Meet 3 Designers Diversifying the Canadian Jewellery Industry
These intricate accessories are the epitome of cultural activism
When we think of Canadian-made jewellery, brands like Mejuri, Jenny Bird and Biko easily come to mind. Their recognizable minimalist aesthetic has made them household names in-and-outside of the country, but there are a handful of designers whose maximalist sensibilities that derive from unique cultural traditions are diversifying what it means to craft Canadian jewellery.
With intricate pieces adorned with colourful beads, recycled materials and centuries-old techniques, these women of colour — with roots from Africa and the Caribbean, Columbia and Pelican Lake First Nations — stitch and weave their cultural history into every piece, proving that jewelry is not just an accessory, but a tool to uplift women and bring their communities together. For these homegrown designers, each handcrafted accessory is a sacred way of storytelling, a piece of vibrant history and a wearable form of activism.
We sat down with Asia Clarke of Wild Moon, Jessica Sanchez of Santa Isla and Helen Oro of Helen Oro Designs to talk about how they’re creating statement pieces that connect them to their cultural roots and challenging what it means to be a Canadian jewellery designer in 2019.
Asia Clarke, Wild Moon Jewelry
Toronto-based designer Asia Clarke wants to create jewellery that could be found in a museum, displayed next to ancient African art and historical adornments worn by royalty.
“I come with an ethos; a mission in my own heart to make new cultural artifacts,” says Clarke, whose African-Caribbean culture inspired her brand Wild Moon Jewelry. Clarke started her business eight years ago as a way to share the beauty of her heritage with her friends and family. “It’s really important for me to write new stories of African-Caribbean diaspora through my jewellery,” she says.
Not only is she known for her intricate handcrafted designs and striking editorial imagery, but her use of recycled materials as well. Clarke turns broken glass bottles, clay and repurposed brass and silver into wearable art. “I’m really interested in using materials that weren’t necessarily directly mine from the ground,” says the designer. “This is not 14 or 18 karat gold, but it also respects the cycle of Mother Earth.”
Her latest collection YesPure was inspired by her time spent in Ghana working in international development, where she saw first-hand the effects of pollution, like plastic washed up on the beach and floating in the gutter. It made her want to create a jewelry line inspired by the need for clean water. “I can do my part by raising awareness,” says Clarke, proving that activism and jewelry are very much intertwined.
Not only is she focusing on environmental justice, but feminism as well. She worked with a group of women during her time in Ghana called the Obrapa Women’s Group, who have either personally been affected or have a family member who has been affected by sex work or HIV/AIDS. And thus, she created her charitable collection Biakoye. When you purchase a piece of jewelry, 100 per cent of the proceeds go to the Obrapa Women’s Group.
It doesn’t take long to realize that women are at the core of everything Clarke creates, even down to the name of the brand. Wild Moon or “WM” stands for woman because her brand is made for women by women.“This jewelry line really helped define who I am and how I want to move through the world in a female-identified body,” she says. But at the same time, Wild Moon is bigger than just herself. It encompasses all of the women she has impacted through her craft, from communities in Ghana to Dominica and Trinidad.
“Women are connected with the cycles of the moon,” explains Clarke about the brand’s name. “I wanted to bring people back to an awareness of their place on planet earth.” And by putting on one of her recycled glass bead necklaces or brand-new hair accessory from her upcoming collection, you will feel just that.
Jessica Sanchez, Santa Isla
For Jessica Sanchez, creating jewellery brought her closer to her roots. “Santa Isla is a love letter to Colombia,” says the Colombian-born, Toronto-based designer. The name, which means “holy island” in Spanish, perfectly embodies her experience creating the brand in 2013.
Sanchez had just gotten out of a bad relationship and she went to visit her family in Colombia. One day when she was travelling with her mother, she discovered two Indigenous women selling handmade beaded necklaces and later learned they were Emberá Chamí or “The People of the Mountain” — an underserved, yet sacred group in Colombian culture. “They believe that women bare the weight on their shoulders, so these pieces, that are called okamas, are meant to adorn our life path and connect us back to nature,” she explains. “As soon as I put it on, I could feel it; I could feel that kind of magic.” And ever since that trip, she works closely with a group of Emberá Chamí people, who help bring Sanchez’s designs to life.
“It’s so powerful that we can uplift communities and we can uplift each other and share these stories through these objects,” she says, proving that something often seen as materialistic, like accessories, can have a significant impact on the world around us. Sanchez’s aesthetic is unmistakeable. It’s not defined by trends, but by vibrant, contrasting hues, delicate beadwork and eye-catching patterns. Every piece tells a different story of Colombia.
When Sanchez is dreaming up a new collection of colourful beaded earrings or statement chokers, she always goes back to her “santa isla,” just like that visit to Colombia where it all began.“I got lost in that creativity and I was on my little island,” she recounts about her first time creating jewelry in her hometown. “It was a really healing place for me to be.”
Not only is Santa Isla a love letter to Colombia, but it is a physical representation of her identity and her experience as a Colombian-Canadian woman. “It’s a love letter to myself — to honour myself and create that space [for me],” Sanchez says.
Helen Oro, Helen Oro Designs
Helen Oro is changing the way we think about Indigenous beadwork with her glitzy, over-the-top designs. She adorns everything from chunky earrings to chokers, sunglasses and more. “My inspiration when creating is taking something old and bringing it back to life in a more modern way,” says the Plains Cree designer from Pelican First Nations in Saskatchewan.
She founded her eponymous label just two years after learning how to bead. “I started beading to teach myself patience, and it’s a form of storytelling and healing for us,” she says, who speaks openly about her struggles with depression and anxiety — and how creating jewellery can be a form of therapy.
Not only is her work therapeutic, it also creates a sense of community with other Indigenous women. She has showcased her pieces at fashion weeks all across the world, from London to New York and Los Angeles — and she makes sure to bring a local group of Indigenous models to walk in her and other designers’ shows. “I’ve gotten really lucky that I’ve been able to create other opportunities for other people with what I do,” says the Saskatoon-based designer.
As much as Oro loves sending her designs down international runways, there’s one fashion show in particular that is close to home. She is involved in a project with other Indigenous creatives, where they go visit Northern communities who are highly affected by suicide and host a workshop for youth. And at the end of the two days, they celebrate with a fashion show.
“When you first meet [the kids], they can barely say their name to you,” she says. “Then after the show, they’re a completely different little person.” Oro explains that being a role model for Indigenous youth is something she never expected to come out of her jewellery-making, but she will never look back. “I get to go to these communities and share my story,” she says. “That’s probably the most rewarding part.”