Getting started with sustainable jewellery: what should I know?

Produced in a way that minimises its social and environmental impact, sustainable or ethical jewellery is a fast-growing trend. With more information available than ever before about where and how brands produce their jewellery, consumers are increasingly demanding about the ethical credentials of their purchases. Jewellery fans want to know that their pieces haven’t been created at the expense of humanitarian abuses or environmental damage.

But what exactly counts as sustainable jewellery? And how can small brands and independent jewellers get involved? Here we take a look at some of the materials and methods used by sustainable jewellery brands and consider simple steps jewellers can take towards more ethical practice.

Which materials can you use for sustainable jewellery?

Historically, one of the biggest ethical issues in the jewellery industry has been the providence of gemstones. There has therefore been a concerted effort over the last few years to offer consumers conflict-free, ethically sourced stones. For example, a number of organisations have launched standards and certifications laying out strict environmental and social requirements that mines must fulfil in order for their gems to be classified as ethical. Synthetic stones have also grown in popularity recently and, thanks to technological advances, can now be of very high quality. Both natural gems with ethical mining certifications and lab-grown stones have their benefits and drawbacks: it’s up to jewellers and their customers to decide which is right for them.

Repurposing vintage stones is another option for ethical jewellery makers, among a range of other recycled materials. Recycled gold and silver are increasingly being seen as a way of reusing scarce and valuable resources that would otherwise have to be mined. Some sustainable jewellery brands also use foraged materials in their pieces. These can range from pebbles to driftwood and sea glass and can result in highly original and unexpected pieces.

What are ethical jewellery production methods?

It’s important to know where your materials come from, but this is just the start of the journey. A key feature of sustainable jewellery brands is a fully traceable and transparent supply chain, from source to shelf. This should include ethical production methods, with collaborators earning a living wage every step of the way. Fairtrade Gold is one initiative providing an independent ethical certification system, which ensures fair pay for small-scale artisans and goldminers.

Sustainable jewellery brands with ethical supply chains include NYC’s Catbird and London-based Pippa Small. A member of Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign, Catbird handmakes its pieces in its Brooklyn studio. Pippa Small works closely with artisans around the world, particularly in Rajasthan, India, to produce her ethical jewellery. Elsewhere, Wald Berlin’s pieces are handmade by a Fairtrade collective of unemployed mothers and grandmothers spread across Germany.

How are consumers shaping sustainable jewellery?

Consumers are a great catalyst for industry change and they are more interested in sustainable jewellery brands than ever. A study from Taylor & Hart found that searches for “ethical jewellery” rose 20% between 2019 and 2020, while those for “recycled gold” increased 29%. Other sustainability-related searches also rose 37% during this period, suggesting that jewellery consumers have a variety of ethical concerns. It’s no wonder that, according to the same study, two-thirds of jewellery brands want to become more sustainable moving forward.

Indeed, a recent report from Mintel found that sustainability and ethics are top considerations for 55% of UK jewellery shoppers. This consumer demand has led to the growth of a wide range of ethical jewellery trends. Synthetic stones, for example, have seen a sharp rise in their popularity. According to a study commissioned by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, the lab-grown diamond market has grown between 15% and 20% annually over the last few years.

How can you become a more ethical jewellery maker?

If you’re an independent jeweller or the owner of a small brand, it can be difficult to know how to get started with ethical jewellery. But there are some simple steps you can take to make your jewellery making practice more sustainable. Using recycled metals is a great first move, and there is a growing number of suppliers specialising in 100% post-consumer recycled precious metals that you can consult for further information.

Many sustainable jewellery brands incorporate recycling into every level of their business, from metals and stones to packaging. You can also look out for Fairtrade and Fairmined certifications, which go some way to ensuring the gold you are using is ethically sourced. If you’re looking to get a little more creative with your commitment to sustainable jewellery, try foraging! This process not only provides you with materials, but can also be a source of inspiration for innovative, idiosyncratic designs.

Another option is making your business carbon neutral. This is an ambitious target and can seem daunting, but there are some simple ways to get started. Look for ways that you can improve efficiencies in your production processes, as well as in any sites or facilities you might own. You can also try offsetting your carbon emissions by supporting projects that promote preservation or reforestation, for example. If you’re just beginning, even implementing office recycling or using recycled paper is a step in the right direction.

Can I learn about sustainable jewellery at BAJ?

At BAJ, we recognise the importance of ethical jewellery practices and address the ethical implications of jewellery making within our programmes. We are responsive to  industry change and partner with jewellers and jewellery brands engaging in sustainable manufacturing and business practices for student projects and knowledge sharing.

Currently we are collaborating with iconic British jewellery brand Alex Monroe on the ‘Adaptability, Versatility, Longevity’ project. This live industry brief challenges our students to make transformable jewellery pieces using recycled sapphires kindly donated by Alex Monroe. As well as using repurposed stones, the project encourages students to think about sustainable jewellery in terms of versatility and adaptability. Transformable pieces can be worn in a variety of different ways, meaning jewellery lovers can get more use out of them, wearing one piece rather than many and over a longer period of time.

For more information on our ‘Adaptability, Versatility, Longevity’ project with Alex Monroe, click here.

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