[14 MINUTE READ]
Happy Friday everyone! With Autumn very much in the air you might be feeling like it’s time to switch up your wardrobe and, what better place to start than with your jewellery?
This week we chatted with the founder and CEO of MAMATER Jewellery Marilyne Kekeli. MAMATER Jewellery is an ethical jewellery brand for spirited women who want to look good and live well. Well, that definitely sounds like something we want to channel this Autumn... Just grab your morning brew and let’s get into the interview!
Welcome to CAROLINA GMX Marilyne! Could you begin by telling me a bit about your childhood and how you feel that has influenced you today?
I was born in Lomé, Togo, on the Gulf of Guinea. My father was an army doctor when I was younger, and we moved quite a lot up until my teenage years. I had a very nomadic childhood, living for a few years at a time in many cities across Africa, Europe and North America. To this day I still feel like a bird and am always itching to go travel somewhere I do not know and explore the world. My childhood has influenced me in that I enjoy change immensely and I like discovering new things and exploring avenues that are less travelled.
I am voraciously curious as a person and interested in experiencing all the quirky things nature and the world, in general, has to offer.
I love that curiosity and nomadic tendency. I think I also possess that! Did your love of fashion and jewellery also manifest itself throughout your childhood and upbringing?
I have always loved fashion and design. The women in my family were always into design, from my grandmother and her matching dresses and scarves, to my mother with her matching shoes and flowing skirts. It was because of my mother that I developed an interest in design and aesthetics growing up.
My personal passion is architecture. I wrestled with the idea of majoring in architecture when the time came to go to university, but because I struggled to visualise where I could work post-university, I decided to major in ‘International Finance and Marketing’, instead.
Oh wow! So how did you get started in the fashion industry?
My first proper foray in the luxury sector was through advertising. I interned for WPP for six months in 2005 and worked on a campaign for a then ground-breaking beauty food brand. This experience taught me a lot about messaging, visuals and how to seduce a potential customer; skills that I continue to use to this day. I had previously interned at Prada in 2004, working on marketing and sales projects for the French market.
Prada!! That must have been an incredible experience. How did your career progress after that point?
I left banking in 2018. I knew for a long time that I wanted to take a sabbatical in order to consider what I wanted to do next in my life. Previously, I had created a start-up that helped small businesses grow and access investment. Interestingly, through my travels, I had decided to start working in Vietnam, which is where I opened my start-up in 2015. I offered virtual services before hiring a full team in Ho Chi Minh City to help me. Unfortunately, by the summer of 2018, we were struggling to grow and this contributed to me wanting to take a break to regroup and chart a new path for myself that felt less disjointed.
I felt like I was extending myself too much through the work, working across several countries, and working with stakeholders based in south-east Asia. It was personally and mentally taxing so I decided that I needed a break. So I moved back to Paris and spent a few months gardening and doing a lot of self-analysis. I thought a lot about the decisions I had made and the opportunities I hadn’t taken previously. I needed to regroup and better understand when I started to feel less like myself and why.
" I like doing work that makes people happy; luxury that excites, as opposed to luxury that makes people feel insecure."
It is so important to take that time to figure out what you truly want. Is that when you decided to start up MAMATER Jewellery? Was the timing important to you?
Absolutely! I knew then that the dream I had in the early 2000s of working in the luxury sector was not just a dream, it was my true passion and something that I could manifest. I like working on beautiful things and I like doing work that makes people happy; luxury that excites, as opposed to luxury that makes people feel insecure. I wanted to rediscover the creative side of myself that I had felt was stunted for so long.
I totally relate to this. Sometimes you don’t even realise it, but the things that you are doing are just not fulfilling that creative itch. In what ways do you consider sensitive skin throughout the process of selecting the materials to use in MAMATER Jewellery?
Nickel tends to be the main culprit of many of the allergies customers can experience when wearing jewellery. While it is a beautiful metal that is used a lot in luxury homeware, it does tend to generate allergies when applied to the bare skin for long periods of time.
Personally, I do not use any nickel in my pieces. I think an easy way to cater for sensitive skin is to be mindful of the materials that are used and ensure that they are as pure as possible. Chemical reactions tend to happen when very diversified alloys are created to lower the cost of the metal and make cheap pieces of jewellery.
Totally! Paying attention to the materials and being as transparent as you can with customers makes all the difference. What strategies do you think have been key to the success of MAMATER Jewellery?
Knowing exactly who my customer is has been key. I think having a very clear understanding of your customer and their likes and dislikes, is key to building a successful business. Without that, I would be building castles in the sand in the wrong place. It took me some time to get here, and my relationship with my customers is something that I know will continue to evolve. It is about recognising what is needed for now and understanding how to grow from that in a way that feels natural and comfortable.
Consumer-focused brands are what we love! What is your favourite thing about having started MAMATER Jewellery?
I adore the creativity and the freedom MAMATER Jewellery gives me. I get to decide what decisions I will make with a full understanding of the consequences, but I also have full creative freedom on how to approach them. That is so invaluable.
100%! Why do you think people are more conscious of the materials in their jewellery nowadays?
I think there is more awareness because the information is readily available to the public. People are more conscious of the health and environmental impact of manufacturing on all of us. Therefore, they want better options, and they also want to be told where something may not be best for them and why. I feel like that sweet-spot is a beautiful space to occupy. Now that the momentum is there to build more safe and ethical brands, it will be another uphill battle to support the demand, especially with the constraints that the pandemic has brought fourth. But I am hopeful!
I am too! How does sustainability factor into your business?
I think we need to have a clearer definition of what sustainability means. Unfortunately, the term is often misused or very vague. MAMATER Jewellery is an ethical brand. This means that I work to ensure that my supply chain is fully traceable and that the various workers along it are paid fairly for their work; there is no exploitation. That is the very real commitment I have made to myself and to my customers. The reason why I have chosen to commit to this is because I fundamentally believe that the questions around climate change are linked to exploitation and inequality. If everyone on the planet had a basic standard of living, a lot of the environmental degradation that we see everyday would be severely attenuated.
I couldn’t agree more! We often view a lot of those issues as independent from each other when they are in fact intrinsically linked. Is sensitive skin an important issue for you and MAMATER Jewellery?
It influences the women I design for and their experience of MAMATER Jewellery. I do not believe in dismissing my customers’ needs. I believe in luxury that pleases, soothes and is mindful of peoples’ needs and concerns.
I agree! You cannot have luxury without considering your customers' needs. What would you say is your absolute favourite piece of jewellery that you have ever created?
I do not have a favourite. I generally do not release a piece of jewellery that I wouldn’t be proud to showcase or wear myself. I typically discard many pieces and refine everything to standout items that I would be proud to wear anywhere. So, no favourites, no. I love them all for different reasons.
That makes sense. And taste is constantly evolving... What were your biggest challenges in starting up MAMATER Jewellery?
My biggest challenge has been to learn and understand the language of jewellery. To fully embed myself into a different industry that has totally different codes and languages. It also took me a while to figure out the system that would work for my business. What did I need to do to appeal to my current and potential customers? One thing I knew from my previous start-up was that I needed to educate myself in what I wanted to do. If I wanted to be a successful jewellery designer, I needed to surround myself with experts and teachers I could learn from.
I think that is pivotal when you’re entering a new industry. Who would you say has been your biggest influence or teacher?
One coach who did wonders for me was Ms Sophia Sunwoo. She is a sales coach for start-up founders. She helped me to refine my sales process and do the right things to delight customers. Her lessons truly transformed how I perceive my business and the paths I take to grow.
So what was the biggest lesson that you learned in starting up MAMATER Jewellery?
The jewellery sector is made of hundreds of independent brands and a few larger brands who each own a small segment of the market. It is therefore very hard to breakthrough, and the usual techniques you might employ in other businesses do not always apply. Jewellery is about seduction and desire; it is not a product that you sell with business templates. It was an important lesson that I needed to learn at a much deeper level to be able to start growing more effectively.
And what makes MAMATER Jewellery stand out from other jewellery brands?
I make symbolic statement pieces shaped by geometry. I absolutely love perspective and enjoy exploring biodegradable materials. I design for a person that seeks to invest in jewellery, objects, tools, guidance and advice that enhance their creativity and help them project a desirable, seductive, creative, confident, positive and valuable image to the world.
"My next challenge this year is to grow MAMATER Jewellery and develop its advocacy and contributions to the ethical jewellery movement."
So you had your customer in mind when you created MAMATER Jewellery? You knew the person you were designing for?
I did! MAMATER Jewellery is a brand for people who are not afraid to wear bold pieces of jewellery, whether to spice up their appearance or as a core element of their wardrobe. Beyond a jewellery brand, MAMATER is a values-led atelier that creates beautiful pieces with a story that connect our customers with their values.
I make jewellery for the woman I was in my previous career. A person that often had to wear different hats, perform before an audience and project confidence, while being very design-conscious. I remember always looking through vintage mid-century design stores trying to find that perfect necklace that made a statement without taking away from my presentation. It was always a bit of a stroke of luck if I found the right piece. I figured that I must not be the only one who was looking for that reliable pair of earrings that always stirs up conversations and that you can wear from a very conservative boardroom to a glitzy cocktail party. I try to create pieces of art that adorn you and speak for themselves.
I love that concept! That is always the jewellery I find the most alluring! What has been your biggest “pinch me” moment since starting MAMATER Jewellery?
Last year one of my pieces was worn by Claire Diao, a famous French- Burkinabe journalist on Canal Plus, the largest cable TV channel in France. Seeing my jewellery worn on a TV channel I watched during my childhood was very exciting. I was very proud to share the clip with my parents as well.
Aw, I bet! Congratulations! And what inspires you?
In my very early years, we lived in one of my paternal grandfather’s homes. He was a very wealthy man who collected a lot of mid-century furniture and appliances. You see, the 1960s across most of West Africa was a golden decade. It was the time of independence from the former colonial administrations. In many countries, the buzz for people like my grandfather led to a spree of art commissions, distinctly original music and other forms of creativity. In my early childhood, I grew up surrounded by these pieces of art everywhere. While I do not use them as a direct guide in my work, I do recognise that the distinctive form of West African modernism is something that materialises through the shapes and colours of my work.
I am originally from the south of Togo, where Ewe people have developed a very distinct form of textile weaving with abstract and geometric shapes that can be seen across the Gulf of Guinea. It provides me with an endless source of inspiration that I weave into the subtext of my designs. I also love the work of Paul Ahyi, whose gigantesque sculpted sceneries in Lomé and Dakar always move me. Girma Birta, Oscar Niemeyer and Paul Klee are also favourites. Have you seen Brasilia? The entire city’s architecture is endless food for my soul.
No, I haven’t unfortunately, but I am longing to go there! The architecture is absolutely stunning. Moving on to your day-to-day, could you describe what a working day consists of at MAMATER Jewellery?
It depends on the day. I am partial to a big glass of sparkling water in the morning, though sometimes a steaming cup of ginger tea does the trick too. I am an early riser. Once I am up at 5:45am, I generally like to ease myself into the day in a way that keeps me grounded and relaxed.
Beyond the morning, I really do not have a routine or a typical day. I have big goals that I want to achieve in any given month, so I write those down everywhere, on my laptop, my phone and post-it notes. I essentially just work through my to-do list until 5pm. I always stop at 5pm to relax, take a walk or look at the sunset. My day restarts after dinner and sometimes runs up until my daily online pilates class at 10pm.
It’s definitely jam-packed! Would you say you have a work/life balance?
I would not. Hahaha. I can’t remember ever having achieved that balance to be honest. I believe progress comes from throwing everything you have into it.
We love an honest answer! What words do you live by?
“Live every day as if it were your last.” I fundamentally believe in investing all of my energy every single day. Life is short, and I do not want to have regrets. I am happy to reflect on what I could have done differently, but not on why I didn’t try. I recently lost a couple of friends, and their loss has demonstrated the importance of not taking each day for granted.
That is a great outlook! So, what’s next for MAMATER Jewellery?
My next challenge this year is to grow MAMATER Jewellery and develop its advocacy and contributions to the ethical jewellery movement. I just released a new collection, and I want to make this an important milestone in the development of the brand and its relationship to our customers. I also hope to inspire fellow jewellery makers to think of their own impact and offer fairer and more ethical options to the women and men who love and wear our pieces.
Like what you read? Head to the MAMATER website to shop now!
Alternatively, if you fancy checking out some of our previous interviews, you can find them here. Want more from CAROLINAGMX? Check this out: Clinique Even Better Concealer; Why It's Our Favourite