How to Think About Sustainability When You Buy Jewelry

Designer Pamela Love on the ethics of adornment.

THERE ARE FEW WORDS floating around within the lexicon of contemporary culture that are quite as amorphous and oft-misleading as the term “sustainability.” In the same ways that “organic,” “cruelty-free,” and “free-range” proved to be both ubiquitous and somewhat convoluted when bandied about in the food world, the notion of sustainability — as it applies to farming, food production, and, more recently, design — can be both confusing and something of a misnomer. What does it mean to have a sustainable creative practice? To shop for sustainable products? To make art, food, or fashion in a way that is both ethical and non-polluting? It depends on who you ask. In our case, we spoke to jewelry designer Pamela Love about what sustainability means to her and to her business.

You know, from a planet Earth perspective, it would probably be best if no one made new things, but we're human beings and we feel this need to create.

Since launching her eponymous jewelry business in 2008, Love has worked to build a company and creative practice that is ethical. Now that her business operates on a global scale, Love and her team have continued to evolve what this actually means. On her company website, Love makes clear her stance, particularly in terms of materials, stating: “All metal used in our jewelry is recycled, coming only from materials that have previously been refined across many sources including post-consumer products, existing jewelry, gold-bearing products, scrap, and waste metals … All stones used in our one-of-a-kind pieces are up-cycled from antique and estate jewelry or from post-consumer sources.”

“If we wanted to be truly sustainable, we should just stop making things altogether,” says Love. “There are so many different ways to look at it. Are you looking at it from a human perspective or are you looking at it from an environmental perspective? Are you looking at it in combination? And that's where it gets really tricky. You know, from a planet Earth perspective, it would probably be best if no one made new things, but we're human beings and we feel this need to create. We have a fire inside of us to make things, to build things with our hands … So for me, it's been a balance, figuring out ways to make things in the most responsible ways possible while also supporting artists all over the world — and domestically — who have a craft that may be dying out or a craft worthy of elevating. We’re also making sure that we're supporting communities of miners who would not have any other option for making a living.”

For anyone looking to invest in a nice piece of jewelry while also being cognizant of the human and environmental toll that sourcing such fine materials requires, Love has provided some insight.

Don’t be afraid to ask where your jewelry actually comes from

“We work with certified recycled materials and use Fairmined Gold. You have to look for people who have that certification. Fairmined is an assurance label that certifies gold from empowered, responsible artisanal and small-scale mining organizations. It transforms mining into an active force for good, ensuring social development and environmental protection. Fairmined gold gets hallmarked with the official Fairmined stamp. Also, you want to ask, is your gold mercury-free? Was it mined without the use of mercury? Because mercury is a huge problem in the gold-mining industry and creates pollution in places like the Amazon. So you want to make sure that the gold you're getting is being mined without the use of mercury, if possible. Also, as far as gems are concerned, you want to know if your stones were ethically sourced. It’s okay to ask where they came from.

We try to recycle everything that we have in the studio. We're always refining and reusing. I'm about to launch a collection of engagement rings where everything is made with either Fairmined or recycled gold. We're trying to build our relationship with Fairmined Gold, the organization, so that we can hopefully, at some point in the future, only use their gold. While there's a part of me that feels like we shouldn't be mining, I’ve also spent time in South America in gold mines. I’ve spent time in communities that have no other resources. I understand how important gold is to their livelihood and to their communities. For that reason, I want to support responsible and ethical gold mining.

For a long time I was a big proponent of the idea that everything had to be made in America, but I sort of transitioned out of that as I grew up and traveled the world. I want to manufacture in different places, with different kinds of artisans who have different skill sets. Now we're working on projects ranging in locations from Somalia to Afghanistan. For me, the question has sort of changed. Instead of just asking where something is being made, you also want to ask who is making this? How are they being treated?”

Upcycle when you can

“If you have pieces you no longer love and no longer wear, the right thing to do would be to find a designer like myself who can take your old jewelry and remake it into something else. Or if you want to just refine it, there are resources for that as well. As far as sustainability goes, if you have old jewelry that's just sitting there, the most sustainable thing to do is let it just sit there, because even the refining and remaking process takes up energy. But if you have pieces that are just sitting there, why not find someone who can help you turn them into something great?”


Instead of just asking where something is being made, you also want to ask who is making this? How are they being treated?

Practice, not perfection

“Sustainability is a practice. It is something you're constantly evolving. In the jewelry industry it is that way as well. We’re taking finite precious metals and stones out of the earth that are not going to be replaced. We can't grow them again. The mining process is obviously invasive and not great for the environment if not done properly. So I think it's very important for people to start thinking about jewelry in the same way that they're thinking about their clothes.

If you're using upcycling stones or recycled stones, but your office is wasteful and you're not running a responsible studio, then it's sort of counterintuitive. You're not going to get all of it right. I'm not perfect. We're using Fairmined materials, but we're still trying to find solutions to the plastic baggies and packaging involved with jewelry. Every day there is a new topic that we're trying to tackle with regards to this. Most consumers are not going to walk into a jewelry store and say, ‘Hey, do you guys recycle all the plastic in your office?’ It’s more about understanding the ethos of the brand in general. Do a bit of research to understand the people behind the company — what do they stand for?”

You get what you pay for

“There are so many different ways to find a special thing that isn't just mass-produced with no heart. You just have to do research and remember that a nice piece of jewelry is a certain kind of investment. Just know what you are investing in.

As jewelry makers, we need to do a better job making this stuff easier to access for the consumer. We're trying to provide a better, more responsible alternative, but maybe we're not making it easy enough for the customer to understand. This is also a classic example of knowing that you get what you pay for and understanding what that actually means. Fairmined gold is more expensive. Treating your workers with respect and paying them proper living wages — that's expensive. It translates to the product. So I think that that is also something that happens if the customer is price-conscious. And, you know, we have to educate the customer on why something is pricier and what the value is in all of these things. Jewelry does tend to be a bigger investment and something that we have a lot longer than other things we might buy; but its impact on the environment is humongous. The impact of these practices will be much longer-lasting than anything we can actually make, buy, or sell.”

Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the deputy editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Jaume Vilardell Illustrator

Jaume Vilardell is an illustrator based in Mallorca, Spain. He has collaborated with several international brands such as Bentley Motors, Princess Yachts, Bulgari, Red Bull, and Sony Pictures. His editorial work has appeared in Mondadori, Die Zeit, ICON Spain and Italy, L’Officiel international editions, GQ Italy, Esquire UK and Italy, and Rivista Studio.


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