A Lagos-born diamond expert shares the struggles she faced as a Black creative in the industry, from explicit bias to funding challenges

Thelma West
Diamond expert and jewellery designer, Thelma West.

  • Data shows that a lack of diversity is a significant problem for the jewelry industry.

  • Black women in particular have endured many challenges as they tried to enter the industry.
  • Lagos-born diamond expert Thelma West shared the challenges she faced in setting up her business.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The jewelry industry isn’t known for being particularly diverse. Last year, a survey published by the National Jeweler and Jewelers of America, showed that employees gave their companies the lowest marks for staff diversity, with 37% rating their company as fair, poor or very poor.

In addition, 51% of respondents of all races said they were aware of race-based discrimination in the fine jewelry sector.

It may come as no surprise then that women, particularly Black women, must break through many barriers. This is despite women driving demand for more than 90% of the world’s jewelry, according to a report published by the Business for Social Responsibility.

But change is finally on the horizon as women start to take center stage. Thelma West, a diamond expert who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, is among them.

Armed with more than two decades of experience, West, who is now London-based, set up the diamond and gemological laboratory IGR London six years ago. The company provides a full range of services including grading, analyzing, and testing of natural gemstones and jewelry.

“As a Black female in the industry, it was important for me to make as much of an impact as I could even with the challenges that were faced,” West told Insider.

Breaking down barriers

West explained how progressing in her career was helped by having a thick skin to deal with the many obstacles placed in her way.

Some of those challenges included people who neither wanted to work with her, nor hire her. Others told her the style of her hair did not fit the look of the business. There was also a lack of credit for her knowledge in the industry, she said, which hampered attempts to secure funding.

West also suffered explicit racial abuse when people in the industry used discriminatory language towards her.

These experiences inspired West to look outside of the industry for advice and hiring-related matters, especially when it came to employing people.

But hiring came with its own set of challenges, particularly as she wanted to hire female workers to give them a chance to make it in the trade. “You get CVs but most of them are male,” she said. “I’m not discriminating but [men] have enough opportunities in the trade.”

“Well done to them but it’s our turn now to try and get a leg in,” West added.

A shared female experience

But Thelma’s experience is not isolated. The journey for her, she said, is very much the same for a lot of other Black jewelers – which she only realized last year. This awareness helped battle feelings of loneliness, which she suffered throughout her career as a result of being discriminated against.

“It’s important for people to get the full picture. To hear that this person is successful but look what they went through, look what was said to them, and realize it didn’t kill them nor break them,” she said.

But West notes that Black creatives who have lived through the good, the bad, and the ugly were tough-skinned like her.

A bright future ahead

West and other jewelers including Castro, Melanie Eddy, Ashley Thorne, and Disa Allsopp show that success in the industry is possible for Black creatives, however.

West said that, in the end, “we want to make sure that the current promotion of Black creatives will not be a passing fad and/or tokenism that defines us.”

“Instead, we will ensure we are acclaimed for our talent, creativity, and passion for what we do,” she added.

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