October 21, 2015
Ashley Pittman is not your typical designer, and we can say the same for her jewelry collection. Incredibly stylish and down-to-earth, Pittman founded her namesake company with the idea of helping artisans in Kenya who specialize in horn carving and those who work with bronze and gemstones. The ever-busy designer spends her time traveling to Nairobi, Dallas and plenty of store personal appearances and sales meetings. And talk about a personal business model! The Ashley Pittman Foundation donates 10% of the company’s profits to a school and dispensary in Kenya. Thankfully, we got a chance to have a one-on-one chat with Pittman in her stunning Dallas-based studio to ask all about the art of layering her pieces, as well as what making noise means to her these days.
NM: Tell us about your company and how you started
AP: My work in Africa began in 2006 when I served as a volunteer for the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative in Rwanda. I fell in love with East Africa and knew I wanted to start a business there. I traveled back and forth to Africa—often during law school—working on various investment projects and seeking out artisans with exceptional skill. I dreamed of creating a line of handmade, sustainable goods. I found such natural beauty in the cow horn we use in our jewelry that I started seeking out horn carvers. I trained them in quality control and sizing. I then found artisans who do our work in bronze and gemstones.
NM: What was the first piece that you designed?
AP: Studded horn bangle bracelets.
NM: Did you always want to create jewelry?
AP: I developed the jewelry line from a desire to build a business that would help create steady income and help people pull themselves out of poverty. I identified a gap in the market for high-end luxury goods created from horn and materials native to East Africa. It was from this starting point that I began to design and create the jewelry collection.
NM: Describe your brand’s DNA and how it differs from other jewelry brands.
AP: Our pieces are entirely handcrafted in backyard workshops by artisan groups in Kenya. The nature of the material means that every piece is one of a kind.
NM: Name one Ashley Pittman piece that looks good on every woman.
AP: Our hammered bronze chains come in various lengths and sizes and are a staple item that can be worn alone or with a pendant. They’re so versatile and classic—at a great price point. They continue to be one of our signature styles and most popular pieces year after year.
NM: How do you layer or style your jewelry? Will you give us some tips?
AP: Each collection we design is meant to blend seamlessly and complement past and present styles. We love layering necklaces, long chains and short collars, bangle sets with jeweled bangles. The jewelry is meant to be mixed and have an effortless feel to it.
NM: Tell us about a day in your life in Africa.
AP: I like to wake up early and go for a bike ride. I stay close to the Ngong Hills, which is a beautiful place to walk or bike. The rest of the day is spent in the workshops in and around Nairobi working on developing new pieces, doing business trainings, talking about quality control, etc. On the weekends I like to go down to the school and health center we help fund, which is a few hours from Nairobi. It’s a very rural area with no running water or electricity. I sleep in a tented camp and love the feeling of being in such a remote place to get a cell phone signal you climb a ladder attached to a Baobab tree. From the top of the tree I can see Mt. Kilimanjaro; it is beautiful and my favorite place to talk on the phone! Also, seeing the children in school and interacting with them is incredibly fun and gratifying. Ten percent of all profits are donated to the school and dispensary, which helps provide hot lunches, school uniforms, teacher salaries and books and supplies. The dispensary offers medical services and lifesaving vaccinations to families living in very rural Kenya.
NM: Now tell us about your day-to-day work life in Dallas.
AP: A typical day doesn’t really exist—I’m always on the move! If I’m in town, the day involves working closely with my team on anything from design and production to photo shoots and creating lookbooks. We often have buying meetings with vendors in the office and work on event preparation for trunk shows and appearances.
NM: Neiman Marcus has been celebrating women who are challenging the status quo and making some noise. What does that mean to you?
AP: For me, it means pushing myself out of my comfort zone and taking calculated risks to build the business. Because the company was created on the trade-not-aid model, I’m committed to helping our artisans create stable income and build their business. Creating, building and sustaining a positive and healthy company, while giving back, is the best kind of noise I can think of!
NM: How do you want to make your mark?
AP: My hope is that more businesses offer transparency in production and seek out philanthropic endeavors. I don’t believe there needs to be a contradiction between pieces that are sustainable and conscientious, and high-quality good design.
NM: Advice for women in your industry?
AP: Your comfort zone does not serve you—being bold and moving toward your fears will allow you to thrive. And be nice! I believe in sharing resources and helping others in this industry. Lifting others up never yields negative results for your own growth. I am so grateful to those designers I’ve met who have given me advice and helped me along the way.
NM: What is the best part of your job?
AP: The process of seeing my designs and ideas come to life in backyard workshops in Kenya is incredibly cool—and then to see those pieces being worn and loved by our customers is just so rewarding and gratifying.