If you were to take a stroll through Brooklyn, you’d notice two directions: not the north and the south, but the old and the new. Electric bicycles are installed beside skewed cobblestone paths. The Elliot Place brownstones in Clinton Hill are compressed between modern slab high-rises. The crosswalks, inns and Red Oaks retain history and, by surviving, tell a story. Being born in Brooklyn is one thing, but living and blossoming here is another tale. And that’s just the beginning of the story of Bernard James, fashion’s beloved fine-jewelry designer.
The neighborhood may be changing, but James is setting out to remain faithful to his vision of Brooklyn. It’s a vision based on raw talent, artistic pursuits and, most important, authenticity. His jewelry designs reflect this affirmation, integrating traditional craftsmanship with contemporary forms, spurred by an upbringing surrounded by antiques and aged houses. “As I approach jewelry and design, I think a lot about how objects have a life of their own,” says James. This inquisitiveness, as well as the capacity to see value in the past, is what makes his jewelry stand out. His Williamsburg studio holds the same balance of old and new—with a natural garden he was proud to restore, a skylight beaming with overhead shine, and a warmth that makes friends and customers reluctant to depart.
He didn’t start out in the jewelry business. His first pivotal memories of jewelry came from a kiosk at the Green Acres mall, an iconic New York shopping center in Valley Stream—where his sister bought him a basketball pendant—and from an initialed gold signet ring given to him by an aunt. Thus, his love for personal, signature jewelry was planted. His appreciation of longevity and value, however, was instilled long before. “My dad was very much an entrepreneur,” he explains, “and part of his office was an antique store. He was a collector, but one who understood the value of the old world. I think seeing the longevity of objects, and seeing how rare some things had become, was a big interest to me.”
After attending Collegiate, an all-boys high school in New York City, James studied business at Carnegie Mellon, then transferred to New York University to be closer to the energy of the city. Business courses taught James the core values of running a shop, while hands-on experience gave him the confidence, connections and inspiration he needed to strike out on his own. He started small: “I wanted to dip my feet in, and I thought, What’s the smallest thing I can afford and handle from a design standpoint?” For him, jewelry was the perfect medium because of the scale, precision, function and design involved. “I did it casually at first,” he recalls, “making pieces for friends and myself.” Yearning to diversify the jewelry market, he began with a men’s offering, as he had noticed how hard it was to find men’s jewelry that he loved. The silhouette of the signet ring gifted to him by his aunt eventually resurfaced as the Cole signet ring.
In a serendipitous New York connection, James’s barber introduced him to his uncle Dennis, who turned out to be an OG jewelry craftsman on 47th Street, the city’s diamond district. From him, James learned the ins and outs of the diamond business and concluded that truly pleasing jewelry stems from the memories and personal stories it conjures. He made his pieces in Dennis’s Crown Heights townhouse for the first couple of years, laying the foundation for what the brand is today.
You can sense the level of his dedication to community in everything James does. He features close friends and loved ones in his Family Portraits campaign, which began in 2020 and spotlights individuals from various backgrounds that have inspired him and the brand. And he has trusted New York–based clientele in and outside of the fashion industry, including Christopher John Rogers, Matthew Henson, Quil Lemons, Telsha Anderson-Boone and more. His clients become friends, and his consumers became family—earning him well-deserved awards over time, such as ESSENCE’s Best in Black Fashion’s 2023 Accessories Designer of the Year. He was also selected for Saks’ Emerging Designer Accelerator Program.
To set his brand apart from the rest, he says, he homed in on “making things that a lot of people enjoy but are very specifically the brand, all without restricting the desire to explore individuality.” That specific, meticulous notion drew a cult-like following eager to embrace the brand—and prompted the Natural Diamond Council to take notice. “I like things that last,” James says. “My jewelry is supposed to live with you and withstand life.”
Still based in Brooklyn, James continues to explore the possibilities of jewelry-making with each capsule collection. The first, Pave Flora, is a nod to his growing up across the street from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden —and to the effortless harmony of nature. “For this collection, it’s been fascinating to approach the design process with the diamond in mind,” he says. He sees the collection as another turning point, one that will enable him to play and explore in his own way.
As he walks through the sunny studio, he reflects that his desire to acquire a chrome chair he saw for sale in the Hamptons is perhaps an homage to his father’s passion for collecting. It’s akin to the subconscious emotions customers feel when they wear James’s pieces. “I’ve always been obsessed with brands that have a sense of intimacy and community,” he says. “The idea of being connected to someone through brand messaging is how I think of the phrase, ‘If you know, you know.’” That messaging can be seen everywhere in his studio—from the Fungi collection to the sculptural-yet-inviting burgundy Sarah Favreau “Those Who Saw” artwork on the wall (the artist created it as an ode to unrequited love and self-discovery) to the hidden backyard oasis, which is more of a conversation pit than a garden and is the place his community gathers when visiting his studio.
There’s so much coming down the pike for James these days, even as he stays connected to his roots. “I’m always going to be inspired by Brooklyn,” he says.
“I know I want an international brand, beyond the walls of New York City, but the base of the brand will always be Brooklyn. It’s so integral to my upbringing and what the brand stands for. I always want to make sure that I serve the community that I’m in.”