It’s no secret that the world of fine jewellery is a traditional one. The same established houses have been dominating for over a century – which doesn’t leave much room for innovation – but new brand on the block (by comparison, anyway) Mateo NY is shaking things up with its unique approach to design.
Don’t mistake that to mean the label’s jewellery is trend-led: these are forever pieces. “Timeless but wearable and modern,” founder Matthew Harris tells us about Mateo’s aesthetic. No wonder he’s secured the likes of Net A Porter, Matches Fashion, Browns and Farfetch as stockists globally; and his trademark pearls – cultured, one-of-a-kind and never twee – have adorned the likes of Bella Hadid, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Vanessa Hudgens, Yara Shahidi and Ava DuVernay.
It was actually Rihanna, though, in the habit of seeking out lesser known brands, who helped kick start Mateo NY’s journey 12 years ago. “She wore one of my piece’s [a chunky silver zip necklace] and then people came calling and asking. Hence the brand was formed.” Back then, Harris was really just making jewellery for himself. “I did not like what was on the market at the time in terms of men’s jewellery,” he explains. “I needed something refined, elegant and masculine. Not dark and gothic.” Aside from the odd capsule, the brand was solely for men until a pivot to women’s fine jewellery in 2014.
Naturally, this move was well received. Mateo NY quickly gained a cult following because, alongside all the necessary jewellery staples, it creates investment pieces that temper tradition with experimentation. Some feel like mini works of art designed for the face: studs with a detachable ear jacket that create the illusion of pearls floating in mid-air, square-cut citrine diamonds centred within asymmetrical spiral rings, gleaming spheres of lapiz suspended from gold mobile structures. The more classic are just as mesmerising: rainbow sapphire earrings that drop to pistachio amethysts, crescent moon pendants dotted with diamonds and filled with pearl clusters, or square-cut Colombian emeralds strung from classic gold huggies.
Harris’ skills were self-taught with YouTube videos, books and a dose of inspiration from New York itself. “I still remember my early days going to the city’s jewellery district trying to grasp and absorb as much as I could,” he says. “Loads of mistakes were made along the way, even cuts and bruises, but it was all worth it.”
It’s unsurprising that Harris picked up the craft so quickly, since his mother was a dressmaker. Growing up in Montego Bay, Jamaica, he watched intently as she made everything from school uniforms to one-of-a-kind garments for clients.
“It was almost inevitable that I would work in design in some way, shape or form,” he says. Harris is keen to nod to his roots through his jewellery, but not with obvious tropes – “I am not making shell earrings,” he says. His yellow gold pieces set with green malachite or black onyx stones represent his country’s flag in the subtlest way possible.
Harris isn’t just interested in jewellery design, though. “During my downtime, I cook and practice photography and gardening.” His instantly recognisable campaign imagery – always set in portrait and framed with a white logo-stamped mount – is self-shot in his home studio. When praised for this striking imagery, he deflects: “I am fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful women who are like muses.”
These women are powerful, too. Former First Lady Michelle Obama and poet Amanda Gorman (who performed at Kamala Harris’ inauguration), are both big fans of the brand. In February, Gorman wore Mateo NY to open the Super Bowl Half Time show. With the world still reeling from George Floyd’s death, this wardrobe choice felt particularly significant – like change was finally afoot.
The truth is, like many other creatives, Harris is a little sceptical of the sudden shift in support for Black-owned businesses since last year. “I find the talks about diversity at the moment to be a bit performative,” he says. “So we will see later if true changes have been made – long-term, permanent changes!”
There’s been a dramatic uptick in search for Black-owned businesses in the UK since 2020, according to the founder of initiative Black Pound Day. Has Harris noticed a difference? “Honestly, I can’t say,” he admits. “I find that people who shop my brand are not purchasing a piece due to the colour of my skin but purely because they love the design and craftsmanship.” Harris is, naturally, a big supporter of these labels however. He name-checks under-the-radar jewellery brand Khiry during the interview, calling the founder Jameel Mohammad an “incredibly talented young man”.
Harris doesn’t miss a beat because he’s always on the lookout for ideas. “I find inspiration everywhere — it sounds mental, but I really do,” he tells us. It helps that he’s always on the move. “I am an explorer, so I travel for discovery.” These discoveries and diverse influences from all over the world are what makes Mateo NY the brand it is today. Harris might live between Lisbon and Texas now but, as the name suggests, “Mateo truly is, and will always be, a New York brand with New York sensibility.”
A lot has changed since Harris moved to the city aged just 16 to study. His proudest moment so far? “I have had many ‘pinch me’ moments,” he muses. “I have been very blessed as a designer. From Michelle Obama wearing our pieces and Zendaya – whom I adore – wearing and supporting the brand for years, to being featured in some of the best publications worldwide and being a CFDA nominee.” And yet, despite all of these accolades, it’s the simple reminders of success that move Harris the most. “The best thing is seeing a woman on the subway wearing a Mateo NY piece. That’s true fulfilment for me.”
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