Transparency first, with Cecile Raley Designs

Yvonne Cecile Raley, Founder of Cecile Raley Designs, made the move from academia to jewelry design. Dedicated to sustainability and transparency, Raley supports fair wages and local artisanship. Here, she shares her design process, inspiration, and thoughts how the industry can support local mining families.


What was it like shifting from teaching to jewelry crafting? Are you still finding your footing in this industry in any way, or do you feel like you have a confident grasp on your craft?

The transition was gradual, so I found it very easy.  Plus, I realized that working with gems was my real calling, and that made it even easier.  I enjoyed teaching but I missed the creative aspect of it.  I do feel that I have a good grasp on my craft but at the same time, one never stops learning.  There’s always more to know, and as Socrates once said, “The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.”

Is there a particular moment, or piece, that you feel represents the beginning of your career?

Yes. Once I started designing pieces with the halos coming to a point, like in my sunflower ring, and many others in my petal collection, such as the Lily ,which I love the most, I felt that I had really found my own style.

What was the process of self-teaching jewelry making like?

Fun, actually.  I am used to researching on my own from my previous career, but in jewelry I found that you could learn even more from others.  I spent a lot of time with my first setter, watching him work, as well as with my jeweler and my first gemstone supplier.  I spent the weekends soldering at my house, or wax carving.  Compared to having to be “on” in a classroom, doing crafting was very soothing.

Congrats on your 10-year anniversary this year! Can you reflect on the highlights and struggles these past years that have helped you grow?

Well, my highlights have definitely been travel.  During my first Tucson, I barely slept.  At night, I would “rewatch” all the gems I had seen in my minds eye, trying to come up with designs and making buying decisions (my budget was very limited).  Right away, I decided that I needed to go to the Las Vegas AGTA also.  Then in 2016, I went to Madagascar and Tanzania.  That was even more amazing and also quite an eye opener.  I always wanted to understand what it was like at the “birthplace” of gems.  I fell in love with the people in Madagascar, and I started a travel diary so I wouldn’t forget a single detail of that wonderful trip.

Now I’ve added Colombia to my list, and hopefully next year, it will be Sri Lanka.

I would want to add that I hadn’t anticipated the struggles that artisanal miners and brokers face in the less affluent countries, and that was a very sobering experience.  It’s one thing to know about it, and quite another to see it.  I should have expected that, since that’s largely what I did in my ethics classes: getting people to feel ethical challenges by looking at examples and case studies, not just knowing about things top down.  But experiencing it first hand was very, very different.

Other than that, there aren’t many downsides to what I do now, but 2014 was a scary year because I lost my job at the University due to budget constraints, and I had to learn how to survive making jewelry.  My sales increased steadily at a fast pace, but in 2018 there was a drastic and sudden downturn that I didn’t expect. That was tough also, but we then refocused on growing our social media and it’s been steady since then.  Otherwise, I don’t feel it was challenging.

Many of your designs are reminiscent of the Art Deco era. What aspects of this movement inspires you the most?

I love the freedom represented by that era.  Women fought for the vote, women’s roles in movies became more interesting (just think of Katherine Hepburn), and of course I love the fashion.  Also, when I first came to NYC in 1999 and saw the Empire State building (remember it was featured in the 1930s King Kong Movie with Faye Wray), and I was just in awe.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the inside, but the angular designs and the cool simplicity of the lines is very inspiring.  I’ve tried to emulate it in my Gotham line, though I don’t know that I have really hit it just right yet.

You focus and advocate for ethical and sustainable sourcing. What does this look like in the jewelry industry, and what do you hope for the future of ethics in the jewelry industry?

That is a hard question.  I wish I could say that the jewelry industry has a lot of options for environmentally friendly production, but it doesn’t.  We do use recycled metals, and that helps, but manufacturing uses a lot of acids for instance.

On the positive side, I think where we can make a difference is in supporting artisanal, that is, small scale local mining.  We can support families far away, and we can try to pay them better for their hard work, both in sourcing and in cutting, than the local competition does.  This is very important to me.  I don’t like going to Muzo, Colombia, and finding the town to be poor, when I know full well that some of the world’s most famous gems come from this area.  It’s unconscionable to me to see that a town that has produced museum quality gemstones not have hot water, or that the miners who work to unearth these treasures walk 3 hours each way to get to work, standing in the dirt and washing rocks all day, all in the hopes of making enough to provide basic support to their families.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that, and if I can’t change it, then I at least want to participate as little as possible in the tradition of underpaying.

How do you feel about the concept of jewelry as an investment? Is this a smart move for the consumer, or superficial in your opinion?

Um, yes and no. When it comes to standard white diamond jewelry, or commercially produced pieces with strongly enhanced gems, I’d say there’s no investment here.  It’s just like buying a new car which loses something like 30% of it’s value once you drive it off the lot.

But I do feel that one can invest in jewelry.  I.e. Cartier and Tiffany’s gold jewelry generally tend to hold their value.  In other words, if you invest you have to buy rare and fine quality goods.  You need lab reports for sapphires and rubies, and you can’t buy silver jewelry.  Second, with the right guidance, you can buy colored gemstones for investment purposes, such as padparadscha sapphire, Paraiba tourmaline, low oil Colombian emerald, and a few others.  I own a few investment pieces myself, mainly set with gemstones that are super rare in the size or quality.  I have a 3.67 carat mahenge spinel pendant that I adore.

Is there a particular piece you’ve made that is especially special to you? Or your favorite?

My favorite is probably the Lily style.  It was a stroke of luck really, since the original four petal style is an adaptation of a four petal rose cut earring I found on eBay.  Then I thought, what if there was a set of petals peeking out from behind the main four, but smaller?  I tried it, and the result was “wow.”  The Lily has also been my best seller.

How do you think the online market, like Etsy, has changed/benefitted the jewelry industry?

Etsy has certainly educated the consumer greatly.  When I first started with beaded necklaces, people would be like “kyanite, what is that?” Now they ask for very specific things, i.e. no window 2+ emerald cut Muzo mined emerald with AGL report, satiny but not heavily included, medium grassy green color.  That never happened in 2010. Generally, I think that’s positive because I prefer to work with an educated client.

On the downside, there’s a lot more competition, and not all good.  Many Etsy listings don’t disclose per carat prices or exact gem specifications (even treatment) so it’s hard to judge the gemstone’s value.  In smaller marketplaces such as Loupe Troop, sellers don’t offer good return policies.  Buyers can get taken advantage of.  That’s why I think it’s so important that that buyers work with a trusted and well established seller, preferably US or European based because US and EU laws protect the consumer against fraud.

Do you think there are going to be other platforms like Etsy arising and becoming popular?
Presumably, yes.  Etsy has become quite a giant these days, but Amazon handmade is a lot of competition, and more and more people are using Etsy to direct clients to their own websites.  Sooner or later, everything gets replaced.

Are there any specific pieces or collection launches in the near future that our readers can be on the lookout for?

I just came out with six new stacking rings, to be released in the next few weeks.  I also released two new hexagons and a new petals style fashioned after my Penelope, and I am coming out with another Lily style and another petal style for ovals.  In particular, the “fat oval”, i.e. 5×4, 4×3, 3×2, as opposed to the calibrated 6×4, 5×3 etc. is a much under appreciated shape in design, whereas it is very popular with gemstone vendors.  I’m working on designs that feature these shapes, so I can capture the market and benefit, both for myself and for the consumer from the lower prices of these cuts.
Visit Cecile Raley Designs on Etsy here, or click here to visit the company’s website.

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