Njee Muturi is no ordinary Kenyan jewelry designer. He takes his designs and transforms each piece of jewelry into wearable art that is evidently well thought out and aesthetically beautiful. Each piece is unique, masterfully crafted and personally signed by him (as pictured below). Njee Muturi is an artist through and through.
Meeting him was an immense pleasure and surprise namely because of the extent to which he applies himself to his work and the philosophies he lives by to create his jewelry. Looking through the rings (pictured below), he will instruct you which finger to place it on to create the greatest impact just as he designed it. Nothing is random with him. One cannot help but be enamored by his artistic unique genius and quirks.
“I am into art. An art is so difficult. You will have to sacrifice everything. Its not about fame.”
Having done this for over 20 years, he understands what being an artist and a jeweler means. “To be an artist is to design”, he says. Njee explains that to be an artist, one needs to invest and be adventurous in ones work. Playing it safe is definitely not what he is about. “Your attitude is research. I can get people mad, that’s all right. I can get people happy, that’s good. You try all these things before fame and money.” Njee further tells us that one of the things he has learned is the need to continuously study, to practice, to evoke an emotion from your work and to break the rules.
“My name is Muturi, I make. My name means to make/create. My grandfather used to do it so I have been doing this every since I was in primary school.” He describes his jewelry as organic and African. His work is made to reflect the 13th century-14th century Africa. “It is so old and built to have an effect.” Zanji Art which means Black Art in Arabic and that is what he strives to represent which each and every piece. When he sells to someone, he strives to make pieces that people will buy not because of friendship but because people are starting to see the value in it. “You have to see the value in your purchase and create that value in your work.”
Sue Muraya was the best person in fashion when he was coming up as a jewelry designer, he says. “She was very tough with the kids, even with me” he recounts. In 2003, Sue Muraya had pioneered Kenya Fashion Week, which he participated in. Prior to the show, he went to her personally to ask her about his work and to receive some advice and feedback. That is how he improved as a jewelry designer. At the time, there were only two men in the show, he remembers. “Fashion Week was a great experience. Once Sue Muraya stopped doing it, I stopped.” It took place in Sarit Centre with over 30 designers who each had a space for one week. Young designers were able to have their own stall and explain their work more intimately together with models showcasing their products. “People felt so strong together and united but we don’t have that anymore.”
One of his necklaces can cost up to 30,000 Kenya Shillings. “People will be shocked but they don’t know that it can actually cost that much to make it. You should know what you are wearing.” He uses sterling silver, gold and silverware (forks, knives, spoons…) or anything else he can use in combination.
“People do not know about beading and jewelry making because they don’t invest in that knowledge. You should always have magazines, books, specialized books and ask questions.”
In his view, Maasai Market has a lot of jewelry designers. “What I know about the jewelry I see in fashion are all from Maasai Market in one way or another, copied from them.” Maasai Market is where trends are made, referring to the Kenya branded bracelet worn by our President Uhuru Kenyatta. The unfortunate thing, he explains, is that the person selling the jewelry in Maasai market doesn’t know what you, the client, is going to do with that jewelry. Some create the same jewelry and fail to give due credit to the Maasai market seller who created that piece.
Njee Muturi’s greatest concern regarding young designers is the lack of knowledge and forums where they can talk about what materials to use in order to meet the market. “Some of these young designers call themselves that because they sell to their friends but they do not even know the type of beads they are using and the chemistry behind constructing a necklace.” He states that for one to make nice jewelry, they need to be taught about beads and do their research. “You have to know. The problem with doing art, people think you just wing it, put things together at random. A lot of kids can do it and there is a huge market. Look at blankets and wine, they are so hungry for it until they get into drinking.”
There is no reason for the youth to struggle when they can ask questions, he says. Without asking questions, they will never learn. Sometimes what the young people do, he says, is that they show you a necklace and you give them your feedback. “Once you tell them to improve on something to make it better, they get upset. They have eyes but they do not see.”
Njee recounts meeting an artist who came to him stating what he wanted to get into without knowing the cost implications and having looked for the material. He describes telling him the location and the cost, with the young artist looking aghast. It is clear that in any form of artistic expression, be it art or fashion designing, there are sacrifices to be made. “You do your research first. You don’t buy clothes, you don’t buy nice shoes, you don’t have curtains but you have nice paint.”
“I see the youth struggling but they don’t ask questions.”
Some people like to say, I just came from abroad and it was very successful. “How? I want to see this thing that was very successful, bring it home.” What people do not realize is that going to sell your products “out there” (the West), is a lot of work, he exclaims. New York is not as easy as it looks and he knows this personally from experience because he has lived and worked in the United States from an early age. There are stricter rules, regulations and standards, he explains, of which not many designers here can match up to. He further stated that it is time for those in the industry to take things very seriously and work together.
“We can get to the same level as New York but we need to take things more seriously. We should produce more and go crazy with it.” The problem is that we are so paranoid of one another and we don’t ask questions. He further adds that he has seen that in fashion industry there is a lot of backstabbing, territorialism and individualism. He explains that when he looks through newspapers with fashion articles, he sees the same thing. “You find a lot of designers who have the same shoe and the same jacket.”
“This business of fashion is like a 200 meter race, you just keep your good time. It is not about winning. We are not beating down the new designers; we just want them to be better than good. They need to ask questions and learn. They have to know the materials they are using.” Njee Muturi further advised that as a designer/ artist “you are coming from self alone, you find opportunities and you invest, keeping your eye on the ball regardless of what other people will tell you.” There are so many ways of finding a solution to making it, its tough but there is a way.
Zanji Art store is located in Muthaiga Mini Market where you will also get to meet Njee Muturi. Take a look at some of his pieces below.