Alexia Connellan is an award-winning Black jewelry designer, but don’t think she’s the only one of her kind. Although her colorful take on antique jewelry is unique, her position in the industry is not—it’s just that jewelry designers, miners, and other professionals of color are frequently overlooked. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her experience in the industry, why she sources her gems from artisanal small-scale mines, and how her Jamaican background influences her colorful jewels. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is designer Alexia Connellan. She has won several prestigious awards for the use of colorful gems in her jewelry as well as her intriguing designs. She combines her experience in several artistic disciplines with global influences to create her memorable pieces. We’ll hear all about her jewelry journey today. Alexia, welcome to the program.
Alexia: Thank you, nice to be here.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Were you always artistic? Reading about you, it sounds like you were born with a paint brush in your hand.
Alexia: I was always artistic as a child. I remember being maybe two or three; I would draw and then I would try and write my name at the bottom of the painting, although I couldn’t really write. People would say, “What is that down there, those scribbles?” and I’d go, “That’s my signature. It’s my art.”
Sharon: Did you study metalsmithing? What did you study?
Alexia: I studied a lot of things. First, I went to Columbia University. I started out as a prelaw major because we were a family of immigrants, and immigrants want to stay in the middle class or move to the upper class. Although I always had an artistic bent, they said, “You’re intelligent. You should be a lawyer, a doctor, a CEO, something like that.” So, when I started at university, I started as prelaw and I was absolutely miserable. It didn’t suit my personality whatsoever, but I was very lucky that I had a great advisor who had been a lawyer who didn’t like it either. She said, “Listen, if you don’t like it while you’re in school, you’re not going to like it when you’re practicing. I encourage you to follow your passion, whatever that is.” Part of the Columbia program was that you had to study the core curriculum of the humanities, so you do math, science, all of the arts, history, another language, another culture. While I was studying the art part of the program, I really fell in love in with it and I said, “This is what I’m supposed to be.” Midway I switched my major to art history and visual arts, both making art and studying the history of art. From there, I studied sculpture for one year at SVA.
Alexia: I’m sorry. SVA, the School of Visual Arts in New York. Then I studied jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. We worked on designing, so the drawing and thinking about the concept and the reason behind the jewelry, and also the making of jewelry, so bench work. When I tell it like that, it sounds like it was very straightforward, but while I was living it, it was not that at all.
Sharon: You found your right path, but I’m sure there was a lot of internal turmoil along the way.
Alexia: Yes, I always had the push and pull of what I felt I was supposed to be doing and what other people told me I should be doing. I found the most success in life by listening to my inner voice and following my gut instinct. I’m much more successful doing that than following someone else’s rules of what a life or career should look like. I find that many artists are the same way.
Sharon: I give you credit. I give all artists credit, because there are so many forces against it, parental or societal. I wanted to be an artist or make jewelry, so I give you a lot of credit. Your jewelry is so colorful and striking. How do you describe it to other people when they ask what you do?
Alexia: I would describe it as a contemporary and colorful take on antique and classical jewelry. I pull a lot of the themes in my designs from history, whether it’s from Regency architecture, Georgian architecture, or it’s from a portrait of Queen Victoria or some particularly beautiful textile from the 18th century that I found. I’m really drawn to antique things. I guess I’m an old soul, but when it comes to what types of colors I like, I love them bright and tropical and fluorescent. I love colored gemstones. We have access to many more colored gemstones now than they did a hundred or 200 years ago. I really put those two passions, for antique motifs and brightly-colored gemstones, together to create my word.
Sharon: From reading about your awards, it sounds like you’ve been very successful with that. Can you tell us about—it was AGTA, right? Was it the American Gem Trade Association? Do I have it right?
Alexia: Yes, I’ve won several awards from the American Gem Trade Association for my work. They’re a wonderful association, and they especially like colored gemstones, untreated, natural, beautiful colored gemstones and really high-quality work. They examine all of the jewelry pieces with a magnifying glass, because it’s not just the gem, but also the quality of the work and the quality of the design they’re looking at. I felt really honored to win something, especially as an individual designer. I don’t have a thousand people working at the bench for me. So, that was fantastic.
Sharon: Wow! And you’ve won several awards from them, right?
Alexia: Yes, I won an honorable mention for the Victoria bracelet, and then I won, I think, second place in classical for the spiral earrings. I won an award for bridal wear and a gem diva award for the chevron French earrings. It was a surprise, truly. I did not think I would win.
Sharon: Congratulations. That’s a pretty good run. Tell us, there are not many Black jewelry designers, and that’s been one more force working against you in terms of—tell me about that experience. Did you feel you were facing more challenges because of that?
Alexia: Personally, I think I’ve been very, very lucky. When I was in school, racism really wasn’t a thing, at least not overt racism. As far as the jewelry industry is concerned, most of the people that mine, cut, polish and deal with the transportation of gemstones are Black; they are Asian; they are Indian, so I don’t feel like I’m in the minority in this industry. I’m actually in the majority. When it comes to those making profits from the sales of jewelry, then I’m definitely in the minority in that case. When it comes to sourcing gemstones and having the pieces made, I’ve had no trouble whatsoever. In fact, most of my jewelers are immigrants just like myself. Many of them are minorities, and they’re absolutely fantastic. You can see they do award-winning work. People who aren’t in the industry and don’t see the behind-the-scenes of how pieces get made have a preconception of what the makers look like, but they look like everybody, at least in America. I don’t know what they look like in Europe, for instance. In that case I haven’t had any trouble.
The places I felt some discrimination have been in trying to sell my pieces, or in pre-Covid times when you could walk into a jewelry store. I always wanted to check what the environment was like, what the people selling the jewelry were like, because it’s one to thing to hear from one person that they’re great and another to see it with your own eyes. Every now and then I would be followed by security, or people wouldn’t believe me that I was a jewelry designer. Things like that would happen and that was really disheartening, but I got pretty good about selecting who to work with.
When it comes to bringing the work to market, that area can be tricky. I know there are actually many Black jewelry designers out there, but they don’t want to let people know what they look like. They will not show their faces. They will not talk about their ethnicity whatsoever, because they’re afraid it might be detrimental to selling their pieces. Instead of representing themselves, they hire a rep that has a relationship with certain stores already. They have no idea what the designer looks like and they don’t care. I understand that can be difficult, but I’m far from the only Black jewelry designer. There are many. When I think of jewelry designers like Harwell Godfrey, she is a high-end jewelry designer in California. There’s Vanleles over in the U.K. There’s another one based in New York who’s been selling high-end jewelry for 20 years, Sheryl Jones. Those are three other designers that are Black and very successful in their work. It is there. It really bothers me when people think there are no Black jewelry designers. That’s not true.
Sharon: I’m not saying there aren’t, but that’s an interesting point, that they’re not visible as Black jewelry designers. Their jewelry is out there, which in the end is what the consumer cares about, but if I think about it, I’ve never heard of Harwell Godfrey. I’m showing my ignorance on a lot of things. I’ve never even heard of Harwell Godfrey, and did you say Sheryl Jones?
Alexia: Yeah, Sheryl Jones.
Sharon: And then you mentioned the one in the U.K.
Alexia: Yeah, Vanleles in the U.K. I think her name is Vania. I cannot remember her last name; I apologize. Her work is stunning, and most of her motifs have to do with her upbringing in Africa—I mean, the most delicious emeralds, huge diamonds. It’s just beautiful work.
Sharon: That’s probably why I don’t know it, because they’re huge diamonds and that’s not usually the kind of thing I’m shopping for. You used the term BIPOC, which I hadn’t known before. I was reading through your bio and it says “BIPOC, Black, Indigenous, People of Color,” and I had never heard that term. Reading about it, the New York Times identifies that it was first used in 2013, and I’m going, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen that.” That’s an interesting point you raise, the fact that the miners, the people who are sourcing the gems, the majority of them are indigenous or Black or people of color, and we don’t think about that.
Alexia: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that. A big part of that is the history of colonization, when a richer country goes into a poorer country with lots of resources and exports those resources back to their country in order to make a large profit from them. I guess you could say that’s just how capitalism works, but I think it’s always good to know where your materials come from, where the products you’re using come from, and to think about the conditions that the people who are producing them live under. I think it’s very important. It’s one of my morals.
Sharon: I know you have a commitment to sourcing your materials from artisanal and small-scale mining, another term I’ve never heard of.
Sharon: Have you visited these, or do you just know people and that’s where they get their gems? How does that work?
Alexia: I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting any of them yet, but when Covid is over it’s on my list. Many things have changed this year and we’ve been forced to adapt. When I first started collecting my gems, I wasn’t just interested in the beauty of the gem; I was also interested in where exactly it came from and who took it out of the ground. That’s when I was first introduced to the concept of ASM. The reason I prefer artisanal small-scale mining is because more of the money tends to go back to the miners and the mining communities. It’s less likely to have some large interests in there, forcing the miners to work 12, 14-hour days or using explosives to extract the gems that could both harm the miners and the ground, or insisting that you pull a certain quantity of gold out of the ground per day and you’re going to have to use mercury to do that. ASM mining is really community mining.
Now, the jewelry business is full of lots of gray. There is no perfection. You could make a lot of assumptions and a lot of deductions, but you cannot guarantee anything. So, when I’m sourcing my gems, I make it clear to the dealers that I’m going to research where this came from. I’m going to ask other vendors about it. I’m going to google it before I decide to make a purchase. It takes a lot more time. It takes a lot more research, and sometimes you have to be willing to walk away from a sale and say, “No, I’m not going to buy this. I’m not comfortable with the way it was extracted from the ground.” Fortunately, I have a lot of vendors that know this about me and they’re very upfront about where something came from, when they got it and what’s going on there right now. It takes time and it’s constantly changing. Just because the conditions were good in one mine five years ago doesn’t mean they’re good now. Another mining company might have taken it over and it’s a totally new regime. You do have to be on top of all of those things and be interested in it. I enjoy doing it, so it’s not a burden to me.
Sharon: That’s interesting. You have to enjoy doing it; otherwise, somebody might say, “What do I care? It’s pretty looking. It has the color I want.” I think the fact that you’re interested in it makes a tremendous difference.
Sharon: You have other influences, a lot of global influences, Jamaican and Irish and others I’m sure. Do you want to tell us about that?
Alexia: I was born in Jamaica, and the place of your birth has an influence on you. In the particular part of Jamaica where I was born, there are a lot of Georgian buildings that, while they were designed by the English, they were built by the Jamaicans, by slaves and the local indigenous population. After the end of British rule, they weren’t torn down; they were maintained lovingly by the population. They still stand to this day, and they have particular design elements that make them, to my eye, absolutely gorgeous. Jamaican jewelry and architecture tend to be more brightly colored than your typical Georgian architecture, which is what you see walking around Washington, D.C. It tends to have some exaggerated elements, maybe large columns, a bigger veranda, and that influences me in my design. Although I pull some of the concepts in my designs from Georgian architecture, they’re very brightly colored, just like Jamaican Georgian.
My husband is Irish. He was born and raised there. He’s the most charming man you’ll ever meet. I had the pleasure of going to Ireland at least 10 times and becoming very familiar with the culture. It has such an amazing history of art and artists, painters, sculptors and writers, and you can’t help but be influenced by things you’re close to. I really enjoyed getting to learn about Irish culture through my husband, and I love to travel. I’ve been to many countries. I speak a few languages, and wherever I go, I always find something beautiful and inspiring, and I love including that in my work.
Sharon: Wow! A lot of us, including myself, would love to travel. I’ve felt so landlocked or homebound, but hopefully that will change soon. That’s interesting that you talk about Ireland and the influence of color. All I think of is green with Ireland. I haven’t been. I’ve been to other places in the U.K., but not Ireland. Tell me more about where you see the colors coming from there.
Alexia: Ireland is extremely green. I cannot emphasize how green it is, and there are so many shades of green I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world, like the dark greens, light greens, green with a tinge of purple. It’s because it rains so much, but not a heavy, pouring rain; it’s more like a mist. It’s an island in a constant mist, so it’s extremely lush, even in the wintertime, and they tend to have a very mild winter. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s so rugged because it’s right out there in the Atlantic Ocean with the waves crashing in. The coastline especially is otherworldly, which is why so many movies have been filmed there. I remember the final scene in one of the new Star Wars movies was filed in Skellig Rock in Ireland. It think it’s where Rey goes to learn about being a Jedi, and it looks like it’s another world with these things coming up out of the ocean and all this green and wind. That’s Ireland.
Sharon: Wow! Do you sell in Ireland? Is it received better there? Do people understand it any differently?
Alexia: No, I don’t sell in Ireland because with all of the new trade laws and Brexit going on, it’s a bit mad; it’s a bit crazy. When I look deeper into what I would sell it there, I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but someday I would absolutely love to do that.
Sharon: It sounds like you’re well on your way. What are your thoughts about your business next steps post-Covid? What’s on your bench? Does the fact that you won awards influence how you work now?
Alexia: No, it absolutely doesn’t influence how I work at all. I don’t design with a mind for getting an award. I design with a mind toward turning my dream into a reality and making that vision everything I want it to be. Maybe that’s why I won the awards. I’m very exacting, as many jewelry designers are. You really have to be someone who relishes detail when it comes to jewelry. It hasn’t changed anything whatsoever, but as far as what to do after Covid, this whole period made me rethink my business completely. I actually pulled my jewelry out of stores because so many were closing down from Covid, and I got very anxious about losing my jewelry if some store went bankrupt and they decided to sell it to pay off some of their expenses. In the contract I have with the stores, they’re not supposed to do that, but people do all kinds of things they’re not supposed to do.
Sharon: That’s a good point, exactly.
Alexia: So, I decided to pull my pieces out and try and sell them myself, which is not something I ever thought I would do. I had to really reexamine how I work and how I want to work in the future. Fortunately, I found that I love talking to people and that it’s very interesting. I want to do more of that, and I plan to open up my own showroom in Princeton when all of this is open. I want to really become a member of the community and go out there and meet more people, bring in more clients and participate in things. I love drawing and designing for hours on end, but because things have changed, I have to change, too.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense, in terms of wanting to protect what you have out there and looking to get bigger. It’s always a balance, whether you’re a lawyer or an architect, how much time you spend on the drawing or the analysis versus developing a business. Alexia, thank you so much for talking with us today. It was great to hear you and learn about you and see the person behind the jewelry which, as you say, you don’t get to do a lot of the time. Most of the time you’re looking at the piece of jewelry; you’re not thinking so much about the depth of what’s behind it. You made me think a little differently. Thank you so much. It’s greatly appreciated.
Alexia: Thank you so much, Sharon. It was really great being here.
Sharon: Great talking with you.
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