr, the London-born designer who, after working for De Beers, started her ALMASIKA brand. Rather than grouping jewelry talent as “African inspired,” she says this exhibition shows the designers’ different styles. “We come from all walks of life, with our own voice and aesthetic.”
Legendary American designer Jacqueline Rabun, who spent 30 years working in London under her own name and then as a designer for Georg Jensen, is showing pieces from her Black Love collection. She originally designed the gold and rutilated quartz heart-shape jewelry in 2015 following the murders of several young Black men. “At the time, I thought we need to transform this situation, we need to put some love around us and our culture as a form of protection.”
Rabun’s symbolic, bold, and sculptural designs already attract art collectors, who, she says, “understand and relate to my work.”The pioneering exhibit has already drawn a lot of attention—and high hopes from the artists who anticipate it is the start of more opportunities for Black talent. For his part, Everett says he and Sotheby’s are committed to increasing inclusion, saying, “Real inclusion comes over time, you have to keep revisiting and keep it top of mind, until you no longer have to do it.”
Original article: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/style/jewelry-and-watches/a37576664/black-jewelry-designers-sothebys-exhibit-2021/
Written by Jill Newman on 15th September 2021.