Perhaps the ultimate Renaissance woman of the jewelry world, Thelma West is not just a jewelry designer who specializes in incredible gemstones, she’s also a certified gemologist, diamond dealer, and founder of a gemological laboratory. Where did she find the time? Her newest venture, Thelma West Diamonds, is the pinnacle of her career and combines her extensive knowledge of the jewelry industry and gemology with her unique design aesthetic influenced by her childhood in Nigeria and her exploration of European-style jewelry.
In Nigeria, jewelry wasn’t solely reserved for special occasions. It was an integral part of their wardrobes and personal style, as well as a source of financial security. “Being Nigerian born, jewelry plays a big role in how we express ourselves, not just in terms of fashion. We also see it as a very meaningful store of value, knowing that if there were a rainy day, you could turn to those jewels,” she says.
Her jewelry combines the traditional African aesthetic, which she describes as “big and bold, and chunky and colorful,” with the more modern and minimalistic styles popular in Europe, which she discovered during her travels. While she initially thought she was going to be an engineer, jewelry had a strong pull on her and she moved to Antwerp, one of the world’s diamond capitals, to train as a gemologist. After graduating, she became a diamond sorter and then a diamond buyer. She was able to use her gemology training to find special stones, which gave her an edge. “I was looking for that extra stone, with a beautiful sparkle, where you could maximize profits. It was all that. It was the science part of it and the business part of it.”
Despite being a successful diamond dealer, she felt that it wasn’t enough. She wanted to create her own company, in part to have her own company, but also to escape and combat the sexism and racism she encountered in the industry. With a partner, she launched her all-female company, Yeraua, where she hunts for rare diamonds and fosters an open, welcoming environment, which she describes as a safe haven. “I’m hoping that the next person, the next generation, or the women who come after me, experience less of it. I always wanted to be able to stand up for myself and other people, and this is what I’ve created. I’m hoping that other people will open their doors too.”
Yeraua specializes in unique diamonds, and West’s training as a gemologist helps her spot diamonds that have the potential to improve with polishing, which she does at their polishing facility. “As a boutique diamond-dealing company, I can’t compete with the big manufacturers. So we found a niche for ourselves, which is unique stones. Unique in the sense that even if it’s a round diamond, it’s got something else going for it. If it’s not the price, we don’t look at it in the sense that everybody else looks at a diamond. We find stones that have an edge. That’s what we say and that’s where we pride ourselves. The cuts are a bit different. And like I said, if it’s a classic stone, then it would be something that on the surface has something going for it. So either the cut or the polish, or it’s been recut by us to make it more vibrant.”
When pressed about her favorite stones and stories, she has a hard time picking a favorite. “We had a pink, kite-shaped diamond, which was quite rare. We had that recently, and that was actually from the source. So it was sourced in Botswana, shipped to Israel, cut and polished in Israel, brought to us in London, and successfully sold. That was quite special for us.” Her clients know she can find these unique stones, so they are patient enough to wait for her to source them, and to go through all of these steps before they can have their jewel.
Few companies work with rare stones of this level, and provenance and certification are of paramount importance. West became frustrated with constantly sending stones to the Gemological Institute of America, the gold standard of gem grading, due to the expense and time it took. So, she set up her own gemological grading lab using experienced graders at GIA-standard levels. (She’s actually lost clients who think her standards are too strict.) “We don’t over grade, and we pride ourselves on that. And we tell people that if you want someone who’s going to over grade your stone, go somewhere else. I mean, there are other labs that will do that for you, not us. Reputation is very important in the industry.”
Despite conquering nearly all parts of the diamond-dealing industry, West longed to stretch her creative muscles and design jewelry. “I knew that I was going to take a creative position. I always knew that,” she says. It started off small, with friends asking her to design pieces for them. Then, she created pieces for herself, and it grew from there. Today, Thelma West Diamonds designs bespoke pieces created for women who cherish her aesthetic and stone-focused pieces. “I want to make jewelry for women who want to stand out and who are not afraid to try and mix and match, invest in good stones, invest in good jewelry, invest in the brand.“
The jewelry features stunning diamonds, of course, and there is frequently a twist to the pieces. The Idunnu ring features three pear-shaped fancy-colored diamonds that appear to float between diamond tendrils, while her signature Rebel ring uses a unique setting to transform a pear-shaped diamond into something darker and moodier, almost like the thorns on a rose bush.
West also loves to work with antique and vintage jewelry to create pieces the current owner wants to wear, but that still respects the heritage and history behind the stone. “It’s all about honoring the gem, basically, putting it in a piece that keeps that whole tradition going. It’s a piece that has come with so much history, so much love, and value”