Issue No. 24
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Sadé Clacken Joseph
While most women have jewelry boxes for their accessories, Lorraine Natasha West has an entire shrine to her collection of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Beaded necklaces are draped around a stone Buddha’s neck; Bakelite, metal, and wooden bangles are stacked precariously, one on top of the other; her leather and feather earrings sit next to a huge cloudy crystal. And each one has a story.
“This one over here with Africa on it is my mother’s...” West begins, lightly touching a wooden beaded necklace hanging from a wall with reverence.
Nestled along the vintage jewelry, and those snagged from her mom over the years, are West’s own pieces from her lines, Lorraine West Collection and Tasha West Jewelry. She’s made jewelry for more than a decade, first in the late ‘90s as a self-taught jewelry lover and Fashion Institute of Technology illustration student and later as an established designer.
Her pieces range from the elemental, geometric, and minimalist—thin-gauged metal cuffs shaped into zodiac signs—to the colorful and extravagant. It’s an aesthetic that has won her many fans, including musicians such as newest client, Ladybug Mecca, along with longtime supporters Common, Raphael Saadiq, Questlove, and Erykah Badu. (Those hammered gold feather cuffs Ms. Badu rocks in Janelle Monaé’s newest video “Q.U.E.E.N.”? All West.)
Another fan of her work is her 2-year-old son Solomon West Boyd, or Solly as he’s adorably referred to in the Bed-Stuy apartment she shares with her life partner, musician Solomon Boyd (who is also known by his stage name, Suede Jenkins). Racing around his mother’s legs, Solly wears a simple metal bracelet West made for him before he was born next to a black wristband on his tiny wrist.
“I don’t take it for granted,” West says, her voice—despite being a native New Yorker—carrying all the laid-back cool of a California surfer. “I don’t separate from a performer [or] a stay-at-home mom; they’re [of] the same importance [to me]. I want everybody to feel really special wearing their piece. You could choose anybody else, and you come to me? That’s an honor.”
West’s humble nature may be rooted in her steady rise to becoming a recognized name in the industry. Though she went to FIT for illustration, “something came over [her]” in her junior year in 1996 through 1997, she explains. “I had a love for jewelry [and I’d] just go to the store and get some pliers, wire, and some beads and just play around,” West says.
She made wire finger and dreadlock rings that she carried around in a velvet vintage box, “showing customers I thought had a funky style,” at the juice bar she worked at during college—she sold a piece to her first customer while on the job.
“Once somebody bought it, it was over,” West recalls. “I [thought], ‘I want to sell my work.’ It was so exciting to have interest.”
After graduation, West kept a steady stream of jobs while still working on her collections. She regularly attended a ‘90s poetry reading/music event called Sunday Tea Party in Brooklyn; it was there that she first met Boyd, her life partner, and later Erykah Badu in 1997. West gave Badu an ink drawing she had done of her and a connection was made.
“My first celebrity client, Andre 3000, commissioned a pair of thick black leather cuffs with white bone embedded down the middle,” West recalls. “Erykah saw the leather cuff, and she said, ‘I want a pair for myself.’ That’s how our creative relationship started in 1999. We’ve been working together ever since.”
West became a rising name in jewelry design, receiving her fair share of media attention all through celebrity word of mouth, she says. That same leather cuff that caught Erykah’s attention led to a line that debuted for Patricia Field N.Y.C., the famed costume designer’s boutique. During a two-year stint as a jewelry department manager at Anthropolgie, several of her pieces were picked up by the retailer for its high-end line from 2009 to 2010 (blink, and you would’ve missed them—they regularly sold out). She even returned to her first love, illustration, and worked with client Common on three children’s books for Scholastic and Atlas Books in the mid- to late 2000s.
But her life and career took an unexpected turn when she found out she was pregnant with Solly in 2010. (Though West and her partner had known each other for years, they had just been together for three months when they learned the news.)
“My life just changed in a drastic way in such a short amount of time. It accelerated—no one had time to even grasp it. [When] I got pregnant, I had to readjust my priorities” to meet the demands of being an artist and a mother, she explains.
“[Solly]’s only 2 years old [and] he’s in day care three days a week,” she says. “Those [are] three days of cramming to get the orders done, to experiment with new things, to keep the house in order... I want to do it all as well as I can. Sometimes, some things fall through the cracks, but I definitely feel more confident having a child than I ever did [before], which is amazing.”
It’s a confidence that West finds herself calling upon as she begins to expand her brand beyond custom jobs and celebrities. She’s on Instagram building a strong new fan base and sharing new designs for her fall collection, creating custom wedding bands for clients, and promoting her new spring/summer collection on Etsy.
“I know that I’m growing so much, and it’s such a great feeling,” West says with a huge smile. “I want to see myself be the ultimate success that I can be.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a mom?
Before I was pregnant, the thought of having a child was overwhelming. I would hang out with other friends [who] had children, whether they were married or single, [and] I never wanted to be in their shoes. I just felt like, “Man, that’s awesome if you choose that. I’m not ready for that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for that.”
I was just scared. Maybe I just didn’t feel confident in the unknown. [But] when [my life partner] Solomon and I got together, I felt confident. I just felt he was the one [to start a family with].
What’s the hardest thing about being a mom?
The hardest thing about being a mom, for me, has been to maintain my own identity and taking care of myself. I had a client [say], “Where’s Solomon?” Her daughter [told her] he was at his grandmother’s, and she said, “Aw, I wish you would have told me, I wouldn’t have even come!” (Laughs) I don’t take it personally—we're friends and joke around a lot—but [sometimes] people just see your child, they don’t see you. You have to make them see you by you seeing you.
I've put my family and business obligations first, but as of late I've been utilizing more time to fill up Lorraine’s cup. I went out the other night [and] I did my hair—I gave it super extra attention. Every person who knew me said “Oh my God, what did you do to your hair? It looks so amazing!”
Taking care of myself is working wonders on my drive and energy level.
What does Solly like to do for fun?
He’s so colorful—[he’s] the life of the party. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s so happy and energized. He’ll go into the living room to play with his toys. He loves to draw, paint, and write in his sketch book. He loves colors and shapes and numbers; his alphabet is one of his his favorite things to recite.
How do you balance doing your work and taking care of Solomon?
It’s all about time management. I know the days [when I think], “Oh, wow, I managed my time so well today,” and I know the days that I didn’t. It’s just creating a system for myself and committing to this time to this particular task for the business, [and] committing to this particular task that I have to take care of for Solomon and the family.
I have a partner and we live together in harmony, but we’re adults: We can take care of certain things on our own, or there are certain things we just naturally take care of for each other. But for a [child], it’s mandatory that we have to get him ready for the day. He has to eat breakfast and get bathed, he has to get his clothes on. Or if he’s not going to school, [I have to think about] what are the things we’re going to do with him to keep him stimulated? These are the things that take precedence. It’s a balancing act!
On the days that he’s with me, sometimes I may not get anything done during the day; I may have to burn the midnight oil and work at night or get up early in the morning before Solly wakes up [to get work done]. When his dad comes home, I’ll go sit at my table—it’s like an unspoken thing. Solomon will say, “Mommy, Mommy,” and Sol will say, “It’s daddy time, let’s go do our thing. Mommy’s working.” Dad will take over. Or if Dad wants to work on his craft after he comes home from work, there’s a rule that he can go and do his music.
I’m getting a little better with asking for help; sometimes he goes for an extra day of childcare so I can get more work done. But for the most part, he sees me work a lot.
I allow Solly to get involved when he shows an interest in me working on pieces. He likes to hammer, and sometimes I let him help me. He’s using his brain, he’s watching me build things, and fire things, and who knows what that is going to spark in him later?
[Sometimes] I can feel when maybe it’s not a good time to work, when Solly really needs my attention. It’s a lot of feeling, and just paying attention to his needs. Sometimes he comes and he’s just doing his thing; he starts drawing and I can work. Then we work together, which is really cool. He’s doing his thing, and then he comes over and wants to work with me, and I let him have his moment, and he goes back, and I may have to stop what I’m doing. It’s a lot of stop and go, but I just have to do it right now.
You are a completely self-taught jewelry designer. How did you teach yourself how to make jewelry?
I just did. Whatever I thought of, whatever I wanted to do, I would just go get the supplies to execute my ideas. I had a couple of books to reference, but for the most part, I [just] tried things. I need to try things out on my own to learn. I learn even by looking at great masters’ work, or classical jewelry. It’s a really interesting craft. I’ll have an idea, and think, “What are the basic fundamentals to make this happen? What can I do to make it work for the design I have in mind?”
West's anvil, which she and Solly use to hammer out metal bracelets and earrings.
What do you enjoy most about working with your celebrity clients?
It’s magic! Every few years Badu will place an order with a theme in mind for her tour performances, music videos or lifestyle. I’ve been really honored to be a part of that process, to be apart of the story the artist wants to tell to accompany their message in the music. She’s prolific, legendary, and for somebody to see that in me, that’s incredible.
What she and many other people have seen in me, I see in myself now. [Now] it doesn’t even matter what anybody else sees, I’m into what I’m doing to the point where I have unwavering confidence in my craft. I feel great about what I’m creating.
How has your design aesthetic changed now that you’re a mom?
I had a client [ask me], “Why don’t you do those crazy things you used to do?” I’ll still do those things, but I am becoming more streamlined, so my perspective of what I’m looking at is simplifying too.
As a designer, your designs speak of who you are—you can’t run from it. I am who I am, and my work is going to speak of where I’m at in my life.
Some of West's illustration work.
How has being a mother affected the way you manage your business?
As a mother, you have to patient when you have your own passion: You are working to raise a child and to cultivate [a] passion that’s only going to give back to your child. In the past, I was impatient. If I had moments of doubt or [felt] uninspired, I would allow that to take over, and I don’t anymore. I have to stay busy, so even if nobody’s calling, I have to keep creating, I have to keep coming up with things.
How do you intend to build your brand now that you’re a mom?
Well, to build my brand is to continue to build strong systems and to build on the success of my Etsy shop. I'm formulating new structures for how I deal with customer requests, orders, customer issues, billing, taxes, etcetera. [I need] to stay inspired and educate myself more on new techniques and new production processes.
What kind of man do you hope Solomon becomes?
I want him to be in love with who he is, be sure of himself, be open to hear what people have to say, but not let it sway him, negative or positive. To be able to take constructive criticism and learn from his mistakes, to observe himself in his relationships and whatever work he does. I want him to be an A student. (Laughs) I want him to be an artist and express himself through whatever medium he chooses.
I want him to have gratitude for all of his blessings, [to be able to] express his feelings, wants and needs clearly. I want him to contribute to the healing and betterment of humanity, [and] to inspire himself and inspire others to be great. He sure does inspire me!
Issue No. 24
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Focus is a trait both entrepreneurs and mothers need to have in spades. That’s something jewelry artist Lorraine West knows first hand; she’s bootstrapped her line of fine jewelry since 1999 and became a mother to a bright and equally artistic little man in 2010. West’s client list boasts some of the biggest names in music, but to hear her tell it, it was becoming a mother that has given her the confidence she needs to take her line to the next level.
West spoke with mater mea about how she’s determined to expand her two lines of jewelry, thanks to the birth of her 2-year-old son, Solomon.