Monalisa Okojie is a woman making her mark in Hollywood as a Jeweler to the stars. A former lawyer, Okojie shares with us her personal background, how she got into the jewelry business and provides shopping tips for your next jewelry purchase.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Monalisa, thank you for the opportunity to share your work with the Ladybrille audience. It’s been quite a while since my introduction to you that we talked. How are you?
Monalisa: I am doing great, thank you. A lot has happened since we last spoke, the business has grown and I am very happy with the process. I am also really honored and excited to be interviewed by Ladybrille.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are that quiet secret gem that we are going to reveal today! (Laughs)
Monalisa: Thank you. I always welcome every opportunity to talk about what I do.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I know you were born and raised in Nigeria. Tell us your journey and why you made the transition from Nigeria to the USA?
Monalisa: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. My father was a Diplomat and my mother a career woman, who worked the Central Bank of Nigeria for 34 years. I was privileged to be exposed to various cultures in and outside of Nigeria. I went to Law School in Nigeria, right before law school was over, I met my husband who lived in Los Angeles, and after we got married I relocated to the USA. Being someone that has always thought beyond the scope of my country, the transition was pretty easy.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Speaking of an easy transition, you have, over time, worked with some (celebrities) in the fashion and entertainment industry. Tell us some of these names?
Monalisa: My designs have been worn by Whitney Houston, Nathalie Cole, CCH Pounder, Alan Cumming, Melora Hardin, Quinton Aaron, Omarosa, Salley Pressman, Brandy, Lil Kim, and several other celebrities in all areas of the entertainment industry.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What led to your interest in jewelry design?
Monalisa: My interest in designing came at a very young age. As a hobby my mother designed and made clothes for my siblings and I. I was always her assistant. I would watch her sketch the designs on paper, while I cut them out in little pieces. A couple of years after relocating to the USA, I started designing my personal jewelry by using the same process my Mom used with clothes. I would sketch the design, cut it in little pieces, take measurements and give it to a jeweler to make for me. I decided to design my own jewelry because there was a void for colorful jewelry pieces I was familiar with. As an Ishan/Edo person from Western Nigeria, wearing elaborate and colorful pieces of jewelry, especially for weddings and parities, was unavailable for me and other African women in the States to purchase in stores so I decided to design these pieces for the several Nigerian or African celebrations and parties.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Where were you when you decided, this is what I want to do for a living?
Monalisa: Good question! It was probably around 2006. When I realized I was in high demand from friends and family who where coming to me to design and make pieces for them for special events, I decided it was time to take this to a different level. I also got validation and compliments from strangers who will ask me where I bought the jewelry I would be wearing whenever I was out at restaurants, or dropping off the kids at school, or even while shopping. At that point, I knew it was the right business to go into because I had the love and passion for it and each time I created a design, no matter how simple or complicated it was, I felt really fulfilled.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How did your first big break into the jewelry business begin?
Monalisa: With my law training and business mind, I figured that if I had a plan I will be able to introduce Nehita jewelry collection to the world. I knew that it will be a successful business not so much as to when I sold my first piece of jewelry but from the validation I received from my clients. As far as I am concerned, my first big break was the first order I got when the company was formed. I must add that it wasn’t a big order but it gave me the much needed confidence to stay in the business. Since then I never looked back.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is your design style/philosophy?
Monalisa: My designs are classic, contemporary, simple but adventurous. I love colors especially coming from a Nigerian (Ishan) background, bright colors are the norm. I personally think colors brighten up your look, so I use lots of colors in my designs. I believe colors give a piece sophisticated elegance. My philosophy is that every man or woman should have that signature piece made for them that has that classic and timeless feel and which identifies who they are, a piece that they can pass on from generation to generation.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Where do you source your materials from?
Monalisa: I source [f]rom all over the world. I get rubies, citrines, topaz and other precious gems from Chanthaburi. I get all my tanzanites from Tanzania, corals from Dubai, tourmalines and other stones from Nigeria. I do not source any materials from the conflict diamond regions. My diamonds are completely conflict free.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Who is your target audience? Describe the woman that purchases Nehita Designs?
Monalisa: My target audience is everyone who loves jewelry: men or women; young or old. I have business men and women as clients, artist, actors, everyday worker, generally anyone who loves to look and feel good. The best thing about Nehita Jewelry collection is that it appeals to everyone who loves jewelry, the pieces are classic and elegant; just like a Coco Chanel suit: they are timeless and of good quality.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How does the Ladybrille (brilliant) woman go shopping for jewelry, especially statement pieces, what should we look for?
Monalisa: The first thing they want to look for is a company that has expertise, good reputation as well as nice craftsmanship. A jewelry company that provides service on a one on one basis especially if they do not have prior knowledge of gold metals and precious gems.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: The competition in the jewelry business is quite steep. How do you reinvent yourself and keep things fresh?
Monalisa: Even though the Nehita pieces are classic, comfortable and timeless, I keep things fresh by constantly coming out with new collections. I create new coral and pearl designs by accentuating it with diamonds and other colored gems. I constantly look for ways to make the pieces more fun and exciting.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I honestly don’t think that Americans or Europeans are used to seeing Africans in fine jewelry. What has your experience been in selling your designs to people who might maybe expect something else from you?
Monalisa:Yes, you are right. There is always the initial element of surprise because Americans or Europeans are used to seeing Africans dressed up in the traditional outfits and pay little or no attention to our rich culture in regards to fine jewelry. I usually educate them on our rich culture of wearing gold and beads, tell them about a country like Ghana that was once the center of the gold trade. Or Tanzania, the only country in the world where you get the tanzanite gem. They then realize that Africans are very jeweled people. All in all my experience has been great!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: That is really good to hear. On the flip side, I see some African fashionistas pile on so much jewelry, especially at African events. How do you communicate a less is more concept to such fashionistas looking to purchase your pieces?
Monalisa: I love to stay simple and elegant at the same time. Piling too much jewelry takes away from the elegant look. I will simply let them know that although Nehita is all about fun, bold pieces, you can achieve the look by wearing less but classy pieces. Oftentimes, less is more.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are your price points and where can our audience purchase your pieces?
Monalisa: Nehita prices are average for what the clients are getting. I find it very interesting that people will spend $1000 on their hair, $150 on pedicure and manicure, why not spend an equal amount on a signature piece that may even have more in resale value. Once I explain to people that jewelry, especially fine jewelry, is a great way to build wealth, they begin to see my point. For instance, people that bought gold-based jewelry five or ten years ago may have doubled the value of their purchase. Visit www.nehita.com.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you hope people see when they see a Nehita Jewelry design?
Monalisa: I hope they see the quality, craftsmanship, beauty, love and passion I put into creating each piece. I want people to love the pieces whether they buy it for themselves or for someone else. Also, that they know Nehita celebrates success, no matter how big or small.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What message do you have to aspiring jewelers African and non-Africans who want to compete on the level that you are?
Monalisa: Designing takes a lot of passion and love for the art, they have to love the art first, to believe in themselves, create their own unique style, believe that they have the artistic ability and know their market. Doubts will come along the way but don’t give up pursue your dreams. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to succeed in this business. There is no short cut to success.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Many thanks and we wish you continued success.
Monalisa: It’s been such a pleasure. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about something I truly love, jewelry.