For All the Pretty Birds, Civil Jewelry Designer and CEO Blakely Thornton is well aware that his presence in Luxury Jewelry is a pledge for equality and a call to normalize minority demographics in the space. Putting all his other ‘-nesses’ on the table, this Black and Queer-led brand is not a level surface inclusivity statement but an honest pledge for a fundamental change in the industry. Read on as Amanda Kabuiku interviews the trailblazer and discusses the challenges and rewards of taking up space.
Introducing Civil Jewelry and Representing The Black and Queer Communities in Luxury
Owning a business as a person of color is always a statement. On this foundation the trailblazing brand Civil Jewelry was born. Worn by African-American model Slick Woods or sisters Coco and Breezy, Blakely Thornton has created a brand of timeless and gender-less luxury jewelry. The line extends from the classic cuban links to shoelaces. He joins ranks with household names like Tiffany & Co and Cartier, imagining a Black-led luxury contender.
In plain terms, this shouldn’t be a bold endeavor. It should be the standard. Confronting the realities of challenges that follow the titles “Queer” and “Black,” Blakely Thornton emerges from a class of entrepreneurs with unfathomable obstacles and undeniable determination. Thornton draws on the heritage of Black American culture to transcribe high class, socially impactful design. A sustainable, direct-to-consumer brand that reinvests 20% of its earnings in underrepresented founders and uses eco-friendly diamonds, Civil Jewelry also empowers young and Black entrepreneurs with access to financial capital.
In Conversation with Civil Jewelry Founder, Blakely Thornton
Amanda Winnie Kabuiku: What spurred you to launch Civil? How did you gravitate towards jewelry design?
Blackely Thornton: I was inspired by my time in Luxury Fashion and Marketing. Frequently, I was the only person of color in the room. As my career progressed, I saw that companies were using the cultural capital of minorities in their advertising to create financial wealth for the same demographic (read: straight white men). During my time in fashion, I realized that the markup on jewelry is 7-10X, so there is an opportunity to take a portion of our profits and invest it in minority and female founders. I call it “trickle down diversity.” Jewelry is also something people wear every day, whether you’re in jeans and a t-shirt or a ball gown.
AWK: I think childhood is where passions are formed from experience (good or bad). Is there a ‘jewel of your childhood’ that you cherish in particular?
BT: My parents have always been brutally honest with me, even as a small child. When I used to worry about making friends, they would tell me to be myself. They used to say, “If you try to be everything to everyone, you will be nothing to no one.” I live my life by those words to this day, sometimes to my detriment.
AWK: What has been your most significant learning curve as a Black/Queer/Male Founder who grew your business into the brand it is today? Do you consider yourself to carry “double weight” in society, and are there any personal realities you had to confront that you would like to share?
BT: I think the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with is general gaslighting. People want to be a part of the culture. They want the authenticity that the brand brings, but they don’t necessarily respect the idea of Black something; Black-owned being “luxurious.” I have to be smart, but not threatening, confident but also “grateful for the opportunity.” In contrast, I’ve watched similar brands in the space use our messaging of inclusivity with no actual follow-through and raise money much faster. It’s frustrating, but it drives me to succeed. The more successful we are, the more capital we can ultimately provide to those who wouldn’t usually have access; the further we can dismantle the idea of luxury being synonymous with “white.”
(Pictured: Civil Jewelry Cuban Link Necklace, Rose Gold $471)
AWK: What is your first memory of style or fashion? Is there a style of jewelry that represents you as an individual?
BT: Hmm… That’s a great question. I’ve always known I wanted to be creative. As my parents can attest, I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. When I dig down to think of moments where I first noticed jewelry, it would have to be the jewelry of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America or the accessories of Whitley Gilbert and Hilary Banks in A Different World and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The characters were luxurious, powerful, and unapologetic; that was when I first realized jewelry could make an outfit.
AWK: What’s the most unlikely place you look at for inspiration when designing?
BT: I love movies. Anyone that knows me knows I love film and television. Honestly, Black sitcoms from the early 90’s have a lot of those styles coming back into play now. Watch the characters from Living Single, Martin, Out All Night, etc. That jewelry has actually turned out to be both stylish and timeless.
AWK: Who do you have in mind when designing for the Civil client?
BT: Much of our business has become high-end lab-grown diamond pieces. Couples often come to me with a design in mind for their engagement, wedding, anniversary, etc. Those pieces tend to be more classic and traditional. When designing our Civil Signature pieces, I honestly think, “Would I wear this every day?” I don’t subscribe to gender norms with jewelry. I love that the industry is moving that way as well. We’re seeing more things that would be “masculine” on women and “feminine” on men.
AWK: It can be stated that the Black community has not fully pursued allyship with the LGBTQIA+ community. How do you feel about that? Beyond the temporary celebrations of Pride Month, how do we hold the Black community accountable to being allies?
BT: I hate to be this person, but I saw a brilliant summation of this on Instagram. This woman was in her car saying, “you cannot be out here saying Black Lives Matter if you do not support LGBTQIA+ lives, that is very much crusty, very much ugly, very much ignorant.” I have to say it is a hilarious and spot-on summation. We still have a long way to go regarding authentic support for Black people and Queer people. For a long time, I feel that the way to gain economic and social mobility for Black people was to assimilate into the predominant (read: white) culture, including hetero-normative standards.
Editor’s Note: We are so grateful to celebrate Blakely Thornton and his strides at Civil Jewelry, not only as an advocate for the Black community in luxury, but as a representative of the Queer community as well. As we conclude Pride Month, we encourage you to shop Civil and keep up with their continued success on Instagram. It is because of leaders like Thornton, who are setting a new standard for industry progress that we get to see long awaited change realized.