Sometimes a single photograph can catapult a brand to cult status. Matthew Harris, known professionally as Mateo, vividly recalls waking up more than a decade ago to a Google Alert with Rihanna wearing a zipper necklace from the men’s jewelry line he introduced in 2009. “That’s when the madness started,” he says with a smile, still amazed that the superstar’s stylist had spotted a few of his pieces on display at the Manhattan vintage shop What Goes Around Comes Around.
These days, Mateo’s baroque pearl drop earrings and diamond huggies can be spotted on A-listers ranging from Amanda Gorman to Michelle Obama to Zendaya.
The success of Mateo New York proves there’s room in the jewelry industry for a self-taught designer who started small and built his brand through word of mouth and e-commerce. Since pivoting to women’s fine jewelry in 2014, the Jamaican-born Mateo has been unafraid to trust his instincts, both professionally and personally. His maverick moves include closing a SoHo boutique after two years when it became clear that a well-designed website could power sales; moving to Houston during the pandemic, even though he didn’t know a soul in Texas; and prioritizing reasonable prices while manufacturing 14k jewelry in New York City.
“I’m not from the fashion world or the world of fine jewelry, so I took a different approach,” says Mateo, chatting about his company via Zoom from the SoHo Grand Hotel during a bimonthly business trip to New York. “I used to be a waiter here,” he adds slyly, “and I saved every tip to fund my business.” Charming and unpretentious, the designer found an eager audience among stylists and editors on the lookout for unusual, beautifully constructed fine jewelry.
“When I entered the marketplace, no one was doing affordable, personal jewelry,” Mateo says. “People identified with the simplicity of the brand and the fact that it’s made by a real person. It’s not some corporation or fancy establishment; it’s a little Black guy making cool jewelry.”
The son of a dressmaker, Mateo left Jamaica for college but dropped out of a master’s degree program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., when he realized his future did not lie in hotel management. “I needed to pursue something I was passionate about,” he recalls, “and jewelry just happened to be it.” His friends expressed skepticism, and his mom was appalled; but Mateo, who had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., began making contacts in Manhattan’s jewelry district and studying YouTube how-to videos. “My first design sketches looked like a toddler drew them, but I understood what I wanted to do—make jewelry that I would want to wear.” His initial pieces—including tiny scissors and screw charms and the zipper that caught the eye of Rihanna’s stylist—were inspired by a tool kit.
As he learned his craft, Mateo formed lasting relationships at long-established supply companies including A. Herschlag Inc. Findings and Myron Toback Inc. “I call Mr. Toback my foster father of jewelry,” he says fondly. “I met him when I didn’t know where to get chains and clasps; his staff is from Guyana, so there’s a familiarity in terms of culture. Whatever I need, they ship to my house in Texas.”
Mateo’s bench jewelers on West 47th Street in New York City have been with him since the beginning. “We sit down together and go through the mechanisms of each piece,” he says. “It feels magical to make a sketch on a piece of paper and something fine and precious comes out. For me, that’s alchemy.” The brand got a boost in 2017 when it was chosen as a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist.
Though his pieces have a sculptural quality reminiscent of favorite artists such as Alexander Calder and Wassily Kandinsky, Mateo describes himself as a minimalist. “Simplicity is just my aesthetic,” he says. “Even when it’s a bit dramatic, there’s an ease to my jewelry. It should become a part of the person who’s wearing it.” Leaning toward the camera, he shows off a gold choker tucked inside his crewneck sweater, a signet ring, and a pair of gold bands that read I Love You and Self Love. Prices begin at $325 for tiny diamond and gold bar studs and $395 for his popular malachite and diamond dot necklace, rising to more than $4,000 for diamond hoops. At the request of Net-a-Porter, Mateo has developed a high jewelry line, but he won’t forsake his core customer, who he says skews young: “A girl who is 25 to 35 can go online, buy a piece of Mateo, and feel good about herself.”
In addition to Net-a-Porter, Mateo New York is carried by web retailers such as Matches Fashion, Farfetch, Twist, and Saks.com, as well as the brand’s own sleek and carefully crafted website. “When I closed my store at the end of 2018, I spent an entire year building out our e-commerce,” Mateo says. “I do all the photography myself, all the retouching, all the creative direction. I sleep about four hours a night, which is probably bad, but I have a lot to get done!” The company keeps costs down by producing pieces to order for delivery in under three weeks. “We don’t stretch ourselves too thin, and our customers have learned to wait.”
One secret to Mateo New York’s internet success is that the jewelry photographs exactly as it looks in real life. Best-selling crystal quartz Secret Diamond Initial rings ($2,325) and necklaces ($2,250) pop, both in photos and on display at a midtown Manhattan showroom. The designer’s Little Things collection offers delicate pearl and diamond earrings and necklaces for under $1,000. Those with more colorful taste can choose rainbow drop earrings, cocktail rings, and bracelets with blue topaz, sapphires, and amethysts.
Those initial rings and necklaces, pieces Mateo calls “our bread and butter,” are something of a fluke. He’d intended for the diamond letters to be hidden beneath darker stones, but when a sample was made in clear quartz, he took one look and proclaimed, “We have a winner.” New to the line is a bracelet with Love spelled in diamonds, which can be customized with any combination of three or four letters.
Rather than introduce individual collections, Mateo adds five new pieces a month, continuing his slow and steady growth. “We’ve been self-funded from the start,” he says proudly. “I always advise people to start small and build their business one step at a time.”
That’s not to say that Matthew Harris doesn’t dream big: “I hope to create the first Black heritage fine jewelry brand,” he declares. “That’s my dream. I want to do objects for the home; I want to do fragrance; I want to continue to design handbags; I’m moving back into men’s jewelry. But the core of my business is fine jewelry, and I want it to continue and grow.”
Dividing his time between homes in Houston and Lisbon, Portugal (with previous stints living in Los Angeles and Luxembourg), may seem odd for a New York brand, but Mateo says his peripatetic life feeds his creativity. “It’s nice to go home and have space and peace—my mind is clear, and I can get my work done.”
And when stylist Law Roach texts to ask for a special piece for Zendaya or Celine Dion, Mateo responds immediately. “I’ve built relationships over the past 10 years that have blossomed,” he says. “Everything has worked out organically, and I feel very fortunate.”
Top: 14k gold Duality Pearl Drop earrings; $575; Mateo New York; email@example.com; mateonewyork.com