Glitter Trotter: It’s great to finally visit your store at Palette Café. What a wonderful location! And your little shop looks like a cute treasure cabin in the forest.
Irene Claire: You are welcome. And yes, I really like to keep it magical, when it comes to jewelry.
GT: As a woman, I am sure you had a lot of personal experiences with jewelry before you started your own line. What about your professional background?
IC: Actually, I was a jack of all trades before I started Credible Jewels. I spent 8 years working for an Israeli jewelry company in Nairobi. I started working there fresh from college, after I worked as a model for a few years.
GT: I can definitely see you as a model!
IC: Thank you! Yes, fashion appealed to me since I was a teenager. I did modeling throughout my teenage years. And then, I landed this job, which was also about fashion, although from a different angle. And I held onto it with my two hands. I joined as a shop attendant. Then, I started paying attention to gemstones, learning about metals, jewelry design... All that really fascinated me, so I stayed there for a long time, learning more every day.
GT: Through on-the-job training?
IC: Some, but more through self-education. I am sure you know that when a person is passionate about something, they want to learn everything about their passion. So, that was me -- I wanted to do more, to go beyond the obvious, to create jewelry that would stand out. So, I learned how to do it.
GT: Did you do much of jewelry design for the Israeli company?
IC: Oh, yes! I was wearing a lot of hats at that company – managing staff, managing stores, procurement, and also design. And I loved designing and working with my hands the most. Unfortunately, this was not directly part of my job. My internal conflict between what I was expected to work on and what I wanted to work on was growing. So, left the company, and started looking for another job. But at the time the market was tight, and I was a new mom, which made things even more difficult. And then, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I try doing my own thing, my own business?” And that’s how it all started. First, I tried an upcycling business – I would get secondhand clothes and redesign them using Ankara, which just got back in fashion at that point.
GT: This is an interesting twist in the story.
IC: Yeah... I’ve tried my hand in different areas of fashion and design. You name it – I’ve tried it. I just love fashion. But what drove me back to jewelry was -- I am really passionate about working with my hands. It makes me really happy to make something and see the final product. This gives me satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment.
I really enjoyed that, when I was at the Israeli company. At some point, I became their Creative Director, before I made it to the General Manager.
GT: How did they even let you go?
IC: Well, I needed to feel I was still growing and developing as a person and a professional. But when you work at the same place for almost a decade and reach a top-level position, you start stagnating. I just knew that I had to venture out on my own. I did not want to wake up one morning and realize that I had not progressed a bit in the previous 10-20-30 years. I needed the excitement of a new challenge.
GT: How did you come up with the concept for your company and your jewelry line? Your jewelry definitely stands out in the Kenyan market.
IC: Before I started Credible Jewels, I used to go to a lot of different fairs to meet people, to look at the products that sold well. And I realized there was a gap in the market. You know how Kenyan and African jewelry is very bold, and attracts a lot of attention?
GT: Yes, this is true.
IC: But what I realized, we did not have a good “finish” – what I mean is, the workmanship was not always good, the jewelry did not look complete, it did not look professionally done.
Another thing that I noticed – we did not have pearl jewelry in Kenya. This is understandable – we do not really have pearls in East Africa. But I really love pearls – they speak of luxury and uniqueness. So, I did my research and found ways of sourcing pearls (I mainly work with fresh-water pearls) from other parts of the world – Indonesia, Philippines, and other Asian countries. Finding the right suppliers was not easy, but my previous experience prepared me for the challenge – I knew exactly what I wanted.
GT: This was a major risk though, right? You were introducing a completely new jewelry culture to Kenya.
IC: Yes, I was taking a risk, so I started really small to “test the waters” as they say. I was working out of my house and selling primarily to my friends and the clients, who I knew from my previous ventures. And then my clients started recommending me to their friends, and slowly, my business started picking up.
GT: Let’s go back to pearls, if you don’t mind. You said you try to stick to freshwater pearls. Why is that?
IC: Because very few jewelers work with them. That’s one. And two, the pearls I work with – baroque pearls – are a very unique gem. Saltwater pearls are very similar to each other – they are mostly round and perfect. Baroque pearls are all different, their shapes are irregular, you will never find two pieces that are identical. And that’s how I want my jewelry to be – I never want two of my clients to be in the same room wearing my jewelry and feeling uncomfortable because somebody else is wearing the exact same thing. I want my jewelry to be as unique as the person wearing it.
GT: I remember growing up watching my mother wearing her pearl jewelry. She actually told me once that pearl jewelry needs to be worn frequently because it feeds on the natural oils from our skin, that’s what makes pearls look so lush and lustrous. Is this true?
IC: Very true. The more you wear your pearls, the better they look and the longer they live. If you love your pearls, they will stay with you for life.
GT: Amazing! It’s almost like they are living creatures not stones.
IC: That’s sure one way to look at it. But in general, I like to talk of my jewelry as a creation that will be with you for a life-time, and you can even pass it onto your children.
GT: So, you are creating family heirlooms for the new generation of Kenyans?
IC: Yes, Kenyans, but also anyone, who appreciates a fresh take on jewelry.
GT: Tell me, how did you come up with the name for your company?
IC: It’s simple really – I wanted the name to speak to the values of my company – credibility, quality, fairness in terms of prices, genuine creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness. So, it’s all about jewels that are credible.
GT: And what inspires you to create your credible jewels?
IC: I would say, most designs come from people around me, people who inspire me. My daily life, my personal struggles, and my own identity in the moment also find their way into my designs. I can be inspired by nature as well. If you look to the world for inspiration, you’ll find it everywhere you look.
All of my pieces have different moods because every day is different. I have pieces that are very jovial and happy. And I have pieces that are calm and thoughtful in their attractiveness. The process of creating a piece of jewelry is a very personal experience for me, it is very intimate.
When I wake up in the morning and look out of the window, the nature is there to tell me if the day is going to be bright and happy, or moody and dull. In the same manner, it tells me if I am going to make happy or thoughtful jewelry.
GT: How interesting! Can you show me a piece of thoughtful jewelry, please?
IC: Most of my baroque pearl jewelry is thoughtful and a bit moody. They are not 100% out there, you have to really think about each baroque pearl – what is unique about it? How to bring out that unique beauty? it’s not easy to come up with a setting that brings out the special features of this special gem.
GT: And what about happy jewelry?
IC: Most of my happy pieces are made with rice pearls – they are colorful and exciting, but also really easy to work with because of their perfect shape. But baroque pearls – you really have to work with those, you have to find a way to balance them, to present them in the right manner so your clients see the same beauty in them that you see as a designer. Many people do not like their irregular shape, but many people fall in love with them because they see the uniqueness that I see – and I am happy when this happens, when I help others to see beauty in the nature’s creation.
GT: This s a really unusual view though -- I come from the world, where pearls are associated with something perfect. You know how they say, “her teeth are like pearls – white and perfectly shaped.”
IC: That’s true, but at the same time our eyes and brain are created in such a way that when something is perfect it becomes boring quickly, right? A baroque pearl is not perfect, so every day you can find something new to love about it, you fall in love with these stones more and more as time goes by.
GT: This is a very poetic way to describe the imperfection. You are clearly in love with baroque pearls. What other gems are your favorites?
IC: Aside from pearls? I like Tanzanite, but I prefer them natural – not heated; I like to see their genuine beauty, not the artificial enhancements. I have suppliers in Tanzania, who know how I like my Tanzanites. But I really work with a wide variety of gemstone -- citrine, garnet, ruby. I also really like working with rough-cut diamonds.
GT: What do you do with rough cut diamonds?
IC: I put them in my Africa-shaped jewelry. I do not polish them – just keep them rough. One of my favorite pieces were the earrings that I made for a client – Africa-shaped earrings with a rice pearl on the top and rough diamonds placed, where Kenya is. I wanted to send a message that in Africa, we are imperfect but that does not make us less of a gem.
IC: And since we talk about my Africa-shaped jewelry, I actually try to have an African cultural element in all of my designs. I want to make sure that I maintain our heritage, and continue to tell our story through my creations, which are for modern and the sophisticated Africans and people, who love Africa.
GT: I see. So, these are your clients?
IC: Yes. I meet a lot of different people through my business, but the common thing about them is – they all love Africa and take a lot of pride in being from Arica or associated with Africa. During COVID-19, my business started attracting local clients. This was not an easy journey because in Africa we are not raised wearing pearls. So, I have to explain to my new clients what my business is all about, because the first thing they usually ask is, “Where is this jewelry imported from?”
GT: How do you convince people that you are the one making the jewelry?
IC: I ask them to come to my workshop and see me working. One time, I disassembled a piece of jewelry in front of a client and then put it back together to show them that I was indeed the maker of that piece. But you know what, once they understand, what I am all about, and they are happy with their piece of jewelry, they will for sure come back and buy more. And this is what’s important to me – building relationships with my clients, who are happy with my work. But I would not lie, it’s not been easy educating the local market about pearls and assure them that they are getting an authentic product not an imitation.
GT: I noticed, a lot of Kenyans actually love big-name brands, established power-houses. Have you ever had a challenge with that?
IC: Yes, of course! People told me before that they would prefer to buy pearl jewelry from Tiffany. Many felt that European brands are more high-end. But things have been changing over the past 5 years. I see more and more people paying attention to what is happening in their own countries.
GT: Do you think COVID-19 played a role in this shift?
IC: A huge role! People, who were used to taking trips abroad to go shopping, were no longer able to do that. So, more and more went online looking for fun things to do and buy “at home.” But buying ‘local’ feels risky, so it is important to offer clients an opportunity to feel, see, and touch your pieces. Once they establish trust towards your brand, and they have had a few good experiences buying from you, they are definitely coming back. But taking that first step towards a new, local designer always feels like a leap of faith.
GT: I can understand that. We’ve all had a fair share of unhappy experiences buying things online.
IC: That’s true. And this is why it is so exciting for me to see that 90% of my online sales are local. This means Kenyans trust me and recognize my brand.
GT: With that, where would you like to take your brand next? What’s in the future for Credible Jewels?
IC: I really want to see people all over the world wearing my creations. I want to be present in the European market, maybe in the Americas as well. But my main goal is to grow my African market. I will have the greatest satisfaction if my brand is appreciated in my home continent and my home country. Also, you know I mentioned that I work with freshwater pearls?
IC: So, these pearls you can grow on a special pearl farm. We are not doing that in Africa yet, although in Asia this is a big business. But who knows – maybe I will have the first African pearl farm. But all in all, I want my people to be proud of my work – I want to represent Kenya and Africa through my craft. It’s taking me years to perfect my craft – and I am going to continue working on it until people associate Kenyan jewelry with Credible Jewels, with our high standards of craftsmanship, quality, and creativity.
GT: I really love your passion for the home country!
IC: Well this is really what’s it all about – leaving a legacy that your family and friends can be proud of.
GT: Thank you very much for your story and your time!