Jewellery Girls Q&A: Vivien Johnston, Fifi Bijoux

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On putting ethical issues on the table & front of the industry’s mind.

As part of our Jewellery Girls Rule issue for July, Professional Jeweller heard from 21 females leading their sector of the UK jewellery industry about the challenges of today’s business, making their mark and their inspirations. Vivien Johnston, founder of ethical jewellery brand Fifi Bijoux, discusses the change in attitude towards ethical issues and breaking the glass ceiling.

Professional Jeweller: You have won and been shortlisted for several entrepreneurial awards; what do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
Vivien Johnston: I started off as head of design for a commercial brand and left when I realised how impenetrable the supply chain was for most jewellery companies and what that meant for the future of consumer confidence. I set up Fifi Bijoux in 2006 to pilot a model for traceable, responsible supply chains. As a result of what I’ve learned, I’ve since been asked to work with international brands to improve their relationships with their suppliers and to influence behaviour changes throughout the supply chain. I’ve also been able to work with NGOs, mines, government and am very privileged to chair the ethics working group for the NAG, BJA and Gem-A. Hearing the issues of ethics being openly acknowledged and discussed is a big change from when I started in 2006. It’s less feared now and Fifi Bijoux has proved that it’s not impossible to know the provenance of the materials you use, although I accept the biggest challenge is to scale up those supply chains. But that’s not impossible either and for me it’s very satisfying to now be in discussions on how to do so rather than if it can be done or not. So I’d say the biggest achievement is being the proof that it can be done, the acceptance that’s its attainable for our industry and the realisation that accountability is expected by the consumer.

PJ: Setting up a business is not always easy; have you faced any challenges doing so?
VJ: I’m often told, in all kinds of condescending ways, that my ideas of responsible supply chains are pretty and idealistic but not possible. I’ve got the evidence they are possible not just for my own brand but at corporate level. I’ve listened over and over to why it is governments’ fault, miners’ fault, retailers’ fault; customers’ unrealistic expectations and that there are problems in our supply chains. While all this blame shifting makes for very dramatic conversation, it doesn’t solve the problems. Sometimes people would rather do nothing than do something because they don’t want to be seen as admitting there are problems. Remaining diplomatic in these situations can be difficult because it’s frustrating to cover old ground. But I’ve learned that once the seeds are planted and start to take hold, the very people who initially presented the biggest obstacles are often the ones who ultimately will make the most seismic shifts .The challenge is to excite them in the art of the possible. The best thing about this industry is the passion that exists.

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PJ: It appears that more women are launching their own jewellery brands and companies. What are your thoughts on this?
VJ: In part I see it as a symptom of the lack of opportunities at senior levels. I think the best reason to set up your own business is because there is energy around an idea that won’t leave you alone. Unfortunately that’s not the reason I’m hearing from many women entrepreneurs at the moment. It’s more through necessity and frustration. The old glass ceiling does sadly still exist and often the need to balance career and family life means women loose out or get left behind. Being self employed offers more flexibility on working hours and this can be attractive. However, it also comes at the cost of less financial security, no pension, sick pay or year-on-year dependable income. Companies need to get more creative on how to retain or bring back their best women because the truth is lots are opting out through a lack of choice and not through ambition to be self employed. I know it’s really tough for small businesses but there needs to be more resolve to address this, not only in our industry obviously.

PJ: Where do you see the jewellery industry going in the next few years?
VJ: The landscapes definitely changing. Many traditional companies are undergoing massive restructuring. To me that means there might be opportunity for those smaller, more nimble brands to innovate and use their independence to capture new markets or differentiate themselves. But one thing I am cautious of is that jewellers must keep fine jewellery at the forefront of the luxury goods market in the UK. We need a collaborative industry drive to reach consumers and keep them interested because there is a lot of frankly boring and tacky product in circulation which is a real shame given the design and manufacture talent the UK should be proud to promote.

PJ: Who do you consider inspiring female figures in the UK jewellery or luxury goods industries?
VJ: Women are quite well represented in design and to some degree in retail. Other areas are still male dominated and can be quite traditional. I think it’s fair to say gem trading is one of the most traditional and male dominated. Kathy Chappell of Fairtrade Gems is one of the UK’s unsung heroines in my opinion. The coloured gem supply chain is difficult, complex and fragmented; sourcing consistent quality rough and being able to offer well-calibrated cuts is a major challenge for even the largest players in industry. Yet Kathy has an excellent inventory from approved mines and polishing sources and is always reliable, professional and accurate in what she supplies. I’m in no doubt as to how difficult that is, so hats off to her for her determination and passion for making positive change whilst supporting the growing demand for responsibly coloured gems among jewellers.

To read the Jewellery Girls Rule issue of Professional Jeweller in full online, click here.
 

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