JCK editor-in-chief Victoria Gomelsky and news director Rob Bates talk with Malyia McNaughton, founder of Made by Malyia. The self-taught jewelry designer and Black in Jewelry Coalition board member is proof that trusting your gut can be the key to creative success. When Malyia couldn’t find the jewelry she wanted, she designed her own—and wore it. Demand for her designs inspired her to launch her brand and has made her a rising star whose looks have been worn by Lizzo and other celebrities.
Sponsored by De Beers: diamondeducation.debeers.com
1:53 From body chain to brand launch
5:09 Expanding organically
8:04 Turning obstacles into opportunities
10:53 Finding creative inspiration
13:57 High-profile partnerships
17:58 In the spotlight on SNL
20:51 The Black in Jewelry Coalition: making a difference
23:52 Tips for aspiring designers
Hosts: Rob Bates and Victoria Gomelsky
Producer and engineer: Natalie Chomet
Plugs: @jckmagazine; madebymalyia.com; diamondeducation.debeers.com [Use promo code JCKPRO_15 at checkout for 15% off workshops.]
From body chain to brand launch
Victoria introduces Brooklyn-based designer Malyia McNaughton, founder of Made by Malyia, and asks how she started creating jewelry. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants was born in the Bronx, raised in Florida, and attended Florida State University, where she studied fashion merchandising and product development. After graduating, she moved back to New York to pursue a career in fashion, starting in sales and product development for Nicole Miller and eventually designing for another fashion brand.
In 2014, Malyia had tickets to a music festival in Philadelphia. She wanted to make a statement by wearing a body chain but couldn’t find the right piece. Undeterred, she sourced materials and designed her own. Little did she dream she was making her first item of jewelry. “I got stopped by so many people asking me where I’d gotten it,” Malyia recalls. “After the fifth or sixth person, my friends said, ‘You might be onto something.’ We went to lunch, and they helped me come up with the name Made by Malyia.’ It was one of those Oprah aha moments.”
After months of trial and error, Malyia developed a body chain she felt was ready to put on Etsy. To her delight, orders poured in. Still, she viewed Made by Malyia as a creative outlet, not a business. Gradually she added products based on buyers’ feedback. When a client asked if she could make a temporary nose ring, Malyia branched into nonpermanent nose and body jewelry. Next someone asked for a ring. “It started to expand very organically,” she says. Eventually, growing demand persuaded her to build a collection and a website.
“Etsy was a great launching pad,” she says. “I credit my customers [there] for amplifying my voice and bringing me to market.” Though she has moved away from the platform, she hopes to do another Etsy-specific collection.
Turning obstacles into opportunities
Rob asks what challenges Malyia faced as a newcomer to the industry. She points out that the jewelry business is famously generational. While those family bonds are admirable and she hopes to build her own legacy, they have a downside: They create a major entry barrier for self-taught designers of color and anyone else who lacks personal connections.
Malyia turned the disadvantage into an advantage. As a newcomer, she felt less pressure to put out product than established insiders might. This freed her up to focus intensely on design. She is very intentional in the projects she takes on, releasing small, effective capsule collections that will sell through.
Finding creative inspiration
Malyia has said her work celebrates the intersection of art, nature, and culture. Victoria wonders how this translates into her creative process. The designer starts by placing raw materials in her workspace and spending a week surrounded by them. She also immerses herself in nature, drawing particular inspiration from the movement of water. Sometimes weeks go by before an idea strikes her—then ideas come fast and furious, and she finds herself making 100 sketches in a row. Her rough sketches go up on the wall, where she can study and tweak them. Next she engineers her designs to ensure they’re structurally sound before sending them to her CAD designer to see what they look like in 3D. “It’s a pretty unique process, but I’ve learned to embrace it,” she says.
On her inspiration board, Malyia keeps an old magazine article about Monique Péan that she clipped when Made by Malyia was taking root. “She really is a trailblazer,” says Malyia. Other role models include Sheryl Jones, “a phenomenal designer” and personal mentor, as well as Elsa Peretti. She feels a kinship with the late Peretti because, like Malyia, the designer saw herself as an artist.
Victoria points out that Malyia has done quite a few well-publicized collaborations despite being relatively new to the industry and asks how these came about.
In 2021 the Natural Diamond Council launched an emerging designer initiative. Eager to explore the fine jewelry space, Malyia applied. She not only got accepted, she impressed the council enough with her sketches that they commissioned her to design an 11-piece collection as part of a global ad campaign featuring actor Ana de Armas. “I was ecstatic because, if I do say so myself, it was a hit,” says Malyia.
That success led to other opportunities, including partnering with nationwide chain Banter by Piercing Pagoda and its creative director, Grammy-nominated rapper, songwriter, and artist Tierra Whack. “I’m a huge fan,” says Malyia. Being entrusted to execute Whack’s creative vision was an honor. So was revisiting her roots with a trip to a Banter store in the Bronx. “I brought my nieces, my nephews, my sister,” Malyia recalls. “It was such an amazing experience to walk into the mall and to see…pieces that I was responsible for designing. If I’ve had an Oscar moment, that was it.”
In the SNL spotlight
Malyia enjoyed another star moment recently when Lizzo wore her earrings on Saturday Night Live. Rob asks for the backstory. A stylist contacted Malyia and asked to borrow a pair of her Wave Hoop earrings with channel-set baguettes but refused to name the event or the celebrity she was dressing until the day the episode taped. “I was in disbelief when it came on the screen,” says Malyia. “To have one of the biggest stars of our time wear my earrings on SNL, I don’t know if I can top that.”
Celebrity placement is influential, especially for a smaller brand like Malyia’s, she says, because it piques the interest of the public and the media. Reposting the coverage brings people to her site, which translates into sales and visibility.
BIJC: making a difference
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder during the 2020 pandemic, Malyia was working from home when fellow Black jewelry professional Elyssa Jenkins-Pérez reached out with a timely question: Would Malyia join a conversation about how the industry could help move the Black community forward? “I immediately said yes,” she remembers. Soon, she, Jenkins-Pérez, and others who shared their concerns were brainstorming strategies. They formalized their efforts by founding the Black in Jewelry Coalition (BIJC) and assembling a nine-member board that represents all aspects of the business. “We’ve been on calls once a week for about two hours for the last two years,” says Malyia. “It’s been phenomenal work.” BIJC has collaborated with industry organizations on initiatives to help advance Black professionals in gems and jewelry, partnering with New York City Jewelry Week on an event last year. Plans are also in the works to have a BIJC presence at the JCK show in June.
Tips for aspiring designers
For younger creatives hoping to follow in her footsteps, Malyia offers these words of wisdom: Trust your instincts. She credits her intuition with guiding her from the initial decision to make and market a body chain to her current thriving career. “I just trusted that what I was creating was worth sharing. Don’t wait to have it all figured out. Go for it. You never know where you can end up.”
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