Our last post of the year takes us to The Souk in Karen, Nairobi. We walk past the art gallery, through a Wabi-Sabi café filled with books, to find an orange room filled with jewelleries rich in symbolism of different shapes and sizes. Joan, the sales assistant, walks over to offer a tour. No, not just to help with the prices and to work the cabinets free. But to share each piece’s story. As diverse and varied as the pieces may seem, they share the common factor of meaning. Some even have a history or preserved essence to share with anyone who dare listens.
We start with a case showcasing jewellery inspired by old Egyptian pharaohnic jewellery. But soon we’re on to jewellery made with Iranian crystal prayer beads followed by some pieces fashioned from Kenyan terminated crystals. The hand of Fatima, the protective hand used in Islamic and Jewish religions, pops up in many of the display cases. So does the protective eye (which is considered good luck), as well as, fertility beads from several cultures. There are two displays adjacent to each other that bring two of Kenya’s attractions close together. The one to the left takes you to the coast with sand-and-surf inspired pieces while the one to the right hosts the safari collection. Sally Dudmesh joins us just as we’re being introduced to a beaded cascading necklace fashioned in a more Victorian style.
There are so many bold and eclectic pieces here. Where does your inspiration come from?
My passion for jewellery started when I was about 13, if not probably before that. I was brought up in India and Pakistan, where the women are very decorative. They’d wear a lot of saris and bangles. I believe that my earliest memory of loving jewellery, silk and saris was specially inspired by my aya, who was always bejewelled.
My parents lived in West Africa at the time and there were these big bead markets. I would save up my pocket money in hand so that I could make necklaces and bracelet. This is probably the point in my life where I really began collecting jewellery.
From there, my parents lived in Yemen and Egypt. The Bedouin and the tribal people in Yemen were very decorative, and you’ll see a lot of old tribal Arab silver influences in some of my pieces. Jewellery has been something I’ve been doing all my life and probably will do all my life. It’s a complete passion for me and I always say that the luckiest thing in my life is being given something that I love at a very young age.
But then you went to study anthropology?
I was already reading and studying jewellery from all over the world. So, when I went to university, I decided to train as a social anthropologist. In particular, I specialised in the symbolism of jewellery and how jewellery was used in the rights of passage with different tribes. In fact, I did my dissertation on was the Maasai community. Consequently, I was learning things like what the colours meant and how it was used in marriage. How you could tell different age sets through the jewellery that they were wearing.
How has your experience working as an anthropologist, and having travelled far and wide, impacted your brand?
It’s what has shaped my brand. I get a lot of inspiration from symbolism jewellery and how it’s used in different rites of passage, such as marriage, fertility, and birth. I’d like to think that there’s a story behind each piece, so I try to share the story with my clients. I try to push that through my team. Every time I bring in a piece, I talk to Joan about it, I give her books to read so she can be enthusiastic about its story and share it with the customer.
Which countries or cultures in a-particular have had a strong influence?
India is amazing for jewellery as they wear a lot of it. Not to mention, Jaipur is the centre for stone cutting in the world. My bead work is inspired by African jewellery while the Brass work is inspired by African communities such as by the Tuareg in Mali and the Berber in Morocco. The nomadic tribes are incredible in adorning themselves, as they would carry their wealth around their necks in form of jewellery. They’re the ones that excite me the most.
So when did you officially start your eponymous line?
My company is actually called The Silk Road. It’s named after the very famous trading route that came all the way from China to Europe. It traded everything from coffee to gems to silk. I ended up using my name in the branding because, at the end of the day, people would ask who was behind The Silk Road. Whilst the Jewellery brand is The Silk Road: Sally Dudmesh, using my name makes it’s easier for people to get to know me.
How would you describe your style to someone just discovering you for the first time?
Since I started out, my jewellery has evolved in many ways. There are a lot of one off pieces, but I’m not really dealing in antiques now. In order to actually be commercial, I’ve realised that I have to do repeats pieces such as a lot of the earrings. One reason being, it became very difficult to find old tribal jewellery. I source the ancient pieces on my travels but people just aren’t making those kind of amazing ancient pieces anymore.
So then I started making bespoke and commercial lines; which introduced me to new materials such as the gemstones. The latest jewellery I’ve been working on are these delicate pieces that are finer and more feminine. Then there are the lines I make with lodges in mind. For example, if I’m stocking at Peponi Hotel I’m thinking of a lot of blues, as well as, fish and shells. The Mara based lodges will get pieces with beadwork, wildlife and rustic colours.
I source the ancient pieces on my travels but people just aren’t making those kind of amazing ancient pieces anymore.
Do you make all these pieces by yourself?
I work with a team. I had the opportunity to learn silversmithing in a souk when my parents were based in Egypt. So, I make the original pieces and then I try and outsource to as many artisans in Kenya as much as I can. Because my work is so varied, it would be too overwhelming to do all the work by myself.
How long does it take to design a piece? And which material do you enjoy working with the most?
It’s a very organic process. Often, I’ll get something that’s interesting, say a bird pendant, and keep it in my stash for years before I use it. One day I’ll spot it and something comes to mind. As for materials, I love using fossils if I can get a hold of them! Such as Fossilized trilobite (extinct marine arachnomorph arthropods) and ammonites (extinct group of marine mollusc animals) – which are ancient insects/bugs that are about four million years old.
Who do you have in mind when you’re designing your jewellery?
I am designing for someone who has an eclectic taste and who appreciates quality. I think jewellery has changed a lot and people aren’t as bold as they used to be. You’ll often find the decorative element being favoured over the quality aspect; which makes me feel very sad. What I’m trying to achieve is a product that people want to buy so that they can hand down to their children. Something that has a story.
There are a few new designs that are inspired by old, ancient designs; such as the miniature versions of the Fulani earrings. Why is that?
I have sold so many beautiful pieces that no one will ever see again. The culture that used make them aren’t doing it anymore. For example, when I started making jewellery in Egypt, I used to get a lot of the pieces out of melting pots that they were using to melt down jewellery for the silver. In Ethiopia, you can’t find decent Ethiopian crosses anymore. Now, when I find a lovely old piece, I will try to preserve it. I try to keep one of the originals and sell the replicas because I don’t want these beautiful works to disappear from the world forever. And I am always honest about what is old and what is reproduced in my store.
I don’t want these beautiful works to disappear from the world forever.
If each piece has a story, which one is the most memorable?
I can’t stay that I have a favourite piece because I love them all. They’re like my little children. I do, however, have a signature piece that defines who I am. It’s a piece I’ve done in different shapes and forms and it’s inspired by the Berber in Morocco who wear big amulet necklaces full of symbolism. Some of the different symbols in my signature piece include:
- Ganesh – The elephant-headed god in Hinduism, remover of bad obstacles.
- Mango – symbol of abundance and fruitfulness.
- Ethiopian cross – the intertwined lattice represents everlasting life.
- Ethiopian lion – symbol of power.
- The Buddhist eternal knot – one of the 8 auspicious Buddhist symbols.
- The Swahili star and moon – used at the helm of a dhow as a guiding light.
- A fish – symbol of fertility and reproduction.
- Crescent – new beginnings.
- Surya – The Hindu sun god which is considered the creator of the universe and the source of all life.
- Turtle – symbol of long life.
- The Egyptian ankh – which is the key of life.
- Shell – Symbol for prosperity.
What has to be the biggest highlight and challenge of your career so far?
Highlight: When people admire and appreciate your things and the work you’ve done. I also like that my work appeals to all age groups; young and old alike.
Challenge: It would be creating a tighter collection. I’ve worked with such a range od materials and themes that if you’re new to the store, you won’t know how to define me. I think I may be a bit too varied and that can confuse some people. I’d like to create more cohesive collections.
What’s in store for 2018?
I’m going to invests more time in branding my work. There are so many new ways of working now, which I wa really want to start utilising more. I may even launch online store, with a collection created specifically for that platform.
We continue with the tour, as we learn about each piece by name and by their story. From the gem stones, who have individual meanings and are believed to have healing properties, to little bracelets from Burma that are meant to protect you from witches. A blast from the past sits on top of the counters; Sally has recently started making the traditional elephant bracelets and interestingly has orders for it in different metals. The Silk Road is a sensory treat for the eyes, with a new piece to take in at every turn. There’s certainly something to match every personality and gender that walks through their doors. The only way to truly get to know this brand is to go and meet the pieces for yourself. Learn the stories that give these pieces heart. And perhaps find a piece that you could one day pass on to the next generation; so that they will know the stories and share them as well.