Out of Africa: St. Erasmus

June 16, 2009

Ever wonder what happens to you when the First Lady, the one and only Michelle Obama, wears something you’ve created?

“Since Mrs. O wore one of my necklaces I have hardly had time to sleep,” says Pieter Erasmus. “Our web-site crashed a few times because the traffic on STERASMUS.COM is just incredible.”

Jewelry designer Pieter Erasmus has been getting a lot of attention lately and for all the right reasons. The designer behind First Lady Michelle Obama’s statement making necklace worn at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner last month is getting the much deserved attention for his work. The Mobama effect is in full force and everything she touches really does turn to “sold.”

By now everyone knows that the First Lady covets bold jewelry and ones that tell some kind of story. After interviewing Pieter Erasmus, the creative behind St. Erasmus jewelry, I know have a deep respect and admiration for his work and creativity. With roots entrenched in Africa, the land I love and originated from, Erasmus’ bold and vibrant colored jewelry are a reflection of the continent that for so many centuries have inspired the masters.

Erasmus says his collection is “a bold, spontaneous celebration of the life under the wide, blue never-ending, African sky.” His spring collection, Ancient Tribes, was the one from which Michelle Obama chose her stunning necklace.

He’s been in the business of making women feel beautiful for years. Erasmus started out at Erickson Beamon, another Michelle Obama favorite, where he learned the tricks of the trade. He branched out on his own while living in Britain to create beautiful bijoux jewelry so timeless and one of a kind that British women couldn’t get enough of them. The jeweler now lives in New Delhi but still continues to design pieces with his signature grandiose statement making shapes and colors.

Most American women probably had not heard the name St. Erasmus until the First Lady wore one of the pieces. Since then, Ikram, one of Michelle Obama’s favorite places to shop in Chicago, has stocked its shelves with St. Erasmus baubles. That’s all folks! It’s available to U.S. customers in Chicago but Erasmus is hoping to change that. With his name emblazoned in the pages of magazines, his popularity will hopefully inspire stockists here.

What was the inspiration behind your latest collection?
The inspiration came from a book called The White Moguls written by William Dalrymple. It is a history book of the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the late 1800s. The description of the opulence of life at the court of the Nizam and his harem made me dream of necklaces smothered in pearls and sparkling stones.

Take us through your creative process? How do you decide what to include in your collection?
Every season I need a new collection to show to my buyers. In between the season’s show time I make sure to read books and watch films that interest me. At the same time I keep my eye on what is happening in fashion. When the scheduled sampling times arrive I draw on the previous months literature, photography, movies and fashion movements that I have seen. I pull out the ones that I enjoyed the most, and use that as the story, the basis, and the atmosphere of the new collection. In this little dream world of mine constructed of influences of the previous months I work on necklace shapes, materials and colour-ways.

I allow myself maximum a month in this dream world, (one has to be strict because working in the fashion industry is not just about designing, but business as well) and after these 4 weeks, I get all my trusted girlfriends together for a tea and cake party. They try everything on and give me their feedback. After this work/social tea party I make the changes that I feel is necessary and edit the collection.

What type of woman do you create for? Do you have a specific muse in mind when designing? If so, who?
Honestly, I have never had a muse. But since Mrs. O wore one of my creations, I know who my muse is, it is the First Lady. She is what I admire; strong, knows her mind and have her own style. Not over the top styled, or accessorized, but straight to the point. She will be an fashion ambassador of her time, just like Jackie O was of her time, but still she is not a complete slave to fashion.

I have already started to look at previous collections, imagining if she will wear it, and funnily enough there are a few styles that I now want to chuck out.

What is most important to you when designing, style, trend, fashion or wearability?
Creativity is most important for me. I do keep an eye on fashion, but I do not feel compelled for it to lead me when designing a collection. My background is fine arts. That is the perspective I take when designing.

What influenced you to get into design? Did you have any mentors?
I have always been very creative, from childhood, all through my life. Drawing, painting, wood work, stained glass design, knitting, and crochet. It is almost as if there was no other choice. I never even considered a non-creative/design career. I always wanted to work in the fashion industry, but it was more luck than anything ells that I landed at Erickson Beamon in London. And there I found my mentor in Vicki Sarge, the other half of Erickson Beamon.

How can those who purchase your brand incorporate pieces from your collection into their everyday look?
My jewellery is over the top, a bit out there. I feel the best way to wear it, is to down play it. Exactly how the First Lady did it.

One of the pieces of the 09SS collection is this huge over the top Maharaja necklace with gold crochet and several strands of pearls with sparkling Swarovski crystal in bright colours. My favorite fashion designer in South Africa, Marianne Fasler, bought this item, and she immediately wore it with an old Gap t-shirt, jeans and sandals, on her way to the supermarket. That is how it should be worn.

What would you say is the must have piece in your collection and why?
From the 09SS collection the must have is surely the item Mrs. O wore.
I noticed that on the web-site www.instyle.co.uk they have named it the Mobama necklace.

Any celeb client? Do you know who is buying them or is a mystery until you see it in the magazines?
Complete mystery.

The first lady, Michelle Obama wore your necklace to the Correspondent’s dinner. Did you know she was going to be wearing it? Were you aware that she had purchased it?
No is the answer to both questions. I found out she wore it by accident 3 days later. The dress was credited all over the press, nobody knew who the necklace was by.

Have you seen a surge in your business since she wore your jewelry?
My web site has crashed several times. I have had tons of e-mails. Had interviews with publications in the UK, US, South Africa and India.

I sold a few Mobama necklaces directly to the public, and had several enquiries from stores across the world. A few extra orders have come through and we are working towards a few more. Unfortunately this time of year most of the buyers are on holiday and secondly it is mid season. Most shops have spent their budgets months ago. The next selling season starts in 2-3 months and I expect to see a surge in business then.

If you had to choose another piece for her to wear, which one would it be?
It will be from the 09FW collection. A piece from the Metro story. This story was inspired by the 1930’s movie Metropolis by Franz Lang. Bit more of a understated piece, in comparison to the Mobama necklace, composed with black zari crochet elements, black acrylic pearls, hematite and Swarovski crystal. It is a long multi strand necklace.

Do you create custom made jewelry?
Yes, I do.

What is the inspiration behind your next collection?
For 09FW the inspiration was Metropolis, 1930’s Franz Lang movie. For 10SS the inspiration will come from a Bollywood movie by the name Dev D. The story line is Bollywood’s answer to Hollywood’s Gone with the Wind.

Where can U.S. fashionistas purchase your jewelry?
Currently only at Ikram in Chicago. With the British Pound being so strong in the years running up to the current world financial crisis, I found that many US buyers did not want to buy unknown British brands. Hopefully St Erasmus is not such an unknown brand anymore and I will have many more stockists in the US soon.

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