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Why being an ethical jewellery designer sucks...

5 min read

Why being an ethical jewellery designer sucks...

Arabel Lebrusan Jewellery designer


This might come as a surprise to you, but with all the beautiful gemstones available today, being an ethical jewellery designer sucks. But why?


I am completely in love with gemstones. It’s the reason why I studied gemmology and jewellery making instead of pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming an architect. 


The colours, the shapes, the cuts, the textures – the world of gemstones is an infinitely beautiful one. But today, I feel totally confined by my own ethical standards. Ethics put so many restrictions on the way I work that I often feel like I’m trapped underwater, unable to reach the surface. It takes almost all the fun out of designing.


I still recall fondly my trips to Hong Kong in my late 20s and the incredible stones that were literally everywhere. Carved, engraved, miniature sculptures, stones cut to enhance their natural flaws – it was pure pleasure.


However, it was during those trips that I became aware of the dark side of the jewellery trade and everything that was wrong with the precious metal and gemstone industry: the cheap prices, the child labour, the abuse of natural materials and the appalling mining conditions.


When we see a beautiful stone we are seduced by its beauty and sparkle. I believe that humans are hard-wired to love shiny things – you just have to look at all those men obsessively buffing their cars to a brilliant sheen. We want to hold and caress gemstones, and we are blinded by their beauty. For me, though, not knowing the origin of, and story behind, a stone results in paralysis.


When Pantone 17-3628 TPX comes into fashion, I will immediately know the stone that is the perfect match for that colour. As a designer, I know that the big jewellery houses will be using that stone. But I source from only ethical gemstone dealers, and it is usually impossible to find a traceable source for fashionable gemstones. This means I’m stuck and can’t use it in my designs.


"It’s the story of my life. As an ethical jewellery designer, time after time I’m frustrated by the lack of availability of sustainable and traceable gemstones. The moment ethics become part of your story, your work becomes a compromise."


I want to make beautiful objects, but the reality is that ethics majorly restrict my options and the materials I can use. What do I do? It’s impossible to satisfy my urge to design with beautiful stones with such a limited palette.


What about metals?


Precious metals are another big concern for the world of fine jewellery nowadays, the small-scale artisanal mining schemes Fairtrade and Fairmined are helping to get more sustainable gold out of the ground than ever before. I have also been working with recycled metals for many years now, which in the past was the only way I could get around the lack of availability of ethical gold.


Fairmined Ecological Gold


However, working with these metals is difficult. Jewellery is made up of many components – clasps, scrolls, chains, connecting links – and these are not yet manufactured in ethical metals. This means that often a piece of jewellery cannot be 100% ethical.


"It is not permitted to mix Fairtrade and Fairmined metals with standard metals and still label it ethical, so the jewellery industry is left with an all or nothing scenario."   


Restrictions make it necessary for me to work in the UK as most of the casting houses using ethical gold are based here, which means that my production costs are higher than many other designers who work abroad or in the Far East. Meanwhile, creating a contemporary ethical jewellery collection is extremely difficult. Ethical materials cost at least 15-20% more than standard materials, and local European production is considerably more expensive.


All of these limitations make an ethical piece of jewellery more costly – not just because the materials are more expensive, but also because of how and where it is produced.


What about craftsmanship?


My take on ethics includes not only the use of ethical materials but also sustainable craftsmanship so that I am helping to keep our heritage alive. I love mixing the old with the new and reinventing traditional crafts for the modern woman, like in my filigree collections.


There is something very special about wearing a piece of jewellery made by craftsmen using techniques that have been passed down through the generations. This is one of the best parts of my job as I regularly get to deal with lots of interesting individuals who love their craft, and by doing this I am not only helping to keep the craftsmanship of London’s Hatton Garden alive but also contributing to the local economy.


Spanish Craftsmanship Filigree


Many people ask me: why we don’t see more ethical jewellery in high street stores or independent jewellers? The reality is that wholesaling ethical jewellery is almost impossible. Working with craftsmen, working with ethical metals in Europe, working with traceable and sustainable gemstones – every aspect of making ethical jewellery costs more. Margins are tight and the market is not very buoyant. Jewellery will never lose its charm, but it’s definitely losing a big part of the “gifting” market to other types of gifting.


Being an ethical jewellery designer sucks, but….


Even if making ethical jewellery doesn’t make sense in terms of margins, growth and expansion for a small brand like me, it makes total sense in my mind. I just couldn’t do anything else but this, fighting for what I believe in. There is no better feeling than knowing you are changing the world for the better – that you are helping to move an immense mountain.


For a very long time, jewellery has been associated with many human rights abuses and natural disasters, and the time has come to make better choices – personally and for the world as a whole. So while I would really, really, really like to use the next fashionable coloured stone in my jewellery designs, I’m not going to change the path I’ve chosen. And that’s the bit that sucks.


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Love, Arabel & Team
arabel lebrusan
arabel lebrusan

Arabel Lebrusan is an artist, designer and pioneer of the ethical jewellery movement, with almost two decades of industry experience behind her. She is a fount of knowledge when it comes to responsible sourcing, sustainable manufacture, and the preservation of traditional craft. Her engaging blog posts range from personal accounts of once-in-a-lifetime sourcing trips to helpful tips for buying and wearing jewellery and opinion pieces on pressing industry matters.