African jewellery designers bask in London V&A limelight
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As Christine Checinska put together Africa Fashion, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it became clear that jewellery designers should have a section of their own.
The show opened in London last week and continues until April next year. Checinska, the lead curator, said the jewellers’ work was so strong it “challenges the expectation of what jewellery is”.
African work has been the centre of attention this year, helped by exposure on television and in music videos.
Ana Srdic, who lives in South Africa, had her gobstopper rings featured in the Sex and the City TV sequel when actress Nicole Ari Parker added much-needed diversity to the series.
Before that, singer Beyoncé wore a statement brass chain by Adèle Dejak for her My Power video.
The V&A’s Africa Fashion also has works by Ami Doshi Shah (pictured top), of Kenya, including her necklace of brass, sisal and salt. And K’tsobe, a Rwandan designer, has created a copper, silver and brass necklace that blends her culture with mokume gane, a Japanese metalwork.
Longstanding sustainable practices by Africa’s designers are now at the forefront of the international industry, too — so “the great thing is that they can sell on that basis also”, says Hanneli Rupert, founder of Merchants on Long, a Cape Town boutique.
Jennifer Mulli, of the Kamba tribe, founded Jiamini, the fashion and accessories label, in Nairobi “to sustain our [Maasai and beadwork] heritage”. As Mulli has said: “I took the women from the informal settlements who are not Maasai but [Kamba, Kikuyu and Luhya], just to make them believe it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can do what any woman can do.” The work gave the women a livelihood.
Doshi Shah began her business in 2014 and uses local materials including recycled brass and stone offcuts, as that avoids import duties which “can be 25 per cent up to even 100 per cent of the value of the items themselves”.
This stone includes the green zoisite with black veining that she used in her signature torque necklace. It “is cast out like garbage” from the country’s ruby mines, Doshi Shah says, but it is “a really beautiful stone”.
In 2018, Theresa May, then UK prime minister, wore one of Doshi Shah’s torques for a state dinner in Kenya.
But expanding out of the local market is tough. With no free trade across the continent, export duties are high. Katherine-Mary Pichulik, co-chief executive of her eponymous brand, has dual pricing in her Johannesburg business “so there is enough margin for [retailers outside South Africa] to import the product, pay taxes and pay shipping”, she says.
Her Fiamma earrings, made of copper discs hand-wrapped in blue rope, are priced at R1,350 ($85) in South Africa but cost $135 elsewhere.
Many designers are turning to collaboration to expand outside their area. For Mulli of Jiamini, her current debut collection with Dylanlex of Los Angeles has taught her “how I can blend beadwork with metals”.
As Africa’s designers enjoy their new international profile, jewellers have felt a ripple effect. Thanks to this luxury positioning, “now we get buyers online who buy — and without caring about the price of the piece”, says Mulli.
However, while designers have had more visibility since the Black Lives Matter protests boosted diversity, Dejak believes that sales have stayed the same.
Akebehi Kpolo has at least observed greater customer interest in the culture of the Akan ethnic group, which is the inspiration behind her contemporary pieces.
This “gave me confidence to continue what I was doing”, says the Ivory Coast designer. “Maybe I need to go deeper and that’s why I’m looking at making objects [such as tableware], not only jewellery.”
Kenya and South Africa are the jewellery hubs for homegrown talent, says Pichulik: South Africa “mainly because of access to certain types of stones and maybe finer stones [such as diamonds]”, while Kenya’s importance is based on its heritage of Maasai beading and brasswork.
But setting up a jewellery business outside these countries can be harder, says Kpolo (the K is silent).
“I am between two markets and I don’t have the infrastructure I need. If I want to keep the standard of the brand [like using silver or gold vermeil] I need to move the collection to Nairobi.”
Africa’s jewellers are, nevertheless, ambitious. Kpolo plans to open a factory in Ivory Coast, either in Grand-Bassam or Bingerville near Abidjan, within two years.
“The factory will not be used only for me but also for others,” she says. “There are many big spaces so I can afford a place there.”
Kpolo has a silent donor but is also looking for funding from her country’s ministry of culture and local investors.