Go beyond what we’ve been taught constitutes a beautiful jewel and dig deeper into the more noble, ethical aspects that make it worth purchasing – and then you’ll have one truly precious gem.
Ethical, socially responsible and sustainable – such are the tags often attached to products in today’s marketplace to appeal to, if not reassure, the increasingly conscious consumer. While this is prevalent in clothing, food and household items, the concept of sustainable or ethical jewellery hasn’t caught on quite as quickly as in other product segments.
It’s not for a lack of caring. The complexity of the jewellery supply chain, which essentially begins in mines and moves on to several processing centres around the world, has made complete transparency virtually impossible, and the establishment of genuinely sustainable and ethical practices problematic.
In the last few years, however, we’ve seen the jewellery industry turn the page. As more consumers (notably, millennials and Gen Z) demanded sustainable jewellery, an increasing number of brands began to make conscious decisions towards a more ethical way of production. Industry watchdogs such as the Responsible Jewellery Council, Global Witness, Impact and Ethical Metalsmiths – which provide education, resources and best practices for companies to improve their social and environmental impact – have set the industry on the right path.
Several high-end jewellery brands have made major strides towards ethical sourcing and sustainability, notably Chopard, which since July 2018 has used only ethically produced gold – or gold verified as having met international best practices for environmental and social standards – in its workshops. Gold used at the Swiss maison meets the Fairmined Standard, which requires the miners demonstrate that strict requirements for working conditions (including the prohibition of child labour), social development criteria and environmental protection are maintained throughout the mining process. The brand has also been credited with assisting some small-scale mines to achieve Fairmined certification by providing training, new processing plants, and social and environmental support.
In May 2020, Chopard helped register a group of artisanal gold miners, the Barequeros. They operate in El Chocó, Colombia’s second-largest gold producing region – and also the country’s poorest. Almost half of the Barequeros are women and are known to use local traditional alluvial mining techniques with hand-driven equipment. Their methods use no mercury, thus protecting the region’s biodiversity. The Barequeros will now supply gold as part of a fully traceable and responsible international supply chain, in a programme that also ensures that the Barequeros receive not only a competitive price, but also a special SBGA Better Gold Incentive for them to reinvest into improving their living and working conditions. In addition, this value chain allows them to know the exact destination of their gold. To date, 500 Barequeros have received support from this initiative.
The philosophy of ethical sourcing and sustainability is more widespread among smaller, independent jewellery brands and designers. Take New York-based Melissa Joy Manning, who runs her namesake company in the same way she creates her fine jewellery – with a modern eye, a deep respect for craft and materials, and a dedication to social and ecological responsibility. From the get-go, Manning committed to sustainable materials; her pieces use 100-percent recycled gold and silver, with precious stones that have passed the Kimberley Process and local materials used whenever possible. Each of her jewels is handmade at her “green-certified” California studio, a zero-waste facility that runs entirely on renewable energy.
And she doesn’t stop there. Manning has built a business in which corporate responsibility isn’t just lip service. In addition to employing local artisans, she provides equitable pay and benefits, and donates more than 5 percent of net profits to charitable organisations, including local food banks, Clean Water, the NAACP and the ACLU.
British jewellery designer Anna Loucah, who specialises in handmade, bespoke jewellery, is a goldsmith with more than 15 years of experience. She’s likewise as committed to transparency and best practices as she is to exceptional jewellery design and craftsmanship. Using only Fairtrade or Fairmined gold or 100-percent recycled metals, Loucah, who is one of the UK’s first Fairtrade gold licence holders, has placed ethical provenance at the heart of her brand. “I believe that to be truly exquisite, jewellery must be crafted from materials that have a beneficial supply chain – making it beautiful for all involved, and therefore sharing a journey of knowledge and empowerment,” she says. Similarly, the gemstones she uses are carefully purchased as “close to source as possible” from a network of trusted and artisan suppliers – a practice that ensures that the profits from purchasing each stone go back into the hands of the mining communities.
Spinelli Kilcollin, a Los Angeles-based jewellery brand founded by husband-and-wife team Yves Spinelli and Dwyer Kilcollin, launched with an innovative series of interconnected Galaxy rings that can be stacked or worn across several fingers; it’s since become their signature. Spinelli Kilcollin takes pride in the fact that it adheres strictly to the Kimberley Process and the World Diamond Council’s System of Warranties, which ensures that each element of its products is ethically sourced. Furthermore, its jewels are made by hand by the same group of artisans in downtown LA’s jewellery district. The couple says, “In practice, we enforce principled labour standards and fair wages throughout the supply chain. We speak up for social justice and support equity across all industries. Through mutually respectful collaborations with diverse partners across business, civil society and the public sector, we are dedicated to enriching and remaining accountable to our community.”
Singapore-based Simone Jewels has also found a way to recycle precious materials by offering a unique service wherein its designer, Simone Ng, collaborates closely with clients who would like to give their existing jewellery a second life as bespoke projects. Ng says that it’s a synergistic process where the clients are at the heart of the journey, which begins with a consultation and assessment of jewellery to be recycled, followed by the client’s input and ultimately realising the new design. This service allows clients to take precious materials they already own and transform them into something special.
Another fine jewellery brand that uses only recycled metals and conflict-free gemstones is US-based Vada, a company started by Katie Caplener, whose designs are inspired by everything from ancient art to modern dance. Named after Caplener’s maternal grandmother, a woman she describes as one who “needed no occasion to buy herself jewellery”, Vada is a brand imbued in history and vision. In the brand’s ongoing efforts to support sustainability, every Vada order is mindfully packaged using eco-friendly materials from US facilities that operate exclusively on wind and solar energy.
Yet another truly admirable jewellery brand is Makal – one that has placed ethics and sustainability at the core of its operations. The brand was founded by Daniela Colaiacovo, who spent 15 years in Honduras establishing what is believed to be the world’s first ethical gold mine. She’s credited with initiating zero-waste extraction and chemical-free processing in gold mines, and only using gold nuggets that come from known and responsible sources. All the gold, diamonds and other materials she uses are certified by Fairtrade or the Responsible Jewellery Council, while packaging is made from paper certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council.
Online retail platforms such as La Maison Couture and Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain have also helped sustainable jewellers penetrate the mainstream market. Makal, for instance, is one of the brands offered at La Maison Couture, a multi-channel retail platform founded by Tania McNab that showcases products from responsible jewellers and emerging brands committed to social and environmental change.
In October, London department store Selfridges invited La Maison Couture to showcase a selection of ethical jewellery brands at an in-store pop-up to help promote transparency, responsible production and encourage consumers to “buy better” as part of the store’s Project Earth initiative. “Our brands are game-changers in their field, showcasing the best in sustainable innovation, pioneering design, exceptional quality and creativity,” says McNab. “We work with brands using certified ethical or recycled materials, responsibly sourced stones and precious metals, or using jewellery-making to effect positive change. Aside from exceptional quality and design, supply-chain transparency and storytelling are key. We and our customers expect our brands to know, and be able to communicate effectively, where their materials come from, the people and processes involved, and how they are positively impacting people and preserving our planet for future generations.”
Net-a-Porter, through its Net Sustain Edit, features consciously crafted brands that include Melissa Joy Manning, Spinelli Kilcollin and Vada. To be included on this esteemed roster, a brand must go through a detailed assessment that considers human, animal and environmental welfare. Every item featured within the Net Sustain Edit must meet at least one of the eight attributes, which include material selection and sourcing, processes and waste reduction. Among the criteria to become a Net Sustain brand, at least 50 percent of products must be manufactured within the company’s own community or country.
For decades, the jewellery industry has been marred by its lack of transparency and accountability, and many companies have turned a blind eye to unethical practices in the sourcing and processing of precious materials, which primarily take place in developing countries. It’s an uncomfortable and difficult conversation to have, but one that’s finally being articulated thanks to conscientious consumers who have decided that enough is enough.
Let’s not stop demanding jewellery that’s not only beautiful, but also ethical, responsible and sustainable. As long as consumers continue to shop with their consciences, such options will only grow – and hopefully one day become the rule, not the exception.