Jewelry Designer Johnny Nelson On The DM That Changed His Life

PHoto: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images.
When jewelry designer Johnny Nelson talks, he twists a ring on his pinky finger. Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and actress/producer Lena Waithe have the same ring. “This is a personal piece I made for Lena,” Nelson, born Johnel Jamison, tells Refinery29, casually referencing the actress who wore the buttons he made to the Met Gala, catapulting him into fashion infamy. “I was just so appreciative of the moment.” Both Lena and Kerby's Met Gala suits featured Johnny Nelson jewelry buttons, bearing the faces of LGBTQ artists and Black hip-hop icons. Johnny resized those buttons and made rings. Kerby has the hip-hop version, and Lena has the ring featuring LGBTQ icons. “[Lena] has the only one and I have it because I have the mold.”
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For the Met Gala buttons, Jean-Raymond reached out to Nelson via direct message on Instagram. “I was like, oh,” he tells Refinery29. “He wanted me to do something else for him first, a ring for the Met Gala.” They're now frequent collaborators. Nelson says Kerby's eye elevates his art in the way it truly should be expressed. “I'm all about evolution and taking stuff to the next level,” Nelson explains. “[But with Kerby, it's like] How did you think of that? Why didn't I think of that?”
When the two came back together last month for Jean-Raymond's spring 2020 collection at Kings Theatre in Flatbush, the collaboration was something Nelson quite literally dreamed. When Kerby shared his idea with Nelson, the jewelry designer realized he'd visualized the design before. "I was like, oh shoot, wow, I just was taking pictures of beads and people's hairstyles. I envisioned these faces on the beads and then so did he.” Nelson made almost 300 beads, worn during the show as necklaces, earrings and hair accessories, all featuring 21 different women musicians. He says they'll be available for sale early next week.
Creating pieces with his hands is a spiritual process for Nelson. “You're connected to it. It's lit.” It's also expensive, and that requires faith. “You're working with metals and metals that are super expensive,” he explains. “You got to have mad faith to be investing so much time and money. It's a lot of trial and error. You're trying and failing a lot with expensive materials.” And there aren't a lot of Black jewelry designers, Nelson points out.
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The London-born, Brooklyn-raised designer credits his mother with helping him get his start. In 2011, he had just gotten off a music tour where he performed as a rapper and was back home, hanging out with his friends who all had four-finger rings. “I'm like dang, I can't really afford that yet. But I need to look as good as I feel. So, I went to my mom and I'm like, ‘Yo, I'm going to have to wear your rope chain.’ But, I need something to rock on my fingers. I didn't even know she could make jewelry.”
She turned a black oblong tourmaline piece into a ring for him and then Johnny went back on tour. “I did a bunch of interviews,” he says. They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, your ring, your ring, your ring!’ And I'm like, Oh shoot, I'm getting a lot of attention for this. So, when I came back, I was on the plane or something, I'm like yo, let me make three finger rings. I came back and asked my mom again. ‘Hey, can we do three finger rings?’ She's like, ‘Alright, cool.’ It was so simple for her. It was weird, because I never even asked her if she knew how to make jewelry.” In September, Nelson's mother accompanied him to the Pyer Moss show.
He founded Johnny Nelson Jewelry in 2017. For his designs, Nelson draws inspiration from diverse cultural experiences that merge Black history, punk, hip-hop and spirituality.  He specializes in hand-carved portrait jewelry. 
Nelson seems to find inspiration the most after he works out. “If I go to the bath house and clear everything out, have a clean state, then ideas just pop out.” A typical day for the 31-year-old starts with meditating and working out. Then by 12 p.m. or 1 p.m., he's probably in the diamond district. From there, he's back to his studio, working on pieces, undoubtedly dreaming up his next innovation.
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