In a quiet, metal and concrete barrack, tucked inside a formerly forgotten street off Grand River in Detroit, Karissma Yve is living her dream.
There she spends her days and nights thinking, writing poetry and designing one-of-a-kind jewelry from precious metals, all capturing phases of her life.
Bracelets that look like small snakes rest on metal shelves.
Sterling silver rings that capture the creator's and wearer's imagination rest in a tray of black aquarium rocks.
There's necklaces and silverware and fragrances and leather handbags, all, she says, reflect her brand -- Xenophora.
She relates cheap pandora charms, a sea snail, to jewelry as she believes that when people carry jewelry, it becomes a part of them.
“We as humans are a collective of things that we’ve experienced and gone through. So I just wanted to pay homage to that, thinking about the experience that I went through growing up in Detroit in the area that’s hit with a lot of poverty and blight. That was something I carried with me and I was able to transmute that into something that is beautiful and wearable and something that people have forever and pass it down to their families.
At 24, the Detroit native is self-taught - in jewelry design, casting and business.
She owns two business, Xenophora and Casting De Khrysopeia, and her line is carried by 16 retailers in Japan, Italy, France, Russia and now, thanks to her recent Motor City Match grant award, in Detroit.
Handmade sterling silver jewelry made by Karissma Yve, CEO and Founder of Xenophora and Casting De Khrysopoeia, is seen on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at her Xenophora showroom in Detroit. Yve is opening her Xenophora showroom and Casting De Khrysopoeia experiential jewelry manufacturing facility on July 28, 2017. Rachel Woolf, Special to the Free Press (Photo: Rachel Woolf, Special to the Free Press)
The public will have a chance to experience her creativity at a soft opening Friday. There visitors will be able to see Yve's showroom and tour her manufacturing facility nearby.
Yve and her five siblings grew up in the Brightmoor neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. She said she struggled with homelessness and physical and emotional abuse. Yet still at a young age she knew exactly what she wanted to do -- create things.
When she was 12, she decided to make a blazer but she needed metal buttons. She knew that it would be hard to find them, so she taught herself to make them. From that point, she said, she’s been interested in casting. After graduating from Southfield Lathrup High School, she enrolled at the College of Creative Studies and stayed for six weeks before dropping out under the premise that she could teach herself what she needed to know.
Karissma Yve, CEO and Founder of Xenophora and Casting De Khrysopoeia, poses on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at her Casting De Khrysopoeia experiential jewelry manufacturing facility in Detroit. Yve is opening her Xenophora showroom and Casting De Khrysopoeia experiential jewelry manufacturing facility on July 28, 2017. Rachel Woolf, Special to the Free Press (Photo: Rachel Woolf, Special to the Free Press)
“I was already on the pathway of being the person that I wanted to be," Yve said. "I felt that if I remained in school, I would’ve invested a lot of money and acquired a lot of debt. So I took the risk of dropping out so that I could focus on developing my brand and developing Detroit’s only experimental jewelry manufacturing facility.”
Yve moved to Chicago to work in retail management, a move that would eventually help her to realize her dream. While at a restaurant in Chicago, she met a man who took notice of work. She had all of her jewelry on and just so happened to a rough draft of her business plan. She’d work on it during her commutes around the city which, she said, motivated her and reminded her of her goal. The stranger noticed her eclectic adornments and approached.
Bob Webb, who works as a senior manager in customer service for Verizon Wireless in metro Detroit, happened to be in Chicago that day. The two began to talk about the jewelry and her goals.
"He said. 'do you have a business plan?' And I said, well yes sir, it’s actually right here," she recalls.
After more chatter -- much about how she couldn't afford to leave retail to do jewelry-making full time --they decided to meet again the next day to discuss a possible partnership.
“I stayed up all night working on my business plan. I was jacked up on coffee. My roommate was looking at me like I was crazy. I’m like, girl, I’ve got an opportunity. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Webb, 62, said that when he saw the work Yve had done overnight, he understood how dedicated she really was. He agreed to become a long-term investor and partner, owning 6% of the company.
“I saw a commitment in her. I can’t really put my finger on it. I mean there were times when I was considering backing out but when you sit down and talk to her, you’re enthused and can’t help but believe in her,” he said.
But the agreement came with an condition: Yve would have to move back to Detroit.
“She didn’t have a lot of support (in Chicago). Detroit is her home. It’s where her family is. It’s more comfortable for her.”
From then on and with Webb's mentoring, Yve said, she was able to really ramp up her brand.
"Bob has been the No. 1 supporter of myself and my vision. As far as investng in me and believing in me, nothing is greater than that," Yve said. "The level of importance that he means to me -- I cannot explain it."
Now back in Detroit, Yve was able to design and make more jewelry which then started getting noticed by buyers from both the United States and countries overseas.
She even met Natalya Bogacheva, owner of Kukla Boutique in Russia, when Yve visited Paris for the first time at 19. She said she took her entire inventory on the trip and Bogacheva ended up purchasing her entire line of jewelry.
Karissma was only 19 years old. The following year, she’d been invited by another showroom owner. She’s been traveling to Paris four times annually and selling her jewelry in other European markets, but said she's extremely excited to finally have her own showroom in her hometown.
Her two businesses are both under a holding company she created called Flowers of Sulfur. Xenophora has been around for five years and is the multi-accessory brand consisting of the jewelry, fragrances, handbags and soon furniture. Casting de Khrysopeia, is a new business venture. It’s a full service design house and manufacturing facility for jewelry, 3D printing and other electronic designing and one-on-one consulting.
“We specialize in taking our clients’ ideas from concept to creation… I want my clients to feel the experience of it.”
Casting de Khrysopeia will be run a differently than a jewelry store that you might find in a mall. Clients are encouraged to come in by appointment, drinks will be served and they will then be able to have one-on-one focus with the jeweler to discuss exactly what they are looking for. The goal is for the customer to feel like they are a part of the process.
“We specialize in taking our clients’ ideas from concept to creation… I want my clients to feel the experience of it.”
Metalsmithing jewelry is both strenuous, time consuming, and may involve much trial and error just to get the perfect look for the client. From completely smoothed metal bracelets to a ring designed to look like a mask that a person would wear on their face, each piece of Xenophora jewelry is unique in it’s own detailed way. After the decision of the design has been made during a consultation, a model of the piece will be carved from a block of wax, then using the model, a handcrafted, authentic piece of jewelry will be specially created just for the customer.
She also wants her employees to get a positive experience too. She designed many of the worktables to accommodate face-to-face interaction.
Yve said that as an African American woman, she feels as though she’s living a young black girl’s dream -- her dream.
“Sometimes when I’m in Paris walking down the street it’ll hit me that I’m really there. It’s like I’m waiting for someone to pinch me and I wake up.”
But being young, black and female, she said, the business world can be unkind. She said she notices that no matter how much money she makes, many men in the business box her in.
“I have a legitimate business. It’s very organized and it’s very professional. I’m paying people a lot of money and it’s not enough,” she said.
Yve said she's even dealt with sexual harassment in the process of building her business. She relates her experiences to the famous Malcolm X quote, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.”
But even though she has come in contact with disrespect and underestimation, she has never let it slow down her process of getting her business to where she wants it to be.
“I get a lot of men trying to strong arm me but I don’t give in. It’s like you can’t speak up for yourself because once you do, it’s a problem. But I’m from Detroit and my mom has raised some really strong women so I don’t take any shit at all. So if I find something to be problematic, I’m going to speak up and I think that is the only way to do it if you want to run an honest, legitimate business.”
Parallel to not seeing her full potential as a CEO, Yve said she feels like many business owners and investors see Detroit today as just a business opportunity, while she sees it as her home and her community. Her employees are as diverse as her jewelry.
She said she hires people she believes first are good people, no matter their race, sex orientation or gender. She said she has hired three women, one man and one non-gender binary.
“The respect that I have for (the people of my community) is something like what I would have for somebody like my mother. I look at them like we are cut from the same cloth. We may not have the same experience but I am you and you are me. I exist because they exist.”
But in order for her to have employees, she’d decided that she needed her own casting equipment, so she started applying for grants and learned about Motor City Match.
Motor City Match is a partnership between the City of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Economic Development Corporation of Detroit and U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to their website MotorCityMatch.com
Yve applied for the Motor City Match grant four times and was rejected three of those times. She was finally awarded a $35,000 grant in January of 2017. She said one of the highlights of the experience was being presented the grant by then-Vice President Joe Biden during his last visit to Detroit.
“We chose Karissma because she’s very talented and represents what Detroit is all about," said Andrew Askew, a Motor City Match program coordinator. "She has worked against some extreme odds and not only is she talented, but she’s bright. She’s provided a service that’s well-need in Detroit and she’s committed to supporting Detroiters."
The Motor City Match grant was the gap funding she needed. Her business plan called for $98,000.
“I bridged my gap through the Detroit Development Fund and got (a loan for) $55,000. They focus on non traditional funding and focus on supporting women, people of color and just people who wouldn’t easily be able to get a loan. So that was really fulfilling. I’m at a point where I didn’t even realize I could do all of this. I mean I knew the money would help me but it’s just been seven months.”
Before the Motor City Match grant or the loan, she was awarded a $10,000 grant from NEIdeas Detroit, a program that awards Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck businesses with grants annually.
Although applying for grants to get the new equipment was taking the long route for her, she felt that this decision represented her staying true to herself and her community.
“Not only am I contributing to Detroit’s economic growth, but I’m supporting people who I say are a part of my community instead of just making my product in the suburbs, coming back to Detroit to finish working on it and then going to Paris," Yve said. "There’s a disconnect that I’d feel from the community. It would be amiss to not give other people the same dream that I have which is to make something.”