Food Bank Staffer, Harlem’s Lamont Wray Jr., Creates Jewelry For The Culture

February 15, 2024


During Black History Month, we at Food Bank For New York City are excited to share an inspiring story that embodies the theme of this year’s celebration: “African Americans and the Arts.”

Lamont Wray Jr., Director of Individual Giving, is also a talented jeweler based in Harlem who understands the need, especially within the community.

Dissatisfied with his 9-5, Lamont decided to pursue his love for jewelry and embarked on a full-time career working in the industry.

Inspired by renowned artists like Art Smith, Lamont’s designs reflect his style and pay homage to the rich heritage of artistry at Lamont Wray Hand Made.

Lamont’s transition to a full-time jeweler was not without its challenges. He faced the uncertainty that we may all experience of not knowing where his next meal would come from and experienced firsthand the harsh reality of food insecurity.

“… making a positive impact on the Harlem community and beyond.”

Motivated by life, Lamont joined Food Bank For New York City, where he now plays a vital role in addressing hunger and making a positive impact on the Harlem community and beyond.

Harlem World Magazine interview with Lamont Wray Jr.

Harlem World Magazine: Valentine’s Day is approaching, and your handmade jewelry makes for unique and meaningful gifts. Can you share some insights into what inspires you?

Lamont Wray Jr.: I find inspiration in a variety of sources. I’m influenced by other jewelry makers like Art Smith, Alexander Calder, Winifred Mason, and Laurel Burch, as well as fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen, Fe Noel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Stephen Burrows. I also draw inspiration from street fashion, often observing looks while riding the subway. Architecture, particularly mid-century modern and Art Deco styles, also inspires me. Exhibits are another source of inspiration for my work.

Sometimes, I’m inspired by gemstones. For instance, I might purchase semi-precious stones from the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market and let the shape of the stone guide me in creating a design to showcase it. Depending on the size of the stone, I’ll create earrings, rings, necklaces, brooches, hairpins, cufflinks, or bracelets.

HW: Your journey from a 9-5 job to a full-time jeweler is inspiring. What motivated you to pursue your passion for jewelry, and how has this transition impacted your creative process?

LWJ: I continue to work full-time because I’m passionate about fundraising for a local human services non-profit organization, currently Food Bank For New York City. I discovered my love for jewelry making nine years ago as a hobby, but it wasn’t until I left my previous job that I decided to transform my hobby into a small business. Since joining my current organization, I’ve taken on a modest number of clients.

Creativity runs deep in my family. My grandmother, with her vast collection of costume jewelry and talent in music, was a constant inspiration. Her appreciation for my jewelry choices was always a cherished compliment. This creative spirit lives on in my nieces, one with a natural gift for drawing and painting, and the other finding joy in dance and theatre.

HW: Your designs are influenced by renowned artists like Art Smith. How do you infuse their artistic styles into your creations, particularly those designed for Valentine’s Day?

LWJ: I don’t design based on holidays. Instead, I engage in conversations with my clients to understand their preferences for the piece’s dimensions, preferred gemstone (if applicable), desired metal, and whether they want a ring, earrings, necklace, etc. While I’ve attended workshops at the Fashion Institute of Technology, my main source of learning has been self-teaching. I often study the work of other artists, dissecting their techniques to understand how they create their pieces. Then, I blend elements of my aesthetic with the client’s requirements to craft a signature piece of jewelry.

HW: As a talented jeweler based in Harlem, how do you incorporate the rich heritage of African American artistry into your designs, especially in the context of Black History Month?

LWJ: I don’t consciously design to commemorate Black History Month. However, the materials, design elements, and sometimes scale are inspired by the creators of my community’s ancestors, as I mentioned earlier.

HW: Your website showcases a stunning collection of jewelry. Can you highlight some of your favorite pieces, especially those with a special meaning or story behind them?

LWJ: Thank you so much; your kindness means a lot. Some of my favorite pieces are named after loved ones and other artists, especially musicians from the past. One of the fold-forged cuffs on my site is crafted from copper with a beautiful turquoise patina. I’m particularly drawn to textured jewelry because of how the sunlight reflects off it. As a Sagittarius, citrine is my birthstone. I’m naturally drawn to turquoise for its tranquil, serene, and soothing properties, which help balance my fiery nature.

The Rah ring is another favorite of mine because it resembles the multi-finger rings popular during the 80s hip-hop era. Growing up in a conservative household as a child of the 80s, I always admired the rings worn by rappers like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and Eric B. & Rakim. However, my parents were not going to spend their hard-earned money on bling for their young son. I used my talent to fulfill what I missed out on as a child and adolescent. Perhaps it’s part of my mid-life crisis

HW: Given your personal experiences with food insecurity and your role at Food Bank For New York City, how do you use your platform as a jeweler to raise awareness about hunger and contribute to addressing this issue in the community?

LWJ: Recently, I had the opportunity to be featured in a campaign where I discussed the connections between art in the African American community and the art of fundraising. This video was shared across my social network and that of Food Bank For New York City. In the video, I highlighted how communities of color, particularly the African American community, exhibit resourcefulness and resilience. Similarly, New Yorkers facing food insecurity demonstrate remarkable resourcefulness and resilience. Despite challenges such as rising food costs, reduced SNAP benefits, overall inflation, and the migrant crisis, our clients show incredible perseverance by standing in soup kitchen and pantry lines more frequently. Many of our neighbors visit emergency food programs multiple times a day, several days a week. Their resilience and resourcefulness are truly remarkable.

During my vending at flea markets and bazaars, I make sure to include awareness materials to educate fellow New Yorkers about food insecurity across the five boroughs and ways for them to get involved through volunteering, advocacy, and donations. I also donate a portion of my jewelry sales proceeds to Food Bank For New York City and contribute a piece or two to be auctioned off at our fundraisers.

HW: Valentine’s Day is often associated with love and connection. How do you believe your jewelry, with its unique blend of artistry and personal touch, contributes to fostering connections and meaningful relationships?

LWJ: For a strong and loving relationship, communication is key. When fulfilling an order for a client who is gifting a piece of jewelry to a loved one, I must know your loved one’s preferences, such as their preferred metal, gemstone, personal style, and body dimensions. The only way to gather this information is through open communication with your loved one.

In addition, I offer clients the opportunity to include an engraved message on their designs. However, the power of an engraved message lies in the ability of the couple to express their heartfelt feelings.

HW: Being a man who is black in New York City, how do you see your journey and success as a jeweler contributing to the broader narrative of Black History Month, particularly within the arts?

LWJ: Every artist has a unique journey that shapes their path to creativity. Over the past nine years, I’ve built a body of work that tells my story. My journey is influenced by other black jewelry designers, and I’m dedicated to passing on what I’ve learned to the younger generation of black creatives. I believe in preserving traditions within my community.

In our community, there’s often a sense of loss as we see our cultural contributions appropriated by others. I feel it’s important for us to retain some aspects within our community. We’ve made many sacrifices, and it’s crucial to continue learning, honing our craft, and keeping certain elements sacred and exclusive to our community. This includes trademarking designs, protecting our brand, and not revealing the intricacies of how we create our work. That’s why I choose not to showcase all of my work on social media.

HW: In your role as the Director of Individual Giving at Food Bank For New York City, how do you balance your commitment to addressing hunger with your passion for jewelry making?

LWJ: Honestly, I’m still figuring that out. As a business person, I prioritize activities that yield the highest return on investment. Currently, my role as a senior leader in fundraising provides the highest return on investment. When I feel creatively blocked, I carve out time to focus on designing, seeking inspiration, and sourcing materials.

HW: Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for your jewelry business, and how do you envision continuing to merge your love for artistry with your commitment to community impact?

LWJ: I envision dedicating 100% of my time to my business once I retire from fundraising. For now, I’ll continue to attract clients, hone my skills, and seek opportunities to use my work and talent to positively impact my local community.

“… I refuse to compromise my aesthetic or sacrifice quality for quantity.”

I constantly remind myself not to lose sight of what initially excited me about creating jewelry: artistry. I refuse to compromise my aesthetic or sacrifice quality for quantity. I’ll create when the inspiration strikes me.

After considering this question, I realize I need to explore other jewelry designers who prioritize community impact. Perhaps there are strategies in their approach that I can adapt for my brand.

HWM: Thank you, Lamont we love your art.

Photo credit: 1-2) Source.

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