Maya Antoun is a St. Martin’s school of design educated jewellery maker. Currently residing in the UK, her aim is to continue the long tradition of filigree jewellery making. Gorgeous stuff. I want every piece.
“Sudanese jewelry designer Maya Antoun chooses filigree as her craft in an effort to keep the tradition alive in her homeland
Every day, Sudanese craftsmen emerge from their workshops and set up their market stalls in the heat of the African sun. The traditional jewellers create amazingly intricate, delicate pieces with nimble hands – each as individual as the last. However, the future of the craftsmen’s fine-spun works is in jeopardy and this is something that jeweler Maya Antoun aims to correct.
Born and raised in Khartoum, Antoun attended Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and has since made a home in the south of England with her British husband. The designer works with Sudanese craftsmen to bring their ethereal filigree accessories to the rest of the world.
‘I concentrate on filigree because it’s a difficult craft to accomplish and it’s a work-intensive technique – basically not a lot of people are doing it any more. One of the main reasons I started working with the craftsmen in Africa is that it’s a technique that’s dying out; you don’t really see it [filigree] a lot in contemporary jewellery,’ tells us.
Filigree is a time-consuming technique that often takes years to master. The pieces form their shape when hairline strips of twisted silver and gold thread are manipulated and shaped into varying patterns. The meticulous, time-consuming metalwork is occasionally teamed up with delicate beading that adds both variation and detail.
Antoun, who champions this technique in her own jewellery, relies heavily on the use of traditional African shapes to grace her designs, which while delicate are also striking. Fan shaped pieces sit in juxtaposition, creating splayed effects. Antoun’s pieces aim to bring traditional techniques into the modern age, thus bringing their appeal to a wider audience.
‘The pieces I make use very traditional techniques but are more contemporary so that people become interested. Usually, the craftsmen make very traditional pieces which are quite boring and repetitive; the idea was to use a very traditional technique but make something very modern, very contemporary,’ she says.
In order to master the difficult skills, Antoun teamed up with craftsmen from her homeland. She learned from them and is now trying to repay the favour by opening up more collaborative efforts between the African craftsmen and global designers. As well as trying to develop new markets in Africa, she also brings the work to Western markets.
With family still living in Sudan and her upbringing in the country, Antoun says her homeland has definitely influenced her designs.
‘A lot of people hear a lot of bad things about Sudan – it’s one of those countries that get a lot of bad press; the same as the Congo.’ Antoun, who initially started her career training to be a fashion designer, but later found her niche in jewellery, also spent a year living in the Congo working with local craftsmen to create and exhibit her work.
While the war in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo continues, the rest of the country goes about their daily business, she explains. ‘They are not affected by what goes on around them.’ This was also the case during her childhood in Khartoum, which she describes as ‘idyllic’ and very much separate from the conflict in the rest of Sudan.
‘There’s war in eastern Congo, but in Kinshasa they’re just going to their jobs, going to school, getting on with it and are quite unaffected by what’s happening in the rest of the country,’ she explains. ‘That was what it was like for us.’
‘I decided while I was there I wanted to learn a traditional craft, so I hooked up with a craftsman in the market and asked to come to his stall every day for a few hours and learn – he was very happy to teach me. I got a hands-on experience of what was going on, what they were doing and how they were marketing their products. That’s when I realised something had to be done because they all had incredible skills, but the craft was dying out,’ she says. Learning the technique originally stemmed from a project she was undertaking for her Master’s Degree, she explains, but then it turned into something of a passion.
It was also quite a novelty for a woman to be learning the filigree technique at the markets of Kinshasa as the metal-working industry in Africa is male-dominated; which includes the wire work featured in Antoun’s filigree jewellery.
However, the designer has been using the technique now for some years now and has made friends in the market, ‘people are very friendly and protective of me now.’
It works well for the designer to be based between her home country and her adoptive country despite the fact she has to overcome some logistical problems.
‘It’s a bit of a struggle because I’m dealing with a lot of different aspects that constitute the craft of the trade; Sudan is a country with a lot of political problems at the moment,’ she says. ‘I’m not only dealing with trying to make jewellery, it’s a bigger struggle than that.’
She has also found opportunities to collaborate with fellow Sudanese designers in London. After meeting Omer Asim through mutual friends, Antoun has fused her jewellery designs with Asim’s fashion. Together the designers create pieces that place a contemporary twist on a traditional and more ethnic aesthetic.
Having grown up in the same country, Antoun says, they create an ideal sounding board for each other and often run new designs by one another before they go public.
‘We collaborate here together in London and so I do tend to have input in what he’s doing and we do work on the same projects but not necessarily designing – more to support each other,’ she explains. ‘It just so happens that our sensibilities are similar; we work very well together.’
Antoun’s creations were coupled with Asim’s pieces for the On/Off Event in London, 2010. On/Off is a platform that aims to promote up-and-coming fashion designers and creatives through a multimedia format that takes place twice a year at London and Paris fashion weeks.
Currently working on a new collection she is hoping to collaborate with other artists and introduce new materials. Selling her pieces online and at various outlets, the designer hopes the Western world will learn to love and appreciate the filigree skills from Africa so that the craftsmen at home will be continue to practice their trade.”