Universal and Timeless: Neo-Berber Heirlooms
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
How Samia Benbrahim’s World Travels Inspired the Creation of Yelli Jewels
Written by: Jane Cornish for The Nopo
Sometimes you have to travel far and wide to really appreciate how special your home country, and culture are. That was exactly the case for Samia Benbrahim, whose travels inspired and stoked a passion for Amazigh (Berber) art that she now channels into her “neo-Berber” brand Yelli Jewels.
Samia spent her childhood in Casablanca, where she grew up surrounded by her extended family and was raised in an environment influenced by both Moroccan culture and traditions and European modernity.
As a child Samia developed a passion for jewelry, particularly Amazigh pieces which are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, and enable powerful mythical stories, societal values and life lessons to be transmitted from one generation to the next.
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At just 18, Samia left the “Paris of Morocco,” Casablanca, and her close-knit family for the bright lights of the French capital where she studied marketing. There, she dove head first into the city's exhilarating arts scene. “I loved my life in Paris because of its art world. Every day and every night there was something new to discover: new art exhibitions, new restaurants, new music festivals...the art scene in Paris is so rich and enriching!”
Reflecting back at that time, more than a decade ago, Samia notes that “being away from home, on my own allowed me to develop my own identity, and really understand who I am and what I wanted in life.”
After a few years in France, Samia decided to ditch her boring 9-5 “metro, boulot, dodo” (metro, work, sleep) life in Paris. “I did like living in Paris, but I didn't feel fulfilled anymore, and in my heart, I knew there was something else out there other than sitting in my chair in front of the computer for 10-12 hours a day. I wanted to build something by myself, something that would inspire me”, Samia recalls.
From there, she embarked on a whirlwind solo seven-month adventure in Asia. She explored Sri lanka, India, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia, and spent one month in every country she visited.
It was in Sa Pa, a popular trekking base in north western Vietnam’s Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, that a memorable encounter with a group of local women firmly set Samia on course to become a jewellery designer, and inspired the name of her future brand.
“I arrived in Sa Pa for a trek. Old women in traditional dress gathered around me and we began sharing stories, getting to know each other. At the end, the oldest woman gave me a pair of silver hoop earrings like the ones she was wearing and told me ‘see now, you are like us, like my daughter.’”
Samia, an inveterate jewelry collector, was so touched by the Vietnamese woman's gift, that she decided to name her brand in memory of that experience; “Yelli meaning ‘my daughter,’ in an Amazigh dialect,” she explains. “I always wanted to work with Moroccan handcrafted art but I didn’t know what precisely until that trip,” Samia says.
In another serendipitous turn of events, when Samia returned to Morocco, she found a beautiful book with wonderful images on the table of her parents' living room. The book was all about Amazigh art and jewelry and it turned out that it was the last piece in the puzzle, and the key to her launching into her own business and creating her own brand.
Inspired by that illuminating book, Samia reached out to a friend working with Amazigh artisans and then to her family and broader network, many of whom are entrepreneurs. With their direction and encouragement, she set off on another trip. “Immediately, I started packing the car, the destination - old medinas of Morocco to get back to the source and to absorb Amazigh cultures again so I would be able to reinterpret it in my own way.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Samia realized that being a woman created its own issues. “One of my major challenges was to impose myself as a woman in a man's world. It was a a struggle “to convince them (artisans in particular) to give me credit, to find trusted partners, gain respect and create a good basis of communication.”
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Those challenges were not enough to stop her from pursuing her dream of taking Amazigh jewelry from Morocco’s ancient medinas to the streets of Casablanca, Paris or Rome and to put them in the hands of a new generation of stylish women.
“Promoting and preserving Moroccan heritage are the main reasons why I launched Yelli Jewels. In such a globalized world, traditions and cultures are sadly being lost. They are an important part of history and I really think we need to preserve them so future generations can learn about their origins. I am really proud to be Moroccan and proud of my culture. I also consider myself as a citizen of the world, and it's very important for me to share my love of Morocco with the people worldwide.”
Fast-forward to 2020, and Samia has got managing artisans and the creative process down to a fine art, nearly as fine as the jewelry they create together. She is constantly turning out small, sustainable, unique collections, masterfully crafted from recycled silver and stones that are quickly snapped up by Morocco’s young design set, and savvy international clients alike.
Authentic, universal and timeless are three concepts that form the essence of each piece hand-crafted by Yelli’s dedicated team of artisans located in the famed home of Berber jewelry, Tiznit. The city in Southern Morocco, two hours south of Agadir is sandwiched between the wild Atlantic coast and Anti-Atlas Mountains.
For hundreds of years, the city’s hot, dusty souk is where many intricate pieces of silver jewelry encrusted with red coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli and other precious and semi-precious stones, have been painstakingly crafted by hand.
These are the pieces, and the artisans that have made Samia’s dream of creating sustainable, modern jewelry that remains true to its Amazigh roots possible, and through many trips backwards-and-forwards between Casablanca and Tiznit, the young creator says she has finally developed a very “friendly and familial,” connection with her craftsman.
Their complicity shines through in every Yelli masterpiece, because each earring, bracelet or necklace, although often deceptively simple looking, is exquisitely made, from the best materials, full of details and craftsmanship beyond reproach. Samia means ‘elegance,’ and she has definitely succeeded in creating pieces that are true to her name, while preserving her beloved Amazigh cultural heritage.