Glitter Trotter: Suhaa, it’s not the first time we meet. But it’s the first time we are talking about your business and your creative journey. I like your jewelry, and I wear earrings I got from you a lot. And I am really curious about the story behind those beautiful pieces.
Suhaa Schmitz: Well, I feel that my story is well known by now. I started making jewelry in 2007, when I was expecting my first child. In the early 2000s, there was not much to do in Kigali; life was somewhat slow. At the time, I was also moving a lot between Rwanda and Kenya (where I am from) and was not ready to look for a job.
So, I decided to learn how to make jewelry as a hobby. I went online to find various DIY projects, learned about designing and patterns. Eventually, I started making my own designs; and I just slowly fell in love with the process. I registered my brand, and the business picked up from there.
GT: This seems to be a common pattern among successful entrepreneurs – you fall in love with something – a project, ways of working, the creative outcome – and you make a business out of it.
SS: I think this is the best way to start a business, really. And this is how you grow personally and grow your business. Once I understood the basics of jewelry making, I was definitely inspired to experiment, try different styles and materials. Beadwork was the first technique I learned, but then I tried to incorporate metals. One time I was on the Coast in Kenya, and I found those great ceramic pieces that are common there – I incorporated them in my jewelry because they reminded me of home. A few years later, I wanted to play with crystals, and I decided to reach out to Swarovski. I sent them my designs, they liked them, and we worked together for a while.
GT: That must have been exciting!
SS: Most definitely. It was also really good for our young company to work with an established brand. Through their branding, we gained a lot of credibility. Sadly, Swarovski no longer works with small brands like ours. We do miss them, but life goes on. We are now working with a new company that makes crystals – they are called Preciosa. We are in the midst of co-creating a few pieces with them based on my designs. Next, we will do a campaign photoshoot and see how it goes. This is a new adventure, and I am really excited about it.
GT: What are you most excited about in this new collaboration?
SS: I would say, the potential! This collaboration is very promising. Preciosa are really nice people, but It is the range of products that makes me truly excited: beads, crystals, precious stones, and so on. So, I have many options to choose from, and I also can select matching colors or sizes; I can play with different styles and textures; I can experiment with different designs, but still get all of my suppliers from one and the same factory. This is really refreshing!
GT: Is working with suppliers your favorite part of the business?
SS: Oh, no! My favorite part is definitely meeting and working with our ladies – the artisans, who create some of our pieces. I very much enjoy beading, but it is very labor-intense. So, I do a lot of designing and some sampling, but the main production is done by a group of local ladies. I love to spend time with them because each of them has a personal story, a personal journey that led her to venturing into making jewelry.
GT: Are those different from your story?
SS: Very much so! I am making jewelry for fun, it makes me happy; they make jewelry to survive, but not just financially. Jewelry helps them deal with the trauma that many have experience in their lives.
GT: Tell me more?
SS: Most of the ladies, who I work with are survivors – of violence, hard life, various other circumstances. They did not have work, some for a very long time. To get some money, they started replicating designs from the crafts coming to Rwanda from Kenya and Tanzania. And once they learned the basics – just like me – they wanted to try their own designs, so they have something to call their own, to be proud of. It takes a lot of time and effort to create jewelry based on your own unique design. And while these artisans work, they think about their stories, about the challenges they face everyday or the challenges they’ve overcome – and they release their emotions in a piece of jewelry.
They always tell me, “Don’t share your story with people because people will always judge. Put your thoughts into something you make with your hands. Every time you look at it, you will remember that tragic moment in your life, but you would also see that beautiful thing that came out of it.” These ladies taught me to look at even most tragic things in a positive way and to use my beadwork as a therapeutic exercise.
GT: This is very moving.
SS: I agree. That’s why you will see that each of my pieces has a name and a little story that comes with it. Sometimes it is a happy story, sometimes it’s a tragic one. Regardless, through these stories I can honor the voices of the women, who make our jewelry. I really enjoy working with them. Sometimes, we do not understand each other completely because of the language barrier. But we use storytelling; and that is what binds us together as humans.
GT: How big is your creative team?
SS: Well, my core team consists of just two people – myself and another lady. But we work with several lady groups across the country. Each group has a specialization of sorts – one group does earrings, another group does necklaces, yet another makes baskets, etc. So, we are always looking for and meeting new groups and new ladies; and I am learning as much from them as they are learning from me.
GT: And how do you find these groups? Or are you creating the groups yourself?
SS: I have to thank my assistant for working as hard as she does. She is responsible for finding the ladies or groups of ladies for all our projects. We do most of our production in house. I come up with the design of each collection, which usually starts with a story and then evolves into a design process, sketches, etc. Once the story is crystallized, we decide what pieces we want to be made and what type of people we want to make them – typically, we are looking for ladies, whose stories are similar to the story we use to inspire our collection. We find people through the word-of-mouth; we work with them on the collection and listen their stories for inspiration.
GT: And you never share their stories outside your company?
SS: No, we respect the privacy of our ladies. But if they feel comfortable, we can name pieces they made after them. Or they can come up with names for various pieces as a group and tell us. Hence, all names in our collections are very symbolic, they are a part of the story. You know, there is a very delicate balance that we are trying to preserve. On the one hand, we want to give our ladies a chance to share their stories; we want people to see the human behind a set of earrings or a necklace that they are buying; we want them to feel the soul of the maker. At the same time as a brand, we do not feel we have the right to tell the stories of our ladies. We believe that giving them a choice of what to tell and to whom is the best approach. Besides, all stories are subject to interpretation, we do not want anyone to be judged just because their story got misunderstood. So, we keep our stories behind closed doors – and use them to support each other.
GT: I very much respect this. Thank you for the clarification. When you started your brand, did you ever think that it would not be just about beading and jewelry, but also about healing – collective healing to be precise?
SS: I did not. But I am glad that it happened because this emotional underpinning took our company to the level I never imagined.
GT: Talking about emotional time, did COVID-19 affect your work?
SS: Most definitely. The year 2020 was very difficult for us. I had to close the shop, and we still have not opened it.
GT: What about the virtual market space?
SS: You mean online shopping? Yes, it took off in Rwanda in 2020. But it does not work well for us. In my opinion, the main reasons for now – Rwandan population still have limited access to digital means of payment, and the shipping costs are too high – if you want to send your pieces abroad, the cost of shipping might be double the cost of the item.
To be fair, the local, Rwandan market is starting to open up – people are starting to explore locally made products. However, Rwandan middle class and upper-middle class – who are the majority of the market in Rwanda – still prefer established European and American brands to brands made in Africa. I do believe that the time for local brands will come, but it will take time and education.
GT: Several Kenyan brands mentioned that COVID-19 had a positive impact on their business because Kenyan customers were finally able to discover them.
SS: I have no doubt that this is true. However, you must remember how advanced the Kenyan online space is – there is Jumia, OLX, and a few others. There are also several affordable, local delivery companies. Overall, in the Kenyan market, a fashion brand can do really well – they can market their products on these big platforms, pick their delivery options, and so on. We are a bit different in Rwanda in terms that creating visibility for a fashion brand is not as intuitive.
Regardless, we are working on building back our brand, and we want to go back to production in 2022. In fact, I am working on new pieces with Preciosa beads and crystals. And I am now truly embracing the status of an East African brand – we are no longer a made-in-Rwanda brand, we are a brand made in Africa.
GT: Is this a new development?
SS: Yes and no. I mentioned earlier that I was born in Mombasa, Kenya. Every time I go home, I sit down with local Maasai ladies and observe them making their traditional baskets, kikapus. They also make sandals and beaded products. I love everything about their work – the colors are brilliant, they incorporate beads into basket weaving, their technique is very different from the one used by ladies in villages close to Nairobi. I am incorporating their work into my collections. I have similar relationships with people in Uganda. My parents are currently there, and I visit a lot. And when I visit, I observe how artisans use fish leather. It’s a curious material, and I used it before. So, I want to bring it back into my work. And surely, if I want to get the best Mombasa-made or Uganda-made products, I will be using ladies from these locations. The same would be true for my visits to Zanzibar; I love kangas they use on the island, and I want to incorporate the prints into my collections.
So, you see how my collections are now #MadeInAfrica – it would not be fair to call them #MadeInRwanda if the artisans come from various countries in East Africa – and eventually Africa.
GT: So, what does #MadeInAfrica mean to you – are you mixing different cultures together or creating a new culture?
SS: I think it’s the latter. I want to call this new culture “Africa”. Africa has so many different cultures – not just within the continent, but within each individual country, or even each individual village. I really want to create pieces reflecting the creativity, designs, and artistic history of various cultures. I can see one brand being able to represent the entire continent if it manages to infuse a little bit of several different cultural “flavors” in their pieces. I think this is important not just to my brand but to the “brand” or image of the continent.
GT: How so?
SS: Let me give you an example. When you think about different countries – Germany or France or Britain – you know what they are most famous for, be it food or fashion or art. When people think of Africa, they mostly think about safaris. But Africa has always had amazing creatives; and now we have amazing fashion brands. I want Africa to be known for that – creativity, design, colors, fashion, fabrics, accessories.
GT: And what about the African creatives you are working with? What do you wish for them?
SS: I want them to be able to tell their stories through the pieces they create. Everyone has a story; some are sad, and some are happy. But when the consumer buys the final product, most of those stories disappear – and people behind the designs become invisible. I don’t think this is right; I think by “muting” the stories, we “rob” our customers from the value embedded in the product they pay for. We also “rob” our creatives from the opportunity to have their stories heard and live on. It is really important to me that our customers truly connect with the continent and our people through the handmade products they wear and use in their houses. This is actually my goal for the next year – build confidence in the ladies, who work with me, so that they trust me to share their stories. They need to be proud of their work and of the lives they are building for themselves and their families.
GT: This is a beautiful goal and, probably, a long journey as well of changing opinions and perceptions. Are you taking anyone on this journey with you?
SS: I love collaborating with other brands, especially those made in Rwanda. We’ve done a few interesting collaborations before, and there are still so many new, exciting, aspiring fashion designers in Rwanda! I am confident, we will be able to find likeminded partners for this journey.
GT: I will definitely be watching this space, as they say.