The world of jewelry is as fascinating as it is controversial. Although many people own and wear jewelry pieces, there are often ethical concerns associated with exploitation, colonization, pollution and depletion of resources. Pippa Small has found an alternate way to make—and make sense of—jewelry, something she’s loved since she was little. A trained anthropologist, Small worked for human rights campaigns. During research trips, she came into contact with many artisans around the world. Small was able to create jobs that employed these artisans and develop a sustainable jewelry business in the process.
“I’m coming to design from human rights,” she tells us. “In the process of working with communities, particularly in Southeast Asia, I constantly came across people who would say, ‘will you take these baskets or beads or bracelets and sell them for us?’ I’d always be trundling back to London with these things that I would try to sell, but not very successfully.”
To Small, an idea grew from the challenge. “At a certain point, I thought of becoming a [sort of] bridge. The materials and the talent are there, and the need and the market are here. This little area between these two worlds really needed someone to be alongside. So I started doing that 25 years ago, and the first project I did was with the Bushmen in Botswana, and South Africa.”
From the very beginning, her approach was deeply rooted in her anthropological background. “I carried on being someone who could sit alongside artisans and get a sense and an understanding of their life, of their experience, of their challenges, of the community’s political history. [I started] doing a lot of research around the material culture and how it fits in as an identifier, then working with them to keep their voice but translating it so that it could become something in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo.”
For Small, jewelry is more than a beautiful object; it has a story. “Jewelry has always had financial value but emotional importance as well,” she says. “It becomes something we’re very attached to. We wear it close to us. It’s quite a universal thing. It’s very challenging to be able to give voice and give respect to the artisan in a way that’s compact, quick and biteable.”
To channel this, Small began to make films and share insightful stories on the Pippa Small Jewelry website. “I think film is one way that is really wonderful because you get a sense of sound as well,” she explains. “You hear the language; you hear the voice. I remember particularly when I first started working with the Bushmen in Botswana. They have a click language, and it felt as important to hear that, to see the landscape, the hands, the faces to understand.”
The process by which she discovers different local cultures is fascinating. “There are some places that I chose to go to, like in Panama. The Guna People [have] a very strong sense of identity and have been very much in control of their destinies for a long time, [with] a lot of self-determination that other groups haven’t,” she says. “I went to Guna Yala and met with some artisans and saw that gold was a massive part of their heritage, tradition and sense of identity for hundreds of years.”
“Equally, the Mapuche in Chile are the same; their jewelry is, again, such a symbol of resistance and continues to be,” she continues. “If you go to some protest in Santiago, the Mapuche will come out wearing silver jewelry because that’s very much a political statement. And I was interested in that. So in those cases, I was working directly with communities, and I was fascinated that in both cultures, the jewelry was a sign of their identity as opposed to the colonial experience.”
Small has worked a lot with Turquoise Mountain, an arts charity started by King Charles III that looks at traditional architecture restoration and craft. Recently, she’s also “been working in Colombia, which was very much me looking for alternative sourcing for gold through different mining organizations. So it depends from place to place, different motivations, different relationships of how we found each other.”
Small has seen substantial change while convening with various cultures, including mindset, particularly in Afghanistan. “As a young person there, you would learn from your master to copy and copy their work as exactly as you could,” she says. “That would be a sign of respect for your teacher, and it would be a sign of your ability as well. There wasn’t this western individualist notion that you would create something that was yours, your innovation, your design. It was very much a collective movement. Of course, things changed and developed in Afghanistan, but it is not a traditional concept to come up with something.”
She’s also witnessed attitudes toward work change quite radically. “When I started working in Asia particularly, the idea of making things—whether it was building roads or making jewelry—was all about using your hands, and that was considered a lowly, dirty thing,” she says. “Even if it was working with gold, it didn’t matter, at the end of the day, you were in a workshop making things, and there was mess and noise, and it just wasn’t considered the very high-status thing to do. People I worked with used to say, ‘I don’t want my children to do this; I want them to work in an office and have cleanliness around them.’ Now I see that their children are working for them because it’s risen in stature, they’re respected. It’s become an industry. Now, in most places I work, people have their pride. They would have been laborers, basically, as opposed to artisans. This shift in title [brings] increased pay and increased respect.”
Sustainability is a crucial consideration for Small, who admits the biggest hindrance. “The word sustainable is really problematic for jewelry,” she admits, “because sustainable by definition means it can go on. And jewelry is made of finite materials. There’s only so much gold, so many gems. When they’re all gone, they will all be gone; they won’t regrow. They’re not going to harvest and plant again. This is not, unfortunately, a word for jewelry. It’s not compatible.”
“However, I do use the word sustainable—perhaps a little oddly—for jobs,” she continues. “For example, in Afghanistan, in 15 years, young men who started in the workshop are now fathers and have children. It means that they’ve kept a job, and jobs are increasingly so crucial. The only way I would ever use the word sustainable is regarding jobs because that’s something that is really, really important in so many parts of the world. A safe job that allows you to be creative and express yourself, work in a team and work from your culture and heritage.”
Design, business acumen, human rights considerations, history and anthropology are all present equally in Small’s work. “I’d say I’m just like an incredibly curious person who’s got an endless fascination with people and places,” she says. “Entrepreneur is such a funny word. Is it a negative word or a positive word? I suppose it [means] looking for opportunities and finding ways to make things happen. So maybe that’s a bit of it. I find ways to make things happen.”
Pippa Small’s pieces are sold online and at her London and Los Angeles flagship stores.