Ethical Jewelry Designers Making a Difference

By Nora Zelevansky / November 17, 2015
ethical jewelry designers

Ethical jewelry designers who are making an impact --- one beautiful bauble at a time

Once, the notion of sustainable jewelry evoked images of chunky necklaces made from seeds strung on hemp ropes.

But—for many of the most refined jewelry designers today—ecology is not so much a defining characteristic as it is a given, whether that means paying fair wages, manufacturing locally, using conflict-free metals and stones (or heirlooms) or donating a portion of proceeds to charity.

“I think the movement is a reflection of education,” says Kirsty Surian of brand new jewelry line, Supply + Demand. “Philanthropy and ethical business practices do not have to solely define a collection. There are an increasing number of mainstream fashion and accessory collections [that] give back or ethically produce their goods behind the scenes.”

Here, three designers who reduce their bijoux carbon footprint, making the world a better place, one accessory at a time.

ethical jewelry designers
Handmade bracelets by Page Sargisson

LOST & FOUND

ethical jewelry designers

The Line Page Sargisson

Origins Brooklyn-based designer Page Sargisson was craftsy from childhood, making wooden jigsaw puzzles with her grandfather and knitting Cabbage Patch Kid clothes. It was while working a day job at a biotech company that she began making jewelry in the evenings as a creative outlet. A colleague asked to buy a piece and the eponymous line grew from there, officially launching in 2003 and winning fans from Jessica Alba to Cameron Diaz.

Eco Elements “Recycling” defines Sargisson’s design aesthetic. Her pieces are often handmade with patterns inspired by “retired” or found objects. (One of her inaugural collections integrated vintage poker chips.) She uses antique and conflict-free diamonds and environmentally responsible precious metals like recycled and refined gold and silver, and also stresses keeping local manufacturing alive. “It makes me smile that I export a product that is made, not only in the U.S., but in New York City itself,” she says.

How She Sustains “It’s funny because I yell at my husband about plastic bags and he yells at me about leaving the lights on. You can’t get it all right, but I try to do as many small things as I can: I have never owned my own car and I try not to eat much beef.”

From $150 to $2,000; pagesargisson.com

MATERIAL GIRL

ethical jewelry designers

The Line Supply + Demand

Origins Designer Kirsty Surian has been deconstructing and reconstructing heirloom jewelry for herself for a long time. But it was while volunteering with a nonprofit global microfinance organization in Cartagena, Colombia, that she realized she could source the elements for the fine jewelry line she envisioned through existing small businesses. That strategy seemed not only to mesh with her personal ethos, but also with the organic, natural aesthetic of her pieces. Early in 2015, Supply + Demand was born.

Eco Elements Surian sources sustainably procured Ankole cow horn from the Rift Valley of East Africa, relying on skilled craftspeople and providing a much-needed revenue stream for rural communities. Her packaging is custom-made from banana leaves by a female-run Ugandan business, and the collection itself is handmade locally in Los Angeles. “I am always looking to expand our supply chain partnerships,” she explains. “Every connection makes a difference, which in turn can transform communities.”

How She Sustains “I try personally to eliminate mindless consumption. This goes hand in hand with education because, when we know about the footprint of the items we use in our daily lives, we can be inspired to change habits. It’s the little things that we’re all capable of, like bringing reusable bags to the market or using a reusable water bottle.”

From $250 to $2,500; supplydemandjewelry.com

A PEOPLE PERSON

ethical jewelry designers

The Line Ariel Gordon

Origins Designer Ariel Gordon Maffei began to create jewelry as an escape from her stressful job as a Hollywood event publicist. Once she heard her calling, she went to San Francisco’s Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts and apprenticed under fellow L.A. designer, Maya Brenner. In 2009, with simplicity in mind, she launched pieces intended to move seamlessly from a raucous Saturday night into a lazy Sunday. Her designs have since been embraced by notables from Heidi Klum to Tina Fey.

Eco Elements Becoming a mother made Maffei even more inclined toward sustainability. She hopes to lead by example, by refining her scrap metal and using Fair-Trade and conflict-free stones. But, for her, the human element is most important. She seeks out reputable vendors for materials, makes everything locally in L.A., and compensates her team above the industry standard. “I believe that investing in the artisans who handle my production is so important,” she explains. “If they were to disappear, generations of knowledge and skill would disappear with them. I make jewelry, which is a frivolous luxury item. I shouldn’t hurt the Earth in the process.”

How She Sustains “I want [my son] to know the importance of taking care of the Earth we live on and the people who share it with us. I carry my own reusable shopping bags. I have dozens of BAGGU bags, and I stash them everywhere (in my car, purse, diaper bag, suitcases), so I always have one ready when I need it: for groceries, the beach, taking clothes to the dry cleaners. When they get dirty, I throw them in the wash. If we all committed to cutting back in this one small way, it could make a big difference.”

From $150 to $2,000; arielgordonjewelry.com

Raising Awareness

Sometimes a small bauble can be a big issue. These campaigns are raising awareness about widespread concerns surrounding the controversial origins of certain precious materials.

No Dirty Gold The gold standard just changed: This international campaign fights to improve human rights, environmental impact and responsible practices for gold mining. Don’t worry. No need to boycott. Just look for retailers who have pledged to uphold “The Golden Rules,” guidelines that encourage ensuring that communities are not forced off land and that fragile ecosystems are not endangered in the mining process. nodirtygold.earthworksaction.org

Too Precious to Wear “Precious” is in the eye of the beholder. Coral may not be considered a rare gem, but the reefs are endangered, which is bad for marine life (which feeds billions of people) and eroding coastlines—and that’s bad for everyone. This SeaWeb organization combats unregulated coral trade and spreads the word about alternative, less destructive ocean-inspired products. tooprecioustowear.org

Conflict-Free Diamonds If you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film, Blood Diamond, then you may know that diamond mining has long been associated with violence and bloodshed, especially in war-torn areas where corrupt governments and rebels rule. Brilliant Earth is one collective of responsible jewelry industry members, working to raise awareness about and encourage ethical sourcing, support of ravaged communities and the use of responsible alternatives. brilliantearth.com

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky is the author of upcoming novel, Will You Won't You Want Me?, and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, T Magazine (The New York Times), Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.
Nora Zelevansky

Latest posts by Nora Zelevansky (see all)