Wearable Art

Planet- and People-Friendly Jewelry is Gaining Ground

Archeologists say that jewelry was one of the first forms of human art. Recent evidence found in Israel and Nigeria suggests that our ancestors have been decorating their bodies for more than 100,000 years. Today, the most popular "bling" is often made of precious gems and rare metals extracted from deep within the Earth. But environmental and human rights advocates have raised red flags about unfair, unsafe and non-sustainable mining practices. Thankfully, conscious jewelry makers and retailers are now providing Earth-friendly alternatives.

Paloma Pottery© Jason Kremkau

The hunt for gems and precious metals is dirty, dangerous work. Gold and silver mining is notoriously polluting, producing mountains of mine "tailings"—another name for toxic sludge that typically contains heavy metals and sediments. "About 85 percent of gold mined today is used for jewelry," says Bersel Lemke, a recipient of the Right Livelihood award in 2000. "I am not against gold, but against chemical destruction of our landscape." Lemke says there is enough gold already in existence to supply the world’s needs for 50 years.

Conflict Diamonds

Rough (uncut) diamonds have been linked to civil wars in third-world countries such as the African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Diamonds have provided funding for several brutal conflicts in Africa, resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people," reports Global Witness, a human rights group.

Following international outrage over the issue, nations that produce and sell diamonds signed a voluntary agreement in 2003 called the Kimberley Process. It establishes rules for tracking where diamonds come from and where they go, and specifies that an official certificate of a gem’s history is provided to buyers. But some critics say that this honor-based system is not enough. "The diamond industry is paying little more than lip service to the system of self-regulation launched three years ago," says Corinna Gilfillan of Global Witness.

Kibosh on Carats?

Consumers can ask for Kimberley Process certification on a retail diamond, but a recent survey in London showed that fewer than 20 percent of jewelry shops were able to provide documentation. Buying diamonds mined in Canada, where both environmental and human rights laws are strictly enforced, is another safe bet.

1700 Ocean

Leber Jewelers specializes in Canadian diamonds and other gems that are sourced by the company itself. Since there is no third-party certification system for rubies, emeralds, sapphires and colored gemstones, Leber works directly with suppliers to determine where gems come from and how they were mined.

For trendy jewelry with fair-trade gems, 1700 Ocean makes what they call jewelry with heart and soul. Designer Debra Savage and other featured artists produce pave diamond key chains, designer arm cuffs, belly necklaces and funky pins. "We will not support anyone who takes advantage ecologically, economically or inhumanely," says Savage.

Rethink and Recycle


For more natural-looking adornments, Kirsten Muenster, a designer of stone and recycled metal jewelry, explains the founding idea for her line: "I seek to be more conscious of how my decisions affect people and ecosystems."

Muenster’s pieces incorporate bits of vintage jewelry, fossils, stones from "rock hounds" and recycled "Fordite," which is made of multiple layers of automotive paint.

Reena Kazman, owner of Eco-Artware, also appreciates recycled materials. She likes recycled elements because they have a story. "For example, seaglass has traveled in the ocean, and that makes it special," Kazman says. "Memories and associations enhance recycled jewelry."

On her website, Kazman features cufflinks made from old subway tokens, and striking earrings made from typewriter keys, vintage Scrabble pieces and former watch clockworks.

Paloma Pottery designer Nicole Whitney uses broken glass and discarded bottles in her work, melting it and fusing it in a crackle glaze onto ceramic bases to make pendants, earrings and pins with texture and depth.

Verde Jewelry by Gwendolyn Davis is considered organic couture. Her designs combine vintage jewelry, sustainable materials and hand craftsmanship. Davis" creations include light-as-air bamboo bracelets inset with Swarovski crystals, delicate flower pendants made of mother-of-pearl, and necklaces strung with tagua nuts and seeds. Says Davis, "I intend to make a real impact in countries like Chile, and in my own community."

Buying previously owned or vintage jewelry is another environmentally friendly approach, since used baubles don’t require any additional energy to create. Moondrop Clothiers specializes in selling high-quality jewelry with a history. "I wanted to create an awareness of the impact our throwaway shopping choices can have on the environment," says owner Sarah Paquette.

With ready access to jewelry that is environmentally and socially conscious, wearable art now also respects the Earth.

STARRE VARTAN follows the paper trail before buying jewelry.