Thelma West Is Blazing a Trail for Women of Color in Fine Jewelry—And Making Rihanna Shine

Though she knew that a career in jewelry was her destiny, West didn’t enter the business to become a designer. “I was so young I didn’t have a major plan,” she says. “I just knew I wanted to work with diamonds and gems, but at the time I didn’t know what capacity that would be. I did know that the best path into the industry was to get an education.” 

Diamonds emerged as West’s focus; their mystique was as crucial as their connection to her heritage. Historically, the diamond industry has exploited workers and natural resources across the continent, something West was keenly aware of. “Being African, I have a firsthand understanding of the importance of these gemstones and what they mean within our cultures,” she says. “[Still] it was eye-opening to understanding how these gems are mined, by who, and where we are within the industry. I’m lucky to have come into it during a time when things are beginning to change.” 

The science of gemology also proved fascinating. “Growing up, I saw diamonds as a thing of beauty, but once you learn the science behind them and the way that nature can create something with so magnificent, it adds another level,” says West, who quickly discovered that some of the widely accepted diamond facts were far from true. “We’re always told that diamonds are the hardest material, but once you start working with them, you realize how much care it takes not to chip them or cause a flaw. The more you learn about these stones, the more fascinating they become.”

West’s Embrace bracelet set in 18k recycled gold and set with a duo of ethically-sourced, trapeze-shaped diamonds.Photo: Courtesy of Thelma West
West’s black ceramic and gold 5 carat diamond Rebel Black ring.Photo: Courtesy of Thelma West

At the start of her career 15 years ago, West would make little baubles for friends, but once she began pursuing her goals in earnest, she faced the hurdles many Black talents experienced. “It’s not easy for people of color in this trade,” says West. “People don’t take you seriously, and I often found myself in places where I felt dismissed. Launching a brand is always challenging, but creators of color aren’t represented in these spaces. It’s harder to find funding, which is essential because materials are expensive, and our work doesn’t receive as much coverage or attention. When I began, there were even times when I would create something but I’d have to send out someone else to be the face to get my work sold.”

Even when others didn’t appreciate her work, West understood the value and importance of what she was trying to build. “I had to put my head down and say, I know where I’m going and what I want to accomplish,” she says. “Keeping that top of mind is what allowed me to continue.” Though there were ups and downs, West’s breakthrough came when she opened her studio in Hatton Garden, in the center of London’s jewelry quarter. “I claimed my seat at the table, and that was big for me,” she says. “My mood was, I’m here right in the diamond district—you can’t ignore me any longer!”

Rihanna in West’s Apostròfe necklace

Photo: Getty Images

In the Rebel Black ring

Photo: Getty Images

At present, West has everyone’s attention. Her sleek diamond necklaces and icy rings occupy the sweet spot between ultra-minimalist jewelry and big-ticket bling, which means there’s something for everyone. With her private clientele placing orders for bespoke pieces and stars like Zendaya, Rihanna, and Uzo Aduba all sporting her wares, West appreciates the journey that led her to this. “It’s been an amazing experience and an absolute blessing,” she says. “I’ve gone from being that newbie flipping through the Sotheby’s magnificent-jewels catalog to showing my work there. Then seeing a cultural icon like Rihanna at the Met gala wearing something I’d created was just overwhelming—it still is overwhelming. So much love has come out of that moment, especially from within the Black community.” 

That support has been significant for West. “When people reach out to me and discover my work or simply send a positive message, it’s incredible,” she says. “Whether it’s the guy who finds you on Instagram or the woman who tells her partner, ‘Thelma has to make my engagement ring,’ it matters to me. So much of my work has come through referral, one person telling someone else and spreading the word. Those people changed my life, [and] it’s not just about sales. Their support filled me with confidence. It let me know I could keep going and do even bigger things.”