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Finding Purpose Through Art: A Conversation with Jewelry Designer Michelle Herrera

Finding Purpose Through Art: A Conversation with Jewelry Designer Michelle Herrera

Michelle Herrera talks us through the transformative personal and creative journey that led to her jewelry brand Coba

The mark of true Art lies in the artist’s ability to take their life experiences, good or bad as they may be, and turn them into overarching pieces of art or products that encompass the human experience in its entirety and are able to resonate with people across the world.

Michelle Herrera of Coba, a jewelry brand that’s been taking center stage in the Mexican panorama in the last few years, has been able to do just that.

We caught up with Michelle from her studio in Aguascalientes, which, much like her jewelry designs sit at the heart of Mexican identity, is itself in the geographical center of Mexico. Michelle had just had a video call with her master artisans in Guadalajara, three silversmiths who she has been working with since the very beginning of her jewelry business, and was glowing with enthusiasm at their work on her new collection.

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“I’m very excited about my second collection, it’s very vibrant and full of color, each piece is inspired by an important person in my life, it’s almost like a diary of my life since coming back to Mexico in 2019, after my time in France. Because the pieces are directly inspired by episodes in my life, I think the whole collection is very sincere, I lay my heart and soul bare, and I hope that will resonate with people.”

France was actually a catalyst for Michelle’s idea to start her own jewelry brand. There, an explosive burst of creativity and a lot of free time allowed her to reconnect to the inner designer she had lost in years of work in the high-pressure fashion industry.

After graduating in fashion design, Michelle collaborated on styling and fashion photography with various fashion magazines such as Harper Bazaar and Cosmopolitan but always felt something was missing. The environment could be harsh and while some of her colleagues and people she met during work were instrumental in her creative development, she also had negative encounters with over-competitive people in stressful situations.

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When Michelle’s partner got a job opportunity in La Ciotat, in the south of France, she took the plunge and moved over without speaking French or having a job secured, and while worried at first, she found the months in La Ciotat incredibly proficuous for her creativity.

“Like a lockdown ante litteram, I was in La Ciotat where I knew no one and hardly spoke the language, which my partner’s mum was teaching me just with day-to-day life: cooking together, doing the shopping… Because my boyfriend worked a lot, I spent most of my time alone and was able to really treasure those moments: running on the beach every day, sketching and designing, even though I didn’t know what I was doing that for. It was a beautiful time to reconnect to my inner creativity, that I had left boxed up during my time in the fashion editorial world.”

One day, Michelle happened upon a small curiosity shop that stocked antiques and remnants from ships that moored or sank along the coast. A pair of earrings caught her attention and she fell in love instantaneously. She understood that these earrings would forever symbolize her time in France, the nostalgia she had felt for home, the intense creative energy she had found again, and realized her true calling was just that. To design jewelry that would perpetuate her Mexican identity, while allowing the women who wear it to feel empowered and express themselves through her pieces.

Shortly before Michelle was due to fly home, her relationship broke down unexpectedly. She got back to Mexico in a very fragile emotional and mental state and remembers those first few months of being back as a really hard time. “I got to Mexico feeling like I had nothing: no job and no relationship. I had to start building myself back up from the very foundations. I started therapy, using what I discovered during the sessions as further inspiration for my designs. The idea for Coba was there, but it felt like a really distant dream.”

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Over the following three years, Michelle taught fashion design and photography at the University, while saving up to start her brand and continuing the inner journey she had started in France. She learned from master artisans about specific techniques and tricks of silver- and gold-smithing. A perfectionist at heart, she was designing her pieces while already imagining the editorial campaigns that would go with them, thinking about what the models would be wearing, how the pictures would be taken, and eventually found herself being very thankful for the years of fashion work, which influenced her style and aesthetics a lot.

“I used to castigate myself for the years I thought I had “wasted” in the fashion industry, but today I understand it was an organic process, and that every single thing that happened to me and every single person I have met had been driving me to this exact moment in my life all along.”

Her first collection, La Mexicaine, inspired by the nickname she was given in La Ciotat, launched in 2019, with an event where she finally unveiled her work to all her family and friends, who hadn’t known the details of what Coba was going to look like. “All the people I loved were in one room, my work out there for everyone to see... It was scary but also incredibly empowering and ultimately a big success.”

What really sets Michelle’s work apart is the joyful celebration of her Mexican identity, paired with the will to instill self-love and awareness in the people who wear her pieces. Each of her earrings, pendants, and bracelets uses lettering or has some phrase engraved on it, taken from the mantras that Michelle herself used to build her confidence and self-love back up after the breakup and her sudden return to Mexico.

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Since her launch, Michelle has been unstoppable, and her new collection is due to come out later this year. While she recognizes her work in fashion as instrumental to the kind of woman and artist she has become, she much prefers the world of young entrepreneurship and likes to wear many hats, from designer to social media manager. At barely 28, we can only imagine what amazing things await this bright artist, whose soul seems to be made of equal parts of love and pride for Mexico and a passion for women’s empowerment.

“As a child, I remember running to the newsagent as soon as a new number of Vogue came out, while everyone else was playing around. I’ve always been a dreamer and I think some subconscious part of me always knew I would end up like this. Going to France and then losing everything was the trigger to find this hidden part of me, and I hope that my jewelry helps other women to do just that, let go of fears and realize your full potential and purpose in this world.”

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