Ashley Alexis McFarlane Is Redefining Heritage Through Her Heirloom Jewelry
The founder of Omi Woods shares how her designs—consisting of coins, cowries, crosses, and female icons—are handmade with fair-trade gold and conflict-free fine metals.
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"My main mission is to make jewelry that reflects African cultures in materials that are built to last," says Ashley Alexis McFarlane, owner of the acclaimed jewelry line, Omi Woods. In addition to her one-of-a-kind necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and more, she also puts meaning behind every part of her business—starting with the brand's name. "Omi"—meaning water in the Yoruba language—pairs with "Woods" to pay homage to the designer's Jamaican-Ashanti-Maroon roots. The word "Jamaica" stems from the indigenous Taíno word "Xaymaca," which means land of wood and water.
And this is just part of her story. McFarlane points to her upbringing in Toronto, Canada, as having introduced her to people around the world and, in turn, connecting her to consumers. "There are so many newcomers here, so I was always around people from different countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe, and more," she says. "When creating jewelry, I wanted to focus on pieces that can be passed down as a way to continue that tradition for people who went through the middle passage." In doing so, she has built a leading-edge jewelry line that reflects the rich heritages and histories encompassing Africa and the diaspora.
Launching Her Business
To get started in the industry, the business owner began with her first company in 2011 called Asikere Afana, which means Sugar Machete in Twi—a West African language spoken by the Asante people from Ghana. McFarlane started by mainly selling a collection of dresses made from African fabrics that helped women feel seen, but she eventually pivoted her business model to create jewelry inspired by her grandmother. "I started wearing the pieces that were passed down to me whenever I wanted to be reminded of her," she says. "That's when I realized the power of jewelry and heirloom, sentimental gifts."
She naturally transitioned into her Omi Woods jewelry business in 2018 using her already booming online shop through Pinterest and Etsy to keep her direct-to-consumer goods of high quality and interest to her buyers. "When I switched to jewelry, my customers already new that I was transitioning into something new," she says. "My collection before the switch was called 'Transitions.' Because the jewelry was still African in theme, it went well. I was able to benefit from the following and fashion connections I'd built with clothing and continue to grow."
Each of the Omi Woods collections vary, but every piece of jewelry—including the signature coin designs—always hits close to home for McFarlane. "When I first started designing, I was making pieces for myself and my friends, so my first coins (from $89, omiwoods.com) came from Jamaica, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Trinidad," she notes. "There are really large populations of people from those nations in Canada and I've always been surrounded by them." She also wanted to make pieces like cowries (from $69, omiwoods.com) that are staples in African visual iconography. This statement jewelry in particular used to be a form of currency in West Africa and is now a representation of abundance and prosperity. Other stunning pieces include the ankh (from $79, omiwoods.com)—which is known as the original cross—and the cartouche (from $79, omiwoods.com): an amulet worn by leaders believed to have sworn off negative forces. Ashley also puts a focus on a number of African Queens in the jewelry she creates—one of which being Nefertiti (from $89, omiwoods.com). Known for her elegance and leadership in Ancient Egypt, the Queen also wore the headdress of the Pharaoh—which represented her power as an Egyptian royal. Another necklace embodied the Queen of Sheba (from $108, omiwoods.com)—the design particularly featuring Queen Makeda wearing a headwrap and jewels.
McFarlane continues to draw from the diversity in African cultures for her work—notably by looking at vintage coins to study their history. She did exactly that for her latest collection, "Peace Within," which focuses on the coins of countries celebrating landmark anniversaries of independence and moments that have transformed their societies. As much as the Omi Woods coins represent the leaders and legacies of times past, they also symbolize the continued fight for racial equality today. As she explains, the year 2019 "marked 400 years since the abolition of slavery, and the Black Lives Matter movement has brought racial discrimination and social injustice to the fore." She adds that while she has been working on this collection for an extended period, it is right on time: "The line is connecting to the zeitgeist of the moment, and I'm glad. One of my first jobs out of university was working for an organization that addresses police brutality in Toronto, so it feels like things are coming full circle."
Quality Comes First
As Omi Woods continues to grow, the brand's quality silver and gold remain the same—a business essential in McFarlane's eyes. In giving her customers access to the best materials in jewelry, she also wanted to spotlight the rich physical resources from the African continent, which boasts a majority of gold and diamonds in the world—according to National Geographic, and the need for them to be traded fairly and ethically. Her goods also give her customers the space to enrich the communities and the labor necessary to piece the jewelry together, and in turn, create a better community within the jewelry industry: "There is a sentiment to that that is timeless: the connection between the earth's resources, the people who utilize those resources to make something beautiful or useful to someone else, and the appreciation of a craft."
McFarlane's advice for other entrepreneurs building their businesses? Pull from personal experiences to create an authentic brand and a fulfilling journey. And no matter the route to getting your business up and running, embrace any changes as they come: "Allow yourself time to learn, gain experience, and grow," she says. "All businesses have their natural progression and you have to let that unfold."