Each week, we look into an exciting and innovative label that is taking the fashion world by storm in our regular feature #TheBrand. This time we’re turning the spotlight on fine jeweller and gemologist, Thelma West.
Although breaking into the world of high-end jewellery is no easy task, there was no planned-out, long-term strategy that led Thelma West to where she is now. Instead, it was “passion, necessity and opportunity colliding,” she tells me. The fine jeweller and gemologist, who is based in London but hails from Lagos, Nigeria, originally planned to become an engineer, but soon set off on a completely different path.
“I had enrolled to study mechanical engineering in London but when my circumstances changed dramatically, I couldn’t afford that path anymore,” West says, explaining that the misfortune actually gave her the opportunity to instead study her first love, diamonds, through a shorter course in the more affordable city of Antwerp. “I enjoyed every aspect of learning about natural gemstones,” she says.
The journey to jewellery design was also not straightforward. West worked as a diamond dealer for a number of years, resisting requests to design because she felt she wasn’t ready. That is, until a close friend had a very special demand.
“A friend asked me to design and produce her engagement ring – I had turned down requests for jewellery design before but this one was special. She was looking to get an antique diamond – I have quite a thing for old mine-cut diamonds and was fawning over the idea of creating a new ring around one. That is how Thelma West the brand was born.”
With the business launching in such an organic way, it gave West a clear idea of exactly what she wanted her brand to be about: “I set out to make beautiful jewellery for people who choose to collect my pieces. My ultimate goal was to make people happy with my art.”
So, without forming any “big strategic plan”, West set out to design beautiful pieces of jewellery, all of which would be made with ethically-sourced stones and created through high-quality bespoke artisanal craftsmanship, offered with a lifetime guarantee, a formula which has clearly worked very well.
At the heart of this is a commitment to ethics and sustainability, something which Thelma West has stood for since it launched in 2012, but a factor which has risen in importance in the almost 10 years since, and can no longer be ignored by any business in the industry.
“Things are changing for the better,” West says. “We’ve gone past the point where firms can choose to ignore or play ignorant. There is a rising tide as more and more consumers re-evaluate their relationship with consumption.”
But, while it is clear that things need to change, decisions still need to be reached about the best practices, West argues.
“Criticising existing systems is the easy part. The challenge for all of us is to find honest alternatives that can push the industry forward. Every part of the supply chain is becoming accountable. Where my raw materials come from, how they are extracted and then refined, how they are transported. As an industry we need to get better and better at having quantitative and qualitative goals set against timelines and be able to tick these off. The progress has been visible, but the work is continuous.”
In being a boutique business, West is able to be completely transparent and entirely confident about the stones she works with. This small-scale structure has other advantages too.
“The best part of being a small business? One word: freedom. I am able to be authentic, experimental and principled.
“I get to hand pick every diamond and gemstone that I work with and then I can create whatever unique object I see the potential for. I can choose to use fair mined gold and gems, to work with real artisans and give them the adequate amount of time and compensation they deserve, to support the charities close to our hearts and to do that with a small but remarkable team of people who share my values and understand my crazy vision. And most importantly, we create for people who appreciate our work.”
Having this opportunity to give back is clearly hugely important to West and her team, who donate a portion of every single sale to two causes in Nigeria: one which pays off medical bills for children in hospitals needing urgent treatments and another which helps fund education for girls through to secondary school.
“Listen, I grew up in Lagos and I’ve seen what it is to be truly poor with very little hope. I care for the place where I was made. Supporting local communities in Nigeria not only drives change there but also energises our team here in London by making every creation even more rewarding.”
But of course, there are also challenges and limitations when it comes to running a small business as opposed to a big corporation. Not only is West required to wear many hats other than jewellery designer, but there is a unique difficulty in running a business with such an expensive product.
“Funding can be tricky,” West explains. “Inventory not only takes up space in the safe but it also makes a considerable dent in your bank balance, which can impact cash flow and affect daily operations running smoothly.”
Even more difficult? “The daily challenges of being Black in this specific industry.”
As with much of the fashion world, but perhaps even more acutely with jewellery, there has been – and still is – a serious lack of opportunity for Black people. Being the only Black person in the room has been a consistent feature of West’s career (and is something that the designer has spoken to us at length about, which you can read here) – but following a pivotal year for the Black Lives Matter movement, West is hopeful that we are finally heading in a positive direction.
“People are listening and so many are taking actions that we should all hope continue to drive change in the industry,” West explains. “It is too early to know how much of an impact this will have, but I have seen some bold first steps.”
“Diversity shouldn’t be treated as something that is a trend. In a year from now, I would love to see more Black people at board level within more companies in the industry. I’d like to know about more brands providing scholarships and grants for minorities’ beginners so that they can afford to take internships in fashion, media and more. And I’d like to see a sustained level of Black designers featured in major magazines and media like we have seen recently rather than this receding like a temporary freak wave.
“More generally and beyond ‘Blackness’, it would be beautiful for the industry to better reflect the natural diversity we have in society. Being more inclusive in matters of skin colour and ethnicity, but also of body shapes, non-binary/gender, queerness, disabilities and age. With true depth in respect and understanding as well as showing off how grace and beauty can touch all our diverse selves.”
As well as feeling hopeful about where the industry is heading regarding diversity, West also believes that the difficulties businesses have faced due to the Covid-19 pandemic will hopefully break some bad habits and accelerate some other positive trends, ultimately leading to a more efficient, modern way of working. On a personal level too, elements of it have been extremely positive.
“Having given me the time to slow down, ponder and re-energise, the past few months have unleashed a different level of creativity. As well as moving to a new studio in Soho, I will be launching several new creations.”
Look out for these – and discover more of West's beautiful collections – here.
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