The creations are timeless; simple but extraordinarily beautiful. The earrings are meticulously created in striking mixed metals of brass and silver that sing of the earth’s natural textures. The necklaces, whimsically inspired by nomadic wanderings and unique lands, are ever-evolving and spirited in their playful inspiration. One might think that the genius behind these gorgeous compositions is a wizened elderly savant, but in fact, this gutsy brilliance belongs to Katie O’Neill, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Mushmina.

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Katie’s breathtaking talent is unparalleled. It is rare that one finds a female master metalsmith, let alone one with such a fierce fervor to continue learning and honing her intricate, luminous skills. Katie is not only an accomplished metalsmith, she is also a textile and clothing designer.

Soft-spoken and with a dazzlingly genuine smile that shines with compassion, Katie is a force with which to be reckoned when it comes to her passion-creating enchanting, enduring art in all forms.

Katie treks the earth, seeking illumination. She has traveled to the Sahara desert of Mali to study the famed Tuareg ‘Blue Men’; well-known for their mastery of crafting spirited jewelry. She walks the walk, one could say. She sits with local artisans. She teaches them. She learns from them. She is constantly changing, growing, advancing herself, and searching for understanding and self-betterment. And she does all of this in the most humble of ways.

What inspires her? She pauses and is reflective. ‘ That special visceral reaction that happens when people “connect” in the world.’ Katie explains, ‘ I found that what inspires my interest in craft is its relationship to cultural anthropology and the deep rooted connection to our ancestry or childhoods,’ She continues mindfully, ‘It’s a nostalgia, a comfort, a trigger.  It is important to me that we be reminded of the origin and integrity from which art is created, its roots; the force behind the innovation and craftsmanship.’

Katie also has a passionate appreciation for unique storytelling though artistry. Luckily, this mindful mission is embedded in the soul of Mushmina. ‘I do what I do in order to allow other artisans to tell their story through our collaboration. As artists we have been given the duty of continuing to carry out these traditions. I think in a past life, perhaps I was a metalsmith or weaver and decided that in a future life, when I was in a position of freedom and opportunity, I would come back and use my skills to empower the fascinating stories of others. It is truly a gift to be creative.’

Katie and Heather have been honing authentic, reciprocal, learning relations with their team of skilled Mushmina artisans for almost 10 years. It is deeply rooted in their philosophy to support and employ local artisans from all over Morocco. It’s taken years to establish and the genuine rapport between the Mushmina Sisters and their team of experts is something of which they are extremely proud.

Katie looks to her own spirituality for guidance. Simplicity, earthiness, and the pure beauty in nature. Blending the unexpected. Mixing metals. Who creates striking earrings inspired by the lovely historical Art Deco period in Casablanca? Katie does. Who hand-draws and designs a best-selling line of handbags ingeniously taken from a vibrantly upholstered Moroccan couch? Katie did. Katie sees color and light in everything.

Fortunately, Katie has the best of collaborators in her adventures. She explains pensively, ‘Heather and I just mesh. We fit perfectly as sisters and work partners. There isn’t anyone who knows me better. Mushmina is not an actual word but rather, the nickname my sister gave me as a child. It doesn’t technically mean anything, but in Algerian Arabic, we’ve been told “Meshy mna” (spelled phonetically) means “Not by us”. I loved learning this as we often say the that the work happens “through” us. My creations are inspired by a myriad of things and are largely due to the people with whom I have the honor of working. This is what makes our items unique. They tell stories. The fact that the results are often a collaboration leaves room for the element of surprise…I then combine old and new, so it’s relatable.’

Lastly, I have to ask Katie what her favorite Moroccan food is. ‘All of it!’, she says without missing a beat. She explains with enthusiasm, ‘I actually love Moroccan food so much that Heather says she’s never seen me eat so much as when I’m in Morocco. I think it’s possible that I finish one meal and then start talking about the next one immediately afterwards. It’s a constant joke with Heather. ‘The food is yet another sensory stimulating combination of Morocco’s magic that makes you want to come back for more.’

You will often find Katie in the tiny, rugged workspace of Mushmina’s master jewelry mallum, Ahmed, in Tiznit, southern Morocco. Or in the high Atlas Mountains designing clothing with the women of the Eve Branson Foundation. Katie will be there, sitting with women’s co-ops and artisans, studying and participating, guiding and advising, and becoming enlightened herself. And of course, laughing with her peers. Because Katie is a friend to everyone. Her warmth glows as her gorgeous metals clink gently against her strong stride.

Luckily for us, enchanting Morocco has this bold, visionary woman to tell its beautiful story.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

The first time Heather and I spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by the radiance and warmth of her voice. It glowed through our conversation and I knew right away that I had come across someone special.

Heather, I discovered soon after, is the heartstrings of Mushmina and so much more.

 

Running a successful small business is one thing. However, running a flourishing small business, as a strong female CEO, with a mindful mission from Morocco is an entirely different situation. All of these challenges could bring even a strong person down. Heather, despite these obstacles, chooses to ‘run into the storm’ as she has expressed to me in the past. And she is one storm-strong woman.

Heather describes successfully owning a business in Morocco as ‘rolling with it, no matter how crazy things may be.’ She is a firm believer in karma and the universe backing her up. And she should; her work ethic and her incredible human spirit are unmatchable.

On top of it all, Heather is a loving mother to two wee people-Hiba, four years and Youssef, one year. And she is as hands on as a mama could be-I often call her and she’s been out for a nature walk with her kids. Or she brings the gang with her to our informal meetings at my house. Which I love!

The pressure, however, of being a thriving small business owner and an effective mother, can be stressful. Particularly working from home; where chaos can reign with two little ones.  However, Heather manages to find the light in the chaos. She claims that flexibility is the key to positivity. She explains earnestly, ‘To me, this has so much value. I love that each day is different and I can take a sick day with my daughter if I need to.’ She continues, ‘Hiba loves to play in the workshop next to me and tries on all the latest clothing and bags. My son goes right for my toolbox. It does get a little chaotic but I have a wonderful helper and a door that I can shut when necessary; this is how I find my sanity. I also work at midnight when everyone else is asleep.’

Peace seems to seek out Heather. This girl just doesn’t get flustered! I’ve called her more times that not when a product order has been lost in the Moroccan mail (it happens quite often) or Hiba has dumped applesauce all over Youssef’s head. And she goes with the flow! She frequently tells me that the universe has its way of sorting things out.

She’s also pretty darn humble. She’ll be the first to give credit to her fab sis and Co-Founder, Katie, as well as the incredible team of Mushmina artisans. As well as her family and husband, Mohamed. Her nature is one of caring for others.

 

At the same time, this Mama rocks the fashion accessories world with her innovative, creative, supportive mission. But Heather is no wallflower! She says she has learned to be assertive and firm living in Morocco and running a business here. She explains, ‘You have to have boundaries. There is a balance in being patient but also being productive. Things take more time here, but I have found a rhythm.’ She laughs good-naturedly. ‘Most of the time.’

 

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Heather’s connection to Morocco and its people is exceptionally remarkable. The best part is that it comes so naturally to her. Heather learned Darija, one of the local languages of Morocco, when she was a Small Business Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005 in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. As she fittingly describes, ‘People’s heads turn when they hear that I can speak the language and also that I am an experienced negotiator.’ Clearly, the respect is there.

Working closely and diligently with women’s groups, co-ops, and artisans inherently allowed her to easily pick up the language fluently. Heather’s bond with those with whom she comes in contact is extraordinary. While most expats do not speak Darija, Heather defies the odds and does all of her work in the language. Watching and listening to her work is an art-a fascinating, back-and-forth of gentle grit and perseverance. Yet she manages to have a kindness and warmth to her that is incredibly affable and approachable.

The close link that Heather has with her long-term team of loyal artisans is palpable. Trust and relationships take time to develop here in Morocco and Heather has dedicated years of her time to this labor of love, Mushmina. She has earned respect, appreciation, and most importantly, affection and admiration from her body of artists. As she often says, ‘I learn from them as much as they learn from me.’

This mutual admiration and respect comes from years of getting to know her artisans and their families, a key part of Moroccan culture. Heather describes it best-‘My leadership style is very personal. I am particularly invested in our team, I know their families and they know mine. This is also how business is done in Morocco and I love this about my adopted home.’

 

 

After I spoke to Heather on the phone for the first time, we decided to meet in Casablanca. We realized quickly that our vision was similar. We both were former Peace Corps Volunteers, gravitating towards empowering and supporting women in particular.

As soon as I walked into the café where we had arranged to meet, Heather’s charmingly genuine smile greeted me from across the bustling Moroccan tearoom. I knew at that moment, I was meeting my future boss. Even more essentially, my steadfast friend.

Perhaps one might agree that Heather is in fact, the thread of Mushmina. And if the universe has its way of sorting things out, then I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be a part of Heather’s cosmos.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger, ‘among other things!’

 

 

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