«The value of jewelry doesn’t lie in the preciousness of the material but in the transparency of the supply chain». Rethinking jewelry codes one jewel at a time: how the process of jewelry making has evolved
When confronted with a diamond ring or with a gold necklace few people would consider what that piece of jewelry is costing to our planet in terms of natural and human resources. Alba Cappellieri, Jewelry and Accessory Design professor at Politecnico of Milano and Director at the Museum of Jewelry of Vicenza, says: «just by scrolling through newspapers and different geographical areas we can find data: the situation in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world yet one of the wealthiest when it comes to gold exportation. Or Venezuela’s Canaima National Park: a situation brought forth by Wall Street Journal writer Kejal Vyas in 2018 who highlighted how the indigenous Pemón population, who for decades had shown no interest in the gold in order to preserve the nature of the thirty-thousand square kilometer park, started to look for it again and in new ways, careless of the harm they were causing their own territory».
The jewelry industry has been known to have a sustainability and traceability problem. Ever since the ‘blood diamond’ scandal that broke out in the early 2000, the industry has, however, been taking steps towards more sustainable and transparent solutions, gaining awareness of its intrinsic problems and putting up for discussion its own chore values. First with the Kimberley Process – established in 2003 to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the rough diamond market – and later with the founding in 2005 of the Responsible Jewelry Council – an organization whose mission is to assure that its members adhere to standards for supply chain integrity, sustainability and traceability – the industry has been taking steps towards a more sustainable production system. These steps became necessary also with the shift in the public’s awareness. «Today, it’s not sufficient for a piece of jewelry to be well made; customers want to know where they came from and who made them», remarks Livia Tenuta, Design Department researcher at Politecnico of Milano, «ancient Greeks had a saying ‘kalos kai agathos’ – beautiful and good – and today this is the essence of what the jewelry industry has to be. Beauty can’t be separated from virtue». Adopting sustainable choices nowadays isn’t just an option, it’s necessary; «it has become the only way to assure competitiveness. Moreover, it’s required by laws to have certifications that attest the provenience and assure the traceability of the products», continues Dr. Tenuta. Professor Cappellieri explains: «in Italy we have significant examples of a sustainable supply chain, that respects the ‘genius loci’, the environment and the workers while keeping up with the progress and the technological and digital innovations in order to ensure the company’s competitiveness». For both women, Italy’s strongest asset when it comes to sustainable jewelry is craftsmanship. «The artisanal practice is – by its own nature – bearer of the fundamental criterions of sustainability, because it gives value to the conception and realization of a product, to the technical experimentation, to the search of quality and perfection» says Cappellieri, who brings forth the examples and projects of local companies such as About Fucina Orafa, an independent workshop studio where goldsmiths, young artists and students can learn more about jewelry making, share ideas and build a community. Having a shared space means that they can cut back on machinery, energy and materials thus reducing pollution and dead stock. It also means that they end up creating partnerships similar to those of the ancient goldsmith schools Italy has always been renowned for. Safeguarding these traditions and this ‘modus operandi’ is the goal of many foundations and projects that have been gaining force over the years as a return to the roots became one option to achieve sustainability in practice. One example is the Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte, a foundation born in 1995 whose purpose is to rescue the métiers d’art from extinction by curating initiatives and setting up training programs aimed to young designers to divulge specialized skills and crafts that are at risk of extinction.
While the safeguarding of these traditions might be an option towards a sustainable jewel industry, innovation in all aspects of the supply chain is crucial.
First and foremost, the innovation in the materials used for jewelry production. «Research is moving towards the development of echo-friendly, high-performance materials and the streamlining of the supply chain to reduce the consumption of resources and the use of toxic components» says professor Cappellieri. «Just consider Lab Grown Diamonds, artificial diamonds grown in laboratories through highly controlled and technologically advanced processes that mimic the condition in which diamonds would naturally develop beneath the Earth’s surface. These artificial diamonds are made up by real carbonium atoms therefore they possess the same optical and chemical properties of natural diamonds without the high impact they cause on the environment». Although the practice of creating Lab Grown Diamonds is not a new one – the first attempts at obtaining lab diamonds dates back to the Eighties – the innovation brought forth in the new and renewable energies industry allowed this option to become a valued one in the market. An example is the company Diamond Foundry, which by using hydro powered foundries is able to keep carbon emissions neutral thus making this process more sustainable.
When it comes to non-conventional materials, the practice of upcycling is a frequent one amongst younger jewelers. One example who has elevated the practice of upcycling to an art form is architect, artist and designer Riccardo Dalisi who was among the first to bring forth the need for the design and jewelry industry to take a step back and be held accountable towards the environmental resources. His creations made of poor and found materials such as metal, brass and tinfoil have been celebrated in an exhibition at the Triennale Design museum of Milan in 2012.
A new player in the sustainable jewelry conversation has been 3D printing that has «had impact because it shortens and subverts the traditional production cycle» says Dr. Tenuta. «while before you needed to design a piece, build it, test it and then assemble it with 3D printing, the building phase is the last one so it allows you to test the pieces without having to build them every time. This way products are quicker to build, cheaper and therefore more sustainable. 3D printing allows designers to use alternative and recycled materials as well giving way to a different innovation especially for emerging brands who are still building their identity. Two very interesting realities in this field are Maison 203 and Bijouets». 3D printing has not only impacted the way jewels are assembled but also the way consumers relate to them. «It has created new virtual platforms, such as Shapeways, Sculpteo or Thingiverse, where the customer can upload its project and have it created». Says professor Cappellieri. «This is a different process, that not only shortens the supply chain but it also allows the customer to choose and personalize his creations».
All these innovations seem to be shaking the chore of the concept of jewelry by abandoning traditional materials and known techniques for new and unexpected results. «Sustainability in the materials and in the production process is not a choice anymore but a necessity, a project obligation that works well with the design philosophy: the value of a piece of jewelry doesn’t lie only in the preciousness of the material but in the value of the project as well. I’m all for experimenting with alternative materials and new manufacturing processes as long as they are sustainable and respect the value of the project» says professor Cappellieri. «It’s not about trends anymore but about duty» echoes Dr. Tenuta, «today you can’t design thinking of using a material that produces ninety percent of deadstock or thinking of not picking the more sustainable option, when given the chance. Something I have noticed within universities is that the younger generations possess a sensitivity to the matter that we simply don’t have».IMAGE GALLERY
Alba Cappellieri is a Jewelry and Accessory Design professor at Politecnico of Milano and Director at the Museum of Jewelry of Vicenza.
Livia Tenuta is a Design Department researcher at Politecnico of Milano