SEAS alumna Brittany Turner leads Indigenous jewelry company
“Incredible women wearing beautiful jewelry.”
This is the vision for Cheyanne Symone, an Indigenous woman-owned jewelry company founded by SEAS alumna Brittany Turner (MS ’15).
Turner, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe from Hollister, North Carolina, designs and handcrafts beaded earrings that she describes as “elegant, minimalistic, and made for the professional woman.”
When Turner—who by day is an energy analyst at EcoWorks in Detroit—started Cheyanne Symone in 2018, she saw a need for “high-quality and sustainable Indigenous-style beaded earrings that were versatile enough to be worn every day in a professional work environment and yet bold enough to make a statement.”
Modern native earrings are typically “big and flashy,” Turner noted, “and while I love those earrings, I don’t wear them every day. I wanted to create earrings that were more minimalistic and that anyone could wear, even if they aren’t native.”
Inclusivity is important to Turner, who admitted that her native identity hasn’t always been understood or accepted. As the “only Indigenous person in my classes in college or at work, I dealt with a lot of negative and inappropriate comments and actions regarding my nativeness,” Turner said. “One way that I started dealing with this treatment was by wearing my native beaded earrings. It was a small gesture, but my earrings felt like a shield or a superhero cape. They became a vessel for expressing myself.”
Turner said that in creating Cheyanne Symone, she “dared to dream up a company where I could embrace all of my identities and help others do the same.” Cheyanne Symone embodies what Turner wanted to see in a company, including women empowerment, sustainable practices, thoughtful customer service, and “showing that sustainability could be elegant and fashionable.”
Though Turner began beading at age 6, she didn’t make her first pair of earrings until she started her company, whose name is a combination of Turner’s middle name (Cheyanne) and her best friend’s middle name (Symone). Turner, who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, said she was “inspired to think about native beaded earrings differently” after working with her best friend to design earrings for Turner’s wedding.
Depending on how intricate the design, each pair of Cheyanne Symone earrings can take between two and eight hours to make. Examples of her earrings include the Ivory Classic Freshwater Pearl Stud Earrings, Mini Two-Spirit Pride Stud Earrings, and Adeline Earrings, which were custom-designed for a friend who experienced the loss of her baby daughter, Adeline, mere hours after her birth. Adeline's story is the subject of a blog post on the Cheyanne Symone website; Turner asked her friend to write the piece as a means of helping other women who experienced miscarriages or the death of an infant.
As Turner noted, crafting beaded earrings is detailed work that can’t be rushed. “I definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to create earrings,” said Turner, who makes earrings every evening after putting her 2-year-old to bed. “It’s a mindfulness activity where you really have to concentrate on what you’re doing. Something I tell my beaders is that, if you're in a bad place, don't feel like you need to make a certain number of earrings each day. Your emotions are connected to your work, and how you’re feeling can really show in what you make.”
Turner employs two Native American beaders: Natani Notah, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation on her father’s side and part Lakota and Cherokee on her mother’s, and Rebecca Lynn, a two-spirit artist from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
“You don’t really come by professional beader jobs every day, so I wanted to create a career for other beaders who enjoyed crafting just as much as me,” said Turner about the importance of hiring other native artists. She also works with Instagram influencers from Indigenous backgrounds to model her earrings and help spread the word about Cheyanne Symone. One of those models is Kinsale Hueston, a 2017–2018 National Student Poet, writer, critically acclaimed narrator, and junior at Yale University. She also is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.
In addition, Turner brought on fellow SEAS graduate and close friend Kate Gregory (MS ’15), another energy analyst who works for an engineering firm in Pennsylvania, to serve as Cheyanne Symone’s marketing and data director. “Kate and I made a dynamic team during our master’s project at U-M, and I knew she would bring an expertise in systems thinking to the company,” said Turner, whose specialization at SEAS was Sustainable Systems. “She is an incredible thought partner, and I trust that she will tell it to me like it is.”
As noted on its website, sustainability is the foundation of Cheyanne Symone. Freshwater pearls, glass beads, and gemstones are ethically sourced, vegan suede is used for earring backs, and packaging is made with eco-friendly materials. All shipping materials are recycled, recyclable, and reusable, while paper materials are biodegradable. In addition, earrings come in a drawstring jewelry storage bag that is made of recycled cotton or linen and can be repurposed for other uses.
Cheyanne Symone also offers a Seventh Generation Promise, which means that if a product doesn’t meet a customer’s expectations, it can be repaired, replaced, or refunded.
Turner, who said “being at SEAS gave me a lot of the skills I needed to run the business,” is looking forward to expanded growth for Cheyanne Symone in the coming year, which may include introducing other types of jewelry, such as lapel pins and bracelets.
For now, though, Turner is enjoying “the freedom to embrace my full identity: native woman, scientist, elegant artist, and boss lady.”