At the heart of Catherine Sarr’s Almasika jewelry collection can be found an abundance of influences, universal symbols and stories that transcend cultural boundaries.
Born in Paris to Beninese parents, Catherine’s passion for jewelry led her to venture to London after completing a Master’s degree in marketing at the Université Paris XII. There she worked for various luxury brands promoting craftsmanship from around the world, including several years spent at the heart of the diamond and fine jewelry industry at DeBeers Group and Love Gold, the initiative from the World Gold Council .
“I was lucky enough to be working on global markets such as India, Japan and China, and I was deeply fascinated by the jewelers,” she explains. “Their stories and inspirations were very much centered on their own cultures. Seeing jewelers being able to tell stories through jewelry was an inspiration.”
Catherine was guided by the philosophy of finding what she had in common with others she met and her own West African heritage. She melded this and more into her brand Almasika that she launched in 2014 at the legendary Colette boutique in Paris. “I have rooted Almasika in art, design and culture.” A sculptural simplicity of design, in Le Cauri Endiamanté and Berceau collections, is offset by symbolism.
I reached Catherine by phone at her home in Chicago, where she moved several years ago with her family, to discuss her collection and more. Read on for a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Tell me a bit about your inspiration behind the brand name Almasika?
The word ‘Almasi’ means ‘diamond’ in Swahili, and in fact, the root word means ‘diamond’ in many languages and ‘Sika’ means ‘gold’ in several West African languages. I wanted to bring together the power of two natural treasures and find commonality in the words as well.
Almasika is founded on an approach of contemplation, reflection and discussion. Each piece of the jewelry connects to larger traditions and significances that span generations and cultures. I learn from various creatives – from architects to art historians to engineers and artisans. Cultural craftspeople act both as interlocutors and sources of inspiration, setting in motion an artistic and intellectual dialogue. There’s a lot of research that goes into the meaning of a shape, a story or a form that inspires a jewel.
You revisited an ancestral symbol – cowrie shell – in your debut collection, Le Cauri Endiamanté. Would you walk me through it?
For me, it was very important to start with a design that goes back to my own culture. My initial inspiration for Almasika was found in the cowrie shell. They’ve always been part of my life. I used to wear a natural cowrie shell pendant when I was younger. When I debuted in Colette in 2014, with Le Cauri Endiamanté collection, I wanted to pay homage to this ancestral symbol of spirituality and abundance that I reinterpreted in gold and diamonds. It quickly garnered the attention of tastemakers around the world when launched.
Cowrie shells are not a trend — they dwell deep in spiritual and symbolic references. From ancient times to the late 19th Century, cowries have been used as ornaments and even as currency in several African kingdoms, becoming synonymous with wealth and fortune. They are still used today in the Art of Divination and continue to be worn as a talisman to bring good fortune. The cowrie shell also serves as a symbol of connection as its meaning has deep significance across cultures from Africa.
You’ve been doing trunk shows in the art world for the past few years. What prompted this approach?
When I moved to Chicago, I started with a series of trunk shows in connection with the world of contemporary art because there was a natural and organic connection as well. Trunk shows with collectors and a gallery, and having partnerships with art institutions really allowed me to understand what’s appealing to my customers in the US and assessing if the Parisian aesthetic would work here. Thankfully, we had amazing responses.
How would you describe your design aesthetics?
In terms of aesthetics, I am attracted by sculptural shapes, curves and soft lines that echo the line of the body – that’s the signature in all my designs. I also like an understated silhouette that can take you in to the evening. It’s very much the Parisian style I grew up with. When I work on my designs, I imagine them in gold. That allows me to perfect the shape and the form. I want people to be attracted to the lines, subtlety and the design.
The Berceau collection is a great spin on tradition. What made you come up with it?
The Berceau collection draws on a myriad of influences. The nesting forms pay homage to tradition, reinterpreting ancestral adornments to celebrate and become an extension of the natural human form. The design is inspired by what is believed to be the cradle of humanity, the Great Rift Valley. Much of the design is strikingly simple, a delicate gold band and soft curvature embody earrings, necklaces and bracelets.
Where is your jewelry made?
I am lucky to be able to rely on a global network for my jewelry, from Mumbai to Paris. But being able to work with a Chicago-based workshop has been life changing. Several are made in Chicago. It enables me to have a hands-on approach working with the workshops. I can go down and check things. I’m very lucky that I found a very good family-run workshop here.
What are you working on now? What’s new at Almasika ?
I am working on a new collection, which will have sculptural shapes and curved lines to it. In terms of design and inspiration, the collection goes even deeper in my exploration of commonality across cultures. I am also excited to reintroduce the Berceau cuff bracelets that have been one of the trunk show bestsellers. And we now have it in different variations and these will be launched shortly.
What are your thoughts on the current push and support for Black jewelry designers?
I have been fortunate that a lot of writers and stylists had affinity with my designs from the very beginning. I met Marion Fasel, Jill Newman, Kate Matthams and several influential journalists in the early days of launching Almasika. But since then, the reality of an industry that lacks diversity has become more and more apparent. It’s certainly a positive thing that key decision makers like editors, stylists and buyers are now looking past the status quo and are becoming more curious about designers and styles that haven’t been in the spotlight. There are stories out there to be told that reflect other cultures and dynamics, and from the success of my recent trunk shows, I know that customers are becoming more thoughtful about who makes their pieces and what narratives and histories that jewelry holds.