The first thing to notice upon entering Akaila Johnson’s workspace is a custom-built bubblegum pink safe.
“When they delivered it, they said it was the only pink safe they had ever made,” she said. “If I have to have a safe, I might as well make it beautiful.”
The vault is a glimpse into the aesthetics and vibrancy of the fine jewelry designer. She describes her designs as “colourful, whimsical, feminine but not too heavy”.
Johnson, who launched her jewelry brand Akaila Reid — her paternal grandmother’s last name was Reid — amid the pandemic, is used to following her instincts and not listening to doubters.
“It was crazy and not necessarily the best time to start a business, but I had private clients keeping me busy,” she said of navigating a launch amid COVID-19. .
A designer in a market dominated by the European luxury house and designers with deep industrial connections or family heritages in fine jewelry, Johnson is determined to chart her own course.
“It’s not even just a mixed-race woman, but being a woman in general in this industry isn’t the easiest. It’s especially the older men who look at you with a ‘little girl, that’s funny,'” she said. “I had a lot of ‘good luck with it’.”
To that, she said, “Watch me do it.”
Johnson grew up in California, “in a very conservative, red-leaning neighborhood,” she explained. “I’ve always been the odd one out. Now it’s almost an asset in a way, it helps me stand out.
Akaila Reid jewelry is in line with a modern clientele who wants to wear pieces on a daily basis. It’s “not too bad,” Johnson said. “They can be worn with a prom dress or jeans and a t-shirt. I just want to create fun jewelry, pieces that people can wear and pass on from generation to generation… Worn, lived and loved.
“If it’s not covered in rhinestones, I didn’t want it,” she joked about her obsession with all things glitter as a child. It was a friend of the family, an alumnus of the Gemological Institute of America, who cleverly suggested that Johnson also participate in the GIA. After graduating in 2019, she decided to go it alone and develop her own pieces.
Akaila Reid debuted a mixture of large opal pieces – a rare and popular stone not often seen in larger sizes. Her opal creations hatched during her days at the GIA, but the faculty told her she would never be able to create it.
“That year, I go to the Tuscan Gem Show and I find the guy who cuts such big opals, and I was like, ‘Now what? ‘” she said.
Johnson’s studio in the center of New York’s Diamond District highlights the “playful with a heart” sensibility she brings to her fine jewelry designs, with a mix of family photos (including her dog Ruby), a wide assortment of color-coded pens, brushes and loose stones on her desk, all meant to inspire her creative flow. “It’s important to have family and friends around,” she said of her settling in. The designer also painted pictures from her school days, including those opal pieces she was told would never work.
All of Akaila Reid’s production and manufacturing is done within a few blocks of her office.
“I’m lucky to have a great team,” Johnson said, noting that they “helped open doors and fought for it.”
His team takes his sketches, renders them with CAD software and then, once approved by Johnson, prints them on a 3D printer, takes them to the foundry and, finally, a jeweler polishes and sets his stones. For a unique piece, the lead time is three to four weeks, and two to three months for a complete collection.
Akaila Reid’s new collection, Wavy Baby, is inspired by the cadence of a heart monitor.
“It’s a symbol of life,” she said of the gold coin collection – a striking necklace, diamond cuffs and shimmering stackable rings, each of the special “life-affirming” pieces. “.
Within a year, the brand was taken over by two well-known regional jewelry retailers: Metalmark and Tayloe Piggott Gallery.
“Anyone believes in me and wants to wear my jewelry?” Johnson said enthusiastically. “What an incredible moment. They’re taking a risk on me, and that’s exciting.