In conversation with Ana Maria Sierra

We’re pleased to introduce Ana Maria Sierra, founder and creative director of Moda Elan, a platform for responsible, ethical and sustainable jewellery in Latin America. We’re proud to collaborate with Ana and the talented artisans of Colombia in the making of our first Clean Gold Collection, Together Forever.


Can you explain how you work?

I founded Moda Elan to facilitate ethical jewellery collaborations with renowned designers like Pippa Small. The pieces of jewellery made through these collaborations integrate social and ecological values while providing dignified work to artisanal miners and traditional jewellers from remote areas of Colombia.

Each piece of jewellery is handcrafted in workshops of master traditional artisans from different towns in Colombia's biogeographical Choco region using Single Origin Choco Alluvial Eco Gold hand-panned by artisanal ancestral women miners.

Our supply chain integrates goldsmith communities, breathing new life into their traditional knowledge. This preserves their cultural heritage and brings visibility, dignified work, and income that improves the quality of life upstream.

The jewellery designed by Pippa, interpreted with local techniques, carries the values of the gold, its people, and the stories of the biogeographical Choco region to the largest luxury fashion markets. Pippa makes it possible for these unique pieces of jewellery and their powerful stories to reach the hands of people who share the ethical values of origin, positive social impact, and environmental care.

Can you please outline how you source Gold and Emeralds and how your methods are different from others?

At Moda Elan, we work with Single Origin Choco Alluvial Eco Gold, which we source from a community mining concession operated by a group of Afro families located near Quibdó, a town in the biogeographical Choco region. There are still artisanal ancestral women miners’ hand-panning gold in this area. This gold is collected in tiny flakes and is patiently cleaned by hand to separate the platinum or iron that might come with it. Once cleaned, it is weighed and sealed at the source until it reaches our hands, where it is cleaned again. Then we take it to the jeweller’s workshop, where the jewellery is made with our accompaniment.

It is called Ecological Alluvial Gold because it's collected by hand on the riverbanks of Choco, a carbon-neutral process. To grasp the significant environmental impact difference, obtaining 3 grams of gold from large-scale mining requires removing a ton of Earth, which releases substantial amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The ecological alluvial gold from Choco is hand-panned, gently removing the soil from the riverbanks, and is mercury-free.

In other production chains, gold is only valued economically and gold from different origins are melted together preventing traceability.

"Ours is the richest and most sustainable gold in the world. Single-origin Choco Gold has a known origin and traceability from when the miners extract it until it reaches the hands of the final buyer. The gold also has a Certificate of Origin backed by the National Mining Authority, allowing us to follow its traceability."

The artisanal Emeralds we work with come from small-scale mines located in the geological formations of Muzo and Chivor in the Department of Boyacá, Colombia. The mining titles belong to families from the region who have practised artisanal mining for several generations. In these mines, emeralds are extracted with tools like picks and shovels, and no explosives or heavy machinery are used, unlike in most technologically advanced mines.

Can you talk more about the effects of illegal mechanised gold mining on the goldsmith communities you are fighting to protect? Is there anything you are doing to combat those adverse side effects?
Official sources estimate that in Colombia, about 80% of the gold produced is illegal, driven by criminal organisations also associated with drug trafficking. The territories where illicit gold mining occurs are in a complex situation: the production of formal gold is not reflected in improvements for their communities, which have historically had high levels of poverty and low development indices, and the criminal groups vying for control threaten the civilian population living trapped between the lack of opportunities and the armed conflict.
Mining regulations in Colombia are strict to prevent the extraction and illicit trade of gold, and the Colombian government is taking action to strengthen formalisation policies and improve security and sustainability conditions in these regions. However, the magnitude of the problem is significant: illegal mining occurs in 13 of the country's 32 departments. Nearly half of these activities occur in areas where it is prohibited due to being forest reserve areas, and in 44% of the territories with illegal mining; there are also coca crops.

The Colombian biogeographical Choco region, an area extending from Panama to northern Ecuador between the Andes Mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, is one of the 14 hotspots that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) considers crucial to preserving the planet's climate balance. It is the third rainiest place, and despite covering only 2% of the Earth's surface, it harbours 10% of its biodiversity. The ancestors of this area were freed enslaved people from Spanish and their artisanal mining practices were always organised and respectful of nature. Since colonial times, artisanal mining and jewellery-making have been inseparable crafts that are part of the daily lives of families and associated with rich symbolism.

Yet, this cultural and natural legacy is at risk. Since the 1990s, illicit mechanised gold extraction has been destroying their forests and polluting their rivers with mercury used by illegal mining to clean the gold. The local conflict originated by these illegal groups creates a devastating social and economic impact that makes it increasingly difficult for artisanal miners to find gold and for jewellers to market their jewellery locally.

How are we contributing to changing this? Our production chains integrate work with Afro communities from conflict zones and breathes new life into their traditional knowledge, thereby preserving their cultural heritage and bringing visibility. We bring dignified work and well-being by connecting mining organisations and traditional jewellers with luxury markets. Nonetheless, our work is modest and produces a small positive impact.

Data from the 2022 Alluvial Gold Exploitation Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


What is your greatest challenge in working with sustainable jewellers in Colombia? 

I feel a great responsibility to bring more opportunities to the people we work with. The biggest challenge is reaching new designers who, like Pippa does today, help us get the jewellery and stories of these Afro communities to the world. We do so little and there is so much to be done!

We want to support the women miners who are in the process of creating an association. For this, we are planning to establish a non-profit foundation. This avenue is more feasible for securing cooperation resources.

How has Pippa Small's partnership benefited the Afro-Colombian traditional goldsmiths to date, and how will it impact them in the long term?

The communion of values with Pippa is remarkable. Her extensive experience working with jewellery communities worldwide has boosted us. Pippa makes the business model we had realised for several years possible. Pippa was the first to work with us, the traditional jewellers directly, and the first to bring their artisanal jewellery, ancestral techniques, and stories to the world. Thanks to Pippa, Afro jewellery from the biogeographical Chocó region has reached the world's main Fashion Shows. Jewellery with a story that, thanks to Pippa, reaches leaders, raises awareness, and mobilises wills and resources that help keep alive the cultural heritage of the goldsmith communities of the biogeographical Chocó region, as well as their natural environment, both now threatened by illicit mechanised gold extraction.

The premium that Pippa contributes to the value of the jewellery has allowed us to support projects to improve the jewellers' tools. Also, we currently support the "Better without Mercury" project, which has buried 400 tons of mercury and restored the biodiversity of a gold mine in the region.

How do you conceive the relationship between high-end/ luxury fashion and artistic heritage? 

I conceive jewellery as an artistic expression with profound values: the value of the artisan and their manual work. Recognising them as an author and thinker and not just a maker. They have an incredible drive to create beautiful, masterfully crafted objects. Material culture has the power to express the identity of a person and community. The mastery of goldsmith techniques is learnt and perfected over centuries and it’s important to transmit them to preserve this legacy.

In an industrialised world where mass production and economic value are the norm, luxury is the pleasure of recreating and cherishing artisanal artistic expressions loaded with meaning, but also the duty to produce positive environmental, social, and cultural impacts.

What have the Goldsmiths voiced as the most powerful change they've witnessed by partnering with you?

“El respeto mutuo. Y todo lo que aprendemos unos de otros cada día.”

Mutual respect. And how much we learn from each other every day.