The Jewelry District, Episode 103: Guest Lorraine West


JCK editor-in-chief Victoria Gomelsky and news director Rob Bates interview acclaimed New York designer Lorraine West, whose handcrafted contemporary fine jewelry has earned the admiration of Hollywood A-listers and Grammy winners—not to mention Sotheby’s and De Beers. Lorraine recounts the early days of selling her designs on the street in SoHo and the bold moves that helped her career take off and persuaded a music icon to become an early supporter, and she talks about the unexpected gift she still treasures and the art of giving back.

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Sponsored by De Beers: institute.debeers.com

Show Notes
03:45 An iconic designer
9:28 A gift that keeps giving
12:12 The mettle of metals
13:33 From street sales to celebrity collaborations
19:35 A foray into fine jewelry
22:33 Manifesting a bright future
25:24 Giving back
26:55 Words of wisdom

Episode Credits
Hosts: Rob Bates and Victoria Gomelsky
Producer and engineer: Natalie Chomet
Plugs: @jckmagazine; institute.debeers.com

Show Recap

An iconic designer
Victoria and Rob welcome Brooklyn-based designer Lorraine West of Lorraine West Jewelry. Lorraine is renowned for her bold handmade designs using precious metals and gemstones—looks that have earned her such famous fans as Beyoncé, who wore her Abstract Palette earrings in the 2020 film Black Is King.

Lorraine grew up on Long Island, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants. “Both my parents were very creative, but they also loved midcentury design,” she says, noting that the style’s bold pops of color juxtaposed with minimalism inform her work even now.

“I won my first art contest in second grade and knew that I was going to be a professional artist,” says Lorraine, who earned a degree in fine art with a focus on illustration from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1998. It was as a student that she first experimented with jewelry design. “I was always wandering the city,” she recalls. “During my junior year, I went into a store called Toho Shoji. It had a beautiful array of beads and materials.” Captivated by the colors, she spent her last $23 on jewelry supplies, started designing, and “I haven’t looked back since,” she says.

A gift that keeps giving
A few years later, Lorraine was living in Brooklyn, honing her jewelry design skills by making leather cuffs. She was hammering the snaps closed in front of her building when the landlord caught sight of her. That will ruin the concrete, he warned. You need a new approach.

To her surprise, “a week later he brought me a custom-made anvil,” she says. She still uses it “for many, many designs that only I create because they’re so special. It’s a very magical tool in my studio.”

The mettle of metals
Now renowned for her metalwork, Lorraine has developed an intriguing theory: Working with metals is a lot like working with people. “Metals have different tempers,” she explains. “Some can take more heat than others. Some become more malleable” when they’re heated. “Those are the personality traits people have too. Who’s easy to work with? Who’s more challenging? You have to know who’s going to take more work.”

From street sales to celebrity collaborations
Rob asks if being self-taught presented challenges for Lorraine during her early years. “Jewelry is engineering. It’s art, science, and math,” she says. But outsiders sometimes dismissed it as a craft. Often people “don’t really understand or respect what we do. That was a challenge for me because I always took it very seriously.”

In her salad days, Lorraine sold her designs on the street in SoHo and Greenwich Village, gradually building business through word of mouth. “My first retailer was Patricia Field, [who] bought some leather bracelets in 1999,” she recalls. “I just went into the store and asked to meet the buyer and showed them some samples. I have always been very fearless when it comes to showing and presenting my work.”

That same fearlessness was evident even as an FIT student. In 1996, she was so struck by a Vibe article about then up-and-comer Erykah Badu that she created a stipple pointillism portrait of the singer for an illustration class. “She was majestic, different,” Lorraine recalls. When she heard that Badu would be at a poetry reading nearby, West showed up and offered her a copy of the portrait. The two struck up a friendship, and after Lorraine showed the singer her jewelry a few years later, Badu became one of her most loyal fans—and piqued the interest of fellow celebs, who also became fans.

“She has museum-quality pieces that she’s worn onstage, on album covers, in editorial spreads. She saw something in me that I don’t even think I saw in myself yet,” says a grateful Lorraine of the Grammy-winning singer, with whom she has now collaborated for more than two decades.

A foray into fine jewelry
In 2011, a close friend’s boyfriend approached Lorraine and confided that he was planning to propose. Can you help me with this ring? he asked. Unsure whether he was simply asking for help navigating the jewelry district, she nonetheless offered to design an engagement ring. She poured all her experience—and everything she could learn about the couple’s love story—into creating the perfect piece. The pair met in South America, in an area surrounded by volcanoes, so Lorraine’s design evoked a volcano with a raw yellow Indian diamond.

She’s been designing fine jewelry ever since. Among her most iconic creations is her Ascension Halo ring, which resembles a fingernail. A 14k gold version with diamonds was included in Sotheby’s “Brilliant & Black” exhibition in 2022.

Manifesting a bright future
In 2019, Lorraine was invited to take part in Here We Are, New York City Jewelry Week’s initiative to promote equity and inclusion by showcasing designers of color, emerging designers, and others who might lack access to the jewelry world. She gave a talk that became her “manifestation board.” People asked about her plans for the future, and “many of the things I said I wanted actually came true since,” she says. Among them: a virtual retrospective of her work. Called Glimpse and sponsored by NYC’s Greenwich St. Jewelers, it traces Lorraine’s 20-year journey in jewelry.

“Here We Are and NYC Jewelry Week gave me new courage,” she says. “It opened me up to a new audience and a new jewelry family.”

Another career high point for Lorraine came in 2020, when De Beers contacted her about Black Is Brilliant, its partnership with RAD Red Carpet Advocacy to showcase Black jewelry design excellence. Lorraine created a piece using De Beers diamonds that actor Keke Palmer wore on the red carpet. “The experience has been life-changing,” Lorraine says.

Giving back
Rob commends Lorraine for winning the Diamonds Do Good Inspiration Award, recognizing not just her creative achievements but also her mentoring and collaborations with fellow designers. “That was amazing,” Lorraine says. “I’m all about community. I want people to shine.”

At the moment, Lorraine is giving back by working with Greenwich St. Jewelers to launch the Nipple collection in 14k gold. A percentage of the proceeds go to the nonprofit Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

Words of wisdom
What advice does Lorraine West offer neophyte designers? “Have a source of income while you’re working on your designs,” she says. Beyond that: “Be positive. Believe in yourself. Connect with people in your industry. Ask for help. Get mentorship. Continue to grow your design skills and your craft—take a class, get your own bench and practice, see if you can get a job with a company so you can learn under experienced jewelers and artisans.

“This is a career path where you can keep learning and growing,” she adds. “It’s something you can do for the rest of your life. As long as you keep nurturing that love, it will give back to you.”



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By: Kathy Passero

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