Telling untold stories through jewellery pieces

Sunday October 6 2019



Jacqueline Massawe. PHOTO| courtesy.

Jacqueline Massawe. PHOTO| courtesy. 

By Elizabeth Tungaraza @Liztungaraza1

Jacqueline Massawe is a jewellery designer, an artist and a poet. She is passionate about the creative arts and creative business. In particular she is excited about creative design products that are ‘made in Tanzania’. Life&Style Mgazine interviewed her about her designs. The excerpts.

Tell us about yourself and what influenced you to become a jewellery designer?

Throughout school my strengths and interests have been in Literature and the Arts. We moved around a lot growing up as my father was training to be a Radiologist. In terms of schooling, the system of education changed several times for me, from the Middle East, to Europe to the UK. I eventually sat my GCSEs and A Levels in England. I gained confidence in the Arts because I had inspirational teachers, who interested me and understood my strengths and pushed me, specifically in Literature and Art. My teachers were passionate about their subject areas, and took us on Art trips to London and Paris. Recreational time well spent for me, is when I can visit museums or galleries and understand the journey of a culture or artist, I cultivated this from my time at school, my teachers were a great influence. At school I learnt that the Arts were a noble and beautiful and exciting path to take although not without its challenges. My teachers also stretched me and taught me how to stretch myself creatively.

The summer before I went to university, I came to visit Tanzania. An uncle of mine asked me, why are you going to university to study the Arts, don’t you ever wish to return and work in Tanzania? The Arts do not exist here as an industry he said. You will not find work and be successful. After that summer I started at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I read Architecture for a foundation year, followed by a degree in Fine Art. Fine Art included, the theory and history of Art, in addition to Sculpture and Painting as practical disciplines. We were also taught curation, how to set up an exhibition and how to critically analyse and present our work.

What led you in the direction of making jewellery?

Still enthused by Literature and the Arts, I worked with several producers experimenting with poetry I was writing and combining it with music. Together with a French producer, Dominique Lepine, I wrote a poetry album titled Walk It Out, under the pen name Pretty Poet. At this point I was a mother of one, expecting my second child. I had performed locally (in London) and had been selected to perform at Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar. The challenges of being a mother and wife at this point in my creative journey created for me a glass ceiling that I did not feel ready to try and break. To perform I needed to physically be in different places. Living in the UK, having a house help was indeed a luxury. I couldn’t put a cap on my creativity and so I turned to my other passion, fashion and jewellery. I felt that I could still tell stories that I told through my poetry, using the medium of jewellery and adornment. I created my first collection which I entitled Uhuru Wings, Freedom to Fly and I presented the collection at London Fashion Week in an off-schedule show. That show will always be memorable for me, not only because it was my first, but also because my second born son was 6 weeks old and the only way I could do the show was if I did it with him. He came back stage, strapped in a carrier and I dressed and directed my models and presented my first collection. I left him backstage with the models only when I went out front to take my bow.

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I later exhibited at other shows and went on to represent Tanzania at a London Fashion Week showcase organised by the British Council and the British Fashion Council called the International Fashion Showcase. I think it’s important to point out that yes, had I been able to make more personal appearances and travel further afield to shows, it would have impacted my career in design to a greater extent. However I managed to launch a collection, register a business and sell jewellery largely through online channels, got good press and made a profit without making too many personal appearances. That’s what I wanted when I shifted from Poet to Designer. That’s what worked for me and allowed me to also have a family with young children. There is always something you can do to progress your vision. We make choices based on our value system. I have always valued having a family and raising my children and so many of my life choices accommodate that.

What is your brand name?

Although I have been designing jewellery under different names over the past seven years, I made the decision to launch my eponymous jewellery label, Jacqueline Massawe this year, 2019. I put my name on it because I take it personally. I am taking the treasure hunting journey personally. I’m using this journey to get to learn about Tanzania in a way I’ve never known it in the past. I put my name on my jewellery label as a commitment to excellence and care and quality.

What is the concept behind your designs?

The concept behind anything creative that I produce has always been - to free the stories hidden or trapped inside and also the desire to connect with home. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou says “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

My first collection expressed this quite literally through a Maasai inspired neckpiece with feathers, which I called Uhuru Wings. My second collection in pearls, silver and gold I named after my late grandmother Carolinah Kweka. When she was still alive my grandmother empowered me through her stories. I used the symbolism in pearls to articulate my greatest inheritance and treasure from her, the wisdom she passed on to me through her stories.

Since relaunching the jewellery business in Tanzania, I have yet to produce my first new collection. I have been working with selected clients on their personal jewellery pieces. Storytelling is important to me and this is a way that I can help people tell their stories or mark their special moments through jewellery. I select few clients because I like to do things properly. The process I go through to arrive at a completed piece of jewellery involves, conversation and getting to know my client. Sourcing the right materials for them requires that I know what materials will tell their stories well. Managing that process to arrive at a high quality, unique, made in Tanzania piece of fine jewellery takes energy and more of my personal input that you would imagine. Remember my last experience at this type of business was in the UK with different laws, different standards, different tastes, different stories, what I’m doing now is all new. With each piece of jewellery I find myself on a treasure hunt to make sure we find the right stone, at the right price, cut well and designed in a way that it captures meaning, but is also wearable and timeless.

When I finally do get to create my first Tanzanian collection it is important to me that I have something that can be marketed internationally. We are blessed with so much here in Tanzanian in terms of resources. There are people who are skilled in doing the work. Our creative industries just need a few more annoying perfectionists to get the most out of the abundance that we already have.

Who are your customers, how would you describe them? My customers are women and men who desire well made, considered fine jewellery. They like understated luxury and appreciate attention to detail. They are excited by the story and adventure in each and every gemstones. Because they are so busy with other aspects of life, they also appreciate good customer service. It is important for them to be able to trust their personal jeweller to treasure hunt on their behalf and design and produce something that tells their story well.

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