Jewellery is something that many of us wear, but probably never put a lot of thought into beyond it's aesthetic appeal. Beautiful jewellery is often gifted to us for special occasions or even as a treat to indulge ourselves. Jewellery has existed for almost as long as humanity has, and has always been used as a way to express ourselves and embellish our bodies. The art of jewellery making is an ancient one, however as modern tastes have changed and demand for fast, trend-based accessories is at an all-time high, not all jewellery is created equal. Whilst people around the world are increasingly aware that the fast fashion industry’s impact on people and the planet is out of control. But have you ever questioned "who made my jewellery?" We're here to tell you everything you need to know about sustainable jewellery and why we think it's the future of fashion...
But first, back to the beginning. Jewellery made from shells, stone and bones has been found dating back to prehistoric times. It’s likely that from this early time period it was worn as protection from the dangers of life or as a mark of status. In places such as Ancient Egypt or Celtic Ireland, gold was regarded a rare and highly valued material and was often buried with the dead so as to accompany its owner into the afterlife. The jewellery found from medieval Europe reflected a society that was intensely hierarchical and focused on status. Royalty and nobility wore gold, silver and precious gems to flaunt their wealth and their higher social standing.
In the 19th Century there was a huge societal shift as industrialisation took place. Jewellery design began to focus more on classical styles such as those from ancient Greece and Rome. Jewellery decorated with natural imagery such as fruit and flowers also became popular at this time. The late 19th Century saw a rejection of the industrialised world and a huge rise in the Arts and Crafts movement which led to more handcrafted jewellery returning to the market and jewellers creating pieces with their own symbolic meanings.
As we move into the 1960s we begin to see the emergence of contemporary jewellery as we recognise it today. Jewellery has constantly changed and adapted throughout history to suit the needs of those who wear it and those who make it. Today, jewellery still carries some of the symbolism and significance across various cultures that it has in centuries past. Engagement rings are given to a spouse to signify a commitment to marry your beloved, the mangalsutra, a sacred necklace in Hinduism, is tied around the bride’s neck on the day of the wedding in a ceremony called Mangalya dharanam, in Native American jewellery, turquoise is believed to have mystical healing properties.
However, whilst much of the jewellery purchased and worn today still incorporates the same materials, like gold and precious stones, it is arguably less about signifying power or status within society and instead better described as a personal and sentimental symbol.
So, how is modern jewellery made? Jewellery used to be made entirely by hand. Metals were moulded into shape and gemstones would be painstakingly placed into their tiny, delicate clasps. However, thanks to technological advancements, machines are now often used to craft pieces much faster. This fact alone has created huge ripples within the industry.
Whilst the jewellery industry may seem glitzy and luxurious, there is a dark under-belly. It is an industry that is rife with environmental and ethical issues, from raw material sourcing to unethical production practises. Many luxury jewellery brand will happily charge their customer large sums of money for a piece of jewellery that has been produced by someone working in unspeakable conditions who is not paid fairly for their often life-risking work.
On top of the displacement of entire communities, deforestation, soil contamination and dangerous working conditions, unsustainable mining practises are commonplace within the jewellery industry, putting the sustainability of the entire jewellery industry into question. If you'd like to read more on this topic, you can read our previous journal post here.
Modern jewellery can be made in a number of ways that can be both ethical and sustainable. The key to finding ethical jewellery is transparency and traceability within the supply chain. If you, as a buyer, are able to find out the material the jewellery is made from, where it was sourced and how is was produced, it allows you to make an informed decision on who and where you want to buy from.
Greenwashing is a constant problem, and it is no different when it comes to jewellery. Unfortunately there are many brands out there who make bold, broad claims about their sustainability practises and their ethics, most of which cannot be backed up with any evidence. It is hard to know who you can trust, but generally if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
What's so bad about fast fashion jewellery? Unfortunately, the people who produce these cheap jewellery collections are exploited workers, much like those who work in sweatshops or poorly-run factories sewing our clothes. In reality, fast fashion jewellery is often very trend-based, meaning many people will throw away these pieces once the trend has passed. Virgin metals, plastic and unethical gold or silver plating are the materials that are mostly used for making fast fashion jewellery, and all of these have their own detrimental effects. Harsh chemicals are also often used to produce cheap jewellery, most of which get washed back into our water supplies, wreaking irreversible damage to our ecosystems.
These products are not made to last, meaning they will end up in landfill not long after they have been produced. As they are made from materials that cannot biodegrade or be recycled, these pieces of jewellery will remain in landfill, emitting harmful chemicals into the air. Brands using higher-cost materials may not necessarily be any better. Silver and gold can be incredibly unethical and unsustainable, with much of it being mined by men, women and children in impoverished areas and in unsafe conditions.
Once the micro-trends have passed, these pieces are often doomed to spend the rest of their days in landfill.
So, can I buy ethical jewellery? Luckily, yes! According to Tracemark’s Sustainable Luxury Consumer Report 2021, 94% of consumers believe jewellery brands should be more transparent about the origin of the raw materials they use like gold and diamonds. 71% said they would choose a piece of jewellery for its traceability, and up to 77.5% of consumers would pay more for a traceable product. These figures show a huge demand amongst consumers for sustainable and ethical jewellery. So here's how you can buy, own and wear jewellery in an ethical and sustainable way;
- Do your research. Before buying from a brand, have a look into their ethics and sustainability practises. Having trouble finding this information? Reach out to them via social media and suggest they make this information readily available. Remember - if a brand doesn't share this information or gives your vague responses, it is probably best to avoid them.
- Pick styles you love. Focus on finding pieces that you will love for a lifetime, not just a trend cycle. One of the easiest ways to live a more sustainable life is just to buy less. Informed purchases are an easy way to keep your footprint low whilst still be able to enjoy the things you love.
- Focus on materials. Pick jewellery that is made from recycled and / or recyclable materials such as brass, aluminium, and recycled silver. Avoid virgin materials and those which cannot be reused such as plastics.
- Take care of your jewellery. Make sure you clean and store your jewellery properly to help it have as long of a life as possible. Repair pieces when they break and gift them to friends once you are finished with them. Never just throw a piece of jewellery away!
- Shop from trusted brands. Brands like AARVEN will always be honest and transparent about how our jewellery is made. You can find a wealth of information on our website, from the artisans that handcraft each piece to the reasons why we use recycled materials.