“I will Design Jewelry or I will Die.” A Peek at King Onye’s Wearable-Art

King Onye

My life is so hard.  Weekly, I must attend art galleries across the city where I mingle with the beautiful over full-bodied reds.  Sometimes I pose for photographs.

It’s the absolute worst.

Except that it’s totally not.

Friday evening, I ventured to the South Loop’s Elephant Room Gallery, an arts-cooperative organization founded by owner and director Kimberly Atwood, where jewelry designer Oneka Ijeoma, the leading lady behind King Onye Label, is showcasing her current collection of hand-crafted jewelry.

After poring over King Onye’s display of necklaces and earrings for about forty-five seconds, I realize the brass tubes in front of me are in fact bullet casings. Yes, golden hulls from actual bullets.

“Those are from shooting ranges,” she says with a smile. “Yeah. I got permission from the owner to collect them.”   An artist can find inspiration anywhere, and I’m relieved that hers is in an at least a somewhat controlled environment.

King Onye

King Onye

If a quick look at her website doesn’t stir your inner earth child, seeing her jewelry in person will. Dressed down in a simple black t-shirt and ripped jeans, Ijeoma, who is of Nigerian descent, carries a regal charm.  Modest and super-polite (she answers “yes ma’am” repeatedly), the young designer tells me about her creations with a blend of shyness and enthusiasm.

Her work is eclecticism at its finest: a varied mix of natural elements like feathers, twigs, and hemp strung together with more upscale material like gold chains and luxury gemstones.  It’s an esthetic she defines as “Western Gypsy Couture,” and one that harmonizes well with the top-notch treatment she strives to provide her clients.

“I believe in service, in serving others,” she says.  It’s part of what inspired her to name her company King Onye.  “I want my customers to feel like royalty.”

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Ijeoma moved to Chicago in 2010 and enrolled at Roosevelt University. It was there in a friend’s workshop that she began experimenting with jewelry-making tools.  Soon, she’d create her debut collection: Feather earrings.  She sold her first pair at a hair show.

King Onye

Since then, Ijeoma has been designing necklaces, bracelets, cuffs, and more earrings under her brand name, King Onye Label.  Combining vintage materials (sterling silver, Chinese coins)  with natural things (peacock feathers, twine,  pearls), her end-product is wearable art; jewelry that is both intricate and simple, timeless and avant-garde.

“I’ve really seen her grow,” says Atwood, of her friendship with Ijeoma, who first approached The Elephant Room soon after she’d created her first collection.  Ijeoma has been working closely with the local arts venue ever since.

Self-taught and largely inspired by femininity, Ijeoma tells me that designing jewelry comes naturally to her.  “When I think of myself as a jewelry designer, I think of myself as indigenous.  I think of how powerful women are.  How {in this day and age} women are starting businesses and living life on their own terms, but their desires are the same as they were fifty years ago.”  Ijeoma says she imagines her pieces are what “hunters’ wives” would wear.

When I ask Ijeoma if she plans to continue designing jewelry, she responds emphatically. “I will design jewelry or I will die,” she says.  Her dramatics are deliberate, her tone a clear marker of her dedication to the craft.

King Onye Label is currently available for purchase at the Elephant Room Gallery, Chicago True Born and Luxury Garage Sale in Lincoln Park.

Photos: Kim Carol Photography