Jewelry Designer Channels African Ancestors in Designs

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Paola Elena Acuña, owner pf Piedras Haseya. Photo by Wezz De La Rosa / Hola Iowa
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By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

Paola Acuña moved to Des Moines two months before everything shut down. It gave her plenty of time to plan how she could kick start the jewelry design business she started in New Jersey before the move. By 2021 she had her LLC for Piedras Haseya, an indigenous word meaning “rise up”. A few weeks later she was selected as a vendor at the Valley Junction Farmer’s Market. “Coming to Iowa has been a tremendous opportunity for my business,” says Acuña. In New Jersey, she was taking a courseload of business and entrepreneurship college classes, working full-time, and teaching Zumba while working on her designs. “Everything is more expensive than in Iowa, so I had to work all these jobs and couldn’t just focus on my business.” Moving has allowed her to concentrate on her art and business full-time. 

As an Afro-Costa Rican, she infuses her heritage into her work to create unique pieces not found anywhere else in Iowa. “My culture as an Afro-Latina inspires my art. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved handmade jewelry that my mom bought me from artists in my country. Everywhere you go in Costa Rica, there are artists selling their work.” That’s what makes her pieces so special. Each one is designed using techniques she learned as a child, growing up among other artists who sold their work around Costa Rica. “I love designing earrings. Sometimes I’ll come up with a design and love it so much that I’ll make twenty in different colors,” she says, eyes sparkling in excitement. “Other times, I create a design that I love, and I only make one.” The colors she prefers are bright, vibrant, and of varied significance; they tell a story. Some of her signature designs use beads that are hand-made in Africa using recycled materials symbolic of the African diaspora. “I like to honor my ancestors through my pieces,” she says of using these high-quality beads and crystals.

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Offering these wearable works of art at a price point Iowans are comfortable paying is a challenge. She works with a financial coach at the Evelyn K. Davis Center, where she participated in a business accelerator program and met contacts who became colleagues and customers. “If you can’t manage your finances, your business won’t succeed,” she says of the ways she’s learned to make purchase decisions for the Triple-A grade crystals, gold, silver, and stainless steel she uses for her jewelry.  “I make a lot of sacrifices to invest in materials that ensure my jewelry will last a long time. No one wants beautiful jewelry that breaks as soon as they wear it.” Acuña also invests in traveling to other states to buy supplies, and in an accountant she trusts. Building her reputation as a solid businesswoman and artist is essential in reaching her goal of participating in art shows and markets across the state and beyond. She applied for a spot at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market in 2022 but wasn’t accepted, so she applied again the following year. She was selected in 2023 and will be a vendor again in 2024. 

In the coming years, Acuña hopes to expand her offerings. She has partnered with a childhood friend, also an artist, who makes small accessories from wood and coconut shells. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, she stocked up on her work, plus gems, crystals, and other supplies she’ll use to design jewelry for markets, shows, and festivals. She works out of her space at Mainframe Studios in downtown Des Moines, where rent is affordable, and she is surrounded by other creatives. She has regular customers at their monthly First Friday events where she sells what she’s made throughout the week and takes orders for custom pieces. Working near other artists has its perks. In April, she collaborated with a fashion designer and several photographers for The Curve Factor, a body positivity fashion show and vendor showcase at Mainframe, where models wore her jewelry. 

Photo by Wezz De La Rosa / Hola Iowa

2024 is shaping up to be a busy year for this young business. In May, she’ll be a weekly vendor at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, and monthly at the Valley Junction Farmers’ Market. She was chosen as a vendor for the Reiman Gardens’ Art Fair in July, the World Food and Music Festival in August, and will be at Iowa’s Latino Heritage Festival in September for the second year in a row. While she creates all her designs, she does employ help for most events to ensure she can meet demand and continue to create distinctive pieces. Her assistant helps with managing the displays and keeping the area stocked. That allows Acuña to devote time to more intricate designs and speak to customers about her work. “I like to create a positive experience for my customers,” she says of educating people about her materials, the importance of attention to detail, and stories about her life in Costa Rica. She gets especially excited when others want to know more about her home country, and for whom English is not their first language. “Many people are surprised I speak Spanish because of my skin color,” she says. There aren’t many Afro-Latinas in Iowa, but that’s exactly what has helped boost her business. She has a rare perspective that translates into jewelry that is unlike anything else on the market. 

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An entrepreneur can’t help but see opportunity, and that was no different when Acuña became a first-time mother in 2023. Throughout her pregnancy, she learned about the maternal health crisis in the US, with the highest maternal and infant mortality rate of all high-income countries in the world. For Black women, that rate is nearly three times higher than average, and that really impacted this new mom. Soon after her daughter Konah was born, Acuña began the process of becoming a certified doula and lactation specialist. She is just a few months shy of meeting this goal and sees it as a much-needed niche in Des Moines. “I want to advocate for women like me, who have African ancestry or who speak Spanish. I want to empower them to have healthy births because giving birth is a natural process, and it should be safe.”  This new adventure would be alongside Piedras Haseya, but isn’t a stretch for a woman used to juggling multiple ventures at a time. It’s part of the legacy she hopes to instill in her daughter, who is almost a year old and has spent countless hours at her mother’s side as she designs and sells her jewelry. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do so many things during the different seasons of my life. I want that for her. She’s growing up in the studio and goes to the markets and shows. I’d love for her to learn from me but if she wants to be a doctor instead, that’s good, too,” says Acuña as she lovingly nestles Konah on her lap as the baby babbles and smiles at her mother. It’s clear that her daughter will have plenty of examples of tenacity, a strong work ethic, and a positive role model at her side, encouraging her to dream big. 

JEFAS Magazine is a collaboration of writers, photographers, social media managers, editors, translators, and designers from across Illinois, Iowa and the Midwest – all of whom are Latinx. It is the first magazine created by the Latinx community, for the Latinx community that focuses on how they are boosting the economy, giving back, and filling the gap between what is needed and what is available in the state. 

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To see the locations where you can find the magazine visit @JEFASMagazine on Instagram and TikTok

You can find the digital magazine here:

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https://holaamericanews.com/jefas-latinas-in-business-magazine-may-2024/

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