A guide to ethical jewellery

Find out more about materials, practices and giving back to charities.

With the Valentine’s launch of Fairtrade gold, the interest in ethical jewellery will no doubt rise, but how to get involved? Kathryn Bishop investigates this tricky market and talks to jewellers about fair trade versus recycled, gets advice on getting the message across to shoppers and explores the benefits of charity projects.

Most companies want to run ethically, but the market is a minefield. The term ethical means different things to different people; from working with a charity to reducing carbon emissions or stocking jewellery that uses ethical materials.

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The terminology is tricky, and with so many options, just working out whether you’re doing it right can be daunting. For those willing to take the plunge and find a more sustainable and responsible way to trade it is rewarding, but if the ethical market is this difficult to decipher for a professional jeweller how do you educate shoppers?

“Tell your customers the truth”, advises Greg Valerio, founder of Cred Jewellery, Britain’s first high street ethical jewellery store. “Most jewellers will know where their gold comes from, they should know its origins and they should be able to tell customers why they use particular metals.”

Valerio says that using the term fair trade is the easiest way to explain jewellery that has been sourced and produced ethically because customers will instantly recognise and understand the phrase from the coffee and chocolate they buy.

Having launched Cred Jewellery in 1996, Valerio first introduced fair trade gold to the UK six years later, sourcing it from fair trade metals cooperative Oro Verde in Colombia where gold is mined without the use of chemicals such as cyanide, and the working conditions are controlled by strict human and environmental criteria. For Valerio – who today works as both an ethical jewellery designer and a campaigner and activist for the cause – ethical jewellery is about traceability and transparency in the supply chain, something at the heart of Cred’s initial creation.

The case for transparency is something ethical jewellery brand Oria has long worked towards. Using experience and knowledge gained from working for jewellery retailers, the designers behind Oria, Tania Kowalski and Synnove Saelthun, spotted a gap in the market and launched the company in 2007.

“The aim of Oria is to be design-led but have all our jewellery originate from sustainable and ethical sources,” says Kowalski. “When customers approach us about what we do and where our product comes from we explain which licensed fair trade Argentinean mine our gold is from and which fair trade Bolivian mine we source our silver through.”

Giving consumers this basic understanding is a vital first step in an industry where only a few years ago designers such as Oria experienced both retailer and consumer reluctance towards fair trade jewellery. “When we first started it was an unknown industry,” Kowalski explains. “We were unsure about how Oria would be received but there’s been a positive shift. Retailers like knowing they can give their customers a choice. Stocking ethical jewellery isn’t saying everything not made from fair trade metal is bad, it’s about how fair trade can be of benefit to a jewellery store.”

Ethical jewellery brand Fifi Bijoux started out at a similar time to Oria and founder Vivien Johnston describes the problems she faced using ethical or fair trade labels with consumers. “A lot of people were mixing up ethical and ethnic,” she says. “When I would explain about ethical jewellery they thought it would be hippy-ish, they didn’t realise it was fine gold jewellery.”

Now that more customers are looking for the fair trade offer, retailers and designers such as Johnston are openly prepared to explain the origins of their jewellery. “Most of our customers welcome the idea that their piece of jewellery has traceable roots,” says Johnston. “I call my jewellery ethical because of the human work involved. The gold, platinum and silver is fair trade.”

Johnston’s passion for ethical jewellery is further demonstrated through her commitment as a stakeholder of the Alliance of Responsible Mining (ARM) – of which Greg Valerio is a co-founder – and as a member of Communities and Small Scale Mining (CASM).

Recycled metals are an affordable ethical option that many retailers are opting for as an alternative to fair trade metals. Typically silver, the key selling point of recycled metal is that it can be purified and made into new jewellery over and over again. As a result, recycling should reduce environmentally damaging mining.

Michelle Tuck has been working with 100 percent recycled silver for some time under her brand name of Avasarah. Tuck heavily researched the options available when she decided to move into ethical jewellery production and made the decision to use recycled silver because of its limited environmental impact.

“We found that there was a lot of debate about recycled versus ethically mined,” she says. “Most ethical jewellers understandably feel quite strongly that their choice is the best. I feel that both fair trade and recycled have great benefits and value, and there are pros and cons to each avenue.”

For Tuck, however, the environmental issues were of top importance. “With 100 percent recycled precious metals, most of the time the recycling is done in developed nations and the quality and conditions are very high,” she explains. “The big benefit with 100 percent recycled silver is that no further damage is being done to the planet, and barely a fraction of the energy and natural resources such as fresh clean water are being used to supply it.”

Tuck goes on to say that she prefers recycled materials because even if new materials are mined responsibly, mining is still bad for the environment. “Recycled silver addresses ecological and environmental concerns,” she says. “In the end, mining of any description is destructive to the planet, even when the miners get a fair wage and don’t use cyanide or mercury. With so much precious metal already above ground, it’s better to use what we already have rather than go digging for more.”

When explaining the use of recycled silver to consumers, Tuck is quick to give out facts and figures to make sure that her process are transparent. “I would explain to them that most jewellery contains around 20 percent recycled metal, but with our designs the precious metal is 100 percent recycled and is certified as such through our supplier – Hoover & Strong – who have third party independent certification.”

In October eco-friendly precious metals refiner and manufacturer Hoover & Strong received its second year of certification from independent auditer and sustainability expert Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) for its Harmony Metals products – a sign that 100 percent of the products in the range use metals from recycled sources. Hoover & Strong was the first manufacturer in the jewellery industry to win SCS certification back in August 2009.

Tuck says that this official mark of recognition helps her to sell the ethical story of the jewellery she makes using Hoover & Strong’s metals. “We are delighted to be able to offer this reassurance to our customers,” she says. “As so many companies jump on the green marketing bandwagon, it is becoming more and more important to back up ethical claims with solid documentation and now we are able to do this.”

Jewellery designer Joanna Cave also works in recycled silver and feels it is unnecessary to keep mining to a minimum when so much silver can be reused. “I love the idea of making something new from something old and forgotten,” Cave explains. “It’s like giving it a new lease of life.”

Cave buys her silver from a company that purchases old silver, purifies it and re-sells it to designers. However, she says there are difficulties in the supply chain. She explains: “It’s sometimes hard working with recycled silver because the quantities that I need aren’t always available, or I have to wait for the recycling and melting process to take place.” Cave does note, however, that she finds recycled silver is no more expensive than new silver.

Just how much silver is being recycled is hard to measure, but Valerio points out that “recycling silver is a positive step in the right direction”, even if it is unquantifiable. Furthermore, the issue with recycling metals in developed countries means that mining work – however detrimental it might be – is taken away from those who rely on the demand for precious metals for their livelihood.

With a view to what consumers are looking for when they approach ethical jewellery, it seems that wedding jewellery is a large part of the market, while quirky designs are an important way of grabbing the public’s attention and bolstering the ethical theme.

Oria produces several ethical silver and 18ct gold collections, bringing out new collections twice a year. Certainly, ethical wedding and engagement rings have become popular choices for the Oria customer. “Our orders for wedding and engagement rings have doubled each year since we began,” notes Kowalski. “And our silver items have started to get their own fan base, with customers anticipating the next collection.” Designs include laser-cut pendants featuring owls and a chunky collection of men’s jewellery based on wolves.

Having been chosen as one of the companies to use Fairtrade Fairmined gold, Oria has already been busy designing a collection. “Our Fairmined gold collection will be launched in the next few weeks, taking elements of our bestsellers and making delicate, affordable jewellery,” says Kowalski. The Fairtrade Fairmined hallmark has added a small premium to the current price of fair trade gold, something retailers will and designers will be conscious of, but this can be balanced out by the added desirability the Fairtrade certification will bring.

At Fifi Bijoux, the returning customer has become an important asset. Many customers who start out buying Valentine’s gifts or birthday presents are now returning to the brand for wedding and engagement rings. “It is a luxury knowing the provenance, origins and story behind a piece of jewellery, and with customers buying ethical wedding and engagement rings from Fifi Bijoux they are combining their story and sentimentality with the human story the jewellery already has,” explains Johnston.

Bespoke orders are also important for the designer, who has experienced a surge in commissions and a rise in engagement and wedding ring orders – encouraging news for ethical designers and retailers. “I have not stopped for the past two months, I’ve got a waiting list of bespoke engagement ring orders for the first time since 2007,” she says.

Building up an online community of designers, Tuck sells a range of fashion-led ethical jewellery through the Avasarah website, creating a go-to online shop for consumers. “We don’t just produce our own recycled EarthAngel collection, we also support other ethical designers and have invested in a fabulous range of collections by local and international jewellers,” she explains. “These jewellers represent both the ethically sourced and the 100 percent recycled options.” She goes on to add that each brand she works with is ethical as each is striving “to create a better world in its own unique way”.

And it’s not just individual designers and emerging brands who are building ethical offers, big brands are getting on board too. As part of the launch of Fairmined gold several well-known British brands have been approached including Stephen Webster and Garrard and are now working with the metal to offer ethical options in its wedding jewellery categories, with Webster adding that he will make bespoke Fairtrade gold commissions from main lines available under his own brand.
Welsh gold brand Clogau Gold has been interested in using fair trade gold for some time, and is beginning talks with the Fairtrade Foundation to discover how it can incorporate it into its collections. “We have a very exciting project in the offing where we intend to use fair trade gold,” says Clogau Gold managing director Ben Roberts. “The parties who have been involved in this whole Fairtrade area have been very helpful to us indeed.”

The brand’s history is intertwined with an ethical jewellery story, although to date it is not one that it has pushed on the market. Welsh gold is in fact an ethical material, something that has been verified by an independent auditor. It was mined in the UK using traditional methods that rely on gravity-only extraction and so did not use mercury. However, due to the scarcity of Welsh gold it is mixed with mainstream gold to create the brand’s jewellery so it loses the ethical edge, which is why Clogau Gold has never really promoted this.

But there are other ways to bring ethics to the jewellery industry than product alone. Several ethical designers have launched successful side projects that work with the mining communities they source materials from. Documentation of these projects can then be used to further hammer home the importance of ethical jewellery to the end consumer by adding that crucial human element.

Through its Flawless Proposal service, Fifi Bijoux offers customers the opportunity to sponsor Ugandan children through education with support raised through engagement ring sales. “We sponsored five children to help get them out of mineral mines and into education, but once they were living better lifestyles all I could think of was those who remained,” says Johnston. In a drive to help more children she founded the Flawless Proposal and to date the project has helped 101 Ugandan children, some of who are now applying to go to university. to further their education

Similarly, Oria has donated proceeds from its silver collections to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, supporting endangered species including lions, wolves and owls – the animals that have inspired its silver collections. Tuck has also taken time to work with community projects overseas, and regularly travels abroad, most recently returning from South Africa, where she works with a grass-roots jewellery project training people from impoverished communities to become gold and silversmiths. In addition, proceeds made from the sales of Avasarah’s Essence and Lotus collections are donated to a women’s charity in India called Apne Aap.

Consumers will have the chance to get to know more about the ethical side of jewellery as more retailers offer fair trade products and continue to educate shoppers. For those retailers who are feeling overwhelmed by the market but are still considering stocking or making ethical jewellery, Valerio has some words of comfort. “It’s a complicated arena, the names and processes aren’t easy to understand and I’m sympathetic to any jewellery retailer who is looking to move into ethical and fair trade jewellery,” he says.

But for each company, designer or retailer interested in ethical jewellery, they are helping to spread the word and whip up public interest – something no doubt welcomed by the campaigners such as Valerio, who have been working tirelessly on this project for more than a decade and are finally seeing their hard work get the recognition and certification that it deserves.


The Red & Green Book – A free guide to fair trade jewellery

Cred founder and fair trade gold activist Greg Valerio has been working with numerous organisations to create a special guide for retailers and designers about fair trade metals and gemstones. Called the Red & Green Book, the publication has been produced in association with the National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG), the Birmingham Assay Office, the Company of Master Jewellers and Christian charity CAFOD.

The book is broken down into five modules about fair trade mining and will outline the basics of metals, diamond and gemstone mining, with sections dedicated to human rights and supply chain issues, models of good practise, terms and explanations and finally the challenges that many retailers looking to supply fair trade metals may face.

Due for release in the coming months, the Red & Green Book will be available for free from both Valerio and the NAG’s websites, and has been designed for both jewellery retailers and designers alike.

Head to Greg Valerio’s site for more details about the work he’s doing at gregvalerio.com.


A brief ethical glossary

Ethical jewellery – The overarching term for jewellery that is made from metals that have been responsibly sourced, have a traceable supply chain and uphold fair trade standards.

Fair trade – A term used to describe materials that have been sourced from organisations that use fair working practices and ensure that workers are paid fairly. The term fair trade is not to be confused with the brand Fairtrade, which is a mark that a company has been successfully independently audited to reach Fairtrade standards.

Fairtrade – Products like fruit, chocolate, cotton and now gold that have the official Fairtrade certified mark which meet criteria defined by the Fairtrade Foundation. Fairtrade gold is mined without the use of cyanide and mercury. Employment is freely chosen by miners, working conditions are safe and hygienic, there is no child labour, wages are paid and working hours are not excessive. The standards of Fairtrade mines are independently audited.

Fairmined – Fairtrade jewellery and metal products that have the Fairmined mark, as introduced on February 14. The Fairmined mark is the trademark of the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) and is an independent certification label.

Recycled – Recycled precious metals have been scrapped, melted down and then reformed for designers to use from scratch. Recycling means that less new metal is being taken from the ground, which reduces environmental impact, with the majority of recycling carried out in developed countries.

This article was taken from the March 2011 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. See the whole edition by clicking here.



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