Q&A With Catherine Sarr of Almasika Jewelry: Cowrie Shells, Contemporary Art, and Chicago

After recently being exposed to the quietly elegant work of Catherine Sarr, the Chicago-based designer behind Almasika, I wanted to know more.

Born in Paris to parents from Benin, West Africa, the origins of her brand’s name combine almasi the Swahili word for diamond, and sika, or gold, as its known in numerous West African languages.

Though Sarr was unfamiliar to me, she has drawn in a solid fan base of stylish, independent thinkers and celebrities such as Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, Alicia Keys, and Lizzo (see Time magazine’s 2019 Entertainer of the Year cover).

Her signature collection, Le Cauri Endiamanté, centered on the form and symbolism of the cowrie shell, debuted at famed Parisian boutique Colette in 2014.

Almasika cowrie diamond earrings
Le Cauri Endiamanté earrings with diamonds in 18k blackened gold, $8,800

The Berceau collection, launched in 2015, is named after the French word for cradle and is inspired by the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, a series of contiguous geographic trenches believed to be the cradle of humanity. Five years later, she has completed the collection with earrings, rings, necklaces, and variations of bangles.

Below, a recap of a recent conversation covering everything from her beloved cowrie shells to her favorite artists and motherhood.

JCK: You developed Le Cauri Endiamanté before talisman/good luck– charm jewelry took off as a huge trend. Does the cowrie shell offer any talismanic qualities—what does it symbolize?

Catherine Sarr: I used to wear a natural cowrie shell pendant when I was younger. They’ve always been part of my life and culture. Cowries have a long and storied history as symbols of prosperity, spirituality, and fertility, and have even been used as currency. What I love most about them is that they have deep significance in so many disparate cultures, from Africa to Brazil, Cuba to Louisiana.

Almasika cowrie ring
Le Cauri Endiamanté double ring with diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $3,300 
Almasika cowrie drop earrings
Le Cauri Endiamanté shoulder dusters with diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $12,550

Tell us about your jewelry background.

I spent my career in London, where I worked for various luxury brands promoting craftsmanship from around the world, including several years spent at the heart of the diamond and fine jewelry industry at DeBeers Group and Love Gold, the initiative from the World Gold Council. I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to the best craftsmanship, artisans, and workshops around the world. I am not a trained jeweler, though, so this has led to interesting production conversations where I strongly believed a shape or design could be done because I can visualize it. I still have tons of designs I haven’t been able to make (yet!).

Almasika Berceau ring
Berceau ring with diamonds in 18k yellow and white gold, $4,800 

You’re of West African heritage, were born in Paris, worked in London, and now live in Chicago. What aspects of the city inspire your work as a designer?

Chicago is very special! It is a city I fell in love with at first sight. First of all, the architecture: It’s the home of the Aqua and Vista towers designed by Jeanne Gang. Both explore waves and curves in a way that I find fascinating.

I also find Chicago’s vibrant art community and the unparalleled civic engagements very inspirational, and it has helped me to build a company as part of a community. I am grateful to be very involved in the art community where art is seen as a vector of social change. I could not have found a better home than Chicago.

Before the pandemic, were there places in Chicago you would routinely visit to get inspiration?

We are fortunate to live with a lot of art in the house. I have my creative studio at home, yet I like wandering around our artworks and rediscovering why I fell in love with certain pieces in the first place. Outside our home I like to go to the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I can see similar subjects or existential questions [explored] through sculpture, paintings, or photography.

Alamasika Berceau bracelet
Berceau open cuff with pavé diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $6,500
Almasika Berceau necklace
Berceau necklace with diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $1,800

What can you tell us about any new collections that are in development?

It will have sculptural shapes and curved lines to it. In terms of design and inspiration, the collection goes even deeper in my exploration of commonality across cultures.

You’re a mother of four! I think creative parents want to nurture creative thinking and an appreciation for the arts in their children. In your experience, what’s the best way to do this?

I like to take them to the museums and have arts-and-crafts parties where they are allowed to be messy and experiment with colors, textures, and shapes.

I understand that you are a collector—what artists, fashion designers, even fellow jewelry designers do you find yourself gravitating to at this precise moment?

I am always inspired by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He explores the power of light and the elements but also shapes and geometry. His ability to transcend cultures through his art is something I aspire to do with Almasika. In terms of jewelry, I have recently discovered Particulieres by Shelly Branch. I can get lost in her chic selection of vintage gold jewelry.


Top: “I am really taking this time to reflect and work on brand development,” says Catherine Sarr of Almasika. She is also in the process of creating a new collection. Stay tuned!


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Amy Elliott

JCK Contributing Editor

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