Hanging Out With... Mateo
We meet New York based jewellery designer MATEO, famed for his refined, architectural pieces which reintroduced the world to the allure of pearls. Here he tells the Browns team about teaching himself his trade, the inspiring nature of the Manhattan skyline and the mythical origins of his favourite gemstone.
What’s the Mateo ethos?
Great personal jewellery inspired by modern art with an aesthetic lead by minimalism and simplicity.
Where did the name for your brand come from?
Mateo is my nickname! My real name is Matthew Cornelius Harris, but nobody ever calls me by that, everyone just refers to me as Mateo… like the way people just say Beyoncé with no surname. So, it means I’m just like Beyoncé, right?
When did you found your label and what is its origin story?
Mateo was launched in the Spring of 2009. To be honest, I started making jewellery with the selfish desire to make pieces just for myself. I wanted something that was truly different and at that time you could only find jewellery for men with skulls on it, which I completely refused to wear - I didn’t want to follow trends basically. Soon after that, Rihanna wore one of my ‘zip’ necklaces and from then on people began started asking for more. That was the impetus for me to start my men's jewellery collection and then in 2015 I began my first women's collection.
How did you get your start as a jewellery designer?
I am completely self-taught. After I finished college, I was searching for my true passion and I literally stumbled upon it. Aged 22, I would walk through the jewellery district in New York and became fascinated by what I saw, questioning everybody there that I could before going home and watching Youtube tutorials about crafting jewellery - that website was my best friend at the time - and reading books about it. After years of trial and error, I have grown and honed my talent.
Favourite piece of art?
The artwork by Shikeith Cathey that I bought myself for my 30th birthday - it really means a lot to me.
Favourite YouTube video?
That’s hard as I have so many, but I would say anything with Patti LaBelle in it. I love old school music and the dramatic nature of her acts, particularly when she sang Over the Rainbow at The Apollo theatre and her live performance of You Are My Friend. If I’m having a stressful day, watching either of those will brighten it up.
Who are some of your favourite architects and artists and what draws you to their work?
My all-time favourite architect is Norman Foster, I adore all of his work. Years ago, I lived next to the Hearst Tower in New York that he designed, I would just spend hours staring at the structure. Artists Alexander Calder and Wassily Kandinsky are also very close to my heart, their timelessness and the strength of their artistic convictions continues to draw me to them. You can see references to their styles and points of view in my own work.
How has your upbringing affected your designs and work ethic?
Well firstly, I was raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. People from there are very hard working and I like to believe that I am a true testament to that! I’m also the son of a seamstress, so fashion has always been around me - my mother would also never leave the house without asking how she looked. In many ways, it has influenced my work in more subtle ways than expected, in that I always try to do the very opposite of what one might imagine a designer from a tropical island to do. You will never see a ‘Rasta’ necklace or earring from MATEO...well, never say never!
How have your parents influenced who you are today?
Both my parents were entrepreneurs. My mother was a genius at what she did! I would watch her whilst she was dressmaking and always wanted to imbue as much passion into my creations as she did for the clothing she made for her clients. She also owned her own childrenswear store, which I would work in after school, it instilled in me the desire to set up my own business one day.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Being the Gemini that I am, what I wanted to do often changed when I was growing up. At one point it was to be a pilot, then a flight attendant, then a doctor, a TV journalist and then a fashion designer. Just all over the place! I am eternally grateful that I was able to find my true calling.
Your favourite piece of jewellery from your past?
A diamond cross that my father gave me when I was little boy is something I still treasure to this day. Where I’m from, it’s common for parents to give their children a cross necklace and a link chain bracelet, which in the future, I hope to pass on myself.
What are some of your design signatures?
Clean lines, cultured pearls and a fine art influence.
Pearls feature heavily in your work, what appeals to you about them?
I have always had a love for them and as a bonus, pearls are my birthstone. Pearls are the only gemstone created underwater and perhaps it’s that almost magical element that draws me to them. In ancient Greek mythology, pearls were posited as being the tears of gods; from their beautiful colour and shape to their gorgeous lustre, I can see why that might be true.
Why do you believe pearls feel contemporary for now after a hiatus from jewellery boxes?
Like my mother always says, ‘life is a cycle, what goes around comes around!’. Long gone are the days when pearls carried the awful stigma of being the preserve of old ladies, their resurgence has seen them reframed through a modern lens. Refreshing designs have accentuated the exquisite nature of them and embraced their otherworldly hue. When I started my first women's collection, I wanted to challenge myself and set myself the aim of making pearls cool and relevant again. With their inherent beauty and form, they can suit any outfit or style, whether casual or formal, making them perfect for the contemporary wardrobe.
What’s the most exciting thing about the fashion industry today?
As clichéd as it may sound, it’s the diversity seen today throughout the business.
What’s your favourite piece of fiction?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
You sneak yellow gold, black onyx and malachite into some of your pieces to pay homage to Jamaica, how does the place continue to inspire you?
Yes, it’s true! For me, Jamaica is home and there is so much to be proud of it for, from Bob Marley to Usain Bolt. The name Jamaica means the land of wood and water and it truly is a paradise on Earth, being able to share a vision of that paradise with others is a pleasure. The Jamaican flag consists of black, green and gold, hence why most of my jewellery uses those colours. Yellow gold features heavily as well as green malachite and emeralds which also symbolise the land and rich vegetation alongside black onyx - a ‘protecting’ stone, which too represents the strength of the people.
The materials used in your creations are ethically sourced and the pieces are manufactured locally to you, why is sustainability and accountability important to the way that you work?
I don't believe in sacrificing the wellbeing of others to create vanity, it just doesn’t feel right to me. I take pride in the fact that that all my materials are ethically sourced and the pieces are handmade in the New York City, the state in which I live.
Is there anything that you collect and why?
What’s been the most magical moment of your career so far?
I have been truly fortunate throughout my working life, but seeing Michelle Obama wearing my creations was a dream come true.
What’s your cure for procrastination?
Like Nike, just do it!
How do you hope people feel when wearing your designs?
I hope that when they put on a MATEO piece that their body language and movements change, that it brings them joy and happiness, accentuating their beauty and elegance.
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
To go back to Jamaica and be able to teach young people how to make jewellery and give back to the place where I’m from. I did grow up without the notion that the career that I have could be a possibility, sharing that knowledge with others in my country who may have an interest in fashion is very important to me.
Interview: Ross Aston
Photographer: Jonathan Middleton
Stylist: Sally Bottomley