Representation of women in the gems and jewelry industry has advanced in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Like many other spheres, this industry has largely been seen as a “man’s world,” where women have had to overcome significant barriers in working in the sector.
There has been, admittedly, some progress with books and exhibitions about past and present women jewelry designers. The focus is primarily on the downstream retail and design sector. Women’s representation is almost absent in the upstream supply chain – the mining, sourcing, manufacturing to gem cutting, and gemological research.
According to most estimates, women drive demand for more than 90 percent of the world’s jewelry. Their tastes and preferences shape the jewelry market and influence decisions at every step of the supply chain.
The Women’s interview series is a monthly column that aims to celebrate and amplify women’s voices in all facets and levels of the industry. We all have the responsibility to change the narrative into an inclusive and inspirational one. This is a platform that focuses on today’s trail-blazing female practitioners.
Women’s Series: KAREN PYU
This Toronto-based Burmese jeweler draws inspiration from her heritage and combines it with Singapore’s glamour to create unique wearable pieces.
Jewelry is more than just an accessory for Burmese Toronto-based Karen Pyu, the creative force behind the brand Mondselle. “It is an everyday art form, one to be expressed in the most beautiful ways.” Karen has made a name for herself with creations that beautifully combine her Burmese heritage with the urban, fashion-forward city of Singapore. Her jewels have already won the attention of Myanmar and Canadian celebrities, including MYA and Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Her passion for fine art began during her childhood and continued to grow through the years in high school. Karen moved to Toronto for her jewelry design and metalsmith training at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) before launching her brand in 2015. Applying her honed sense of style and creativity to the realm of jewelry design, Karen Pyu puts wearability at the heart of her creations.
She tells us more about her design philosophy and the female icons that inspire her work in our exclusive interview below.
Can you give me some background into your journey before launching Mondselle? I was born in Myanmar and lived there until I was fourteen. As a kid, I remember coloring with crayons and enjoyed working and layering colors to create different effects. My mother saw how much I loved to draw and put me into art class every summer, but it wasn’t until we moved to Singapore, when I was given the opportunity to take a large variety of art classes and really pursue it as a passion. In high school, there was a design competition for SIGG water bottles, and my submission was selected as the best. It was amazing to see students carrying around the water bottles with my design on them. This really kick-started my passion for pursuing it as a career.
I moved to Canada for my jewelry design and metalsmith training. After graduating from Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD), I started Mondselle, which consists of fine and fashion jewelry.
Could you explain how the name Mondselle came about?
The name Mondselle is derived from the French word “mondaine,” meaning a woman belonging to fashionable society, and the word “Elle” meaning she. The brand is catered towards many sides to today’s modern women. Through my creative work, I hope to make women look and feel fashionable.
How would you define your brand aesthetic and style?
I gravitate towards ornate and sculptural aesthetics, and I’m also highly attracted to floral motifs. I design jewels that I genuinely believe in, and I would wear every day. My focus is also on wearability, which’s suitable for both the classical and fashion-conscious woman. You can pair one of my rings with a cocktail dress just as easily as you can with jeans. With a fine art training background, I also create visuals for my work. In an industry saturated with mass-produced fashion jewelry, it is crucial to set yourself apart through talent, quality, and craftsmanship.
What inspires your work?
Having lived away from Myanmar since the age of 14, I learned to harmoniously integrate with other cultures. When I travel, I always pay attention to what’s around me, the people, and incredible art and architecture. I often like to look at the history and traditional elements of a culture, especially Burmese, to derive a theme, making it relevant to current times and telling a story with every piece.
What gemstones do you like working with?
I love working with colors, so naturally, colored stones are my playground, and I especially love all shades of blue. Sapphire and tanzanite are my favorite stones, along with Burmese rubies and emeralds.
What kind of woman wears Mondselle? What do you want women to feel when they wear your pieces?
I want Mondselle to be a place where customers come to create or purchase something that will be memorable. Whether it is a gift for yourself, a friend, or someone you love, we want to create new, meaningful relationships and stories to be shared. We cherish the moment a special piece of jewelry was given to us, and it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime. There is tremendous satisfaction and a great honor to have the opportunity to be a small part of something so special. In my eyes, jewelry is an everyday art form, one to be expressed in the most beautiful ways. I found Mondselle in line with this philosophy to create jewelry that will enhance the day-to-day lives of modern women. Much care and love have been put into each piece, so I want women to feel confident when wearing them.
How did the covid 19 pandemics affect your creative process?
2020 was a tough year for many of us. Personally, the pandemic lockdown has been a blessing in disguise. As an introvert, it has given me a lot of time to create without all the noise of regular day-to-day activities. My sketchbook is now full of ideas that I hope to slowly materialize over the years.
Can you tell us about the women who inspire you the most and why?
Art is a way of life, and Frida Khalo is my deity. As a woman and an artist, Frida broke a lot of barriers. She not only defied society’s beauty standards, but she also gave us a lesson in resilience when she continued to persevere after the terrible accident that paralyzed her when she was 18. Instead of her trauma and pain being an obstacle, she used it to drive her self-exploration and art. Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry, resilience and standing firm are the virtues Frida had shown, which I admire and embrace.
Closer to home Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, is the living inspiration. During difficult times, I look up to her resilience and perseverance for inspiration in her twenty years of house arrest. Never did I imagine she would one day be wearing a necklace from my collection. It’s truly an honor to see it on her.
I didn’t come from a family of jewelers, so I started Mondselle from the ground up, and with that came a lot of difficulties that I had to face alone. I learned from her the courage to deal with any roadblocks that may come my way and continue marching on.
Art meets Jewelry: Women’s Series.