Brooklyn-based creative Sewit Sium launched her jewelry collection in 2015, but to call her just a jeweler doesn’t give the full story.
Sium creates handcrafted pieces that reference Black culture, each piece created as a modern heirloom, imbued with sentiment and story, her way to educate and pass on knowledge to her consumer.
“I knew that I loved the intersection of history, education, politics, fashion,” Sium, who identifies as both a designer and educator, explained. “Through symbols and motifs, there is so much that we actually can learn about ourselves.”
Sium’s collections use symbolic pendants, rings and bracelets made from 18-karat gold vermeil and silver, each of which she produces in her Brooklyn home, adding another layer of personal connection to what she puts into the world. She launched her namesake brand with a Black power fist pendant, an enduring symbol that in the wake of the racial unrest of 2020 continues to resonate with her customer.
“My pieces are historically referenced, but they’re definitely relevant today,” she said of her work. “They’re part of a living history.”
Education through a creative outlet runs deep for Sium (her father was a history teacher) and before launching her brand she taught fashion and activism at various New York City public schools, and incorporated jewelry as an educational tool. “When I was teaching I was trying to create the curriculum that I would have been engaged with when I was a student, to create a feeling of belonging,” she said.
Sium sees herself in her jewelry, too, explaining that she had a need to create pieces she couldn’t find at retail.
“I feel a strong urge to bring into the material world what I need for my life,” the designer, who is completely self-taught, said. “I think I make jewelry to liberate Black culture from [the] hands of colonialism, but also to connect origin story and its context, so we can feel what it is.”
Today the brand has grown to include a variety of collections: the Icon Collection pulls inspiration from the ancient African kingdoms of Kush, Kemet and Punt, incorporating scarabs and divine felines; the Freedom Collection was created in the spirit of truth, equality and justice, and includes images of historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. Sium says each amulet of the Freedom Collection is meant “to be worn daily as anchorage, supporting us as walking affirmations in continued pursuit of freedom.”
“We’re in a historical moment right now,” she said. “Often history is framed as something of a distant past in textbooks, but it’s organic and happening now.”
Marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest and growth of the racial justice movement, 2020 saw many brands helmed by Black creatives experience a spike in interest from retailers — Sium included — but she has been laser-focused on identifying the right partners for her brand.
“After hurricane Haiti, there were retailers giving all these artisans play and then they just pulled them after a while because it wasn’t trendy anymore,” she explained. “And I feel like that’s what they’re doing now with like Black Lives Matter.”
“Everyone’s grasping,” she added. “[Retailers] want newness and you’re always grabbing something new, it fuels cultural appropriation….It’s the type of retailer that has pieces that are like ‘tribal.’ You can’t just pull ideas like that, it’s not authentic; and it’s theft. If you are truly about Black lives, then support Black jewelers.”
So far, Sium has partnered with Moda Operandi to sell her creations. ”I feel like they’re trying to do something good,” she said, adding that her brand’s e-commerce is thriving, quadrupling sales last year. “I don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything” she quipped, adding that 2020 was both taxing and cathartic for her.
Pushing ahead, the designer and educator has joined the In the Blk collective and is creating a collection referencing her Tigrinya Eritrean (East African) ancestry, which she says “is taking me on an inward journey.”
“There’s so much chaos and pain out here, I feel the need to bring indigenous medicine into the world I want to be part of,” she said of her new collection’s symbolism. “That’s the world I want to live and thrive in. Confident I can do that with jewelry and writing, the main tools or weapons in my arsenal.”
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