How This Designer Is Using Her Horrifying Experience to Empower Women

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Photo: Courtesy of Ana-Katarina

Outside of historians, college professors, and those who grew up in the Eastern bloc, the Bosnian War is an unfamiliar subject for most. Yet, it was one of the most devastating conflicts in the history of Europe since World War II, leading to the deaths of untold thousands. Rising ethnic nationalism in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – a country made up of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia that formed in 1945 – led to multiple conflicts as each republic voted for independence from Yugoslavia.

Of the many who were displaced and who suffered during the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the resulting fallout, the most painfully overlooked statistic belongs to women. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 women were raped, and one of them was jewelry designer Ana-Katarina Petrovic-Dervisevic.

Of the many who were displaced and who suffered during the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the resulting fallout, the most painfully overlooked statistic belongs to women.

With rising nationalism sweeping the United States under its new President and his administration, and similar nationalism attempting to take hold in Europe, these are frightening times for many, but they are also eerily familiar to Ana-Katarina. Although she grew up in the Chestnut Hill area of Boston and was raised by a father who was an architect and a mother who owned an art gallery, the mounting crisis in Yugoslavia in the 90s was a cause for concern. Her father was from Belgrade and her mother was from Slovenia, meaning Ana-Katarina’s  family DNA was steeped in the region’s rich history and culture.

But what pulls a comfortably raised, preternaturally wise, and insatiably curious young woman from the BFA program at Tufts University into a conflict region during the height of an ethnic war? As a college student, Ana-Katarina balanced her curiosity about the world and her natural creativity with political-science studies that concentrated on international relations and Soviet politics and photography. What no one could have predicted was that she would abruptly depart during her senior year – sans degree – and head to Belgrade to be a war correspondent. “I had no actual work set up for me there, no contacts, and I didn’t speak the language. But I knew I had to go,” she tells Savoir Flair.

For as long as she can remember, Ana-Katarina has faced powerful memories about war and strife. “When I was little, I would watch The Carol Burnett Show with my mother, and they used to have these news flashes in the show. The news flashes showed airstrips lined with planes and small boxes sitting on the tarmac. My five-year-old mind decided that my dad was in one of those boxes – even though he was just at work – but it was actually the dead coming home from Vietnam. I remember wanting to start a center for orphans and the elderly, and that led to me reading a Time expose on the children of war, which deeply impacted me. When I got to college, I had all these experiences with war and suffering affecting me, but I didn’t know exactly what to do about them.”

On January 1992, Ana-Katarina landed in Belgrade, young, alone, and determined. She then went to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she visited three times before she got “stuck”. In 1992, Sarajevo was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska (or the Bosnian Serb Army), and it became extremely dangerous to leave. It was during this time that Ana-Katarina was kidnapped by Jusuf “Juka” Prazina, a paramilitary warlord and Bosnian gangster who was wanted by Interpol even before the war. “I was taken hostage by Juka for 21 days, and then I escaped. While I was a hostage, he… It was rape, but I didn’t fight him. I didn’t fight him because I didn’t want to die, and I knew that, if I fought him, I would die.”

Photo: Courtesy of Ana-Katarina

It is difficult to imagine the feeling of being the hostage of a warlord, unable to communicate with the outside world or let your family back home know where you are, and fearing that, even if you did somehow manage to escape, the region you are in is under siege. Nevertheless, she persisted. After 21 nightmarish days, Ana-Katrina escaped, fleeing the hills where Juka had kept her a prisoner, back down into Sarajevo where she met up with the Bosnian army. “I’ve always felt like I’ve had angels appear to protect me,” she confides. “The army really liked me, and the leader of the Bosnian army eventually became my (now ex) husband.”

After the intense suffering she experienced, Ana-Katarina threw herself into work. “At the time, I don’t really think I dealt with the trauma. I think what happened was that I took all the trauma and powered through it, moved on, and started doing good as quickly as possible. I worked as a translator between UN protection forces and the Bosnian army, I helped take tapes from Eastern Bosnia to the UN, I helped doctors get to Eastern Bosnia, and, when I got home, I continued doing humanitarian work.”

While we want our heroines in neat, easy-to-understand packages, she is the opposite.

Her past as a war correspondent, her kidnapping, her journey as a jewelry designer, her life as a mother, wife, and daughter, and her work as an activist are all tributaries that rush together to form the mighty river of a woman that is Ana-Katarina. While we want our heroines in neat, easy-to-understand packages, she is the opposite. She is impulsive and intuitive. She is curious and kind – but definitely not nice. She will challenge you if she thinks you’re wrong, but she will love you even if you are. She is a wellspring of creative energy that stems from infinite inquisitiveness, which she stores away forever and never forgets. “I am constantly collecting images, and I also forget nothing. If you mention that we saw each other at an event two years ago, I can tell you what you were wearing, what we had for dinner, etc. All of these images stay in my head, until suddenly one image feels very powerful to me, and those tend to become the basis for my designs,” she shares.

We think of high-end jewelry designers as ivory-tower inhabitants, mixing only with the most elite clientele and enjoying a life that may look leisurely from the outside. However, to say Ana-Katarina is simply a jewelry designer is criminally reductive – she is so much more than that, and yet that is one of her greatest preoccupations and passions. She approaches jewelry design like the Reiki master she is, letting energy flow out of her to inform whatever creative endeavor is in front of her. She translates messages from the universe into delicate pieces of art and ensures that each precious item she creates tells the story of its owner.

She has done all of this sustainably, working only with ethically sourced materials and artisan jewelry makers to ensure a holistic foundation for her products. If her own experience has made one thing clear to her, it’s how vulnerable women are in zones of conflict, which is why she has also pledged never to use materials sourced from countries where gems have been used to fuel wars. Instead, she often works with upcycled stones.

Ana-Katarina has taken all of the very good things in her life and all of the very bad things in her life and used them deliberately to become exactly who she is today. She has both devoted and sacrificed a large portion of her life to helping others, which is also a central factor to her jewelry business; a portion of its proceeds are donated to Women for Women International. Supporting women is Ana-Katarina’s calling.

I think that we can effect massive change in the world if women can come together, but forces try to divide us.

“I started telling my story when this president [Trump] was elected,” she confesses, “because I feel like there is a global attack on women going on. We look at women and we don’t realize that many of them have gone through really bad experiences. I am a ‘lemon into lemonade’ person, so I’ve chosen to make the best of what I’ve been given and use it as a tool for healing, or channel it into my work.”

What this means is championing her three daughters, calling out forces that try to harm women, and using her craft to raise both money and awareness for female-oriented philanthropic projects. “In some ways, I think that we can effect massive change in the world if women can come together, but forces try to divide us, saying, ‘You’re pro-life, I’m pro-choice, you’re black, I’m white, so we can’t talk.’ But we shouldn’t be looking at these differences. The truth is we all have wombs and breasts and we’re all viable humans living on Earth. We have to start seeing humans for humans.”

Iconic Women Campaign | Photo: Courtesy of Ana-Katarina

The ‘Iconic Women’ project is her conscious campaign for change – for changing how the fashion industry sees and responds to women in particular – and it was inspired by iconic American sculptor Beatrice Wood. “When I was pregnant with my first child, I was reading a big feature on Wood, and there was a picture of her in her 90s. She had this sari on and wore her hair in a long braid. She also had on stacks of rings and bracelets. I thought, ‘My god! She’s the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve always thought women have such great power. I wanted to show powerful women of all ages, ethnicities, and body types.”

“I’ve also done a lot of soul-searching to discover my own cognitive dissonance, where I’m holding judgment, and why am I holding judgment,” she shares. “My most powerful contribution is to tell my story, and also the ‘Iconic Women’ project, because I think that it’s so important to start connecting women to the truth of what women really are. We have somehow, through media and fashion, created an idea of what women are that isn’t reality. We are not our makeup, we are not our waistlines, we are not our accessories. I like these things, but they are not what defines me, or what defines anyone. That message is so important. We women have allowed men and their ideas of what women should be define us.” The ‘Iconic Women’ project aims to break those strongholds.

Ana-Katarina’s greatest virtue is in assimilating challenges and transforming them into positive forces for good in the world.

In order to pull off her campaign, she enlisted photographer Heather Hazzan, who shot the ‘All Women Project formed by Charli Howard and Clémentine Desseaux. The ‘All Women Project’, like the ‘Iconic Women’ campaign, focuses on diversity amongst women. Some of the stars of Ana-Katarina’s project include Frances Shavers, a close friend who has trigeminal neuralgia and has undergone five brain surgeries yet still pursues her passion for yoga and wellness training. Another is an incredible artist named Daniele Pollitz. They are all women who you would never expect to find in a fine-jewelry campaign, and that is what is so groundbreaking about Ana-Katarina’s vision. She forces you to confront your expectations and to examine your preconceived notions and judgments.

It’s not just the subjects of her ‘Iconic Women’ campaign who catch the eye and force a pause; it’s also her jewelry designs. They are unusual – unlike anything you’ve seen before – and absolutely breathtaking. In a way, they very much reflect who Ana-Katarina is. What is so remarkable about her pieces, beyond their design, is that they are ethically and sustainably made. “My parents had this gallery in Harvard Square. And I’ve slowly watched the square become corporate at the same time as I’ve watched Americans become consumers of disposable goods. We no longer have the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. Artisan craft is lost. It became important to me to be able to use my money to support craft in whatever country I live.” And she has stayed true to her word, hiring an Armenian man in Istanbul to make her jewelry when she lived there and a Kuwaiti man who trained in Rome to make her jewelry when she resided in Kuwait for a year. Her maker, her atelier, and her showroom are now all in New York City.

Although she started creating jewelry in 1999, mostly for friends, family members, and acquaintances, she officially launched her business in 2007. “I had a huge row with my father and I left the gallery. I had just left my husband and I had three kids and $200 in the bank. I had no idea what to do. A dear friend gave me the money to start my own business, and I literally did the next day. Just like when I left suddenly to become a war correspondent.” As impulsive as her actions may sound, they are never accidents or mistakes. After all, Ana-Katarina’s greatest virtue is in assimilating challenges and transforming them into positive forces for good in the world. However, she realizes she is only one part of the equation.

“The fashion industry, of which I am a part of as a designer, has a huge voice. We need more than slogans on shirts. I think slogans are wonderful, but we are not using our voice to the best of our ability. Fashion can get messages across faster than any news organization. We must ask, how do we use our platform to unite the world?” She envisions this happening through a continual dialogue between editors and designers. “I want to know why no one confronted Dolce & Gabbana about their eagerness to dress Melania Trump. What was their thought process behind doing that? Fashion is supposed to be progressive. We need to be talking about these things.” One of the other parties that she would like to see designers and editors talking to is the consumer herself. “If a consumer is buying something at a cheap price point, then you are buying something made by underpaid, unregulated labor, or maybe the dye that was used to make it went into an indigenous population’s water supply and poisoned it. Consumers have to own those decisions, and that comes from being informed, which falls to the designers and editors.”

She is doing her part by speaking out against her captor during the Bosnian War, sharing her story with others, giving back philanthropically, breaking stereotypes with her campaigns, acting as a healer and mentor to her friends, raising three amazing, courageous daughters, and always, always trying to better herself.

Her message for all women is simple: “I would like them to know that their worth transcends time and space.” Our worth is eternal, just like the precious materials Ana-Katarina carefully selects from the Earth she so deeply loves before transforming them into art that can change the world.

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