If you are wearing a piece of jewelry right now, a ring, a bracelet, what do you know about the story behind it? Is there a story behind it? Maybe it belonged to your mother, maybe even your grandmother. Maybe it’s a wedding ring that highlights one of the most significant connections you’ve made in your life. Maybe you found it on your international travels. I have a ring that my Grandma gave me, it belonged to my Aunt when she was young and who I never got the chance to meet. It is a mood ring, tarnished brass and dented, but when I was seven I thought it was beautiful and worth diamonds & opals combined. I still have it. It’s probably worth $1 in commercial currency, but worth so much more in its story and sentiment to me.
When I found out about Makua, jewelry that's handmade in villages from Colombia, I was reminded of how the story of how our ‘things’ get made, or how they come to us, can be so powerful. Even something small has the power to be so significant. Like empowering women in developing communities. It felt like it would be impossible, as a woman in a completely different part of the world, not to feel a direct and unifying connection between the stories of the women who make the piece that you end up wearing.
The women who make the Makua pieces live in remote communities in Colombia. Founder and Creative Director, Maria Paulina wanted to establish a way that the artisan skills of these women could live on in a way that would also help these women support themselves financially. So she created Makua to bring the ancestral art of Colombia to a wider audience.
I chatted to Maria to find out more about their story…
Tell us about your trip to Colombia and meeting the indigenous community for the first time and what it was that made you want to start Makua?
In 2012 I had just arrived from Argentina after living there for about a year and a half. I had been designing jewelry for some time now and I arrived from that trip with the desire to do something with more local identity, with more Colombian identity. I wanted to design a product that really excited me and with which I felt that I could evolve as a creator.
It was somewhat by chance that one day I visited a small town 3 hours from Medellin, where I currently live, and close to this town there is a local indigenous community. I already had seen their handcrafts (crystal beads embroidery made by the Embera Chami women), but that day I had a sort of revelation and saw them with different eyes. I thought it was something really valuable and that it should form part of a jewelry piece. I thought that by combining them with semiprecious metals I could get the sort of result that I was imagining.
I feel like this jewelry is more than just an accessory, it is a connection between the women in these communities who handcraft the pieces and the women who end up wearing them. This feels like a beautiful unity and sisterhood. How important is it that we magnify these connections between communities and especially for these women?
That is true. A woman who buys a piece from Makua feels a connection with the process, with what is behind each piece, not only with the final result. The woman who wears Makua loves to know about different cultures and to imagine different worlds which, in this case are the indigenous peoples from Colombia, and that is how they feel engaged with the story and fall in love with the pieces that they purchase. At the same time indigenous women are very open and happy to evolve their techniques towards different forms and more commercially successful results (that is my job as a designer), and they really want to sell their handcrafts, not only for the income they receive, but also because they feel proud to see a contemporary woman or someone that does not belong to their community falling in love with their work. This is where this connection and intangible synergy that you are talking about happens, and here is where the magic lies.
What inspires your designs?
The thing that most inspires my work is traveling to the indigenous communities. That is where everything happens, where I understand the magic of the creations that indigenous women make. Seeing how they live, the nature that surrounds them, and obviously their handicrafts.
This is the starting point to my design process. Then comes the application of all of this to a piece that is commercially viable, which women out there want to buy. Obviously things in my daily life also inspire me: imagery, female beauty, other design pieces, architecture… I am caught between these two worlds.
Can you tell us a bit about the process – from coming up with the initial concept design, then creating the pieces and engaging with these communities to manufacture the pieces?
I travel to the communities with a pre-established idea. I take my drawings with me and I invest a lot of time in these because they are very important in my creative process. Then comes the interaction with the artisans where I explain what I want and I adapt my design to what can really be done in practice. After this process I obtain the artisanal piece. Then I do the same with our jeweler, I show him the piece I need to have done in metal and then combine both. We then assemble both pieces (handcraft and metalwork) to get the final piece.
How do you source the materials you use in your collections?
The materials which we use for the indigenous pieces need to be sourced in the city. Most of these raw materials are imported. Almost always I personally deliver the materials, which in the case of the two collections we have launched are the glass beads for the embroideries (Embera Chami community) and cloth for the molas (Kuna Tule community). The women artisans almost always live in places which are far away from cities, and have to travel far to source these materials. We help in part to bridge this gap.
How would you describe the Makua brand in 5 words?
At the vanguard