As part of the city’s annual jewellery festival Brilliantly Birmingham, Sharon Walker, ex-fashion editor at Harpers Bazaar and co-director of eco-luxe brand URTH, is speaking at a seminar on ethics and fair trade in the jewellery industry. She explains why gold is top of the agenda.
I like telling people I’m a gold-mining entrepreneur. Conjuring up images of Wild West frontier towns and bullet-pocked window screens, it sounds pretty adventurous.
Yet no one was more surprised than me to find myself trekking through the backwaters of Madagascar with a rucksack full of cash, barely a year after leaving my desk-job at the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
“I would have bought protection, had I known,” commented my bemused expat guide, eyeing my bulging bag.
As it was, that first deal – which took place in a tin hut grocery store surrounded by bags of rice – went without a hitch.
Made into jewellery, that gold bought in Madagascar, now graces the necks of women in the UK and the States, including actress Emma Thompson and model Lily Cole.
URTH is a new-style luxury brand, defined as much by ethical values as the more traditional qualities of design and craftsmanship.
I really believe it is the way forward. I love beautiful things as much as the next girl – in my job at Harper’s Bazaar I was immersed in the world of fashion and luxury – yet when it came to setting up in business myself, I didn’t want to simply send more “stuff” out into the universe.
The whole point of URTH is to provide a clear supply chain.
Gold’s complex production means it is usually impossible to label where it comes from, consisting of five unconnected industries: mining, refining, manufacturing, wholesale and retail.
Many jewellers cannot say where their gold comes from or the conditions it was mined in. We solved that problem by buying direct from the mine.
A sustainability expert we employed to help us with responsible sourcing selected the mining community in Antanimbary.
The gold we bought there was panned from the river by small-scale miners with no damage to the environment.
There is no forced nor slave labour in this community and where children work it is as part of a family business and not at the expense of going to school.
We are also taking positive steps to help gold mining to clean up its act.
For example, the first collection designed by Notting Hill jeweller Pippa Small has funded a safety workshop and equipment for the miners in Tipuani, Bolivia, who mined the gold that made it.
The mine does not use cyanide and we hope future URTH collections will fund a mercury management programme.
Mercury is used to extract the gold, but it is a highly toxic chemical, which not only escapes into the water table, but also affects the health of the miners, especially their children, who breathe the fumes and play in mercury-soaked sand. For the most part, they have no idea of the dangers.
Gold is one of the biggest polluters on the planet.
One gold wedding ring alone generates 20 tonnes of mine waste. Some open-cast mines are so huge you can see the craters from outer space; others use several tons of cyanide per day.
One accident at a Romanian mine led to 2,000 tonnes of fish being killed. Mine waste can make groundwater thousands of times more acidic than battery acid.
Consumers are only now catching on, but thanks to films such as Blood Diamond, they are starting to ask questions.
Celebrity jeweller Stephen Webster, who recently designed a collection of ethical jewellery and will also be taking part in the Brilliantly Birmingham seminar, says actress Sienna Miller was straight on the phone after asking, “where are these diamonds from?”
Creating a clear supply chain has its challenges. It took us four months to persuade officials in Madagascar to allow the gold out in an unrefined state (we refine URTH gold separately so that it is untainted by ‘dirty’ gold).
In Bolivia we have to bring the gold out in jewellery form as there are legal issues with exporting gold.
And someone has yet to solve the problem of making an ethical gold chain (chain is made on industrial machines, kilos at a time, so there is no chance of stopping the machines to make them in our gold).
Jewellery is the ultimate luxury item.
People wear it for all sorts of reasons both personal and emotional, you don’t want to feel that the beautiful ring or necklace you are wearing is tainted by a weight of destruction or suffering.
When people buy ethical jewellery they are contributing directly to the lives and economies of the miners who made it – and that is an incredibly good feeling.
It is asking, what do we mean by “ethical” jewellery, and how we can overcome the challenges when faced with an industry like gold mining which is beset by environmental and human rights issues.
n Brilliantly Birmingham returns to the city for the ninth time from November 28 to December 21. Sharon Walker will be speaking at the “All That Glitters” seminar that explores ethics and fair trade within the jewellery industry.