Karen Smith is the founder and executive director of We Wield the Hammer, a metalsmith training program for women and girls of African descent. You can find her on Instagram @wewieldthehammer.
In an effort to find and celebrate jewelers of African descent, both as personal inspiration and for posterity in the midst of that tempest of a year 2020, I discovered the extraordinary jewelry work of Emefa Cole.
Cole is Ghanaian-British and based in London. Her work is bold and life-giving; her path is as inspired by Ghanaian folklore as it is by naturally occurring life and destruction.
Last year, Cole’s Vulcan Ring was acquired by the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London because of its extraordinary “beauty of form and perfection of finish.” Her jewelry is experimental and unique, bold and sensuous, traditional and modern.
Karen Smith: How did you come to work with metals? Were you born into a family of metalsmiths?
Emefa Cole: I have always been creative and extremely curious. My journey into metalworking began completely by chance. I saw an ad in Floodlight [the UK university course bible at the time] for the National Diploma jewelry course at the London Guildhall University, and thought it looked interesting. I don’t think there have been any metalsmiths in my family, but there are creatives mixed with academics, politicians, educators, chefs, and others. It creates a beautiful balance.
You apprenticed with master goldsmiths in Ghana. What was the process like? Have you found many challenges? Has being a Ghanaian been an entry point?
EC: I had a strong desire to learn the lost wax casting technique practiced in West Afrika, especially from the Akan [Ashanti] goldsmiths who have a reputation second to none. I wrote down this dream as part of my five-year plan after graduation. In reality, it took longer than five years to happen, but the wait was worth it! I am so grateful that my tutor is the goldsmith of the Asantehene, the King of the Ashanti people. It has been an incredibly beautiful experience so far, and the only challenge has been the pandemic, which has affected all of us.
Is the apprenticeship ongoing? When did it begin?
EC: My apprenticeship is ongoing; it began in March 2020. I am very grateful to the Artists Information Company [the largest artist membership organization in the UK] for funding the first part of my ongoing journey learning from a true master. I can’t wait to immerse myself again once we are all able to move around the world freely.
Are there many women in the jewelry trade in Ghana?
EC: I can’t say for certain, but I’m led to believe that there aren’t any women in the trade in the region I’m working in.
Wow! Now that you have become a keeper of the tradition, how do you plan to carry it forth?
EC: Encouraging and teaching others is something I’m really passionate about. That said, there are also ongoing conversations about how we can work together to encourage more young people—of all genders—to take up this incredible craft.
You’ve said that you want your work to encourage “a second look.” I love the audacity of that! What does that mean
EC: I’ve always had a strong interest in the unseen world and what lies beneath the surface. I am also a strong believer in the fact that appearances can often be deceptive. As such, my beliefs are often imbued in my design philosophy.
Can you say more about your spirit practice and the unseen world, and how it manifests in your work?
EC: I’m afraid it isn’t a spirit practice per se. I just have a fascination with the things we can’t often see, which are forced to the surface by the elemental forces.
Speaking of your beliefs, how did you come to commit to recycled metals in your work?
EC: I think it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we leave this most generous Earth in a better condition than we found it. Using recycled materials should be second nature to all of us. I currently use 100% recycled silver and bronze, but have shifted to using single mine origin gold where possible. The economic development of the mining communities in West Afrika is extremely dear to me, and the company behind this project, Betts Metals, is doing a fabulous job to ensure sustained growth within the mining communities.
I love the many curves in your work: your rings are large and curvaceous; your necklaces hug the body. The work seems to caress as it adorns.
EC: Although this isn’t deliberate, it must come from within during the sculpting process. I find curvy and voluptuous forms quite pleasing. For instance, I’m fixated with the feminine form of the humble gourd; it’s used universally but particularly in West Afrika and has now become a source of inspiration for a new body of work.
It feels so feminine, so womanly. Do you find inspiration in women’s bodies? What is the process like of creating for women? Is it different for men?
EC: I do find the female body to be incredibly fascinating, especially as a vessel for life and its transformative process throughout a lifetime. When creating for women and men, my main concern is that the pieces will be comfortable for the wearer. I don’t necessarily have a different process in that sense.
As a woman who sculpts amazing work for women, are you your own muse?
Do you design and produce everything yourself?
EC: Yes. When in Ghana, I also cast everything myself. At home in the UK, I work with the best casting companies.
What’s next/new for Emefa Cole professionally? How do you see your work transforming? Are you interested in incorporating new methods into your work?
EC: I’m constantly learning and adapting; my end goal is to be able to focus on large scale metalsmithing in the future using sheet metal, stakes, and hammers!
I have to ask how the Covid pandemic influenced your work as an artist.
EC: I have found rhythm in my solitary world of creating over the last couple of years, but I also appreciate the input of a select group of family and friends whose opinions I value greatly.
What a blessing in this very stress-filled and emotional time. Do you express the emotion in your work or is it more cerebral?
EC: I am happiest when creating at the bench; it is a place where I can escape the noise and demands of our world and life in general. Just as when reading a great book, I tend to go on an intense journey with the pieces I’m working on and try to imbue them with as much genuine love as possible.
And it shows in the work!
EC: My ultimate aim is to make the wearer feel that love and in turn and fall in love with their new acquisition.
1 Davidson, Annabel. “Why the latest addition to the V&A’s jewellery gallery is a coup for independent creatives” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/jewellery/latest-addition-vas-jewellery-gallery-coup-independent-creatives.
London Guildhall University merged with the University of North London to form London Metropolitan University.
3 Afrika, spelled with a k, is the traditional spelling