The first thing of note when entering Akaila Johnson’s workspace is a custom-built bubblegum pink safe.
“When they delivered it, they said it was the only pink safe they had ever made” she said. “If I have to have a safe, it might as well look good.”
The safe is a sneak peek into the fine jewelry designer’s aesthetic and vibrancy. She describes her creations as “colorful, whimsical, feminine but not too stodgy.”
Johnson, who launched her jewelry brand Akaila Reid — her paternal grandmother’s last name was Reid — in the middle of the pandemic, is used to following her gut and not listening to the doubters.
“It was crazy and not necessarily the best time to start a business, but I had private clients who kept me busy,” she said of navigating a launch in the middle of COVID-19.
A female designer in a market dominated by European luxury house and designers with deep industry relationships or family legacies in fine jewelry, Johnson is determined to forge her own path.
“It’s not even being just a mixed race woman, but being a woman in general in this industry is not the easiest. It’s mostly older men who look at you with ‘little girl, that’s funny’ energy,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of ‘good luck with that.’”
To that she says: “Watch me do it.”
Johnson grew up in California, “in a very conservative, red-leaning district,“ she explained. “I’ve always been the odd man out. Now it’s almost at asset in a way, it helps me stand out.”
Akaila Reid jewelry falls in line with a modern customer who wants to wear pieces in an everyday manor. It’s “not too serious,” Johnson said. “They can be worn with a ballgown or jeans and a T-shirt. I just want to make fun jewelry, pieces that people can wear and pass down for generations.…Worn, lived in and loved.”
“If this isn’t covered in rhinestones, I didn’t want it,” she joked about her obsession with all things sparkly as kid. It was a family friend, an alumni of the Gemological Institute of America, who smartly suggested Johnson also attend GIA. After graduating in 2019, she decided to go it alone and develop her own pieces.
Akaila Reid debuted with a mix of large opal pieces — a rare and popular stone not often seen in larger sizes. Her opal designs were hatched during her days at GIA, but she was told by faculty that she’d never be able to create it.
“That year I go to the Tuscan Gem Show and I find the guy who cuts opals that large, and I was, like, ‘What now?’“ she said.
Johnson’s studio, in the center of New York’s Diamond District, underscores the “playful with a heart” sensibility she brings to her fine jewelry creations, with mix of family photos (including her dog Ruby), a large assortment of color-coded pens, paint brushes and loose stones on her desk, all meant to inspire her creative flow. “It’s important to have family and friends nearby” she explained of her set up. The designer also has painted images from her school days, including those opal pieces she was told would never work.
All Akaila Reid production and manufacturing is done within a few blocks’ radius of her office.
“I’m lucky to have a great team,“ Johnson said, noting they have “helped open doors and gone to bat for her.”
Her team takes her sketches, renders them with CAD software and then — once approved by Johnson — prints them on a 3D printer, takes them to the caster and, finally, a jeweler polishes and sets her stones. For a single piece, the turnaround is three to four weeks, and two to three months for a full collection.
Akaila Reid’s newest collection, Wavy Baby, is inspired by the cadence of a heart monitor.
”It’s a symbol of life,” she said of the collection of gold pieces — a standout necklace, cuffs with diamonds and sparkly stackable rings, each special “life affirming” pieces.
Not even a year in, the brand has been picked up by two well-known regional jewelry retailers: Metalmark and Tayloe Piggott Gallery.
“Someone believes in me and wants to carry my jewelry?” Johnson said excitedly. “What an amazing moment. They are taking a risk on me, and that is exciting.”