BIPOC jewellery designers partner with De Beers and the Couture jewellery show

Looking to address the imbalance in the jewellery industry, De Beers and Couture’s mentorship programme aims to put a diverse roster of designers under the spotlight

By Jill Newman

Afghan-born Zulaikha Aziz is a human-rights lawyer who also happens to design jewellery – but not just any jewellery. When her family fled Kabul for the United States in the 1980s, her grandmother’s jewels were the only tangible connection that she and her relatives had to their heritage and former life. Those symbolic pieces inspired her to create culturally rich yet contemporary designs made with ethically sourced metal and stones.

Her foray into jewellery began when she was living in Kabul, between 2018 and 2019. While doing a year-long legal assignment, she explored the history behind Afghanistan’s jewellery and started sketching designs. Upon her return to California, she took a sabbatical to earn a gemology degree, before eventually creating her own pieces.

However, without any industry connections and guidance, even the best designs might not get off the ground. It’s no secret that it’s almost impossible for newcomers to start a jewellery business from the ground up; it’s a historically insular industry that requires significant capital to source materials and make connections to suppliers, craftspeople and retailers. Moreover, it’s even harder for designers from non-white backgrounds, like Aziz, due to the lack of representation in the business.

But a series of unexpected events created the circumstance for Aziz to excel. Though change is notoriously slow in the jewellery world, the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated an industry reckoning – business leaders and groups, notably, stepped up to create more opportunities for designers from the BIPOC community. (Though there is still a long way to go, it was a start.) Among those initiatives was Couture’s Diversity Action Council (DAC), which, as part of its mission, created a mentorship programme. But it wasn’t until Sally Morrison, De Beers’ director of public relations for the company’s Natural Diamonds division, recognised the potential of this group that things took off. “I was impressed by the designers’ energy and their wide variety of highly creative approaches to jewellery,” she says.

De Beers joined forces with Couture and supplied the 13 mentees with Code of Origin diamonds – this not only guaranteed that the stones provided were natural, conflict-free and sourced from any one of De Beers’ African or Canadian mines, but it also funded each designer’s capsule collection. The debut showcase, The Radiance by Couture, was unveiled in Las Vegas to glowing reviews. More than just original and inspiring designs, the group delivered a sense of enthusiasm and commitment to building a better future for talent from a variety of backgrounds.

Aziz was part of that freshman class, a lucky break that paired her with Jennifer Maxwell, the designer behind Leigh Maxwell Jewelry, who acted as a mentor and offered access to a bevy of industry professionals. Coming from a country with rich natural resources, Aziz had done extensive research into fair-mined gold and responsibly sourced gems, but she was skeptical about diamond origins. “After meeting with the De Beers team and learning about its sustainability programmes, I was really inspired to work with their diamonds,” she explains. For De Beers, The Radiance was an opportunity to “get the truth out” by working with a new generation of designers, like Aziz, who, Morrison says, might have preconceived ideas about diamond mining operations.

The programme also included veteran talent looking to evolve their business, such as Jules Kim, the New York-based designer of Bijules, founded in 2002. Her mentor, British designer Stephen Webster, became the advisor she needed to help set her on a course to grow her company. “Stephen has been extremely generous with his support and guidance,” she says. “As a jeweller, we are living a singular existence, and it’s great to have someone I can ask for help.”

During two decades in business, Kim has been committed to creating equity and transparency among her all-female team of artisans. Her bold, edgy designs express a message, as is the case for the 18-karat gold Compass ring made for the Radiant series – a hazy spectrolite stone is paired with a single De Beers diamond that represents “clarity or a diamond navigator.”

Melanie Eddy, a jeweller in London known for her bold gold designs, used this scheme to develop a more accessible collection, saying, “most of my work has been around bespoke pieces, and I want to focus on making pieces that aren’t as labor intensive.” With sales executive Joel Thetwood as her mentor, she developed repeatable designs that were still able to portray her signature sculptural forms.

These designers also want to pay it forward. “There is a ripple effect happening,” says Eddy. “We are committed to supporting this change so that the industry will start to reflect the population that it serves.”

Morrison is already looking at ways to continue supporting The Radiance, but wants to make sure the first group of designers are given the time needed to make this successful. It’s one thing to support a launch – but it’s another to help them maintain momentum.

For the participants, this was the start of something much bigger than creating a capsule collection: “We made lifelong connections and friends,” says Aziz. “We are few and far between in the BIPOC community. Having this kind of access to folks who can guide us and who we can call, and to De Beers diamonds is something that would have taken many years.

It all comes down to great designs, pieces imbued with meaning and stories, and, as their mentors have underscored, it has to be relatable to customers. Aziz’s Mazahri collection, named after her grandmother, pays homage to her roots with engraved symbols and stones in a rhombus, a shape significant in Afghan women’s culture. Whether you recognise the meaning or not, Aziz’s creations stand on their own – as does their designer.

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