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Jewelry Designer Hamaila Qureshi on Shaping Metal and Uplifting Communities

Jewelry Designer Hamaila Qureshi on Shaping Metal and Uplifting Communities

Around eleven years ago, Hamaila Qureshi of the Hamaila jewelry brand thought she was meant to be a pharmacist. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the USA, whose father had been a pharmacist, the family connection and future job security were understandable influences in that decision. Struggling to focus on her pharmacy studies, though, she quickly realized it wasn’t for her. 

Fast forward a bit, and she’s formed her own jewelry company and co-founded two other community-based initiatives. Ladysmiths of ATX supports female jewelry designers in Austin, Texas, and Brown Girls Food Club highlights BIPOC eateries. 

Now, three years into running her business, Hamaila is exploring her own creative practice and questioning how it can best uplift communities — all while living in the alternative community of Arcosanti in the Arizona desert. Kinship + Craft sat down with her over Zoom and chatted about her experience thus far. 

If you’d like to read further about Arcosanti, we also have an article about what it’s like to work in Arcosanti’s bronze foundry.

“The Vaults” are the central meeting point at Arcosanti, named so for their architectural forms. Planted just next to them are olive and cypress trees. | Photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation.
Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

A magical place in the desert

When Hamaila Qureshi, a jewelry designer formerly based in Austin, Texas (USA), first visited Arcosanti in February 2020, she was entranced. Hailing it as perhaps “the most magical place in the desert,” Hamaila felt she had to move there. And move she did, seven months later. In one bold step, especially for anyone running a solo business, Hamaila packed up her car and her calico cat, Sepha, and relocated her still new jewelry business 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Austin to the quiet, architectural project on the edges of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. 

Many could consider a move like that drastic. After all, Hamaila went from a city of nearly a million inhabitants to a community that doesn’t often have more than 150 residents. But Hamaila claims the transition has been a gentle one. As she wrote in her website blog a week after her first visit, “[Arcosanti] felt like home. It was a place where all my emotions felt unmuted. I felt genuine joy, delight, and curiosity. I felt safe. I felt awe. The people were lovely, and there was such a strong sense of community.”

A year later, and more familiar with the rhythms and challenges of life there, she still feels the same. Looking back though, it does seem as if there was some divine hand in the timing of Hamaila’s visit.

The ceramics apse, surrounded by olive trees. | Photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.
Bronze and ceramic bells hang around the site providing a melodic soundtrack with the wind. | Photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

A new community initiative presented an opportunity 

Although Arcosanti has attracted local tourism for many years, individuals in the architecture, urban planning, and sustainability fields were generally those to know it best. Created by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the idea behind Arcosanti is rooted in that of an arcology — the combination of “architecture” and “ecology” — which is essentially a mega-structure that performs the role of a city while limiting humankind’s impact on the environment. Unsurprisingly, many people who have discovered the project either studied architecture themselves or knew someone who did. 

Nonetheless, if an individual came across the project and wanted to live and work there, they had to contend with a couple of obstacles, including completing a five-week workshop and finding a job opening. The chances of someone moving in without any prior knowledge of the place were limited for many years as a result. Still, even if an individual had completed the workshop and became a resident, the management board often rejected non-Arcosanti-related business ideas. An abundance of caution was the usual culprit due to the project’s complicated structure of being a residential community, a non-profit organization, and a commercial venture — simultaneously. 

When Hamaila first visited in February 2020, however, the management board had made changes to create new opportunities. The workshop program saw a restructuring in late 2019, and the community had introduced a micro-enterprise initiative the month before. Hamaila’s jewelry business was a natural fit for the initiative, and likewise, it for her. Although she found it intimidating to be the first non-Arcosanti resident to establish a micro-business on-site, it presented an opportunity she didn’t want to miss. 

A partial aerial view of Arcosanti. | Photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

Getting accustomed to new surroundings

Before the move, Hamaila lived at home with her parents, trying to find quiet moments to create her jewelry. Like many working from home in the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of separation between work and living spaces caused plenty of distractions. “Coming to Arcosanti was nice because it was the first time that I had full autonomy…At home, my studio was in my house, so there wasn’t that separation.”

Now, Hamaila’s jewelry studio is in the middle of Arcosanti, and she has her own small living space in “camp” — a group of cube-shaped concrete structures about a five-minute walk down the hill from the main site which the first volunteers built as housing when the project started in 1970. The experience of living there has naturally led to some surprises. Hamaila recalls all that she encountered her first week:

“Everything came out to welcome me the first week … My second day here, there was a tarantula hawk wasp in my shower … I saw scorpions … There was a snake in the cube I was looking at moving into, and I did end up moving into it, but yea, at first there was a snake. It’s just one of those things. The desert doesn’t let you forget you’re in the desert.”

Motivated to lift up the stories of others

Critters notwithstanding, Arcosanti’s environment still provides her an endless amount of inspiration as a designer. Designs flooded her mind during Hamaila’s first visit as she became inspired by the architecture and the bells blown by the warm breezes that wrap the mesa on which the community is built. She notes, “When I first visited, I knew I had to create jewelry based on [Arcosanti]. It was immediate. I left with half a collection in mind already … But I want to do a second line, that’s more of like an insider [project], now that I’ve lived here a while.”

I’m very community-driven, and sharing other peoples’ stories is a big thing to me …

Jewelry designer Hamaila Qureshi uproots her business in Austin, Texas, USA, to live and work from Arcosanti in the Arizona desert.
Hamaila at work at her jewelry bench. | Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

While that awaits approval from Arcosanti, Hamaila’s tendency towards projects that uplift communities is surfacing through another series she is developing. The jewelry line is a collaboration with her friend and architect Ayesha Erkin. Titled the ‘Unsung Architects’ collection, it will pay homage to architects Hassan FathyGeoffrey Bawa, and Lina Bo Bardi, and Yasmeen Lari.

Although Ayesha started ‘Unsung Architects’ as an Instagram series to redress the lack of information about female architects or architects of color included in her studies, Hamaila soon felt compelled to contribute, as well.  

“I’m very community-driven, and sharing other peoples’ stories is a big thing to me … that’s kind of why I started Ladysmiths of ATX and Brown Girls Food Club. It’s [about] being stewards of success … I know that these architects are bigger than me, but there’s a very real possibility that the people who follow me don’t know the stories of these architects, so I want to share [them].”

A new collaboration

It’s not surprising that the new collection is coming together at Arcosanti, even though her collaborator, who founded Brown Girls Food Club with her, is based in Texas. The walls around her were built by individuals who wanted to get their hands dirty and learn by doing, whether by casting concrete using the earth itself, making bronze bells, or living frugally, and Hamaila is no different. Her typical hands-on approach, developed in community college classes after she dropped out of pharmacy school, is coming out in spades. 

In response to the question of how she and Ayesha developed forms for the ‘Unsung Architects’ collection, she explains, “I’m very much a physical person. I need the actual material, so I would actually just make [prototypes] in silver … [Ayesha] came out here in October, and we would have periods where we would sit together and design. Then we’d go over the ones we liked, and I would knock them out in the studio the next day.” 

Despite the distance between them, “It’s very much a 50/50 collaboration.”

Hamaila preparing a jewelry display in the gallery at Arcosanti. | Photographed by Jessica Jameson.
Earrings from Hamaila’s Arcosanti collection on display in the gallery. | Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

Growing step by step

Whether she’s joining forces with one or more people or developing her own solo projects, Hamaila is adamant that balance and focusing on the bigger picture are essential elements to sustaining her own creativity and well-being. Everything has an ideal time of day, and she appreciates the structure she’s created for herself. The rules? She doesn’t take her work out of the studio, for starters, because she knows that it will “entirely consume” her. 

Additionally, she splits her tasks between mornings and afternoons and then occasionally breaks them down further into hour-long segments. Mornings, for example, are for emails and media-related work, but she reserves afternoons for creating new pieces and shipping out orders. If she has a new project, like the ‘Unsung Architects’ collection, she commits about an hour a week so that it steadily makes progress.

I feel like everyone can serve a greater purpose and build a more equitable future together. Everyone has the power to do that.

Keeping an eye on what matters

As our conversation comes to a close, Hamaila looks back to the beginning when she started her business. An emotional time, she recalls it with gratitude, although still cognizant of her own learning curve.

“The first day I launched [my business], I cried because I had a lot of support, and as soon as I launched it, people starting buying things. But there’s a lot of misconceptions about starting your own business. There’s that mindset that, ‘Oh, you launched a business. Now it’s going to bring in money,’ and it’s so much more than that … It was daunting, and it kinda still feels like I’m learning and figuring it out.”

And that drive she feels to uplift those around her?

“I feel like everyone can serve a greater purpose and build a more equitable future together. Everyone has the power to do that. My thing is that I make little things, and if my little things make your day better and allow you to help someone else, that’s still contributing to it.”

The Arcosanti collection by Hamaila. | Photographed by Mackenzie Smith Kelley.

The photographers in this article…

Kinship + Craft would like to encourage visitors to our website to check out the following photographers who collaborated with Hamaila and Arcosanti to make the photographs in this article possible.

Jessica Jameson is a heart-centered and nature-focused photographer based at Arcosanti in Arizona, specializing in portrait and branding photography with emotive imagery that blends earthy backdrops with radiant, natural lighting. You may find her on Instagram or through her website

Mackenzie Smith Kelley is an Austin and New York City-based photographer and director specializing in visual narratives related to lifestyle and food. She is also the co-founder of an online project called The World in a Pocket, which looks at the world through the lens of a dumpling (or a samosa, an empanada, a momo, a crepe, a tamale, etc.). You can find her on Instagram or through her website

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