Jessica Antista is the Founder & Artistic Director of Muse Group. She started the brand fusing together two of her lifelong passions: design and women’s empowerment. A native of North Carolina and Colorado, Jessica has worked for 10 years with non-profit organisations in over 20 African countries to design and manage entrepreneurship, access to finance and women’s empowerment projects. Having finally tamed the wanderlust, she put down roots in Ivory Coast to put all that she had learned into practice, to help other women create a better life for themselves and their families. Jessica Antista is proof that the future belongs to those who believe in their dreams.
Jessica Antista, start by tagging yourself with three words.
Tenacious. Ambitious. Quirky. Creative. Unique.
Alright, five then 😉 We believe that “hands tell stories“. What do your hands tell about you?
I feel lucky to have inherited my grandmother’s hands, so they’re pretty. More than anything they show that I like to get my hands dirty. I’ve got lots of scars, which came from everything from scuffing myself up at my first job when I was 14 in San Francisco, to wrist surgery, to a monkey bite I got in the Ivory Coast! I try to keep my hands pretty, especially when I’m showing jewellery. I often get manicures in vain, but it’s difficult to hide the signs of the metal and stones that I work with, which take a toll on my hands.
What is the last thing you created with your hands?
I’m in the pre-design process for our spring jewellery collection. The last thing I created were the prototypes for our new line of pendant necklaces, which integrate semi-precious stone with hand-cast bronze that we custom designed with traditional Baoulé bronze casters.
If you could choose, what would you like to be able to do with your hands?
I wish I was as good at jewellery making as the artisans with whom I work. When I started Muse Group, I did some of the technical training myself – especially earrings. They were particularly challenging for my girls – but now their skills have far surpassed my own!
Looking back on everything you’ve done in your life – What is the one thing you are proudest of?
Muse Group is my proudest accomplishment! The fair trade jewellery brand is sold in 23 countries, and will soon be carried by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I am proud of the momentum that we’ve gained, but more so proud of the potential we have proven we have to grow. I joke that my personal hashtag is #fashionempireby40. By 2024, my goal is to have built a diversified clothing and accessory brand that sources material and handmade products from women in multiple countries. I also have broader ambitions to build a social media and business development services platform that would serve women-focused social enterprises and artists globally. Although that may not happen before 40.
“One of a mind” underlines our strong belief in equality and the value of sharing. How does intercultural exchange benefit our global society in your eyes?
Coming from a country as fortunate as America, I believe that intercultural exchange is essential for people to truly understand and appreciate their blessings. And to be motivated to help others who have not had the same blessings. I didn’t leave the US until I was 20, when I went to Kenya to study abroad. Raised by a single mother, I knew what it meant for a woman to struggle, but what I saw there was beyond anything I had ever imagined. I then realised how lucky my mother and I really were, especially to live in a country where women have the opportunity for education and professional growth. My own intercultural exchange is what lit the flame that has driven my career, and in particular Muse Group. To create economic opportunities for women who have not had them.
How did you get in touch with Ivory Coast?
I arrived in 2011, working for an American NGO on agribusiness and entrepreneurship development. For 3 years I was based in Washington but covered 10 countries in West and Southern Africa. Ivory Coast was my favourite. So I worked to create a job opportunity for myself here, and then moved. 3 years later, I left that job to start Muse Group
What does Ivory Coast have that no other culture has?
Firstly, Ivory Coast has an ambition and a dynamism that I have not seen in other African countries. In the 60’s and 70’s, Abidjan was called “the Paris of Africa”. Thanks to a visionary first president and natural resource endowments, the country was prosperous. Unfortunately, the global recession and a coup d’etat during the second president’s term led to the first of 2 civil wars, and the country’s prosperity eroded.
But people still remember “la belle epoque”. They’ve seen that life can be better, and they believe that if they work hard, they can change their lives. As an American, this resonates. It’s a cornerstone of American culture – „the American dream“ – but for so many people in poor countries, who have never seen any opportunity, it is difficult to imagine that hard work can change anyone’s circumstances. Ivorians see this, and that gives them a dynamism I haven’t seen elsewhere.
From a design perspective, I also think that Ivorians have an artistic creativity that is unique. It has made it very enjoyable as a designer to incorporate traditional elements of Ivorian handcraft – for instance the weaving technique that we use for our statement necklaces – to create truly unique designs, inspired by the truly unique artistic history of the Ivory Coast.
Talking about other senses – how would you describe the “Tastes of Africa” and what is your favourite?
My favorite dish is Attiéké. It has the consistency of couscous but is made of fermented casava. The fermentation gives it a tangy taste that pairs marvelously with braised chicken or fish, two Ivorian staples.
I also like Attieke because – like the country’s artisanal industries – it shows a certain refinement. Different forms of fermented casava are eaten all over West Africa, but none are as light or as refined as Attieke.
You are the founder of the Muse Group. Was there an initiating moment you decided to dedicate your job to women’s empowerment?
I grew up with very strong positive female role models. My mother was a single mom, and an exceptionally strong woman. My paternal grandmother, who just turned 93, is Italian. She defied gender stereotypes in a paternalistic culture and insisted on always being exactly who she wanted to be. The importance of women’s empowerment has been engrained in me since I was a child.
It has also been the common thread throughout my career. I studied women-focused development and conducted field research in Cameroon on women’s empowerment and its impact on micro-enterprise development. Also, I worked for 8 years in the non-profit sector, where I pursued every possible opportunity to promote gender equal programming. Even became a de facto “gender expert” within my NGO. But it was in starting the Muse Group that all of these elements came together – my passion for empowering women, my development experience, and my love of design.
We are delighted to add some of the Muse Group products to our selection. What makes these products special in your opinion and why?
It’s our team and our materials that make our products truly special. Each piece is hand-made by young low-income women. We train these women in jewellery assembly, and conduct co-design workshops in order to integrate their design ideas into our collections.
The materials we work with are also hand-made or collected by rural women throughout west and northern Africa. Crowd favourites are our termite beads, which are 100% organic and collected by women in Niger; our seashell sequins, which are individually hand-carved by women in Togo; and our “coffee seed” beads, which are harvested and processed into beads by elderly women in the North of the Ivory Coast.
In 2016, we launched a rural sourcing initiative that aims to buy as much of this material as possible directly from the village women’s groups that produce them. By sourcing these materials directly, we are able to pay the women a price premium, while still creating business synergies.
We have started by sourcing our coffee seeds directly from village women’s groups in Ivory Coast. These groups were formerly only capturing 10% of the market value of their beads. We now pay them a price premium of 40%, which is a win-win for Muse Group.
Which of the Muse pieces we are stocking is your favourite and why?
My favourite pieces is our Kpénzuku Necklace in termite beads. It’s a fabulous statement necklace unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere. The necklace includes a detachable bracelet that can be worn together, or separately. This piece is a great demonstration of both the story behind our artisans and our materials, as well as our “smart, inspired designs”. Many of our pieces are multi-functional, which is one of our key brand attributes. African women are incredibly resourceful. Many of our multi-function design ideas have come out of our co-design workshops. These women know how to create something out of nothing. With the right opportunities, they can accomplish great things.
To check out what’s behind the pieces of Jessica Antista’s brand Muse Group, check out the making process of one of the pieces here.