I Design Jewelry for a Living—These Staples Will Never Go Out of Style

Intersections is a newly launched feature column that profiles creatives inside and outside the fashion industry. Each story is meant to illuminate how fashion, identity, art, and culture play a critical role in inspiring and informing the work and lives of some of the chicest people we know.

There's something magical about jewelry. In fact, I can, without a doubt, say that most people have that moment at some point or another. What exactly that is depends on the context (maybe you've sauntered into a jewelry store, laid eyes on a loved one, dug through an estate sale, or even scoured the runways), but what's clear is that the feeling is universal. Spotting the perfect piece of jewelry feels like a celestial experience. The world stops spinning, and you've become suspended in time, staring at something very sparkly. Maybe that's a bit dramatic, but the true jewelry fanatics know the feeling. And no other fine jewelry brand in my mind has been able to harness that magical moment quite like Mateo

Founded by New York–based jewelry designer Matthew Harris in 2009, this brand has become a household name in the industry. In part, it's due to the brand garnering fans like Rihanna early on. Still, upon further inspection, you can see that Harris's star power is as bright as the sun itself. His work has been a beacon of light, forging the path into the future of fine jewelry. Early on, this was evident in how he was able to modernize pearls by using otherworldly elements in his women's collections in 2015. This was long before the fashion set was clamoring to wear them, might I add. 

Harris isn't just a trailblazer in terms of setting future jewelry trends, though. He's a self-taught Black designer who has managed to sell his work to major retailers around the world and open his own brick-and-mortar store. He made history by securing the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and landing his work in major museums such as D.C.'s African American Museum of Art and Culture Museum. Mateo isn't just another jewelry brand; this brand feels as special as watching a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. So you can understand why I felt giddy at the possibility of interviewing him, and luckily for us, he obliged.

Ahead, you'll hear from Harris about everything from founding his fine jewelry brand to the jewelry staples he swears by to his recent collaboration with Macy's on a capsule collection. 

Matthew Harris of Mateo Jewelry

Photo:

Gregory Vaughan

For those who aren't familiar with your work, what do you do?

I am a fine jewelry and accessory designer. My work is inspired by the aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism, often inspired by modern art. My sole goal is just to make fabulous personal jewelry!  

I love that you're a self-taught designer—what drove your desire to learn about the jewelry industry?

It truly started with the selfish desire to make jewelry for myself. The goal was never to become a designer or have a brand. Back then, I wanted to make just great personal pieces for myself. I did not like what was on the market at the time—ugly, skull-adorned pieces and all-around terrible jewelry. So I went to the jewelry district in New York on 47th Street and tried to learn as much as I could.

Matthew Harris of Mateo Jewelry on founding his fine jewelry brand

Photo:

Courtesy of Mateo

How did you begin to forge a path for yourself in the industry?  

Everything happened randomly and organically, to be honest. A friend of mine saw a few pieces I made, and he was the manager of the store What Goes Around Comes around in SoHo. He suggested giving them a few pieces to sell. Mel Ottenberg pulled the pieces from the store, and the next thing, Rihanna was wearing my jewelry. That's how it all started. Retailers then started asking for a full collection, and that's how I broke into the industry. 

 You founded Mateo back in 2009—how has the business evolved over the years? 

The brand has changed so much. We started out as a men's jewelry brand, and now, we are mostly known for our women's jewelry. We launched our first women's collection in 2015, and the brand has taken off since then. [It's] mainly because we just make great personal fine jewelry that today's modern woman can wear daily, and the price points are very approachable, which is important.

You're originally from Montego Bay, Jamaica. How do you feel your identity has informed every aspect of your life, from what you choose to create to what jewelry you choose to wear?

I am an island boy at heart. My work is very much inspired by my home country. Not in an obvious way (one would expect me to be making shell jewelry), but it is represented in a very elevated and subtle way. The Jamaican flag colors are gold, green, and black. The gold represents the beautiful sunshine, the green the lush vegetation, and the black represents the strength of the country and the people. You can see these colors throughout all my work. I mainly use yellow gold, lots of black onyx, and vivid green malachite. So Jamaica plays a very important role in my work. We are also very easygoing people, so there is a sense of simplicity and ease in the pieces I make. My customer should be able to wear my jewelry with such ease.

What's so wonderful about you (besides being a trailblazer) is that you have impeccable style. What role has fashion played in your life?

I like to dream. Fashion allows me to do just that and also to escape.  

What does your daily work wardrobe look like? Are there any ride-or-die pieces that you swear by? 

I like to think I am a simple guy, so my closet is filled with somewhat of a uniform. I wear primarily all-black clothes, a few staple white T-shirts, and a pinch of color. And of course, I have a few fine jewelry pieces I can't live without.  

Are there any jewelry staples you wear daily? If so, what? 

I am obsessed with my Secret Initial collection, as it's truly personal and almost a modern-day heirloom, so I always have on the ring and the bracelet. I love a good tennis bracelet, and my arms are stacked with versions in diamonds and rainbow sapphires. I'm a fan of jewelry that I never have to take off. 

You design men's and women's jewelry, but recently, you just partnered with Macy's to create a capsule collection. Can you tell me how that came about? Where did you draw inspiration from? 

It has always been a dream of mine to design shoes inspired by fine jewelry. I honestly just love accessories, as I feel like it's the icing on the cake. I was walking in SoHo last summer and ran into the vice president of Macy's. We have not seen each other in years. He said, "You have been on my mind, and I would love for us to collaborate." The rest was history.

Being that you design for a living, how do you decide to invest in a specific piece of clothing or jewelry? What makes something worth buying in your eyes? 

Well first, I must genuinely love the piece. Secondly, I think about how often I can wear this piece. Am I going to hate it after a month? This is usually my next question to myself. That's how I make decisions about investing in clothing or jewelry. I want to love and enjoy anything I purchase. Sure, we think about the quality, "Does it match my style?" etc. But I just want to know that I will truly enjoy this piece for a very long time [and] possibly pass it on to my kids in the future.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to buy jewelry? 

I don't believe in trend shopping and recommend you avoid it when it comes to buying jewelry. These said trends often die out, and then you are left with something you possibly don't like after that trend moment. I believe people should invest in great personal jewelry. 

Are there any jewelry staples you believe are worth investing in? 

Yes, there are a few pieces I recommend investing in…

1. A Monogram Piece

A monogram piece is a great investment. It never goes out of a style and has personal ties to the person wearing it.

2. Diamond Tennis Necklace and Bracelet

I also love a good diamond tennis necklace and bracelet. Again, it's timeless and looks great with everything!

3. Everyday Earrings

And finally, I love a great hoop or the perfect everyday studs. These pieces are worth investing in, and you'll never regret buying them.

What do you hope people take away from your work? What do you want the legacy of Mateo jewelry to be? 

I would like people to fall in love with the simplicity, wearability, and artistry of my work. I believe I am making jewelry for today's generation—not to exclude anyone, but for everyone to have a great piece of fine jewelry, a piece that they can wear for a long time and even pass on. I would like the legacy of Mateo to be the first Black heritage fine jewelry house. That is my dream.

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