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Preserving Indigenous Culture While Looking Fly: An Interview with Jess Sanchez of Santa Isla


In the second installment in our series on amazing ethical start-ups, we talk to Jess Sanchez, the Founder and Creator of Santa Isla.
Santa Isla creates one of a kind statement jewelry while supporting and preserving the culture of the Embera Chami people in Colombia.

 Tell me about the inspiration behind Santa Isla. What was the moment you decided “I am doing this?”

I’m a very instinctual person; I feel first and then I do. I felt a connection with the jewelry and the wonderful Embera Chami artisans from the first moment I met them and saw their work. As soon as I put a piece on I knew that I had to do something.


A Santa Isla Statement Necklace made by the Embera Chami


Who are the artisans? What do they think of people in North America wearing their work?

The Embera Chami people – Chami meaning “mountain” and Embera meaning “people,” – are a Colombian indigenous ethnic group who practice the important aspect of the power of the spirits which they trust to regulate life, health, livelihood and nature. The artisans that Santa Isla works with are a small group of Embera artisans that have been displaced from their land by the paramilitary and forced to move into the city. Settling into the city has brought forth numerous challenges: language barriers, lack of skills for the workforce, social discrimination, etc.

Jess Sanchez and the artisans from Embera Chami who work with her to design and create each unique piece. of jewelry

The Embera Chami love having everyone wear their art because it shows their culture to the outside world and it represents a source of income. The Embera consciously fight to maintain their legacy, wearing Santa Isla means preserving the Embera Culture while looking so fly.


The artisans that make each Santa Isla piece take over thirty hours to craft each necklace. The unique beading technique is passed down through the generations.


 Each season, you choose a different color palette or theme, how do you get ideas for designs and what will be amazing? What’s your process?

I live by my instincts and design the same way. This next collection is based on my trip to India early this year. I was blown away by their unapologetic use of color. The spirituality that lives in each color resonated with me- it will definitely be reflected in the next collection. When I design something it usually gives me a feeling- the type of feeling determines if it gets made or not. I hope it turns out amazing haha.


What has been the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome? How did you do it?

The biggest hurdle has been managing production overseas. It’s challenging because I’m a little bit of a control freak, but defining clear communication and trusting my production manager is how I make it work.

You once mentioned you get asked about cultural appropriation a lot- how do you respond to these questions? Can everyone wear a Santa Isla piece and do it respectfully?

I always say it’s about cultural appreciation not appropriation. As long as you have consciousness of what wearing a piece means then it’s all love. Wearing Santa Isla allows for a social group facing many challenges to maintain their livelihood with dignity and respect. I think people who want to support conscious and sustainable fashion can wear Santa Isla.


What is your favorite Santa Isla story? A moment in Colombia, or maybe during the design process?

Hard to narrow down but I’d have to say when Jesus (production manager) and I nail down a new design. We have a really crazy/beautiful connection and it just feels like magic when we make new stuff. Seeing my designs come to life is addictive.

 Any advice for readers who want to follow their dreams and pursue their passion?

Focus + Motion. That’s it. If you’re passionate about making your dreams come true, just focus and do it. Then the adrenaline kicks in and there’s no stopping you.

 Favorite track to listen too while designing?

So many tunes, I I love all sorts of music, my soundcloud page is what I play when I design https://soundcloud.com/jessicasanchez

 What keeps you going? How do you stay motivated/inspired?

The artisans I work with keep me going. The more we make, the more I can give back to them.
When people stop me and ask me about the piece I have on. I tell them the story and I can see that same feeling I got when I first saw these jewels. I love it. I can’t stop.

image_3Where can our readers find out more about your work, and what’s ahead for 2015?

My website www.santaisla.com and instagram @santaisla! I have a new collection coming out in June and a collaboration with some cool designer. Can’t say much more now but it will be announced soon.


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