Today, it’s not enough for our fine jewelry to merely be beautiful; we need to know where it came from and who made it. From aligning with fair trade gold mines to creating brilliant lab-grown diamonds, jewelry makers are using ingenious ways to tap into this demand for responsible and sustainable luxury.
Words: Vivienne Becker
When Penélope Cruz stepped onto the red carpet at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wearing a black vintage Chanel gown, striking as her outfit was, her accessories made the real statement. Crafted from 18-karat Fairtrade gold, Swarovski Created Diamonds and created rubies (perfect gems grown in a laboratory rather than mined), Cruz’s drop earrings and matching ring were a powerful example of the luxury industry’s increasing commitment to sustainability. Against the wider awareness of our impact upon the environment, the debut of the Atelier Swarovski by Penélope Cruz Fine Jewelry Collection signaled the importance of the origins of what we wear.
Time was, if you asked a jeweler in London or New York where a particular diamond had come from, chances were the answer would have been “Hatton Garden” or “47th Street”. That was before we knew, or cared, for example, about the source of our coffee or olive oil. It was before we thought about the farmers and workers growing that coffee or picking those olives, and before we became aware of how those miraculous gem materials are connected not only to the earth, but to the wellbeing of the planet.
There has always been a disconnect between the raw, rugged rocks dug deep out of the ground in some of the most inhospitable corners of the earth and the finished jewel, refined and polished, presented to clients in Bond Street or Place Vendôme on plump velvet cushions and suede-lined trays.
Time was, too, when this disconnect was part of the mystique of walking through the doors of great jewelers and marveling at the mysteries of fine jewelry. Yet now, people feel compelled to understand the near-alchemical transformation a gem or metal undergoes, and to question the human and environmental toll along the way.
It is also a time when the industry is deliberating how to make fine jewelry relevant to a younger generation seemingly immune to materialistic glamour and preoccupied with the future of the planet. But when it comes to the essential components of jewelry: gold, platinum, diamonds and colored gemstones, as well as organic materials such as pearls, the process of extracting these natural treasures from the earth or sea, and then trading and tracking them across the world, is complex and convoluted.
Swarovski’s lead in conscious luxury is mirrored by several other major heritage jewelry maisons in tackling issues relating to mining and fair trade, as well as adopting ethical practices and transparency throughout their supply chains. In 2015, for example, Swarovski established, with other luxury brands, the Coloured Gemstones Working Group to examine and set standards for the improvement of the supply chain of colored gems. Meanwhile, Atelier Swarovski is a certified member of industry standards body the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC), alongside brands including Tiffany & Co, which actively opposes mining in areas of natural beauty, such as Yellowstone National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska. Significantly, Atelier Swarovski announced this year that it will make all its fine jewelry with responsibly sourced gold.
Left: Bracelet and earrings from the Atelier Swarovski by Penélope Cruz Fine Jewelry Collection.
Penélope Cruz wearing her Atelier Swarovski Fine Jewelry at Cannes
The brand is working with a Fairtrade certified mine in Peru to source gold for those collections. Fairtrade and Fairmined (the difference between the two is mostly to do with the certification organizations) are initiatives that aim to improve the lives, safety, working conditions and prospects of mining communities, while also reducing hazardous chemicals, notably cyanide and mercury, that are used to extract the gold, preventing the toxins from entering the water supply and harming the environment.
In fact, long before Cruz debuted pieces from her stunning collection at Cannes (the full collection launched in the summer at Paris Couture Week), Swarovski had been taking sustainability seriously on a number of fronts. It was, after all, essential to Daniel Swarovski’s vision when he founded the company in 1895, with his commitment to protecting the environment, ensuring workers’ wellbeing and safeguarding the purity of the water powering his pioneering crystal-cutting machines. Today, Swarovski supports initiatives that promote an ethical and sustainable jewelry industry. It is a member of the global nonprofit organization BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), whose Responsible Luxury Initiative brings together 16 luxury companies such as Kering to create a platform for the development of collaborative solutions to sustainability issues.
At the Oscars in 2017, Atelier Swarovski debuted its fine jewelry collection made with Swarovski Created Diamonds on the red carpet. Actresses Emma Roberts and Priyanka Bose wore the jewelry as part of the Red Carpet Green Dress campaign. Acknowledging the importance of this kind of profile given to such products, Nadja Swarovski, Member of the Executive Board, comments, “Our fine jewelry is a shining statement of our commitment to conscious luxury. We are proud that so many empowering women have embraced our ethos by choosing to wear Atelier Swarovski Fine Jewelry on the red carpet.”
Diamonds pose a huge ethical challenge for the jewelry industry. Since 2003, the Kimberley Process certification scheme has taken vital steps to prevent conflict diamonds entering the global supply chain and to clean up the diamond trade, but there is still much to do in terms of full traceability, defining ‘conflict’ and guaranteeing a diamond’s ethical credentials. This is why today’s lab-grown diamonds offer an attractive alternative. Swarovski Created Diamonds are lab-grown diamonds, chemically, physically and optically identical to mined diamonds, but with a much lower environmental impact. For Swarovski, these ‘above-ground’ diamonds represent the meeting of art and science. The core material (rough crystal) is grown in a laboratory in a process that speeds up the formation and crystallization process that creates a natural diamond. Replicating in the lab the immense heat and pressure generated by geological events billions of years ago, a tiny diamond seed is augmented with carbon atoms, so that it grows, layer by layer, into a perfect diamond. The stone is then cut, polished and fashioned.
DIAMA collection, featuring Swarovski Created Diamonds
Like naturally occurring diamonds, Swarovski Created Diamonds are pure carbon and share the same properties of hardness, durability, brilliance, limpidity and clarity. An analogy might be that of an orchid grown in a greenhouse rather than in the wild: both are orchids. Swarovski’s are also hand-selected and graded by gemologists according to the same criteria of carat, color, clarity and cut. Stones larger than 0.30 carats are certified by the International Gemological Institute, and Swarovski laser-inscribes stones over 0.50 carats with a mark visible under magnification. The first fine-jewelry collection to feature Swarovski Created Diamonds, as well as limited-edition Fancy Pink versions, was the 2016 Diama collection, the name ‘dia’ and ‘ama’ hinting at the diamond’s long association with love (Cupid’s arrows were said to be diamond-tipped). Now, Diama has evolved into seven design collections, from Essentials, with a focus on the solitaire diamond, to Glacial, showcasing the intensified brilliance of the stones.
Swarovski Created Diamonds are paralleled by the company’s efforts to make the sourcing and processing of genuine gemstones more transparent. Working with external auditors to ensure a thoroughly traceable supply chain, Swarovski is actively engaging its colleagues in the industry to follow their lead in responsible sourcing.
Fellow RJC member Chopard, the Geneva-based family-owned watch and jewelry house, is another leading player in this area. Artistic director and co-president Caroline Scheufele has long worked towards using ethically sourced gemstones and Fairmined gold, but in 2013, in partnership with sustainability and communications consultancy Eco-Age (co-founded by Livia Firth), she launched the Journey to Sustainable Luxury initiative. The vision is to commit to responsible sourcing, traceability, production processes and working conditions along the maison’s supply chain, and to raise awareness of the challenges for fine jewelers.
Bristol Bay, Alaska, where Tiffany & Co opposed gold mining
In the same year, Scheufele announced a partnership with the Alliance for Responsible Mining in Colombia and launched the Green Carpet Collection of High Jewelry, made using only sustainably sourced and traceable gold and diamonds. Since then, these ‘green’ creations have made an impact on red carpets; at Cannes, Chopard unveils each collection with actresses such as Julianne Moore. The move away from so-called ‘dirty gold’ towards ethical gold is also being taken up by a fast-growing group of young, socially conscious designer-jewelers, intent on bringing their age-old industry in line with 21st-century values.
Pippa Small is one such pioneer. An intrepid traveler since childhood, the ethical jewelry maker began working with the Cotopata mine co-operative, high in the Bolivian Andes, in 2009. In 2011, it became the first certified Fairtrade gold mine in the world. Today, Small also works with artisanal mines and craftspeople in Peru. For the past 10 years, she has been involved with the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, training artisans in Afghanistan. “In an area of conflict like Afghanistan, safe, meaningful employment is crucial,” she says. “And in the craft arena, these jobs also instill pride in local traditions and skills, reinforcing a cultural identity. I feel it’s important to make the jewelry as much as I can with artisans at the source of the materials, providing jobs and opportunity in countries where they need it, rather than just exporting the raw materials.”
Gold-plated bangle by Arabel Lebrusan, made from recycled silver
Designer and goldsmith Arabel Lebrusan is also proactive about ethics in jewelry, and in 2011 launched Fairtrade gold, too. She works closely with the Sotrami mine in Peru, using its gold for her signature, intricate filigree-work engagement and wedding rings. She says, “I believe that by asking questions, simplifying supply chains and sharing knowledge we can use the beautiful materials that come from the earth without harming our blue planet."
Upcycling gold and gemstones is another route to sustainability. German designer Lilian von Trapp’s mission is to operate entirely outside the traditional gold and diamond mining system. She founded her brand on the concept of upcycling antique and inherited gold and diamond jewelry, for her pieces are handcrafted in Germany by master artisans under fair labor conditions. Von Trapp donates two per cent of all earnings to projects such as the Earthbeat Foundation, which aims to counter the social and environmental effects of mining on local communities.
At New York Fashion Week in February, Swarovski partnered with jewelry maker Sandy Leong to launch her Twilight collection: 18-karat recycled gold set with ethically sourced pink sapphires and rubies. Likewise, Monique Péan works with recycled gold and repurposed diamonds, as well as with sustainable and non-mined materials including Siberian meteorite and fossilized walrus ivory and dinosaur bone. And this year, the high-street chain H&M launched the Conscious Exclusive collection, with jewelry made from recycled silver; its rings and earrings with bud motifs and spiraling forms tap into the trend for atelier style.
In this age of awareness and advancements in technology, how long might it be before we can create sustainable gold, or recycle all of our metal, gems and jewelry? Whatever the future holds, brands are answering today’s call for ethics, integrity and sustainability, with brilliant results.
A version of this story appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of SALT magazine published by Conde Nast