For Black History Month this year, I wanted to pay tribute to a few Black Jewelry Designers that have helped shape the jewelry industry. These designers have brought their unique styles and influences to the jewelry landscape and have contributed to the industry's diversity and evolution.
Winifred Mason Chenet
Widely regarded as the pioneering Black jeweler in the U.S. Winifred Mason Chenet was born in 1918 in Manhattan to parents of West Indian descent. She taught at the Junior Achievement youth program and met Art Smith while she was there and subsequently became his mentor. She had her own studio in Greenwich Village during the early 1940s, which was when her jewelry gained recognition and was stocked at prestigious retailers like Lord & Taylor. Additionally, she offered custom design services, creating bespoke pieces for notable figures such as Billie Holiday. Her dedication to craftsmanship and innovation paved the way for future generations of Black jewelers, leaving an enduring legacy in the world of jewelry design.
Art Smith, a trailblazer in modernist jewelry design, broke racial barriers in the 1940s and 1950s, establishing a successful jewelry business in the heart of New York City. His work was ahead of its time, featuring bold, abstract forms that drew inspiration from African and tribal art, as well as the urban environment of Harlem. Smith's pieces were a fusion of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary aesthetics, making him a pioneer in the industry.
Despite the challenges he faced as a Black designer in a segregated society, Art Smith's creativity and vision transcended boundaries. His legacy lives on through his unique and groundbreaking designs, which continue to inspire contemporary jewelry artists.
Bill Smith, a renowned jewelry designer born in 1936, made history as the first Black recipient of a prestigious Coty Award. Just two months after joining Richelieu (a jewelry brand) as its head designer, he was promoted to Vice President in 1968. One of Smith's notable projects included designing all the jewelry for the Broadway production of "Coco," a stage musical depicting the life of fashion icon Coco Chanel, starring the legendary Katharine Hepburn. Beyond his theatrical endeavors, Smith played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between African-inspired design and high-end American jewelry.
Coil Necklace by Bill Smith of Richelieu, Vogue, New York Vol. 154, Issue 4 (Sep. 1, 1969), p. 434, photo: Richard Avedon, copyright The Condé Nast Publications