I was asked to speak about my ethical making journey at the Incorporation of Goldsmiths event “It’s In Our Hands – One Year On, Ethical Making Symposium” what follows here is an adaptation of what I said in case you missed it, written so it’s easier to read. I’ve also included a lot of the images I used on the day, in case you couldn’t see the slides. Thank you to Stacey Bentley Photography for my product shots, and Jon Davey Photography for my studio shots.
My talk was supposed to be about 10mins long, so this blog post should take you around that to read, grab yourself a cup of Fairtrade tea and get stuck in!
Thank you to the organisers, the other speakers and everyone that came along and supported the event. Thank you also to those of you that spoke to me after my talk, I was so pleased to hear my talk had resonated with you for different reasons! It left me feeling quite moved; so many conversations were started and I felt that wonderful mix of anticipation and excitement in my gut. I feel like something really special was started yesterday.
If you’ve not already heard, there was an Ethical Making Pledge signed first thing in the morning, by the heads of department at Scottish colleges and universities. Find out more about that here in the Scottish Field article. I know that it will make a real difference to the industry, being introduced to ethical making at the start of my career would’ve made this a much easier transition for me!
As you know I make landscape inspired jewellery, I take my clients photographs of their favourite mountain range or cityscape and turn them into jewellery.
I went to art school in Dundee at DJCAD and I’ve been making jewellery in Edinburgh since graduating in 2007. When I was at university I don’t remember being told where silver and gold came from, or the mining and processes involved in it’s extraction, it wasn’t on my radar either as something I should find out more about, I just wanted to make things! You don’t expect such an established industry to still have issues with child labour, illness and death from exposure to chemicals and seriously lacking environmental responsibility at the very source of the metal.
I was so excited to hear about the ethical making pledge being signed by the colleges and universities of Scotland (you can find more about that here) it’ll make such a difference to students coming into the industry. When I was learning at Dundee, we didn’t even use silver until a guest tutor came and asked why we hadn’t, we never touched gold!
All I knew then about silver was that it came out the safe, it was expensive, and if you wanted to use it you had to ask the technician, Brian, who I was scared of!
I hadn’t thought about where my metal came from, other than knowing it probably came from a bullion supplier in Birmingham, never beyond that. No-one ever sat me down and told me, what you’ve decided to do as a career will bring some people joy but others will get ill and many will die because of it. I had no idea then and I would’ve been and am still appalled by it.
It wasn’t until I started working at the Edinburgh Assay Office that I started to learn more about Fairtrade. I was also working on my own business part-time, building up my knowledge and skills, researching different suppliers and asking other jewellers questions about where they sourced their metal, stones and tools.
When I worked at the Assay Office I spent some time working on getting the graphics correct for the Fairtrade and Fairmined marks so they could be used by the laser hallmarking department. I remember looking at the jewellers who were registered for this then. Like Fifi Bijoux, a high end ethical jeweller. Seeing the kind of work they produced, I couldn’t help but think their high-end ethical jewellery was so far out of my reach. I didn’t think we had the same market, or customers. I thought, I can’t be Fairtrade if that’s the kind of business you have to have to do it! I’m just a little one person jeweller, hand making stuff in a wee studio, in an old jumper so I don’t get acid on my clothes. I found the idea of it overwhelming.
I wasn’t sure how a small business like mine could make the changes to becoming registered as Fairtrade. After all I had a small amount of silver ready for commissions, and jewellery already out in galleries and shops. I was worried I’d have to sell it all off and start again from scratch as a new venture, and I just couldn’t afford to do that. It just seemed too much!
I left the Assay Office and started working full-time on my business, ethical making was still niggling away at the back of my head, making me feel guilty! With my jewellery business being my main focus and paying the mortgage and bills being my priority I let my interest in Fairtrade and ethical making slide, I still felt too overwhelmed by it to start. I would occasionally have a client ask for recycled or Eco silver and I would use what I thought was all that was available. One large well known jewellery supply company who I later fell out with, were my only source then.
However, despite my interest in Fairtrade for my business being pushed to the back of my mind, when I left the studio and went to the shops to I was going out of my way to buy Fairtrade bananas, tea, sugar and chocolate at any opportunity. I wanted to support Fairtrade because I believe in it and what it does for agriculture and families. It struck me as quite hypocritical to be so careful and not choose the easy option with the few pounds I spent in the supermarket each month. Yet I was consistently choosing the easier and cheaper option with the jewellery I was making, where my business was spending more than a few pounds each month and I wasn’t giving my clients the choice. I was making excuses, and I wanted to change.
I went to the ethical conference last February,in Dundee where my whole jewellery career began. I was so excited to go to the ethical conference and find out more. I remember listening to Greg and Ute talking and hurriedly buying a ticket on my mobile phone for the following day where we’d find out about suppliers and more ways of changing our practice. A couple of things really hit me hard, the points that I took away from the symposium were the stories of the miners; the scale of the mining they do and the fact the whole family often get involved. And the fact that they’re destroying and polluting their land to extract the metal.
As you all know I love stories and I love landscapes. Stories from my clients about why they’ve chosen a specific mountain for their wedding rings. Or why their engraving sounds like it should be an insult and not a pet name! Clients – you know who you are!! Landscapes, well that should be obvious in my jewellery, I love them. I’m not an experienced hill walker but I love the mountains and landscapes in Scotland and I love exploring them.
How could I then ignore the stories of the miners and their families, working hard to produce the metal I use? How could I justify making jewellery which destroys other people’s landscapes and their water supply, in order to represent ones closer to me? I had to start supporting a better way of working.
Greg Valerio and Ute Decker have made this so much easier for jewellers coming to ethical making and Fairtrade and Fairmined now. It isn’t overwhelming anymore, you can start small, make little changes in order to make things better, and slowly change. With the launch of the Ethical Making Resource too, jewellers and our clients have a lot more options!
Since then, I’ve been making small changes and not getting overwhelmed. I started by emailing all my suppliers with questions about post-consumer recycled metal and Fairtrade items and I will keep asking those questions. I would encourage jewellers to ask your suppliers and I would encourage customers to ask your jewellers! It’ll be like a chain of accountability. It’s easier to make changes happen if you’ve told someone that you will.
It took me a while to work out how I could buy the 100% post-consumer recycled silver. Usually for a commission I’ll order the exact size and shape of metal I need for a piece. So small lengths of sheet to make a landscape ring or a larger square piece for a necklace.
However I had to buy a minimum quantity and it wasn’t until I phoned a couple of times that I found out they find it easier to produce it in strips of sheet metal. I’ve taken to ordering what I need in continuous lengths of metal. I was used to bulk buying squares of metal, which I would then cut a strip from for a ring, or cut out a larger oval for a necklace for example. I do still need larger pieces of metal for necklaces and brooches so I invested in a rolling mill, which I bought second hand from a silversmith in Tain. But this means I can reuse any off cuts of the recycled metal I buy to make sheet for those larger pieces. Hopefully this will mean less wastage too as I won’t have to send my scrap off, I can recycle it in the studio.
All of this research and work led to the production of a 100% post-consumer recycled bangle for the Elements Ethical Making showcase last year, this bangle was also inspired by my time in Finland, which you can read more about here.
It also then led to my Glasgow bangle which is also made entirely from 100% post-consumer recycled sterling silver.
I’ve signed up for the Fairtrade Goldsmiths registration, and I hope at some point this year to have saved up to sign up as a licensee. A lot of my metal suppliers were expecting me to have a FLO number when I was asking about Fairtrade gold, they also couldn’t understand why I would want to buy it when I can’t stamp it with the Fairtrade mark. I can still buy Fairtrade metals so if any of my clients would like to order simple wedding bands in Fairtrade metals I’d be more than happy to help you with that.
I’m still working on making my workshop green, and I’m using up the regular silver I still have. I am working on new pieces for galleries and for my shows this year and I would love to make as many of those from recycled silver as possible, either by sending master designs off to be cast or hand making them in the studio. This has increased my prices slightly but I’ve not had any price increases since 2015 so they’re due a change anyway!
I’m looking at ways to differentiate between my new recycled pieces and the originals; I’m changing some designs to reflect the change and make it easier to work out which is which. Keep your eyes peeled for the new version of the Edinburgh skyline bangle. I am currently designing and doing some work towards creating a small range of Fairtrade wedding rings, inspired by landscapes of course. I’d like to wait until I can use the Fairtrade mark along side my hallmark so I want to become a licensee by the end of 2018!
I also want to use the shows and fairs I’m booked into this year to get my potential customers interested in the story of ethical making. So if you see me out and about, please come and talk to me about it!
When I was asked about talking at the symposium, I wasn’t sure why they wanted me, a one woman business to speak, what could I say that was possibly interesting or useful? However the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that this was exactly why I should talk. The more small businesses we can get to make a noise about Fairtrade and ethical making the bigger difference we can make. Hearing Ute Decker and Karen Westland talking last year made me want to change my business. Like Greg Valerio says becoming an ethical jeweller isn’t a sheen like a plating you can put on metal, it has to come from within and If I can help you feel more inspired to become an ethical maker then great.