Sotheby’s is staging its first selling exhibition dedicated to Black jewelry designers like Catherine Sarr of ALMASIKA and Lauren Harwell Godfrey, and the event is already creating a buzz. Held in New York, we all got a sneak peek at one of the stand-out pieces from the exhibit when Rihanna showed up at the 2021 Met Gala in Thelma West’s striking pear-shaped diamond and black ceramic ring.
Brilliant and Black: A Jewelry Renaissance features 21 international Black jewelry designers – and none of which have sold at auction. It’s an opportunity to discover a range of unique artists – from classically trained jewelers to avant-garde creatives – with prices from $1,500 up to $1 million for Maggi Simpkins stunning internally flawless pink diamond ring. The exhibit is open to the public from September 17–26, and available through Sotheby’s Buy Now online marketplace through October 10.
The ground-breaking event was prompted by journalist Melanie Grant, a jewelry specialist, who observed the lack of contemporary Black jewelry designers and pitched the idea to Sotheby’s director of jewelry Frank Everett, who was equally excited to put the spotlight on an often under-appreciated group of talent.
When assembling the roster of artists with Everett, Grant looked for jewelers creating unique pieces with a distinctive point of view – and she delivered. “If you are going to make jewelry, it should be different,” she declared. Those artists include self-taught designer Shola Branson who draws on early civilizations combined with high-tech tools to create what he calls “future artefacts.” While Nigerian-born designer Jariet Oloye-Oduto weaves pieces in gold and silver that are reminiscent of the local weavers from her childhood community.
American born Jacqueline Rabun’s career spans more than 30 years, and she’s been an inspiration to many artists of color in the jewelry space. She spent 30 years in London working under her own name and designing Georg Jensen’s jewelry for 20 years, and is known for bold, sculptural pieces that connect with the body. In a more ornate and playful style, Castro New York reimagines his vivid dreams in his signature vintage Dollies made into colorful, jeweled pendants. While Lorraine West draws on the symbolism and geometric shapes of her Caribbean roots to create graphic pieces in a mix of brass, copper, gemstones, and precious metals.
“This show represents a shift in thinking from ‘African inspired’ to Black talent being the inspiration,” says Grant. “I think we’ll look back at this moment as a game changer, amplifying the often overlooked and sometimes under-appreciated talents and stories of Black jewelry designers.”
The one thing the jewelers have in common is that they are people of color and have had to overcome boundaries to break into the jewelry world and establish their businesses – but that’s where the commonality ends. “Everyone wants to be seen for their individual talent and their own journey,” explains Grant. She hopes this exhibition opens more platforms for Black designers who will be recognized for their pioneering designs, and not the color of their skin.
For Sotheby’s, this is part of an ongoing effort at the auction house across categories to create an inclusive offering of designers and artists. “Sotheby’s is enormously proud to be involved in such a momentous project and to highlight the compelling stories of the individual designers,” said Everett. “We are delighted that this first exhibition will contribute to revealing their talents and contributions to the art of jewelry to a wider audience.”