February 13, 2012

ethical jewellery

Well, it has been flipping freezing round these here parts!! Snow and ice and temperatures dipping down to -12 C! It has been rather beautiful though.

Can't help feel a bit sorry for the critters out there day and night, trying to keep warm.

Anyway on Saturday, when it was feeling particularly Baltic, I stood on the freezing train platform of my local town, waiting for a train bound for London. I was excited and a little bit nervous because I had a funny feeling that the seminar I was travelling to attend might change my jewellery practices for ever. I wasn't sure, but I had a hunch.

It was a day's lecture by ethical jewellery activist, Greg Valerio and ethical contemporary jeweller, Ute Decker. The premis was that as jewellers using primary metal sources, we are the direct link between consumers and the supply chain of mined metals and gemstones. There is just no wriggle room here, the metals and stones we, as makers, buy are the ones that are presented to the consumer world as retail jewellery, so the choices we make, (along of course with the banks and medical and electronics industries etc who use the majority of mined precious metals), directly dictates the way those metals and stones are mined. If we all choose to look away from the devastatingly negative consequences of much of current mining practices, those practices will continue, but if these industries began to take a stand against them, a chain of demand would be born, and supply would rise to meet it. Theoretically. Certainly, as it stands now, the horrific human and environmental damage caused by mining and the chemicals used in extraction- arsenic, mercury, cyanide for starters, is nothing short of gross human and ecological violation.

Greg Valerio has worked tirelessly, and probably at some personal risk, to raise these issues and lobby for a transparent, traceable line of supply for gold from small artisinal mine to sold piece of jewellery. His interventions and the work of many environmental organisations and indiginous groups have finally resulted in the world's first totally Fair Trade and Fair Mined gold from the Oro Verde mines in Colombia. It has taken ten years to achieve. The video shows the reality of the Oro Verde mines, and honestly brings tears to my eyes. Imagine wearing a ring made from Oro Verde gold and what hope and real social and environmental improvements it represents. Beautiful.

There is no such supply of Fair Trade silver or gemstones yet, although recycled silver and gold is now available which bypasses the issues of mining completely - so while it is 'clean' it doesn't directly influence the future of mining or help mining communities in the way the Fair Trade gold does. Of course gold and silver once above ground is constantly recycled - nobody throws it away so from that point of view the jewellery industry has an innate recycling practice which is great - but the officially labelled recycled silver and gold is certified as 100% post-consumer recycled so there is complete peace of mind that no freshly mined metal has been added. There are a few gemstone dealers that are working to provide assurances of welfare and environmental standards at the mines they buy from, but securing them will be complicated and relatively expensive.

There was also a lot of information about environmentally respectful studio practices, many of which I already do, but a few I hadn't thought of.

Yeoww, it is a lot to think about for me, but I know that having seen the films, and heard directly from someone who has spent a huge amount of time investigating and personally visiting the mines all over the world, I am going to find it hard to keep buying from my regular suppliers. The designs for my jewellery are directly inspired by the natural environment all around me - my garden, riverbank, hedgerow and fields; it seems hypocritical to close my eyes to the effects on the local environments of the mines that supply my raw materials just because they are not in my backyard.

This will all greatly complicate my supply purchasing and I forsee a great deal of gnashing of teeth in my near future! It will inevitably increase my costs, and the end price of some of my work. But, instead of being part of the cause of human misery and environmental damage in places I cannot see but now know exist, I will be a tiny, tiny part of the solution, and my jewellery will have integrity and a conscience. I cannot tell you how this resonates with me, lifts the unease I have been feeling, and excites me for the future. I will have to make the switch over slowly, I still have supplies I need to use up and I need to see if there is a market for jewellery with ethical integrity. I will probably start with a total overhaul of my studio practices and then produce a single collection of pieces made with recycled silver and Fair Trade gold and see how it fares. If it sells, I hope to apply for a Fair Trade licence. 2012 is a year of big dreams for me, and I so hope I can move forward with this because for me it is also about living and working with passion and integrity and I don't think I will be able to go back to pretending I haven't heard all this!

I cannot tell you how important it is for me to hear your feedback, because if I cannot find a market for this, I cannot sell it, and I cannot therefore afford to make it. Would you be interested in eco-jewellery? Please tell me honestly what you think.

For more information about mining practices please follow the link below .http://www.nodirtygold.org/home.cfm

To hear Greg Valerio speak about Fair Trade gold and ethical jewellery on Radio 4 today follow link here - his piece is just over half way through the programme.


  1. Belinda, these are big issues and big decisions. I really admire you for making the effort to discover the facts and to face them. Fortunately I think there are many people who care about these things and that a range of fairtrade jewellery will be very popular. Good luck with all the decisions and hard work!

  2. It surprises me not at all that you want to do this, and good for you! I think - ok, hope - there is a growing market for all things ethical. As you know the problem will ultimately be price - both to you and to your customers.

    I don't buy much jewelry (altho I need to warn you that there is an Etsy purchase on it's way to me now and I hope my next post will be about it - and it's jewelry!) but would certainly be willing to spend something more for ethically made - maybe as much as a third more.

    Keep us posted on what you learn and what it means artistically as well as financially. Small steps can end in a long journey and teaching us will help globally.

  3. There are very many people who care more for the Earth than profits so I believe that you will be successful. I wish you the very best luck.

  4. Yes, yes, yes !!! Who wouldn't buy your beautiful jewellery knowing that your materials were ethically sourced and your practices eco friendly. I can't wait to see what you do next :D

    And I not only understand where you are coming from but totally respect your facing up to these issues. I used to dye a lot of fibre with plant dyes in my art practice. I was always careful about what I did but it became clear that there were still all sorts of things I could do better. I actually stopped dyeing anything until I could work out how to make eco dyeing work for me. I am just getting going again, painfully slowly.

  5. Living in a mining country I understand how the extraction of many of the earths minerals benefits the local community little. Much of the practise is dangerous to those being paid so little - and most probably to the environment too.... not least in polluting the local water supply the workers are forced to drink from.....

    I guess your industry is in the 'Luxury' category and that your customers can probably afford to pay a little extra - IF they chose to. So maybe a key is to market the items along with the story. The word 'Ethical' is becoming a bit ubiquitous now.... almost a bandwagon that doesn't mean much anymore.....

    Just my thoughts..

    Hoping your plans come to fruition and are successful


  6. Magical photographs Belinda! Your seminar sounds special. I never really gave Eco jewellery much thought. I like the idea behind. It's really positive, but I suppose the downside is that the jewellery will probably costs more. Will that not be a disadvantage with people having less money to spend nowadays?

    Have a lovely new week!

    Madelief x

  7. I have misgivings about recycled post-consumer gold. South Africa has some problems around metal recycling. Recycling is good, yes? Until they recycle the copper cables, and the phone goes down, the trains stop. They even stole the church bell. I'm saddened that we don't have checks and balances. 'My granny's ring' I can understand, but a church bell, or a shopping trolley laden with copper cable?!
    I imagine if you can organise a well-documented certificate for Fair Trade Gold, you will find customers. People who are drawn to your designs are likely to share your ideals!

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comments - I really appreciate your feedback.

    E Eye, and interesting point you raise. Unscrupulous metal merchants are a real problem in the UK, and laws to tighten up their practice is under review in the UK at the moment I heard on the radio recently - lead theft is the biggest problem here, but copper a real issue too. The jewellery industry suppliers I use are properly audited and checked, but how they actually prove the stock is not tainted by criminally supplied sources I am not sure - I have emailed the one I hope to use to ask this very question. 80% of precious metal in circulation is recycled anyway so there is no way of ensuring where every bit comes from in regular supplies - eco/green labelled supplies hopefully have more stringent checks, I will keep you posted.

    Madelief, I guess I see it a bit like people who choose to be more discerning about the meat they eat - being prepared to eat less but better, ethically produced meat? Some don't care at all, and that is their choice, but for those who do, it is a demand I would love to meet. The recycled metal is hardly more expensive, the fair trade is because it includes a 10-15% premium to fund local projects in the mining communities plus a license fee to pay to the Fair Trade Foundation - I think my profit would be minimal to keep it at a sellable price!

    Annie - progress can feel like pulling teeth! But if you believe in what you are doing, it has to be done. Real tenacity is required!

    Karen, the telling of the story, not just labels, that is so important. Thank you.

  9. Beautiful images - as always!
    Very thoughtful words!

    Happy Valentine's Day and lets keep our hope up for a better future.
    Greetings from the Périgord,

  10. Wonderful photographs and what an interesting and thought provoking post. Had never really thought about this before and I guess your day in London was as you say, life changing in a way. I think yes, people will be willing to pay a little more once they know about the ethical aspects and your jewellery designs are so beautiful Belinda. The earrings I showed in my post about Tasmania (Part II post) that I bought were made from recycled silver. S x

  11. These are big, important issues, and I share your concerns.
    I am a novice jewellery maker and I have purchased glass beads, but not without question; I feel that I don't know enough about their manufacture. (Beautiful, recycled glass lampwork beads are a realistic, if more expensive, option.) Gemstones are so tempting but again, I want to know that the source is ethical - and where is the information..? Jewellery making is a popular and accessible craft but how many makers (and purchasers of finished pieces) consider the provenance of raw materials and supplies? I think we all need to know more background and I salute Greg Valerio for his work.
    As for paying more for fairly traded jewellery, I would be glad to do so, if I could afford it... The heart is willing, although the pocket may not be deep enough - in which case, I would have to go without. Your future marketplace may have to be a more exclusive one, although I would hope not. (Sustainable, ethical, living is often the expensive option, excluding sympathetic, would-be purchasers.)

    You are right to pursue this path and I wish you much success in doing so.

  12. What a wonderfully written piece. I started making jewellery a year or so ago, and have recently been thinking of switching to recycled silver - as you suggest, if I buy organic and fair trade food, why should that not reach into other areas of life too? I'd love to know if you find a silver supplier that meets your criteria; and yes, I personally would be prepared to pay more for ethical jewellery.