Interview: Matthew HarrisInterview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner
Matthew Harris, the designer behind the fine-jewelry brand Mateo, can be difficult to pin down. Currently splitting time between Lisbon and Texas, I managed to catch him at his New York showroom, where he’d just arrived from Paris, a week before he jetted off to his hometown of Montego Bay, Jamaica. The showroom (For Future Reference) overlooked the New York Public Library, where, coincidentally the Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala was to be held the Sunday following this interview. When I arrived, Harris’s PR representative ushered me into the space, hurrying back to her desk to field emails and calls from glitzy people seeking to wear Mateo at the gala. And then Harris walked in, decked in black and yellow gold (his own jewelry, a YSL belt buckle and a Cartier watch), warming up the room with an easy laugh that offset the go go go energy of his schedule.
Harris moved to New York in 2009, where he served tables at the Soho Grand and used his free time to prowl the Diamond District. An intuitive calling to make jewelry stemmed from his dissatisfaction of what was on the market for men at the time… So, without any formal training or education in the rarefied field, he soaked up the happenings on 47th street, supplemented by self-teaching via YouTube and books. His big break came within a year, when Rihanna was spotted by Just Jared sporting one of his necklaces. Mateo then morphed into full-fledged business, with men’s and women’s collections sold at retailers like Saks and Net-a-Porter, and a glamorous clientele ranging from Zendaya to Michelle Obama. Now, 13 years later, he has quite the watch collection to show for his hard work. Shamelessly materialistic (he’s got a steel Ballon Bleu to match the hardware on his Hermès bag), Harris yearns to return to the simple life of Jamaica. But for now, we talk watches when his life is anything but.
Brynn Wallner: So… what is it about watches?
Matthew “Mateo” Harris: Girl, you can’t ask me anything about movements or any of that fancy stuff. For me, it's an aesthetic thing. It’s about looking different. I live in Lisbon now, and every man has the same Rolex. It gives me anxiety every time I see it.
BW: Do you know which one?
MH: It’s the Wall Street one that all the finance guys wear. Like, the stainless steel with the black dial. The Submariner. They all want to pretend like they’ve made it in life. I’m like, babes, go get a vintage watch!
BW: What was your first watch?
MH: So, my first watch was a 1985 two-tone Rolex Datejust. I bought it from Aaron Faber on 5th Avenue. I’ll never forget it – I finished college and started my business in March 2009, and I was like, I'm gonna treat myself to a watch. My birthday was a few months later – June 8th, I was 22. I kept that watch for a very long time. I didn't want to sell it. I had this deep connection to it because it was my first.
BW: And your second?
MH: My second watch… I bought it from The Webster. An all gold 1985 Rolex Presidential Day-Date. Not the one I’m wearing right now – I upgraded with this new one. The previous one had hollow links, but this is solid gold.
BW: You want that weight.
MH: I grew up a bit… I was like, you know, I deserve something nice. Let me treat myself. Actually that’s one of the running jokes I have with my friends, that I always treat myself – You deserve it! So, I went to the Rolex store in Texas and bought it for myself because I had just bought a house and wanted a watch, which is absolutely ridiculous because you shouldn't buy a watch after you buy a house.
BW: You love yellow gold.
MH: I do. It just looks great on my skin.
BW: But your Cartier Ballon Bleu is steel.
MH: It is – because I have an Hermès Picotin bag in palladium hardware, so I needed the watch to go with the bag. Yeah, I’m so ridiculous that I have a watch to go with the Hermès bag… sounds pretentious, but it’s the reality.
BW: What watch were you wearing when you came in? The Cartier Ceinture?
MH: Yes, I found it two years ago in Paris on Rue de Rivoli, I found this little shop. 1969, automatic movement, which is fantastic. I love an automatic movement – you shake it, you spin it, it’s good to go. Hustled the woman in the store – paid nothing for it, she wanted more, but I said, babes, you’re taking this cash and I’m leaving.
BW: With the deployant clasp, too.
MH: I took it back to Cartier – they were even surprised I found this watch. They did a custom strap for me in croc in a matte finish. I just got another watch in Paris with my Instagram friends, a Norwegian couple, Tibor Rosetti and Åsa Aaberge. They have incredible taste. They took me to this fantastic vintage dealer in Paris, and we had the best time. I have a bunch of Instagram watch friends, we have a little community.
BW: You need friends to help you out. Is there anything else you have your eye on?
MH: I used to want a gold Patek Philippe Nautilus but it’s impossible to get and $150K… So, I will settle for vintage and form my own identity with them.
BW: Do you stack your watches?
MH: Um, it depends, it depends, it depends.
BW: Very controversial topic.
MH: Yeah, it can be a bit much. But there are some guys who do it well… like Gianni Agnelli. He used to stack his watches, which was so badass. Every now and then, when I need a little style inspiration, I’ll watch his documentary on HBO and think, I’m gonna throw my watch over my sweater.
MH: There’s a time and a place. And I’m not above double-wristing watches.
BW: That is also a move.
MH: I want to keep my New York time here, and my Lisbon time here. You know, if I’m running errands.
BW: Who needs a GMT when you can double-wrist?
MH: Exactly. So I check it and I’m like, okay, New York… my nephew is just waking up in Texas… I can keep track of my madness.
BW: So what were you doing in Paris? Were you there for fashion week?
MH: Yeah, I was showing my pre-Fall collection. Right now, I strictly show in Paris for sales because I have most of my accounts there. When I was starting out, US buyers never really paid me any attention. Even when I launched in-store, it was via the buyer at Bergdorf’s in Paris, not in New York.
BW: Why is that, do you think?
MH: I suppose that when you show in Paris, it creates the illusion of being more established or more serious. And I only show at the Place Vendôme, so it just works for us. We don’t sell to too many stores – we sell to the best ones and we build relationships over the years. It’s very intimate. We get a massive suite, people come in, we get room service, champagne. Just chill and gossip and kiki.
BW: Hold court.
MH: With my buyers, I can be my authentic self. They’ve seen me at my worst, and I’ve seen them at theirs. We’re like a little family.
BW: I feel like that’s why people like your jewelry – because it comes from a place of authenticity.
MH: Yeah, I hope so.
BW: So what are you working on now? What’s the latest for Mateo?
MH: We’re working on a chromosome collection – but instead of the X, we’re doing a Z and a Y. The high jewelry version is set with three cuts of diamonds – trillion, baguette and round. But we want to keep things, as always, simple and wearable. The ethos of the brand is to make great personal jewelry at affordable luxury prices. Yes, this has over a carat in it, but we’ll also have options with blue topaz, green amethyst and citrine. To wear to Trader Joe’s, to Whole Foods, to do the laundry and not have to think about it, you know? Because you’re not breaking the bank. We try not to exclude anyone.
BW: Jewelry can be very exclusive.
MH: But I’m not from that world. I’m Jamaican, so I’m coming from a place where no one really makes jewelry. I’m an anomaly.
BW: Do you have your family members dripping in your jewelry?
MH: My mom has a Cartier bracelet, which I gave to her. And she also always wears a tennis bracelet and a cross.
BW: What does your mom think about all of your success?
MH: God, in the beginning? She said, come home. I said to her, no I’m going to serve tables at Soho Grand and I’m going to fund this business. And I remember Rihanna wore a zipper necklace we made – a zipper that actually works, unlike the Van Cleef high jewelry version. She wore it and it showed up on Just Jared one morning. My mom saw the news and said, okay, you’re onto something. And then, when I got my first feature in American Vogue, she said, okay, okay now, he means business.
BW: She got it.
MH: In my family, pardon my French, but if you don't have your shit together by age 25, they all freak out. I was the crazy wild child who got up and moved everywhere. I moved to Luxembourg, moved to LA…. And they were very worried. But you know, 13 years later, the business still is surviving and we’re sold in the best stores. They’re very proud. I’ve grown up.
BW: I mean, you look grown up.
MH: [laughs] I’m grown. I had a bigger watch collection before, but I sold a lot of them. I was like, why do I need all this stuff? I had a two-tone Rolex Submariner and loved it because I love a big, nasty, chunky dial.
BW: The blue one?
MH: The black and gold. It was nasty [laughs]. I love a heavy watch. It just says, I’m here. I’m gross.
MH: Super big dick energy. Just hanging out. And my American friends here – they hated it. You look like a drug dealer. Sell that watch. Peer pressure got to me, and now I miss it.
BW: You have to channel that energy every now and then. Now looking at your watches, your taste is very refined.
MH: The older I get, the less I want to be seen. I almost want to disappear, you know? I’m very good at disappearing. And a lot of my watches mesh with that. The Cartiers, the Bulgari… you have to know this watch to know it’s the Serpenti. What I love about it is that it’s a timepiece, but it’s also a piece of jewelry.
BW: What made you choose the black one?
MH: I wanted the all-gold one, but it comes with diamonds. I even wrote corporate, asking them to make it without the diamonds.
BW: Did they write back?
MH: They wrote back and finally offered it, but by then, I’d already bought more watches [laughs]… I want to buy a vintage one for my mom. Whenever I go home, she looks through my bag and loves the Serpenti. But I’m like, mom, what are you going to do with a ten thousand dollar watch in Jamaica?
BW: Do you go back home a lot?
MH: Yeah. I go home on the 7th. I’m going to do a mentorship with young kids. And I’m starting a new project – I’m building a home there. Jamaica is amazing.
BW: I’ve never been.
MH: You have to go, it’s only 3 hours from here. It’s really paradise. It’s closer than LA, I always tell people. Amazing life, amazing food, the beaches are insane. The people are warm… for the most part. We’re brought up in an English way, so we can also be very dry.
BW: It's nice that you still have family there and that you're building a home.
MH: My goal is to only show in Jamaica eventually. Years from now, if anyone wants to experience the brand Mateo, they will be flown to Jamaica. Remember, I’m not American. Sure, Mateo is a New York brand because I’ve been here for so long – the DNA is strong, tough New Yorker. And in Lisbon, everyone can tell I’m from New York because there’s this big city aggression that I guess I have now. But at the end of the day, I’m still Jamaican. It shows up in my work in subtle ways – there’s an ease to the jewelry. I come from a simple, easy, no problem, man kind of lifestyle that I’d like to get back to.
BW: What a good goal… to just step away.
MH: It’s all about the simplicity, even though my life sounds anything but simple.
BW: Is all of the jewelry that you wear your own?
BW: You’re the best model for it.
MH: I’m wearing an ID bracelet from our secret initial collection, and I’m also wearing our signature secret initial ring. The H is for my last name, Harris; and on this ring here, I have love as a reminder to love myself.
BW: I read somewhere that you advise people buying their first jewelry piece to get something with their initial.
MH: It should be personal, it should represent a part of you. Pieces like this, they’re modern day heirlooms that you can pass down to your children someday. For me, that is super important – especially when you’re spending the kind of money you spend on jewelry. There needs to be that emotional connection.
BW: That’s why I like watches, too. They’re meant to be passed down.
MH: Yeah, you know, I’m building a legacy. I want to pass this all down to my nephews, who I adore. I’m their fabulous gay uncle, so why not? When I’m dead and gone, they get to choose from a plethora of watches. And that’s just grand.