Meaningful change: Pippa Small has worked with the charity Turquoise Mountain in supporting local artisan jewellers around the world.
Learning silversmithing on a training course in Amman, a young Syrian refugee remarked how it was the first time she had been happy in the nine years since the start of her country’s civil war.
The insight inspired the title of jeweller Pippa Small’s new selling exhibition, Making Makes Me Happy, at Louisa Guinness Gallery in London. The exhibition, which will showcase the varied techniques of the artisans with whom she collaborates, will open online on November 17 and at the gallery when government coronavirus restrictions allow.
Examples of gold-and-silver pieces created by refugees in Jordan to Ms Small’s designs as part of her work with Turquoise Mountain (the charity founded by Prince Charles to revive traditional crafts and provide jobs) will sit alongside filigree designs from Myanmar, inlay work from Afghanistan and Fairmined gold jewellery from Bolivia.
A champion of ethical jewellery, London-based Ms Small is conscious that terms such as “ethical” and “sustainable” are “bandied around without much sense of what they mean”. For her, ethical jewellery boils down to its environmental impact — knowing the source of the material — the cultural continuation and appreciation of traditional manual skills and materials, as well as the stories associated with those traditions, and the sustainability of jobs.
“That’s something I feel more and more is a really pressing and important area because of climate change, migration, the refugee crisis, wars and conflicts,” she says. “We all know how millions of people are on the move, but a lot of it is about not having any economic opportunity at home. So the idea that you could provide jobs — safe jobs, creative jobs, well-paid jobs — in an area where there’s very little opportunity feels like it’s quite an important one right now.” The Pippa Small Turquoise Mountain project in Jordan, launched in 2019, has created 40 jewellery jobs to date.
The youngest of six children to a mother with “a great sense of adventure” and love of travel, Canadian-born Ms Small, 52, was a curious child interested in different ways of life. “I’d be in Morocco and there would be some Berber shepherds in the market selling something, and she’d turn around and I’d be getting in their truck to go off to their village,” she says.
This early interest in different communities led her to study anthropology and later work for non-governmental organisations with indigenous peoples in countries such as Borneo and Thailand on matters such as land rights.
Realising she could combine her love of jewellery with her interest in human rights, she opened her first shop in London’s Notting Hill in 2007.
In the past five years, however, Ms Small has noticed growing consumer interest in ethics. She credits Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who is often photographed wearing her designs, with bringing the conversation on ethical fashion to a broader audience. “Certainly in the last few months since reopening [following the first coronavirus lockdown] we’ve noticed people are buying less, but the average price point is higher, so it means they’re thinking more,” Ms Small says. In the summer, the average amount spent on Pippa Small Turquoise Mountain jewellery was more than double that spent last year.
Overall online sales were up 20 per cent year on year between March and October. Ms Small suggests that people are looking at jewellery “really quite meaningfully” because of the pandemic as “something that marks and celebrates”.
As the industry focuses more on ethics and sustainability, she warns of the possibility of “bandwagon jumping”, rather than meaningful change. “Of course, if it’s used too loosely it has a danger of pulling the whole movement down because it then diminishes people’s trust in what it actually means,” she says.
Ms Small says “small steps” are being made on extraction but that attention needs to be paid not only to the environmental impact of mines handling precious gems but also smaller ones mining quartz crystal or feldspar moonstone. “At the moment our focus has been on ruby and sapphire because that’s obviously financially — and even as a story — a little more interesting,” she says. Ms Small, an ambassador for the human rights organisation Survival International, also stresses the importance of health and safety standards for miners, and ensuring they receive fair prices for their materials and work.
She welcomes recent action on sustainability by big brands because of its “global impact”. In June, Pandora, announced it would be using only recycled gold and silver in its jewellery by 2025. Last month, Tiffany & Co started sharing the “craftsmanship journey” of newly sourced, registered diamonds weighing 0.18 carats or more.
Not knowing when she will be able to travel again, it is difficult for Ms Small to plan ahead, but she has new ethical projects “brewing”. She has been approached to work with Afro-Colombian goldsmiths using clean panned gold in Colombia’s Chocó region, while in neighbouring Peru she will collaborate with female gold miners who are starting a co-operative to make jewellery. She is particularly excited about the prospect of working with Aboriginal women in Australia.
She will also develop existing projects, pushing different design techniques and sourcing options. Her motives are not entirely altruistic, however. The collaborations are “very selfishly filling a need in me because I find them completely fascinating”, she admits.
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