Interview: Jewelry Designer Rosena Sammi

The women of Apne Aap with the jewelry that they have helped create.  (Photo courtesy of Rosena Sammi)

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Asia Society spoke to Rosena Sammi, a lawyer-turned-jewelry designer whose pieces are a celebration of her Sri Lankan background coupled with modern influences. Though her pieces from previous collections have been worn by fashionable celebrities like Rihanna and Jessica Alba, her new line, Who’s Sari Now?, has produced some of her most important designs. The new socially-conscious line of accessories feature recycled materials that are made in conjunction with Apne Aap, an NGO that is dedicated to rescuing young girls in India from red light districts. 

What was your motivation in getting involved with the NGO Apne Aap?

After many years in the business I realized that helping people was more important to me than jumping on the next trend. I was fortunate enough to meet the founder of Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta. She was inspiring and since I was looking to give back to the community, her organization, which rescues women and children from sex trafficking in India and provides them with a job and education, was the perfect match! Twenty to 25 percent of proceeds from sales go towards educating these young children, and I employ many of the women in making the collection. Changing lives in this way has been so rewarding.

How has your Sri Lankan heritage influenced you as a designer and the aesthetic of your jewelry?

In every way you can imagine! From watching my mother get ready for parties as a child, to learning Bharata Natyam, to designing jewelry for my wedding, I have always had a fascination with traditional South Asian jewelry. My jewelry translates this inherent love of these traditions into modern wearable pieces.

Artistically speaking, how does Who’s Sari Now? differ from the rest of your collection? Did you draw on different inspiration to create the pieces?

I wanted to design something that was more “green” than my typical collection. After much research and experimentation, I hit upon using upcycled sari fabrics, and the result is Who’s Sari Now? Working with textiles is a very different process and I love getting inspired by the different textures, colors and motifs that I find on all these upcycled fabrics. It has allowed me to have a lot of fun trying something new.

Design is one space that Asians and Asian-Americans are very successful. Who are some of your design role models that are Asian?

There are many. I adore the elegant way in which Naeem Khan mixes Indian and Western aesthetics, I am inspired by the whimsy of Manish Arora, and when it comes to fine jewelry it doesn’t get better than Gem Palace.