Manuchimso Opara is the founder of Urban Stones, a jewellery brand that creates unique pieces that are a work of art. With an ethos that you should always lead with love and a brand that practices sustainabilty more than most jewellery brands, we couldn’t wait to find out more…
Tell us about the journey that lead you to launch your brand, Urban Stones…
Towards the end of 2019, I was studying as a mechanical engineering undergraduate at University College London (UCL). I had a job at the university’s engineering workshop as a mentor overseeing the workshop at certain times and teaching the students how to use the tools and machinery. It was during this period that I stumbled upon Youtube videos of jewellery-making and microscopic diamond settings. It dawned on me that the processes used to make these fine pieces of jewellery were very similar to what I was already doing at the workshop. Sawing, drilling, filing, and annealing, it was all very familiar but on a much smaller scale. All that I needed to do was learn the art of gem setting, or so I thought. So I took all my savings from my workshop job, walked into a jewellery tool store in London, and bought all the tools I could recognise from the videos I watched.
I began tinkering around and watching more youtube videos until I made my first creations. At that point, it was early 202 and the covid-19 pandemic was just around the corner. Once lockdown hit, I had so much time on my hands that I decided to take jewellery-making seriously. It was my goal to be a master gem setter. Since then, it has turned from a hobby where I made items for myself, to a fully operational brand where random people on the internet are willing to spend thousands of dollars to acquire the pieces that I make.
How do you want people to feel when they wear your jewellery?
I want a feeling of comfort to be paramount. This is so important to me, that I test every new item and prototype for weeks to make sure they feel just right. Beyond this comforting feeling, I want an air of elegance to radiate from everyone that wears an Urban Stones or Opara creation. I want their confidence to be supplemented without breaking the boundaries of their personal comfort. In a sense, we make soul jewellery.
What do you think makes your jewellery brand stand out from the rest?
I am a 23-year-old engineer that grew up in Nigeria, surrounded by a plethora of cultural and traditional influences. I have had the privilege of studying in a different country which has given me even more perspective. The jewellery industry is not filled with people who look, sound and think like me. Our pieces exist because there’s something that needs to be said and the people who support us do not find that in other parts of the industry. This is where we stand out. We represent a heavily underrepresented but equally important part of the jewellery and high-end communities. By not being a traditionally trained jewellery designer, I have the unique viewpoint of creating from a more youthful and exuberant place and I think this is evident in the nature of Urban Stones’ creations.
How important is sustainability to you in jewellery?
I would say it is the single most important part of operating at any sort of scale as a jewellery brand. I come from Port Harcourt, Nigeria which has been plagued by air pollution as a result of oil and gas exploration. As a result, I have always been aware of the impacts of mining for natural resources on the environment. That is why at Urban Stones, we take a sense of duty in checking, verifying and substantiating the source of all our gemstones and metals. There have been many cases where I have tried to source large carats of amethysts, citrines etc and have had to go to rural villages and their family-owned mines in Abuja, Nigeria just to find the perfect gemstones. These are the lengths that all jewellery brands should be taking to ensure that they are operating in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.
What’s the process behind creating a new piece of jewellery and who is involved in the process?
We create jewellery with a blend of traditional and very modern production methods. Every piece starts on a piece of paper. I scribble down ideas, rough sketches and proportions. I take that onto my iPad and flesh out the drawing. This drawing is then taken to my computer where I create an accurate 3D model of the piece (this is where my engineering degree comes in handy). From that point, the decision has to be made on what type of manufacturing method serves the process best. For smaller, more intricate pieces, they are 3d printed in wax and prepared for traditional lost wax casting. For wedding rings or stiffer items such as chains, I fabricate them completely from scratch with gold wire or sheets. After the pieces have been fabricated or cast, they are ready to be set with gemstones. I have set each and every item of jewellery we have sold to date by hand. The gem setting process is long and tedious; one that has served as therapy when I need it most. It is an opportunity to block out the rest of the world and only allow yourself to think no further than a few millimetres at a time, literally.
What advice would you offer anyone who wants to launch a jewellery brand?
Like everything else in life, discipline and dedication go a long way. You get better at your craft every day, the catch is that you have to do it every day. Before diving into the industry, ask yourself the position you would like to take up within it. Are you a craftsperson, a designer, a gem setter, or an entrepreneur? If you’re like me, you can be all those things for your brand. Either way, learn the ins and outs of the industry and trust your individual need for expression to take you the rest of the way.
Looking back since you started, is there anything that you would do differently?
I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I would necessarily do differently because I believe all things happen for a reason. Moving forward, however, I see the need to expand Urban Stones to new markets as there are a lot more people than I ever imagined who feel connected and represented by the pieces we make.
Talk us through an average day in your life…
I’m not sure I have an average day anymore haha. I travel a lot and have the ability to work from anywhere as long as I have a pen, paper and laptop. I’m mostly designing new concepts, sourcing new gemstones or working on financial models.
Outside of the business, what is your go-to quote when lacking motivation?
I have to dig into the Bible for this one. My mum always says “All things work for good for those that trust in God”. There are a lot of religious influences in my life and some of those bleed into Urban Stones’ pieces. I have seen how far faith can get you so when I lack motivation I remember that faith can move mountains. Another good one I always come back to is “effort is free”. As an entrepreneur, there are many things that are out of your control, and it is imperative that you realise what is within your sphere of influence. When things get hard, always remember that the amount of effort you put in is completely under your control. Faith and effort go a long way to changing the world.
Our readers love to travel, what destination is on your must-visit list?
Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Dakar, Senegal. Tokyo because it is one of the artistic hubs of the world. Rio because Brazilian culture is infectious and I would like to experience that first-hand. Dakar because it is incredibly beautiful and home to a lot of history.
What does self-care mean to you?
Self-care means sacrificing your short-term convenience for long-term happiness. I have learned that not many good things come from chasing short-term convenience. If you keep love at the forefront and make decisions that have your long-term self in mind, you are on the right path to caring for yourself in the long run.
What’s your 5-year vision for the brand?
We will definitely have a fully-fledged production facility in Nigeria. That has been a goal of mine since I began this journey. I would like young Nigerians to see what is capable within our own land. We would also have our pieces inducted into museums. A lot of the art jewellery pieces we make have untold stories of Nigerian history and I hope these stories can live on forever in museums. I would also like for usto train the next generation of jewellers and designers in the Urban Stones philosophy of efficiency, innovation and historical exploration.