Did you know that making one pair of gold stud earrings creates 31kgs of carbon emissions? That’s the equivalent of a 200km car trip, according to ExJewel, a new Paris-based start up that is using technology to appraise and transform the jewellery trade.
Similarly to fashion, the jewellery industry has been coming to terms with its unsustainable and unethical practices — murky supply chains, the lack of industry standard certifications or proper waste management systems, worker rights abuses and the ecological havoc that is caused by mining — issues that have plagued the industry for decades.
ExJewel has just released the 2020 Conscious Jewellery Trends Report, revealing a rising consumer appetite for fair-trade accessories. Since the start of 2020, they’ve seen a 47% increase in searches for sustainability-related keywords, with “ethical jewellery” and “ethical diamond” searches increasing by 75% year-on-year.
That’s good news for the burgeoning market of ethical jewellery traders and brands seeking to right the industry’s wrongs by building businesses with sustainability at their core. From sourcing recycled materials, finding creative ways to reduce carbon emissions and providing fair work opportunities to marginalised people, to using technology to embed traceability into the supply chain, the industry is in the midst of a much needed transformation.
Traceability is an issue that the jewellery trade has always struggled with. Materials often travel through multiple countries and various hands before even reaching the jeweller, which not only racks up carbon emissions, but it can be impossible to tell the conditions that precious metals and stones have been mined in. Enter HB Antwerp, a Belgian tech company founded in 2019 that is lifting the veil on the diamond trade by tracking every step from “mine to market” using blockchain technology.
Centering respect for nature is key to HB Antwerp’s mission. “Diamonds are the oldest and most precious stones of Mother Earth,” says Margaux Donckier from HB Antwerp. “Each diamond carries millions of years of history with it, so we have to make sure that the trade of these rare stones lives up to their exceptional characteristics.” HB Antwerp’s solution is to cut out the middle men. “We’ve created a simplified supply chain, together with a limited number of mining companies and retailers who share the same values,” says Donckier. “From the mine in Botswana, all diamonds are then distributed directly to Antwerp where they are manufactured by us. Once they are ready, the diamonds will go to the jeweller who’ll transform them into bespoke jewellery pieces.” The appeal of HB Antwerp’s ethically sourced diamonds has even led to a partnership with Louis Vuitton, which is sure to gain industry-wide attention.
The last year has seen a boom in brands using recycled materials to create jewellery. According to a 2019 report by Pandora, sourcing recycled material cuts carbon emissions by two thirds for silver and by more than 99% for gold. Currently, 71% of Pandora’s silver and gold is recycled, but their goal is to reach 100% by 2025. Precious metals like gold, silver and platinum are classed as non-ferrous materials, so they don’t lose any chemical or physical properties when recycled. This means they can be reused an infinite number of times. Considering mining for gold and other metals is responsible for dumping around 180 million tons of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans each year, the benefits for the planet are significant.
For small jewellery brands, working with recycled materials is a no-brainer that many are embracing. “When I create a collection, I obviously look at aesthetic inspirations, but sourcing materials is my biggest concern,” says Carolina Wong, who launched her eponymous line of jewellery using recycled materials in February. “It’s something that I’ve embedded into the brand. If it’s not sustainable, I’d prefer not to make a collection, even if it would make for easy sales or less work.” Wong admits that sourcing recycled materials can be time consuming and complicated. In an effort to gain full transparency, she has visited all of her suppliers in China to make sure they’re practicing what they preach. “Sometimes they’ll tell you they use recycled wires, but you don’t know until you’ve seen the factory,” she says. “All my manufacturers are certified and I’ve been to see with my own eyes that they do the right thing.”
It’s a similar story for Sophie Karg, a London-based jewellery designer behind By Pariah, who made the switch to using entirely recycled materials in October this year. “We use 100% recycled gold and silver, certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council and strive to create timeless designs that will be cherished for generations, not just a fleeting moment,” she says. Since founding her brand in 2018, Karg has seen a noticeable uptick in availability. “Recycled materials are much easier to come by now, plus brands are more willing to question their own practices and share their supply chains more than ever before,” she says.
Using sustainable materials doesn’t mean much without ensuring ethical manufacturing, which is why jewellery brands are focusing their attention on fair work and additional opportunities for their employees. One way to ensure this is by manufacturing close to home, like Wong, who works with her team from their South London studio. “I tend to hire lots of housewives,” she says. “I’ve hired one or two people who are traditional jewellers, but the majority of work is done by local women who can’t find a part time job because they have kids.”
Pandora has done extensive work to build out the company’s social impact initiatives by providing professional and personal development training, parental classes, access to libraries, scholarships, on-site canteens and free bus transportation to and from work for the 11,000 employees at their crafting facilities in Thailand. In 2019, they also partnered with UNICEF to raise funds that support vulnerable children, particularly girls, around the world through jewellery sales.
By Pariah works with a handful of small family-run businesses around the world that use specific heritage techniques native to that region. By doing so, the brand is helping to keep unique traditional craftsmanship alive. “Our new collection is hand carved in a small town in Italy, mostly by elderly men, as that’s where the trade originates from,” explains Karg. “And most of our semi precious stone pieces are carved by hand in Jaipur by a young woman. We ensure each supplier we work with upholds the same values we do.”
The last year has seen a huge growth in sustainability initiatives across the industry, from emerging independent designers, precious metal and stone traders, as well as industry leading brands, all of which are transforming the sector in their own way. While there is a long way to go before the sector can truly be considered sustainable, it’s a promising start. “It is important to keep an honest dialog about efforts,” says Karg. “We’re by no means perfect, but we’re continuing to strive for a better and greener future.”