Douriean Fletcher’s jewelry has transfixed the masses, whether or not they realize it. As the jewelry designer for the blockbuster film Black Panther, Fletcher created jewelry and adornment that reflected the Afro-futurist design of the film. In the world of the film, gender roles are circumvented as power is based on expertise and ability. The jewelry that the characters wear reflects the equity that Wakandan society has achieved.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Douriean came to jewelry almost by chance, after an accident sidelined her at home and she began teaching herself to make jewelry with stones and wire. A chance encounter with Ruth E. Carter led her to the opportunity of a lifetime. In addition to designing jewelry for the big-screen, Douriean creates wearable art jewelry in gorgeous gold tones.
This Sunday, Douriean will participate in a talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. entitled Fresh Talk: Accessory to Action–Adorning Wakanda. The discussion will explore the aesthetics of gender equity and how adornment communicates power and gender.
I had the chance to speak with Douriean over the phone this week in anticipation of her talk in D.C. She’s a wonderful and generous conversationalist and her story is an inspiration for anyone who is a maker.
Shane Prada: What is your jewelry history? When did you first come to love jewelry and what is your earliest memory of it?
Douriean Fletcher: My earliest memory jewelry involves my grandmother. She was really fabulous. She was one of those ladies that wore a church hat on Sundays and things of that nature. Her jewelry was always very elaborate; I remember in particular this one cat necklace that was fantastic. When I was around 11, she gave me a necklace that her husband had given her for their engagement. It was made of gold and diamonds, but the best thing about it was that there was a story behind it. And I’ve always held onto that story.
How did your connection to jewelry evolve as you grew up?
In high school, probably when I was in 11th or 12th grade, my mother started buying jewelry for me. I was prone to losing it. I would come home with only one earring in a pair. So I just started mixing and matching these lost earrings. I never liked looking like anybody else. I remember my mother and her friend used to buy similar dresses for me and my friend, but I just couldn’t stand that! So when I misplaced earrings, I saw it as an opportunity. I didn’t have a matching pair, but I could make a new pair, something spunky that no one else had.
My mom used to take me to this boutique in L.A. where a woman sold African clothing and jewelry. She always had th big gaudy cowrie shell necklaces and bracelets, and I just loved them. I thought they were the coolest thing. I didn’t know the importance of cowrie shells at the time, but something about them really resonated with me.
What did you study in school?
I was passionate about social justice and the social sciences, and I went to an international school where we would travel abroad each semester. I only stayed there for one semester, but it gave me the opportunity to study in South Africa. I was really fascinated by the storytelling I encountered there and the way that jewelry played a role in storytelling. I got to meet women who made beaded jewelry and learn about their processes. Everything they made had a story and the story was always related to culture and status.
How did you begin making jewelry?
When I came back to L.A. in 2009, I was working a job that was not a good match for me at all. I felt I should leave the job because it didn’t suit my talents and my gifts. But I didn’t leave, and then I got into a car accident. It was unfortunate, but it was also a blessing in disguise. Recovering gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do. I started making wire-wrapped jewelry using copper wire and stones. I couldn’t move much because I injured my back, but I could make jewelry. It occured to me that perhaps I could make money selling the jewelry I was making. I went to the hardware store and stocked up on supplies.
At first, I just experimented. I made ten versions of an Ankh ring, and I posted them on Facebook. I gave the first five away just to gauge if people were interested. They were kind of rough looking, but people really responded to them. I posted the remaining five for $20 or $30 and they were gone within three days. Making jewelry gave me so much joy, it made me so happy. I loved that people wanted to wear the jewelry I was making.
I understand you are primarily self-taught. Tell me more about that.
When I began making jewelry, I really wanted to utilize basic skills like cold connections and wire wrapping rather than utilizing toxic chemicals and soldering with gas. But I did find that there were designs and ideas that I couldn’t execute without certain techniques.
At the time, I was living in New Orleans to pursue being an artist, and I found the New Orleans School of Metalsmithing. My teacher there was very supportive and patient. Initially I was so terrified of the torch, just terrified. I was developing complex designs that demanded I solder wire in certain ways, and I also really wanted to work with sheet metal, soldering one piece to another. So I made myself get comfortable with the torch. Once I figured it out, I loved it. It was my thing.
At the time, I was still teaching myself skills I learned through online tutorials. I would use Facebook to post about what I was learning and images of my new work. A woman who was organizing an African-inspired fashion show during Paris Fashion Week came across my work and invited me to attend and sell my pieces there. That propelled me even further in my new career.
Photo by Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright
Black Panther Film, 2018
Black Panther is an epic film that has certainly impacted contemporary culture. You gave jewelry a role to play in the legacy of the film. Can you tell me about what the jewelry in Black Panther means to you and what you hope people see in it?
This is a very interesting question because I’ve been getting it quite frequently and I have not known how to answer it. Quite honestly, when I first got the job, I was just excited because I was living the starving artist story. I was just trying to figure out how I was going to pay my bills, how to sell my work, and how to find the ideal clientele.
So when I got the job, I had this sense that I was in the right place, and I was just excited to deliver. I wanted to work hard and to make Ruth E. Carter and Ryan Coogler happy and to keep my job! I was so immersed in the work that it wasn’t until I saw the film that I really understood what I was doing. The jewelry conveyed such strength and seeing that strength on the big screen was so powerful. To see strength that looked like me, a brown girl, that was so impactful.
Can you talk about how you manifested issues of power and gender through the jewelry you designed for Black Panther?
Like I said, I was quite unaware of what role I was playing in this until I saw the film. But the imagery is really powerful, and I love the fact that I was part of a process that basically reprograms the way people see women in power, if only for the duration of the film. I really see the film as an opportunity for viewers to question how they see women in power, particularly black women in power.
The jewelry played a big role in this: the gold, the armor, the claw details of the work. Ruth paid attention to detail when it came to how the characters would be represented and the message they were communicating particularly about strength and power and being feminine. The female warriors represent a new idea of what femininity can be. I think that’s super powerful.
How closely were you working with Ruth and her costume team?
Initially we sat down and we discussed what her intention was for the characters and what she wanted me to make and what Wakandan jewelry looked like to her. We went through different designs for the costumes, and she shared artists she was inspired by, like Art Smith and Alexander Calder. As we developed imagery, we infused the ideas with tribal designs (Tuareg, Zulu, Masai). And of course, I brought my own aesthetic to the designs.
Ruth and I worked together on some of the specific pieces, like Ramonda’s dress that was at the end of the film. She had discussed the armor pieces with Marvel already so they gave me 2-D illustrations and said “Here, make this.” So there was a lot I just had to figure out. But the costume team was fantastic and they supported me so much, especially in thinking about the functionality of the pieces. Ruth encouraged me to push myself and push my boundaries and make the work truer to both the aesthetic of the film and my aesthetic.
How would you summarize the experience of working on a blockbuster film like this?
It was very exciting, just so amazing. I really had the feeling that I was where I was supposed to be. I had the support of the cast and the crew. It was a lot of work. I had my own workshop and it was demanding to make so many pieces in such a short amount of time. It was an incredible amount of pressure, but I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
How has the experience of working on the film influenced your art practice, specifically the production work you make and sell?
The interesting thing about the movie is that afterwards, I did get the licensing for Marvel. So the experience took me out of production and into the licensing aspect of jewelry. And on top of that, I recently had my first child. My production now is totally different. My platform is no longer selling my work at art markets or selling on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. I’ve shifted the way I produce my work and I do have help with the production of my line. I have so much more room and opportunity to create wearable art pieces that I have been wanting to make for years. I absolutely feel blessed that I am able to do this.
I have read that you are really inspired by women’s stories. How do you encounter and cultivate those stories? Are there any particular women in history or contemporary culture that you would love to make jewelry for?
I love a strong narrative. I especially love to hear about women who dare to be themselves, who dare to tell their own story. The first person I ever wanted to make jewelry for was Erykah Badu then it was Oprah then it was Beyonce. I love when women appreciate adornment and show their strength and power through that medium. There are certain stories I want to tell.
Right now, I am really fascinated by Goddess stories and how they are told to empower women or to give them stories to see themselves in. I am interested in how I can tell those stories in jewelry. How can I show a powerful woman that honors herself and values herself but doesn’t mind looking like a superhero or Goddess walking out of her home? A good example of this is the piece that Hannah Beachler (set designer for Black Panther) wore to the Oscars, the face chain. That piece exemplifies a woman who dares to be different, who is unapologetic. A piece like that becomes a work of art and allows the wearer to be a work of art as well.
What’s next for you?
Well, I am working on Black Panther 2 which is very exciting. But in my own work, I am planning a series of exclusive pop-up events where clients can buy my work. People can go to my website and sign up for my newsletter to learn where these events will be. I will probably be doing a few art shows within the next few months as well.
Thank you so much for your time, Douriean, and for sharing your story!
Portraits of Douriean Fletcher by Dawn Jefferson and BJ photography. All jewelry by Douriean Fletcher.
To see more of Fletcher’s jewelry go to her website.
Find out more about Douriean Fletcher’s FRESH TALK: Accessory to Action—Adorning Wakanda at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC on June 30, 4:30 – 6.
* Reservations are now SOLD OUT. Very limited number of standby seats may be available on the day of the program, no guaranteed entry. $25 general; $20 members, seniors, students. Price includes museum admission and Catalyst cocktail hour.
Watch the program live-stream at nmwa.org/freshtalk4change.