Toby Pomeroy, a jewelry designer based in Corvallis, Ore., knows his market. When the word recycled is used in reference to things like paper and glass, it has a certain sustainable cachet, yet when it's used to describe gold, it loses some of its luster. "I use the term eco-gold or reclaimed gold," Pomeroy says of the metal he sources from refineries, composed of the scraps collected from industry, dentistry and jewelers that's purified back to 24-karat quality. "It elevates it from that blue-bin status on the sidewalk."
Precious metals and gemstones are practically the definition of nonrenewable resources, and more than a few hands get dirty in the nefarious process of unearthing them. When a gem is in a tiny velvet box, spotlit under glass or fastened around your neck, it's easy to forget the origins of fine jewelry. Does anyone want to think about poisoned water or razed mountains, just two of the environmental side effects of gold mining, when she looks at her wedding band? Probably not. And while chic, politically minded eco-warriors may happily trade silk and fur for organic cotton and hemp, sacrificing their bling is often out of the question.
This is the marketing challenge facing the jewelry industry today. As luxury brands redefine themselves in this age of high-end green living, will the makers of fine jewelry be able to adapt? The answer, in many surprising cases, is that they already have. "I operated pretty blithely about that whole matter for a long time," says Pomeroy. "I knew that it wasn't the most pristine practice getting those metals and gems and it probably wasn't fair to the people mining them. But I sort of ignored it."
Though Pomeroy considered himself an environmentalist and an activist, as far as his profession as a fine-jewelry designer went, he felt he hadn't much of a choice when it came to his materials. Then in 2004, the nonprofit organization Earthworks (earthworks-action.org), which is dedicated to protecting the environment from the impact of mineral development, sent him information about the No Dirty Gold campaign (nodirtygold.org). Anyone who needs yet another depressing dose of reality should check out either website. Both raise awareness about destructive mining practices hard-rock-metal mining is the No. 1 toxic polluter in the U.S., contaminating water and air with arsenic and mercury, destroying wildlife habitats and sacred grounds and creating enormous craters visible from space. The No Dirty Gold campaign urges retailers and consumers to sign an agreement stating that they won't purchase jewelry made with irresponsibly mined gold. (Among its supporters are Tiffany & Co., Boucheron and Wal-Mart.) Pomeroy was so moved by the information that he approached a refinery he used as a source for gold in Richmond, Va., and asked it to set aside the scrap and reclaimed gold it received, just for his business. The plan was to use existing gold instead of freshly mined metals. After some convincing, they agreed. "We didn't have any alternative before," explains Pomeroy. "But now the refinery's business has grown exponentially. They're now called Harmony Metals, and they focus completely on reclaimed. They have grown dramatically."
Then in 2007, Pomeroy, along with the likes of De Beers and Earthworks, organized a global mining conference in Washington called the Madison Dialogue. Topics discussed among jewelry makers and miners from places like Peru, Colombia, South Africa and Sierra Leone included the development of a third-party assurance system for products to be labeled as "ethical" or "fair trade" and the challenges facing small-scale mining. Earthworks is still in the -process of establishing a certification program called IRMA (the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance) to verify sustainable sources -for precious metals.
Seattle-based designer Jamie Joseph was similarly committed to environmental issues, quietly letting her principles guide her long -before eco-awareness made it to the Bergdorf Goodman crowd that's now devoted to her work. And judging by her politics and her environmental commitment, she fits right in with the celebrities who wear Jamie Joseph on the red carpet, including Cameron Diaz and Naomi Watts. She drives a biodiesel car, uses compact fluorescent bulbs and cloth towels in the historic warehouse from which she runs her business and has been using reclaimed gold for close to a decade.
"It's great that the whole green thing is in vogue now, but we've been thinking this way up here for a long time," she says. "My husband, who's also my business partner, has a degree in environmental science. I saw a documentary about mining years ago, and I was really disturbed. But I said, Well, this is my passion how am I going to address this? I started investigating. And there were vendors that I found where I could buy all-recycled gold."
Joseph also makes an effort to buy "conflict-free" gemstones those that aren't sold to fund wars or mined by exploited workers in unethical ways from reliable dealers and often uses less rare, large-scale stones like rose quartz and chalcedony with tiny accents of diamonds. "We work with small owner-operated vendors that have similar beliefs and try to build a community around that," she says. "The whole gemstone industry, it's a little like the used-car business. You've got to know and trust your vendors. We make a point at least once a year of meeting face to face with people. Before I buy a stone from someone, I have to have an interview first. I want to make sure they're not out raping the land."
Traditionally, the source of stones has been hard to confirm, since they change hands so many times in their travels from the mine to the manufacturer. But certified conflict-free diamonds and other precious stones are now easier to come by.
Kathy Rose, a Los Angelesbased jewelry designer and owner of Roseark, a fine-art and jewelry gallery in West Hollywood that's a -favorite shopping spot for Demi Moore and Charlize Theron, also uses conflict-free diamonds in her work. "When I have a diamond in my hand, I can feel the frequency of where it came from," she says. "And the cut of a diamond matters too. I use a lot of rose-cut diamonds because it's not as wasteful [to create that shape from a rough diamond]. You definitely don't blow out a village for a rose-cut diamond."
But Rose adds that green jewelry isn't all about recycled metals and ethical diamonds. Many of the designers she carries at Roseark are using materials like wood, feathers and vintage charms to create pieces with little environmental impact. "For her Mannin line, designer Suzanne Donegan takes vintage pieces, many from the turn of the century, like tiny gold watch fobs, magnifying glasses and old compasses, and creates opera-length necklaces with them," says Rose. "And people are more interested in unusual stones like peridot or fire opal" that aren't affiliated with the same political troubles as diamonds.
Often what you don't use in jewelry is as important as what you do. For Ippolita, whose 18-karat-gold bangles, chains and earrings are favored by Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez and are available at Neiman Marcus, rare materials like coral that are harvested irresponsibly are best avoided. "We absolutely refuse to produce pieces with coral," she says. "It's obviously among the world's least renewable resources. It's incredibly inappropriate for us to do that. You can only affect what you can control. Because metal can be recycled, I feel less sensitive about it."
These environmental commitments aren't exclusive to small, independent jewelers. In fact, major brands like Cartier and Tiffany & Co. were among the founders of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) in 2005. "It is our duty to provide our clients with creations that are beautiful, desirable ... and responsibly made, be it ethically, socially or environmentally," says Pamela Caillens, the corporate-responsibility director at Cartier. "As times change, so do society's expectations."
By March 2009, Cartier will be carbon-neutral, and the company -estimates that it uses 70% reclaimed gold. It is uncertain whether its clients support the Cartier brand because they share its beliefs. "We do think a lot of our customers care. But we also believe that it doesn't matter if they do or don't," says Caillens. "It's part of our job to go down that road for them."
Tiffany & Co.'s sustainability statement, which voices support for Earthworks and Oxfam and promotes its own position as a founding member of the RJC, is the most thorough and committed in the business. Tiffany is also working to pass legislation reforming the woefully outdated General Mining Law of 1872 and to assist in the cleanup of abandoned hard-rock mines. A few things about the business have changed over the past 137 years, and the next 137 will no doubt have more changes in store.
"Few people want to think of the ring on their finger, which leaves an average of 20 tons of mine waste, having such an enormous environmental and human impact," says Payal Sampat, director of the No Dirty Gold campaign. "Jewelers don't want to be associated with those images. Signing our agreement is the first step. Actually switching to responsible sources is another issue."
While using reclaimed gold is an innovative short-term solution, it's just the initial part of making the fine-jewelry industry a sustainable one. "There is not enough gold being recirculated to meet the world's demands. It's finite, and it's not the solution to this issue. Consumers, retailers they're all waking up. This is really good for our business in terms of direction," says Pomeroy. "A lot of jewelers are now inviting people to turn their jewelry into new jewelry. There are new mining practices, like those of Canadian Mammoth Tusk Gold in the Yukon, that don't use chemicals or disturb streams. The ecology is actually stronger because of their practices."
In the end, the long-term health of both the planet and the fine-jewelry business might be determined by these very actions. "You're talking about luxury," says Pomeroy. "Well, we cannot afford the false luxury of thinking that we can continue to live this way and it will be fine."