Johnny Nelson's Jewelry Is Dripping In Black Confidence
This feature is in our March '23 "Next Wave" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
London-born, Brooklyn-raised Johnny Nelson creates jewelry for the bold and unapologetic. Since launching his namesake line in 2017, he has celebrated the beauty of our culture with pieces that feature diasporic icons from Fela Kuti to Ida B. Wells. Th is year, his Let Freedom Ring and Her Freedom rings will be displayed in the Newark (N.J.) Museum of Art.
Let Freedom 2022 portrait series featuring a grill of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass PHOTO: COURTESY OF BY SHANE AUGUSTUS
I came across a video where you were explaining how you stumbled into this passion for jewelry design. After being a performer, you wanted to set yourself apart on stage and that was how we initially got into making jewelry, which I think is such a cool story.
I was doing it while I was performing. Maybe it wasn't transitioning, because I just stopped to [focus on] jewelry more.
Maybe it was more like an extension of your creativity.
So I was performing a lot in the United States, London, Europe, Australia, and Latin countries. I was like, “I want to enhance the performance of stage presence.” So I asked my mom to make me a ring from a black Tourmaline stone, she had a mantelpiece and she made the wire wrap ring that covered two fingers. I was comng back from London and when I was on a plane, I saw a three-finger ring. So she made it. It was like a bunch of amethyst stones. Everybody said that it was fire.
I asked her if she could make more but she didn’t have the time. So I asked her to teach me. It was kind of therapeutic because I would grab stones and then put them on my friends. Also, at the time, I was in the Screen Actors Guild. I was doing a lot of background acting and we had a lot of downtime. So I used to be listening to my music and making rings on set and I would put it on people. When I got back from set, I will go link up some of my friend's projects and put them on them. There was this transformation within them and the empowerment that they felt Kind of like a stronger version of themselves from these three-finger rings. That just made me see the power in this creation and fulfillment in a whole ‘nother light. It makes me feel happy to make somebody happy. To see somebody walking into true power.
Johnny Nelson’s Nefertiti Afro pendant pick necklace featured in Sotheby’s Brilliant and Black exhibit in London PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHNNY NELSON AND SOTHEBY’S
Your pieces are bold and they represent icons. Especially for us Black people wearing it, it’s us channeling that inner energy of those icons that we're wearing in the pieces.
The other day I was on the bus coming back from the gym and somebody stopped me. They were like, “Are you Johnny Nelson? I bought two rings from you, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. I use it every time I have to do my sermons to give me that power.” Just the inner fulfillment and joy to know that my pieces are doing the work to help other people do their work to be in their power. It gives me an added sense of purpose to know that what I'm doing is not just for me. I'm a vessel for people.
Nelson showcasing his custom sneaker charms at an installation at New York City’s Sneaker N Stuff shop in December 2022.
Only a person from New York could make this kind of jewelry. It represents home for us in the boroughs.
Yeah, to me it’s hip-hop.
Hip-hop all the way.
When I was 5, [I remember] LL Cool J wearing a forefinger ring on his album covers. So why wouldn’t that be the first piece that I’m making? Big, big rings that remind me of the people that I tried to identify with when I was a kid.
Nelson placing a custom nameplate necklace on artist Aya Brown at an installation at New York City’s Sneaker N Stuff shop in December 2022 PHOTO: BY @TELLI_NINJASONIK
There’s also a rise in Black-owned jewelry. We’re continuing to shift the narrative of what ‘luxury’ means.
Yeah, it’s good. Also, people don’t realize it’s a family. We had to basically share resources and give suggestions and input, like who’s good to work with and stuff like that. Starting off it was really hard for us to actually shine. We’ve been working for years, but people were very stingy with the resources.
How is jewelry-making therapeutic for you?
So, meditation is either you’re not thinking about anything or you’re just focusing on one thought. Even focusing on one thought is the hardest thing to do, because we have so many things going on. Say if I’m making a nameplate, I have to trace whatever I’m doing perfectly. Then I have to saw through all these lines precisely for like an hour. That’s therapeutic because it’s one goal, one object and nothing else. It’s kind of just a connection between you and the piece.
I like that. What are some of your favorite career highlights?
Right now I’m really into accessories, which I will be releasing soon. My last little piece was the Nefertiti Afro pick. When thinking of Nefertiti, we think of the bust, right? Her bust is similar to the form of the top of a hair pick. Then when we think about Nefertiti, she’s a symbol of beauty. I really love doing hair stuff. Even going back from when I did the [jewelry for] Pyer Moss Collection 3 [in 2020], we did all these iconic hair beads. When you get a feeling like I did, it brings you joy or just like you just feel you cracked the code. It feels like is this something that’s needed.
Also, Sotheby’s was lit last year because it was in London. I was born there, so all of my family there got to see the exhibit and I got to spend time with them. My Spike Lee collaborations are very dear to me. Just being from Brooklyn and working with him and his team was very fulfilling. I know you can see the Radio Raheem influence [from Do the Right Thing] in my pieces! We recreated the iconic Mars Blackmon necklace [from She’s Gotta Have It] and custom nameplates for Nike’s 50th anniversary.