Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley

Virgin Islands Nice

Over the course of this week and the next, we’ll be spotlighting music, life and culture in the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, with our Virgin Islands Nice series. First stop is the Crucian capital of Christiansted, for an inside look at St. Croix’s rich jewelry culture.

Arriving in St. Croix last summer, we met Nikki, a college student home on break after her first year of school in Virginia. LargeUp creative director (and photographer for the entire Virgin Islands Nice series) Martei Korley convinced Nikki to be his muse for the following day, and together we set about exploring the island’s capital city of Christiansted through her eyes. After touring the vast, secluded beaches and rolling hills of the famed Buccaneer Hotel, we headed into town for a walk through the bright streets of downtown Christiansted, stopping for lunch at Harvey’s Restaurant  before finding our way over to the waterfront at Fort Christvaern.

Christiansted can be quiet these days, but there are some bright spots driving the local economy forward. One of the brightest can be found on the corner of Queen Cross and Company streets in Christiansted, a place where culture and commerce come together in the form of three inviting businesses bonded together by the close friendship between their owners. Here you’ll find Ital in Paradise, an easy frontrunner for best vegetarian meal in St. Croix; Riddims, the music and culture shop operated by noted local producer Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred (himself the subject of an upcoming feature in this series); and IB Designs, a purveyor of handcrafted bracelets, rings and pendants

It’s inside IB—which proudly bills itself as the U.S. Virgin Islands’ smallest jewelry store—that we ended up spending much of our afternoon in Christiansted, thanks to the welcoming and engaging spirit of founder Whealan Massicott and his wife, Kris. Kris runs the ground-level store, while Whealan—who has also recorded and performed as a guitarist with several local reggae bands, including the formidable Midnite—crafts all of the shop’s jewelery with his team in a studio directly upstairs.

A description on the IB Designs website reads “Feelgood people making feelgood jewelry,” and within a few moments in the shop, it’s easy to understand what’s meant by that. “IB” is short for Island Boy, a name which speaks to the dual citizenship of Whealan, who originally hails from Dominica, and also to the broader influence of the Caribbean on his distinctive designs. After Whealan gave us a lesson in metalsmithing techniques in his studio upstairs, we went downstairs with Nikki as she tried on some of IB’s latest creations.

St. Croix in general lays claim to a rather unique and vibrant jewelry culture. Christiansted is dotted with shops selling locally-produced jewelry, nearly all offering variations on the St. Croix hook bracelet created decades ago by local merchant Sonya Hough. As our St. Croix-born friend Steve Bennett of Uncommon Caribbean notes, the Crucian hook bracelet, a simple horseshoe design that holds great symbolism fort all who wear it, is as much of a staple and icon of St. Croix culture as exists. (According to island folklore, wearing the bracelet with the open end of the hook pointed up towards your heart means your love is taken—wearing it worn down, well, that means the opposite!)

Whealan takes the concept of the St. Croix hook bracelet a step further by incorporating the shape of the island into his version. His Caribbean Islands series also introduces pieces meant to represent other islands, including St. John, St. Thomas, and his native Dominica, in a similar fashion. And he’s also adapted the distinctive St. Croix bracelet design into a set of earrings.

Another more recent innovation distinct to St. Croix is Chaney Jewelry — pieces made from old china found on the grounds of the island’s old sugar plantations or, often, on local beaches following a hurricane or heavy rain. (The term “chaney” is derived from the words “china” and “money”). Whealan is one of the trailblazers when it comes to crafting jewelry with this unusual second-hand resource, and the IB shop carries dozens of pendant designs made with the antique remnants.

Join us and Nikki in the photo series below, as we get a close-up look at Christiansted culture, and the craftsmanship behind one of its most vibrant businesses.