As Melanie Grant watched political unrest and a racial reckoning unfold through 2020, she felt a sense of despair and powerlessness. As a writer, art director and stylist at The Economist for 15 years, she felt a special concern, noting, “Everyone in the media was asking themselves what they could do.”
For Ms. Grant, a luxury editor with a particular interest in jewelry, the answer was expanding opportunities for Black creators of artful, limited-production jewelry and one-off items.
She took a cue from big-screen superheroes. “I had to assemble an Avengers-style team of Black jewelry designers,” she said. “I went for the best Black designers working today, in my view.”
Her mission: to have a major auction house mount a groundbreaking selling exhibition dedicated to the work of Black jewelry designers. And she turned to Frank Everett, Sotheby’s sales director of jewelry, to partner on what the auction house is calling the first show of its kind.
The result, “Brilliant and Black: A Jewelry Renaissance,” is to present 63 pieces, many created for the sale, from 21 jewelry designers. The jewels are scheduled to go on view at the Sotheby’s New York gallery showroom from Sept. 17 through Sept. 26, accompanied by background information and photography of each jeweler’s work. All items will be available for immediate purchase both at the showroom and online from Sept. 17 through Oct. 10 through Sotheby’s Buy Now platform.
The participating designers have wildly different approaches to their work. “It’s important to show the dexterity of each person,” Ms. Grant said. “We’ve got gothic romanticism. We’ve got abstract minimalism. We’ve got biomorphism. We’ve got Brutalism. I wanted to show the precise talent of each person in their own right.”
The pricing is diverse, too, starting at $1,500 and rising to $1 million for a pink diamond, pink sapphire and ruby ring by Maggi Simpkins.
Working with Sotheby’s, rather than a gallery or traditional retailer, was a deliberate choice, Ms. Grant said. “To push our best designers to the fore, we need a public-facing marketplace,” she said. “It’s expensive to get good P.R., to reach the collector who will ask you for something you’ve never done and wait for it and has the budget to do that.”
Mr. Everett said the auction house was immediately enthusiastic about the plan. “When Melanie approached us with this idea, we didn’t have to think about it for more than a second,” he said. “It was a great idea and an important one. There hasn’t been anything like it.”
Selling exhibitions that highlight contemporary designers are a boon for Sotheby’s, too, because they attract clients who ordinarily would not buy pieces at auction. “It’s important for Sotheby’s to align with contemporary jewelers,” Mr. Everett said. “Most contemporary-art buyers aren’t really interested in antique jewels.”
The sale also should help Sotheby’s redefine its image. “There are people who still have the notion that everything here is dusty books and Georgian silver and the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels,” he said.
Lola Oladunjoye, one of the participating designers, had that impression. “Sotheby’s is so old,” she said. “It’s almost part of empire, like Dickens and the royal family. Hats off to them for being forward-thinking and creating this platform.” (The house was founded in London in 1744.) An English-born designer of Nigerian descent, Ms. Oladunjoye is now based in Paris and continues to work as a lawyer while she expands her Lola Fenhirst brand.
Two necklaces and a ring from her Sybil series are her contributions to the exhibition, items she said represented her design aesthetic. Their unifying features are scalloped frames wound with gold filament, and their pairing of rounded and taut lines “is a metaphor for two cultures and how they interweave and intersect,” she said. “It’s very rich, very celebratory, which is a part of my traditional Yoruba cultural background. Wearing gold in unsubdued ways is part of the culture. I wanted to put my spin on it.”
The collective aspect of “Brilliant and Black” appealed to Ms. Oladunjoye. “Diversity and inclusion are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “Diversity is about having more people who look like me active in the business, and inclusion is how you get there and stay there. It’s really important that one person doesn’t break through every 10 years, feels isolated and leaves.”
Johnny Nelson, a British native who was raised in Brooklyn, took an unusual route to jewelry. Formerly a touring musician who mingled hip-hop, rap and punk, he began creating in 2012 to accessorize his onstage look and, by 2017, had turned to it full time. Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss used Mr. Nelson’s pieces for the 2019 Met Gala ensemble worn by the director Lena Waithe, and Mr. Jean-Raymond has worked with the designer several times since then, including on his couture collection in July.
For “Brilliant and Black,” Mr. Nelson intends to debut his first fine jewelry design featuring a gemstone. “I’m trying to bring my same message to a different crowd, to the fine-jewelry crowd,” he said of the $8,500 offering, a 10.5-carat emerald-cut garnet secured by four fist-shaped prongs that he said signified “empowering all beings.”
It will be joined by two 14-karat gold four-finger rings ($14,000 apiece), each featuring the likenesses of four figures from U.S. civil rights history. The “Let Freedom Ring” design depicts Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the “Her Freedom” ring depicts Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells.
“Those are some of the leaders who got me to where I am today, to even be in this exhibition,” he said. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be having a conversation.”
New talents are not the only ones boosting their profiles through the exhibition. Jacqueline Rabun, an American designer now based in Los Angeles after 30 years in London, began creating jewelry under her own name in 1990, and she has designed for the Danish brand Georg Jensen since 2000. She described the exhibition as an opportunity for the designers to convey nuanced views of their own experiences. “During the uprising, we got lumped together without really telling our stories,” she said of media coverage (which included her) last year. “This is different.
“It’s important to tell the ups and downs, the peaks and the valleys,” she said. “Most people probably think I’ve been fine all the way through. It might look like that, but I didn’t come into my own from a financial perspective until 2017. It takes a while.”
The exhibition includes a necklace ($39,750), a ring ($8,520) and a bracelet ($17,790) from her Black Love collection: 18-karat yellow gold pieces featuring rutilated quartz, with a central heart motif formed by the union of two seed-shaped halves. “I designed these pieces in 2015 in response to the death of African Americans at the hands of police,” Ms. Rabun said. “There was a need for more love and compassion and understanding of our culture.”
She said that collaborating with Sotheby’s would be a particularly important platform for her work. “Their audience is more art-based, and I think my jewelry fits into that world more than with fashion jewelry, because it is quite sculptural and quite minimal,” she said. “I never thought about approaching them but I always dreamed of working together. It puts your work on a different level.”
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