Jess Sanchez of Santa Isla: How I Built a Jewelry Company That Means Something
For me, being a traveler has always been part of my identity, and oftentimes my everyday style.
When I travel, I always make a point to learn about different weaving and handicraft traditions in the local community. I often find things of extraordinary beauty that are not factory made, but preserve artisanal traditions and cultural identity, and always buy direct from the artisans and community members. The bags, scarves, or jewelry I wear often tell a unique story and are associated with a place I visit or someone I meet. I’ve found ways to make these global accessories a subtle part of my daily attire (while still keeping it professional).
I make sure I am thoughtful about when these pieces are worn and in what context. But global fashion trends are part of a larger debate. They often run the risk of making different cultures seem overly exotic and objectifying them, or have consumers culturally appropriate items for fashion without knowing their meaning—everything from bead necklaces in Kenya symbolizing forced marriage to the significance of the bindi—or not giving the community it originates from credit.
It’s clear that we have to know the legacy behind the things we wear and understand the meaning behind them. To explore this discussion further, I caught up with Jess Sanchez, founder of jewelry company Santa Isla. She works with the Emberá Chami people of Colombia, indigenous peoples who are working to preserve the traditions, language, and rights amid ongoing conflict, and who are known for their intricate and colorful beadwork, to create pieces that fuse together modern design with ancient tribal craftsmanship.
How did you find out about the Emberá Chamii people?
Late 2012 was rough. Essentially, I doubted myself on all levels, and I was in the wrong relationship. I had to change scenes, so I packed my bags and flew to Colombia to visit my mom (I was born in Colombia, and my parents still live there).
I went traveling around for a while, and one of my stops was Salento, a small town in the coffee region of Quindio. I was snapping pics when two indigenous women magically appeared selling the most beautiful jewelry I had ever seen. I almost passed out. Spanish not being their native tongue made our communication limited, but they told me who they were, and then I became obsessed.
What made you start Santa Isla? What was your career trajectory before starting the collection?
Santa Isla means Holy Island in Spanish, and it refers to the place that I created to revive my creative spirit.
As soon as I arrived to Colombia in 2012, I began learning silver smithing with my family’s jeweler, Ivan. He became my mentor and cheerleader. When I saw the Emberá Chami’s art, I felt that we could build and design something together. I had to follow my gut, find a way to make it happen and work with them.
My background is in communications and PR, so all the skills I acquired at school and at previous jobs I now apply toward making Santa Isla grow.
What’s the importance of a story woven into these designs? Do the stories change depending on who wears the piece or are stories universal?
This story is about beauty and resistance. The Emberá Chami believe that women bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, so each piece is meant to adorn the life women carry around their necks. Those who wear a necklace are promoting the Embera Chami art, beauty, and beliefs.
What are the major challenges the Emberá Chami face today? Why doesn’t their plight get more attention?
The Emberá Chami people face political, social, and cultural challenges. Many are being displaced from their lands by the paramilitary—an unofficial force responsible for most of the human rights violations in the Colombian armed conflict.
Forced to move to the city, they now fight to resist external influences from diluting their cultural identity. The Emberá Chami also face social discrimination, like many other native cultures around the world.
I’m not sure why their plight doesn’t get more attention, but I hope to build a platform that can help alleviate their struggle, while proudly representing their art.
Do the women who are making the necklaces get a fair wage for the region? In a world where so much is factory manufactured, what is the importance of artisan-made products?
Santa Isla works with a family that has been displaced from their lands. Usually it’s the women who do the weaving, but because of their situation, men are making the pieces, too. My production manager Jesus’ wife and sister make most of my stuff, but Jesus works on my collection and so does his brother-in-law. The family I work with determines the price per unit, based on the complexity and the time it takes to make.
I own plenty of factory-made goods, and all it’s good, but these pieces have a story and a real energy woven into them. I walk around with my head up and with a sense of pride that people gravitate toward. It’s important to support artisan made products because you promote a cause with consciousness while looking cute.
There has been a lot of discussion about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry and the harm that it causes. What are your thoughts on the debate? Will the fact that a lot of people see this as a “tribal trend” dilute the meaning and origins of the piece?
How people perceive or interpret a trend is beyond my control. I can only do my best in trying to communicate the cultural significance of these pieces with integrity and transparency—and show that conscious fashion is worth the investment.
Can statement pieces be worn simply because we think they are beautiful, or should we always be aware of the cultural legacy and messaging behind the piece?
Awareness in life is key, but so is balance. I always wear one of my pieces and I am very aware of their cultural significance. But I also enjoy just wearing them because of how beautiful they are. Buy with consciousness, share the story, but look your best and feel good about it. Santa Isla is all about cultural preservation while looking fly.
What do the Emberá Chami think about other people in other countries wearing their stuff?
I’ve asked Jesus, and he says that he feels really proud. The Emberá Chami people strive to preserve their culture, and by different people wearing these pieces, they are helping the Emberá Chami in their mission.
What’s next for Santa Isla? How do you envision your company growing?
I want to go everywhere, but one step at a time. I want to build a facility for the Emberá Chami to work in with proper resources for their work and for their families. I want to explore different products to make, but for now, since I’m barely one year old, I am focused on building the best platform that showcases their art and our partnership.
What’s next for the Emberá Chami people?
I wish I could answer that, but I’m not sure. They are fighting to resist and preserve their culture and they have a challenging road ahead. I do know that they’re magical, and I will try to help them as much as I can.
Where can people purchase or find out more about Santa Isla?
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author