Earlier this year, I found myself sitting amidst the Oriental, classical ambience of a traditional Chinese restaurant for an annual Chinese New Year celebratory luncheon with a brand partner.
One after another, traditional dishes filled the turntable. One of which was a clear, starchy broth I suspected to be a delicacy much less consumed today. “Is this shark’s fin soup?” I wondered aloud. Shark fins, believed to possess medicinal benefits in Chinese culture, has long been prized for its high monetary value. And when served as a dish, stands as a symbol of wealth and status. But with the widening exchange of cultural information on a global scale, modern cultures has rendered this dish a taboo due to its catastrophic effect on the marine ecosystem. As it turned out, that warm bowl of soup was not made from shark’s fin, and never will be found on occasions involving that brand.
The conversation that followed revealed how all-encompassing sustainability can become. One of the brand executives said to me, “We do not consume anything that is against our brand values,” showing me how an ingrained moral compass can evolve into a way of life.
It is true that “sustainability” is no longer a mere buzzword to consider, but a moral responsibility brand owners, designers and executives have to undertake as it becomes increasingly consequential to their revenue. The cause of this needle shift is largely due to the current dire state of the planet and consumer’s eagerness to make the right choice. With the ongoing current of environmental disasters, brands and retailers are prompted to rethink their place in the supply chain, and how they can help to mitigate harm.
Online fashion destinations like Net-a-Porter recently dedicated a curated platform, Net Sustain, to encourage consumers to shop responsibly, while independent brands make sustainability more viable through conscious initiatives. Consumers increasingly exhibit interest in the origins of the product — whether it’s the fur trimming the down jacket or where that bag is manufactured. When it comes to jewellery, however, the phrases “ethical jewellery” and “sustainable jewellery” get bandied around often without much thought to what they truly mean.
Courtesy of Net-a-Porter
For a small jewellery house in Los Angeles, California, Leigh Miller has accomplished huge milestones in terms of sustainability, its jewellery made to reflect the beauty of mother nature.
The topic of sustainability presents a complicated issue in the realm of jewellery because of the immutable nature of production as precious raw materials come from the earth itself. “Mining inherently affects the global landscape, there is no avoiding that,” says Leigh Miller who owns an eponymous jewellery brand with a commitment to sustainability. Not only that, precious metals, gemstones and diamonds are typically mined from various regions of the earth, and pass through multiple hands on its way to the market with limited traceability. In other words, it is likely that one of the most expensive and emotional jewellery purchases you have made is produced in conditions of poverty, through the exploitation of child labour, and funds wars and terrorist activities.
It is a hard pill to swallow. But we can now take comfort that some of the worst abuses are behind us with the help of new technology that help to reinforce responsible mining and sourcing of recycled materials. The beauty of jewellery, to Miller, is that “it is practically a circular system.” She says, “With noble metals and stones, it is relatively straightforward to recycle the materials and work on a local scale.”
At Leigh Miller, 100 per cent of its gold products are made from recycled gold while Miller continues striving for 100 per cent brass and sterling materials (which are not noble metals) without compromising the quality of her jewellery. As Miller starts developing her new fine collection featuring gemstones, she has made it a personal goal to reach 100 per cent recycled diamonds and full traceability of precious stones. “We are careful not to buy from countries involved in an open war — like most lapis lazuli come from Afghanistan,” she says, acknowledging that most companies are still very opaque about their operations. Instead, Miller has met with a sustainable mine in Oregon, where she will be able to assess the social and environmental impact of her jewellery.
Back in 2014, a luxury player in the market Pomellato went down a similar path to gain control over the production of materials. Four years later, Pomellato managed to achieve 100 per cent use of responsible gold while the quest to obtain certified diamonds and gems carries on today. This was outlined by Kering Group’s sustainable developments, involving its brands and their suppliers in five main areas: traceability, chemicals, social impact, environmental impact and animal welfare.
Courtesy of Pomellato
The moral values at Pomellato outline its branding and tread into the core of its identity as a luxury company, where employee and craftsmen alike foster strong cultures under a roof they call Casa Pomellato.
Everyone has their own definition of sustainability. To Sabina Belli, CEO of Pomellato, it means “eschewing seasonal purchases in favour of something created to last a lifetime.” She says, “A diamond isn’t disposable, nor [is] precious metal a throw-away item; they endure, and even if you do tire of the design it’s easily recycled into something new.” The recycling of precious materials is certainly one of the biggest solutions, with significantly fewer repercussions on humans and the environment. Both Leigh Miller and Pomellato have accomplished major coups in creating beautiful jewellery using technological innovations to ensure sustainability.
However, according to Shanya Amarasuriya, creative director at B.P. de Silva Jewellers, it is worth noting that the original source of recycled gold is ultimately still mined gold. Does that mean that these innovations are simply band-aid solutions in this multifaceted process?
It is a seemingly profound question that brought about a simple answer — the key to a sustainable future for jewellery ultimately lies in transparency. “Gold mining may draw a lot of controversy, but it also provides employment opportunities for millions across the globe,” says Amarasuriya. As a brand that was born 148 years ago along the humble streets of old Singapore and enjoyed patronage from the likes of the British Royal Family, B.P de Silva Jewellers truly has had the time to consider all aspects of what sustainable jewellery should be. “We craft our pieces in 18k solid gold or platinum, and we pay meticulous attention to where our precious metals come from.” She says, “We’re working towards a more transparent and traceable supply chain.”
Enter Fairmined Impact Gold, a fully traceable gold supply chain, representing only government-registered artisanal miners who can guarantee mercury-free extraction. “These precious materials come from an artisanal mine in Peru, which does not make use of mercury in its gold mining processes.” Amarasuriya explains that, “Mercury is commonly used to recover pieces of gold that are mixed in soil.” She says, “Mercury might be naturally occurring but it needs to be handled right, otherwise there are toxic repercussions [for] both miner and the environment — in the human body, mercury can stay for months, and in soil, it can last for years.”
This equal part traceable, transparent and sustainable alternative is also adopted by Pomellato, which has launched a full collection (Nuvola) in Fairmined gold and certified diamonds by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). In a similar vein, Miller shares her experience working with the Pure Earth organisation. “Their mission is to help clean up global pollution in general, but they also have a specific initiative to teach artisanal gold miners how to mine mercury-free,” she says. “Mining can be less invasive if the miners have the right education and tools to work with.”
Up till now, transparency still exists as one of the biggest challenges among jewellery houses like B.P de Silva Jewellers, Pomellato and Leigh Miller. Amarasuriya says, “There are many companies that have never been asked questions about their supply chains before, not beyond the origin of the gemstone which plays a huge role in determining the value of a gemstone. Simple questions [about] which mine was it from, where was it cut, what kind of company did you buy it from. And as sincere as some of our suppliers may be as individuals, they might not know themselves where the gemstones come from, as there are so many hands a gemstone passes through.” To that end, it is up to business and jewellers to kickstart the conversation with their respective suppliers.
It is no question that the very concept of jewellery is sustainable. From its life span to its sentimental value, Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director of Net-a-Porter says, “It’s a long-term investment both financially and emotionally.” Jewellery is also one of the most personal and endearing ways for one to safekeep a heritage, trace a life story or mark important milestones — and that has allowed it to become an anchor for change, as Amarasuriya puts it. “We will be able to ensure the longevity of social responsibility not only in this lifetime, but [for several] generations.”
Companies have come to a realisation that sustainability in jewellery is no longer just a business strategy but an emotional commitment — just like how our brand partner’s values had permeated through into an informal luncheon. B. P. de Silva Jewellers is currently undergoing a certification under the B Corporation organisation, which helps businesses measure their social and environmental responsibility and encourage them to commit part of their revenues to charity, beyond formal practices in Fairmining.
At Pomellato, Belli says, “Sustainability is a matter of culture and mindset. Brands now have the same values as human beings do. In a globalised world, an eco-conscious brand can contribute to a better future.”
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