Joanna Taylor On The Value Of Ethical Jewellery

You may remember, we featured Joanna Taylor in our New Designers article in July. As a jewellery designer-maker Joanna established Tootsievalentine® Ethical Jewellery in 2007 and now, after achieving a First Class BA (hons) in Jewellery, she’s set up practice in a shared workshop in Buckinghamshire. We were keen to find out how she’s getting on since her debut at the New Designers show and wanted to find out more about the sustainable way in which she works…and what ethical jewellery actually means.

What’s your approach to sustainability through your design?

Firstly, I use recycled precious metals where possible. I’m currently using recycled sterling silver, 18 carat gold and platinum. For smaller items of jewellery and one-off pieces I’m able to do this recycling myself in the workshop with my scrap. For actual collections and larger pieces I use a UK based manufacturer who provides recycled precious metals ready to use. I also offer a bespoke service where I’m able to remodel or recycle old pieces of someone’s jewellery, to update it, or incorporate it into a more modern piece, whilst retaining all of the sentimentality of the original piece.

Secondly, the big exciting news is that I’ve just become an official licensee with the Fairtrade Foundation, so I’m one of only a small number of jewellers worldwide who are licenced to use Fairtrade and Fairmined gold. This will enable me to make jewellery with gold which has a fully traceable and transparent supply chain – from the actual mine it came from, to the finished piece of jewellery. Fairtrade and Fairmined gold is sourced from small-scale mining co-operatives, which respect the environment and use fewer chemicals to extract the gold from its ore. In the case of Fairtrade Eco gold no chemicals are used. Miners are also paid a fair price for the gold, plus a premium, which helps their communities’ overall development.

Thirdly, I use diamonds and gemstones which have a traceable supply chain and are conflict free. Although there is currently no official Fairtrade certification for diamonds and gemstones, there are a few companies that have managed to set up small-scale ethical and sustainable supply chains. From these mines they are able to provide gemstones that don’t come from corrupt regimes, or which don’t cause environmental devastation during the process of extracting the gemstones.

Do any ethical aspects apply to your company?

Yes. I don’t use any precious metals newly mined from non-traceable sources. This is because of the child labour, human rights violations, rape, displaced indigenous communities and forced labour that can occur where the Fairtrade and Fairmined gold mines are not set up. My approach to ethics is the same as sustainability in terms of the avenues I use to make jewellery: recycled precious metals, Fairtrade and Fairmined gold and gemstones that are sourced from transparent and traceable supply chains.

What has inspired you to take a more sustainable approach?

The problems associated with the gold mining industry and the sourcing of raw materials for the jewellery industry at large has made me want to find ways of doing business differently. For my degree dissertation I researched the provenance of precious metals and was utterly shocked at the ecological destruction and humanitarian devastation that gold mining causes. At the time I was doing my research, Fairtrade and Fairmined gold was on the verge of being launched and provided an ethical alternative to traditional large-scale gold mine production. From there I discovered manufacturers that also offered recycled precious metals and so thankfully I’ve been able to take the sustainable route.

Have you been inspired by other creative professionals, or projects?

Yes absolutely. For more than a decade, Greg Valerio and Cred Jewellery have been the pioneers of ethical, sustainable and traceable precious metal supply chains and they are still at the forefront of it, continuing to push for change within the industry. Also, there is another jewellery designer Ute Decker who was one of the first jewellers to use Fairtrade and Fairmined gold. Ute also promotes greener and more sustainable studio and workshop practices and has made the results of her research widely available in order for others to be able to ‘green’ their practices.

Do you actively promote sustainability?

Where the jewellery industry is concerned, yes, wherever possible. A lot of people are unaware of the facts behind gold mining and the environmental and humanitarian problems it causes, so I’m more than happy to discuss it with them and highlight the alternatives available.

Have financial considerations prevented you from taking a more sustainable approach?

Yes. I’d love to make my workshop and home carbon neutral, but the cost of purchasing and installing more energy efficient systems prevents me from doing so at the moment. This remains one of my goals however and in the meantime I’m making whatever smaller changes I can, including trying to source sustainably made tools.

Has lack of demand from your clients prevented you from taking a more sustainable approach?

No, the consumer demand for environmentally conscious jewellery is there and I’m choosing an ethical and sustainable route in business because that is what I personally feel is right. There are some roadblocks within the jewellery industry that I think prevent some jewellers from taking a more sustainable approach, for example the time it takes to get a Fairtrade and Fairmined gold licence.

I also think the premium added to the Fairtrade and Fairmined precious metals puts other jewellers off using it. Gold is very expensive as a raw material. Then to add a premium on top makes the end product significantly more expensive than other gold jewellery on the market. It also takes more effort to make a jewellery business ethical and sustainable: there are fewer traceable supply chains and providers of ethical raw materials and it has taken me at least a year to find them after a great deal of research. Whereas you could go onto a wholesale precious metals website today, order whatever standard or ‘non sustainable’ metal you need and it will be with you the next day.

The whole process takes longer with recycled and other sustainable metals. This means extra time, planning and organising, which many established jewellers may not be prepared to do. Because I’m a recent graduate and have taken the sustainable approach since I started my business, I’m used to working within longer supply times and have adjusted my working practices and business planning to accommodate this.

When your designs are no longer required will they be easy to recycle?

The beauty of precious metals is that they can be easily remodelled or recycled and are unlikely to ever enter the waste stream. Plus jewellery is something that is passed on from generation to generation.

Have you always been involved in design?

No, I was previously a paramedic for 12 years. The past three years of my degree I was still working full time, doing my shifts at the weekend and attending university during the week. I finally left the ambulance service in April this year, just before my final term at university.

What inspires your approach to design?

Emotional association, personal attachment, sentimentality and whether the subject matter reflects some kind of emotive nostalgia. This could be anything from a box of rusty old tools, to a crumbling building, to geology to ceremonial artefacts.

Have other interests and areas of your life influenced your work?

Yes definitely. For example, my father is a mechanical engineer and all the machines he used to build in the garage at home used to fascinate me. I didn’t understand exactly how they worked, but the components and fastenings were of great interest to me and something that I have always associated with my father. In my current collection these mechanical aspects appear on a few of the pieces. It’s not necessary that whoever buys my jewellery identifies this, it’s just the way I approach my designs.  

What are your next plans?

To continue to expand my business, to hopefully become involved in the setting up of more Fairtrade and Fairmined artisanal mines throughout the world and eventually to set up a fully sustainable, carbon neutral jeweller’s workshop and studio in Central London, for up to 10 emerging designers who share the same vision as me.

And a final note from Joanna…

With regards to consumers and other jewellers, I don’t want to preach because I’m not going to claim to be 100% ethical and sustainable, but equally, I’m happy to present the information and then let people choose, because I think the facts speak for themselves. Once you know, it’s very difficult to go back.

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