Pushing Filipiniana Jewelry a Cut Above the Rest
Words by Kitkat Torres-Banzon; Illustration by Tej Tan
How Gigi Bermejo is redefining a new wave of Philippine heirloom jewelry
They say there is no such thing as chance, and there was definitely nothing “chance” about meeting Gigi Bermejo. When she first invited me into her home, she was looking for a writer to create content for her jewelry brand, “Ma. Angelica,” and I was the writer looking to fill the position. But what was meant to be a job interview, turned into an afternoon full of shared stories, vintage jewelry, merienda, and of course, laughter — it’s nearly impossible to not have a good time with Tita Gigi.
That day, I discovered a woman of character, who forged her own path for more than 35 years to create a distinct brand of jewelry, her own blend of modern heritage; a style very much represented not only in her jewelry, but also in everything she touches.
As a brand, Ma. Angelica is built on the idea that jewelry is a shared legacy — one that embraces the past, so we can look towards the future. This is perhaps best represented by Tita Gigi’s “Remix Jewelry,” which fuses broken antique pieces with contemporary parts, and her “Recreate” line that uses traditional processes to form designs fit for the modern Filipina.
Through the course of many afternoons — often shared via phone call during the pandemic — I began to see our Philippine jewelry for the gem it truly is; all while uncovering the many hats Tita Gigi wore as a collector, designer, and purveyor, continuing to work tirelessly to bring new life to heirloom pieces.
To say her passion is infectious is an understatement, and when I first took on the job, I didn’t know then that it would lead me to a lifelong friend and teacher, who continues to push me to reach for the stars. And like the jewelry she loves so much, Tita Gigi’s mentorship is a legacy I’d like to share and pay forward.
Kitkat: What inspired you to start working in the jewelry industry?
Gigi: If working means enjoying, then I don’t have an answer to your question — because I’ve loved jewelry ever since I was a child. My mom also loved jewelry and so did my grandmother, so could fate be transferable?
I have recollections of my mom often visiting jewelry stores, and when I graduated grade school, I received my first jewelry gift from her. She probably rubbed off on me! And I guess it has become only natural for me to find all the beauty and absurdity (haha!) that jewelry brings.
As an expression of one’s self, jewelry has always piqued my interest because I like to imagine how someone may think or feel when they wear a certain piece. For me, this is where the fun of working on jewelry and custom designs comes in. The collecting and trading part is even more joyful — because you find fulfillment when you earn from the good choices you made. But really, just being able to design, produce, and sell my jewelry has been the best job I’ve ever had.
K: Can you tell us more about your work and how you got into jewelry?
G: I’ve always been interested in vintage and antique finds. I started by collecting rare furniture and ceramics, but I naturally gravitated towards heirloom Filipino jewelry. I’d even buy broken pieces of a necklace or even one tamborine bead for my collection.
I guess you can say that my experience with antiques honed my eye for design. Eventually, I started to think of ways I could redesign certain pieces, especially the broken bits of jewelry I collected. But that was for me — I never thought of selling my designs! But when I’d wear what I designed, I’d be surprised that people were interested to know where I got them. Eventually, with the encouragement of family and friends, I began to have my designs produced, and to this day, I am still surprised that there are people who appreciate my modern heirloom pieces.
K: What are the proudest moments in your career?
G: Being chosen by the Department of Trade and Industry to be part of “Marahuyo”, the first Philippine luxury store in our Duty Free, is a proud moment for me. For a home-based brand like Ma. Angelica Rare Finds, it really is such an honor to stand alongside notable and established names in the local design industry; more so, to be invited to join these brands at the Dubai 2020 World Expo, which would have been last October if the pandemic did not happen.
But I have to say that my proudest moment was at one selling event I joined. A mother was being pulled by her 9-year-old daughter to my booth. The daughter wanted so much to buy a pair of vintage earrings, and she wouldn’t leave without at least trying the earrings on. Needless to say, the daughter went home wearing them, and all I could feel was pride, knowing that there would be a generation of younger Filipinas who would want to wear our culture — and I played a part in that!
K: Is this what motivates you to keep going?
G: The vision we, at Ma. Angelica, carry is to be able to bring forth a legacy that future generations can be proud of. I don’t want the brand to be just a shop. I want it to be a working reference of our rich artisanal history. And if we are able to fulfill this, our job in sharing our heritage, our culture, and thereby our pride to the next generations is done.
My first granddaughter was born in the US last July 2020. Being unable to hold her because of the pandemic was depressing. But through prayers, I took on a different perspective, and now, I hope for nothing more than to be able to leave something behind for the future generation.
K: What have been the hardest moments in your career? How did you get through it?
G: With anything, there will always be challenges, but one of the most recent and difficult of them was being an artist during a pandemic. Before the quarantine, the majority of my jewelry business involved joining bazaars and fairs, and that’s where I met many of my clients. I was also set to join the Dubai 2020 World Expo, which would have really boosted my brand. Imagine now not having any physical venue to display my designs, much less be allowed to meet people?
My children advised me to go the digital path. But while I already had an Instagram account and a website being cooked up, I’m really not a techie person, and the original plan was for those online channels to be more of catalogues to drive people to see me at fairs or to book viewing appointments.
What they were suggesting was for the website to be an interactive selling platform! At my age, that’s a very big pivot in my plans, but you know, I took a leap of faith and dove into it head on, pandemic and all! For more than a year, we shot and reshot all my pieces, developed new designs, created a whole new category system, and even had to learn basic web development — all while on quarantine. And while I would still not consider myself a tech person, here I am, having just launched a website and now answering queries on my Instagram account!
K: Can you talk about what it means to be a woman in your industry?
G: As a woman, this industry has taught me that we can do anything we put our minds to. I never thought that a hobby would turn out to be a career, more so what a home-based brand could achieve, or that I would learn how to make a website!
I just kept pushing towards my goals, and I wanted to be involved in every aspect of the process. Do you know that normally, women are not part of the smithing process? But I always want to be as on top of it as I can, so I work directly with the smithers to get it just right.
As a woman and a mother, I also believe that we, in the arts industry, have a responsibility to share a legacy. It’s not just a matter of creating or selling. Being in the world of antiques, one’s culture cannot be far behind. If you appreciate your culture and know who and what you are, pride of one’s identity and country follows. Our children and our children’s children will know themselves better through what we, in our generation, impart with them. And I choose to speak this language of culture through a medium I know well — through Philippine jewelry.
K: If you were to give younger members of the jewelry industry one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
G: If I were to share anything with younger designers and collectors, it would be to always remember your roots. Jewelry, like all art, is representative of the time and era they were made, and the person who made them, so in designing pieces, you leave your own mark, taste, and personality. And even if you design something more contemporary, never forget your heritage because embracing it will set you apart. It’s what makes your work more meaningful.
K: What’s next for Ma. Angelica? What are some of your plans for the future?
G: Actually now that we’ve opened the website, there’s a lot more that we want to do. We will be adding new collections and future collaborations, which is very exciting. Working on the site was also an opportunity for us to touch on the history of Philippine heirloom jewelry.
Initially, we wanted to just highlight facts, but we’ve recently received a lot of interest from those wanting to learn more, so we have expanded our website to include articles on peinetas, relicarios, and soon, tamborines. That’s actually where the idea of becoming a jewelry reference came from, and we are definitely looking into sharing this wealth of information in our future projects. More to come!
K: What do you think the jewelry industry in the Philippines is like right now, and where do you see it going in the future?
The Philippines has a long artisanal history, and we have proud Filipiniana jewelry traditions that trace back even before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, so there’s no surprise how talented we, Filipinos, are. But with all this globalization, there was a time that we may have forgotten about our past.
Today, however, I am proud of how many more artists — especially the younger ones — are looking back at our own heritage, taking inspiration, and creatively reviving these traditions for modern Filipinos. It’s a good place for Philippine arts and culture to be, and it’s exciting to think how much farther we can go!
GIGI’S MARCH PICKS:
What are you watching now?
Watching? Would you believe HGTV — a home improvements channel? I like that there is always hope for those who believe and those who aspire for greater pasture. It is free to dream after all!
What are you reading?
Right now, I’m on Instagram (@mariasjeweldiaryph) the whole day, answering inquiries about old jewelry 😉
What have you been singing in the shower? Current LSS.
Songs? Well, my favorite song is still “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.
What games are you playing now?
I don’t play a lot of games, but I play badminton! I like that every faculty and part of the body moves and is utilized. It’s kind of like a dance with a beat, but with an element of suspense. It’s an art and a science.