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INSTORE Design Awards

The Cindy Edelstein Memorial Emerging Designer Award -2019 Winner

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Debra Navarro knew she wanted to design jewelry the minute she stepped behind a jewelry counter 20 years ago, but it would take over a decade before she gathered the courage to start her own collection. After a career in radio, she went to work in sales and appraisals at Randy Cooper’s Fine Jewelry in Wichita, KS, and earned her graduate gemologist degree. It was a trip to East Africa with Roger Dery, the award-winning gem cutter, global educator, and philanthropist, that spurred Navarro to strike out on her own. She formed her LLC in November 2015 and had a one-hour Skype call with Cindy Edelstein. “Sadly, Cindy passed away before our next call, but the notes I took that day were like a gift, and pointed me in the next direction,” says Navarro. “I spent approximately a year in development with the Barefoot Collection, which is the foundation for our brand.” Now, Navarro is taking the industry by storm, having won the Industry Choice Award at JCK Tucson in February, and now winning the Colored Gemstone Jewelry Under $10,000 category and placing third in the Colored Diamond Jewelry category in the INSTORE Design Awards. Of her collection, she says the aesthetic is “polish and grit” — that is, luxurious and refined, yet also relaxed and organic. “Every new collection will take you on a journey to other places where gemstones are mined as responsibly and sustainably as possible,” says Navarro. “I want my jewelry to be a part of their story.”

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Q&A WITH DEBRA NAVARRO

1. Why did you become a jewelry designer?

I’ve always wanted to make a living using art and creativity, which I always did in some way, but never with my own product. There was way too much vulnerability and risk in that! It took a lot of years and a long road filled with doubt, fear, and inadequacy before I took the leap of faith into designing jewelry, but I can definitely say it feels like the most natural and exciting thing in the world to do. I knew I wanted to design jewelry the minute I stepped behind a jewelry counter for the first time 20 years ago. In fine jewelry I found the perfect marriage of art and science. I could see designs taking shape in my head, but had so little knowledge of this industry in general having come from a radio background. I decided to build a foundation by earning my G.G. and working at Randy Cooper’s Fine Jewelry in sales and appraising over a period of 15 years, but learning about jewelry design and manufacturing in Wichita, KS was another thing. This became my roadblock. What moved me past that self-imposed roadblock was a trip with Roger Dery, the award winning gem cutter, global educator, and philanthropist, to East Africa. I met Roger at a screening of the documentary Sharing the Rough, which is about the journey of a gemstone from mine to market while attending the 2015 AGS Conclave, and immediately felt like I HAD to go. Less than two months later, Roger took me on my first gemstone buying trip to Kenya and Tanzania. I was in the middle of the East African bush, seeing what artisanal mining is like for the miners, brokers, runners, and their whole communities working in the gem trade. I continue to learn so many lessons from the people of East Africa, but the most impactful lesson I took away was to take the resources and knowledge that you have, from where you currently are, and just start doing it, whatever “it” is, that passionately drives you. When I came home and could no longer make excuses for why I wasn’t chasing my own dreams, I got myself out of the way and just started moving forward.

2. When and how did you officially launch your collection?

After forming my LLC in November of 2015, I asked myself, “Now what?” A friend in the industry recommended I call Cindy Edelstein for advice, which led to a one hour Skype call I will treasure forever. Sadly, Cindy passed away before our next call, but the notes I took that day were like a gift, and pointed me in the next direction. I spent approximately a year in development with the Barefoot Collection, which is the foundation for our brand and will tie together all future collections. We soft launched Barefoot in a few markets and began working on Watu, the collection honoring the beautiful gemstones and people of East Africa. My goal was to show in Vegas this year, but I had a strong hunch to do my first major trade show in Tucson, maybe just to work out the kinks before Vegas. I chose the JCK x WJA Pavilion at the Starr Pass Resort because membership in WJA has been like a backbone for me as I struck out on my own. Quite serendipitously, our launch coincided with that of Gem Legacy, the non-profit organization we partner with in putting 5% of net sales from the Watu Collection to work in the communities the gems came from, helping them thrive. The founders are none other than Roger, Ginger, and Rachel Dery, with whom I travel to East Africa. We were honored to receive the JCK Tucson Industry’s Choice Design Challenge Winner with our Vincent Cocktail ring featuring green beryl. We are so thankful for such a positive response to the jewelry design and for the larger purpose it serves.

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3. What is your design aesthetic?

My design aesthetic merges two opposites, “polish and grit”, that have both literal and figurative meanings to me. You see it in the perfectly imperfect finish of the 18k recycled gold, in the palette of earthy colored faceted diamonds, gorgeous pops of natural colored gemstones with a high polished facet against the natural rough surface. I design from what I call a “barefoot state of mind”, where I’m outdoors, enjoying the warmth of the day, grounded by the beauty of the world around me. The feel is luxurious and refined, but also relaxed and organic…polish and grit.

4. What influences and inspires your designs?

Barefoot is inspired by life’s journey, marked by stepping stones, crossroads, and courageous leaps of faith you’ll see represented in the designs. Each piece is a mindful appreciation of every milestone reached along your way. They are one of a kind, just like each of us, made from rich 18k recycled gold and an earthy palette of natural colored diamonds in sizes and shapes as individual as every rock, pebble, or grain of sand in the ocean.
Watu features responsibly sourced natural gemstone rough I hand select on my East African visits. The designs are artfully inspired by pops of color against an earthy landscape, accented by earth-toned diamonds set in 18k recycled gold. Watu means people in Swahili. The real story of Watu is about the people who have touched my life. Each style in Watu is named in honor of one of these people. As the collection grows, so will their story. A highlight of many stones is a Tenda cut, a flat facet intentionally placed with a Swahili meaning of “doing good to someone.” In the words of my friend Jose (Gee) Maboi, “What you do not see, you can remember in your heart.” Wearing a piece from Watu reminds you of the good that gemstones do. For all items in the Watu Collection, 5% of net proceeds go to Gem Legacy. To find out more, visit www.gemlegacy.org supporting education, vocational training, and local economies in East African mining communities.

5. What’s next for your collection?

I am bursting with designs I want to make right now, but we want to focus on building our client base and sharing the story of our jewelry. In Vegas, you’ll see Barefoot stackables in mixed metals. Watu styles will be represented with East African gems in every color of the rainbow. Looking even further out, my next collection already exists in my mind. I’ve been collecting very intriguing gemstones over the years from a different source and can’t wait to start working on this collection. It has its own very cool and unique look, but you’ll definitely recognize it as a Debra Navarro piece. Every new collection will take you on a journey to other places where gemstones are mined as responsibly and sustainably as possible. I want my jewelry to be a part of their story.

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