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The Lagos-born London-based designer Thelma West has been immersed in the world of jewelry design for over 15 years. She’s seen the ebb and flow of consumer behavior, the rise of digital sales, and the transformation of philanthropy tied to business. She’s also been dedicated to sustainable practices, using ethically sourced diamonds from Africa and fair-mined gold in all of her designs.
With three businesses—the wholesale diamond company Yeraua Diamonds, the gemological lab IGR London, and her eponymous label Thelma West—she’s lately been keeping busy amid off-and-on isolation in the UK.
Most recently, West opened a new studio in Soho, and has been busy creating, as she says, “fun, dreamy jewellery that shows off a lot of sparkle.” Her pieces are also influenced by her deep love for art and travel, acting as physical odes to where she’s been and what she’s seen. Translated through personal, unconventional designs to wear, it all centers around her adoration for diamonds.
West’s label also acts as a philanthropic lane to her home country. In addition to running a sponsor program for education in Nigeria, she contributes to a medical fund for a pediatric hospital in Lagos. Today, she employs a team of women with a mission to create opportunities for those with stories similar to her—as a minority in the industry.
Whitewall spoke with West about her love for jewelry design, how philanthropy has always been a large part of her label, and what one piece of jewelry she thinks her label could be known for.
WHITEWALL: You've been in jewelry design for over 15 years. How has the industry changed the most since you started?
THELMA WEST: Compared to when I started many years ago, consumers are trusting private jewellers and dealers more. Craftspeople and jewellery artists are given the space to shine as buyers are not so fixated on the huge brands as they once were. This has been helped by the digitalisation of marketing and sales and more recently by the rise of the virtual social networks. Everybody can easily find out all they want to know about their favourite niche brand, artisanal products, and the individual people behind those. I’m lucky to have been around during this change which has selfishly benefited me a lot!
WW: How are you doing amid the ongoing pandemic? How have the past few months in isolation shaped you and your company?
TW: Navigating through the pandemic was tricky. Honestly, for me the start was a huge “WTF?” moment. I didn’t see it as a time to sell jewellery but as a time to rally around my family, friends, team and clients. On a very basic level, it was important to just stay connected and focus on our mental health.
After the first shock, I consciously decided to use the downtime to reorganise a few aspects of my business. I had outgrown my old space, but never really had the time to search for a new one fitting my brand now. I didn't just need a larger place, I also wanted an environment richer in inspiration. I'm very glad to say that we have just moved into our new studio in the heart of Soho! We also had more time on our hands to design some pretty cool new pieces, one of which is called ‘Embrace’ and fresh out of the workshop.
Scouting for places, negotiating, discussing with suppliers, reviewing prototypes, re-designing the TW website with a new online shopping platform, touching base with clients…most if not almost all of this had to be done via Zoom. We're all young and grew up with internet always around us, but for a business that thrives on strong inter-personal bonds it was an interesting experiment.
WW: Let’s rewind the clock a bit and talk about your early beginnings. You were born in Lagos and were encouraged to push boundaries, travel, and create. How did this result in your becoming a jewelry designer?
TW: My path into the world of jewellery began at a very early age. I always tell the story of how my mother would sit in front of her dressing table and put various earrings against her ears to try to find one that matched her outfit. I loved that routine. Playing around with items in my mother’s jewellery box was one of my favourite pastimes.
She would talk me through some of the pieces, and if I asked questions too technical for her, she’d say something like, “I don’t know. Perhaps one day you can find out and teach me.” I did! She loves learning about jewellery.
When traveling as a family, my mom would make sure we visited museums and galleries. Sometimes looking at some pieces of art, I would dream about making things my own, what I would do different. Or how I would wear the jewellery on display. So, it was to be expected perhaps that at some point I'd drop everything and venture into the world of diamonds and jewellery design.
Lagos is the cultural capital of Nigeria. It’s buzzing with parties, colourful outfits, large chunky jewellery to add the finishing touches to equally large personalities. This remains a part of who I am now as a jewellery designer. And I blend it with my personal journey through Europe and being part British. I think it all comes through in the pieces I make.
WW: Today, you have 3 businesses—Yeraua Diamonds, the gemological lab IGR London, and your eponymous label Thelma West. Can you tell us a bit about each?
TW: I have this enormous need to create. I deeply enjoy the process of putting things together, making concepts work, understanding each stage and watching how that thing becomes a project, then a business. That unusual need has led me to launch multiple businesses. I wear different hats for each of the businesses.
Yeraua is a wholesale diamond company, supplying jewellers, manufacturers, designers with loose diamonds. I co-founded the business in 2008 and have a business partner now based in Tel-Aviv.
IGR London was born out of frustration with what I saw as a lack of options in the industry in 2015. It's a boutique and approachable gem lab with an experienced team at its core upholding top industry grading standards. The team's passion for visual arts, digital marketing and jewellery makes for frequent great conversations with the lab's clients around different ideas to make the most out of their gems. It's super interesting.
Thelma West is my bespoke jewellery brand. I set out to make beautiful pieces of art for awesome clients. The goal is to make those who choose my work happy. Each piece should be one-of-a-kind and show off the talents of the maker in mastering the beauty of the materials.
WW: You mentioned that as a teenager you traveled and explored art galleries, museums, and markets. What is your relationship to art today?
TW: Art helps me focus my energy and it is something I find time for regardless of whatever else is happening in my world. I am always browsing, still exploring galleries online now when I’m unable to attend physically. I’m constantly searching. For nothing in particular, just that piece that talks to me, catches my eye, connects with my soul. And that sends me down the path of discovery: the piece, the artist, the inspirations, the revelations. I am able to escape with art.
A few weeks ago, I went on one of these adventures. I saw a piece that got me completely hooked by an artist I’d admired for quite some time, Adjani Okpu Egbe. So, I managed to see his workspace and I totally got lost in the art. The stories behind each piece, what they mean to the creator, the new work, his life story—one I could relate to. He uses mixed media, including gathered objects to create works that shed light on socio-political and economic issues affecting Africa and global social justice. A glorious day. I now own a piece by him called New Breeds.
WW: You also mentioned that during your time studying in Antwerp, you developed an eye for luxury, sharpened by various influences like your interest in diamonds and European jewelry, antiques, and modern design. How did those elements eventually shape your eponymous label's offerings and aesthetic?
TW: Antwerp was the first city where I spent a really long time after moving out of Nigeria and became the heart of my gemological education. It was also the beginning of my being a weird mix of cultures and traditions. The time I have spent in various cities around the world has influenced my work. I would say that my brand is an eclectic mix of beautiful unconventional designs. My love for diamonds is evident in the work I create. They are at the heart of everything I do and their individuality inspires the style in which I create.
I enjoy bringing ideas to life by combining exciting, diverse, materials and traditional techniques, most of which can only be done by hand. I enjoy discovering antique pieces with amazing old mine cut diamonds which I often up-cycle into modern designs. I work with coloured diamonds and sometimes with other coloured stones such as rubies, emeralds, sapphires depending on the story I’m inspired to tell. I do fun, dreamy jewellery that shows off a lot of sparkle.
WW: Thelma West as a brand is dedicated to philanthropy. In addition to running a sponsor program for education in Nigeria, you also contribute to a medical fund for a pediatric hospital in Lagos. Can you tell us a bit about your philanthropic work?
TW: Giving back has always been a part of my work. Growing up in Lagos, I got to see what it’s like to exist with very little hope. A portion of every sale we have made so far has gone towards two causes; paying off medical bills for children in hospital needing urgent treatments and educating girls through to secondary school. We have more plans in the works, especially in the area of children’s education and more global.
WW: Your label was established with a mission to create opportunities for women with stories similar to yours—as a minority in the industry. Today, you employ a team of women. Tell us of the importance of this.
TW: I value a culture of diversity within the team, celebrating the differences in others women’s stories and ideas. My aim has been to create a safe space not just for myself but for other women regardless of race, age or sexual orientation. Drawing on my experience to help them find their voice in the predominately macho diamond world. I encourage creativity, ideas and feedback, which in turn means that a Thelma West success is their success too. Most importantly, I welcome dreams and do my best to support and champion their vision as they do mine.
WW: Your label is also seen through a sustainable and ethical lens, as it ethically sources diamonds from Africa and uses fair mined gold. How do you ensure this is so?
TW: Sustainability is a priority for everybody, it just can't be in any other way at this point. I am happy that clients are now making this a big part of their diamond & jewellery choices. Ethical production of precious gems and metals is possible. And consumers want a more responsible trade with more track-able diamonds and social and environmental developments. We buy diamonds and precious metals from transparent and environmentally respectful mining companies in Africa. We buy old mine cut diamonds from various countries in Europe as an option for those not afraid of up-cycling. Vintage and antique diamonds are popular as more and more clients stay open to the idea of something old but beautiful in their jewellery. We have worked hard to secure all of this over the years.
WW: If Thelma West were to be known for one piece of jewelry, what would it be?
TW: My Rebel rings!