Marion Hume is part of a team that supports Project Perpetual, featured in US Harper’s Bazaar
Project Perpetual has teamed up with leading contemporary artist, Jeff Koons, to create artworks to raise funds and facilitate advocacy for global childhood vaccination. The artworks will be presented and sold at an auction in New York in November 2014.
The United Nations’ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) today announces that Marion Hume will step down as senior consultant after five years.
During this time, the Ethical Fashion Initiative has expanded to be truly global with designers from Britain’s Vivienne Westwood to Australians, Sass & Bide and New Zealander, Karen Walker working with some of the world’s most marginalized artisans.
Hume, an international fashion journalist of nearly 30 years standing, with a career spanning the UK, the USA and Australia, has worked closely with the fashion media across the world to promote the possibilities of Simone Cipriani’s vision to use fashion as a vehicle out of poverty.
The Ethical Fashion Initiative has featured in global issues of Vogue, Bazaar and Marie Claire as well as the Financial Times, The International New York Times and The Economist. “Working with Simone Cipriani and the Ethical Fashion team from Geneva to Nairobi has been an extraordinary privilege, full of unforgettable memories and achievements,” says Hume. “As a fashion insider, it has been wonderful to be part of a process of shifting the needle towards more thoughtful production, to acknowledging the artisans who make our clothes and accessories and being more mindful of the environment. The biggest honour has been the human connections as artisans are empowered to change their own lives while EFI’s designer partners create truly great fashion.”
Cipriani adds; “Our time together has been great and full of achievements. I will always be grateful to Marion for the work she has done with us. Part of the reason we are where we are is because of Marion’s dedication and hard work. So, thank you, Marion, you will always be with us.”
www.neverunderdressed.com BY MARION HUME
SUNDAY 26 JANUARY 2014, 06:00
For spring 2014, designers looked far beyond their backyards for inspiration, mimicking an ever expanding global market with the international flavours of their collections. The trouble is, we don’t seem to have the fashion vocabulary to describe them. Writer and ethical consultant Marion Hume on the pitfalls of provenance and why you should never say ‘tribal’
‘Designers are thinking globally this season, with plenty of African inspired beading.’
The caption, on a jacket featuring bands of blue and white braiding, is from a woman’s magazine. The question is, what is African inspired beading?
Does that mean in the style of the Magreb where the beauty might lie in unexpected juxtapositions of silver, amber and shells? Or is the inspiration the vivid creations of the Samburu, where uniformity is prized to the point that any glass bead not perfectly round is rejected? And why this sartorial esperanto that implies all is the same from Mozambique to Senegal? Designers are never ‘European-inspired’, because that might mean anything from Aran knits to Lederhosen.
AT DIOR COUTURE AW13, RAF SIMONS ‘OBSERVED DIFFERENT CONTINENTS’
”African-inspired’ is just ignorant laziness. Inspired by which part of Africa’s 54 countries exactly? Which part of its 6 different geographic zones? So 1.1 billion people inspired the collection?’ says Kiran Yoliswa, co-founder of the popular website, SBA.
But hang on. Doesn’t SBA stand for ‘Styled by Africa’? Isn’t that wrapping up a continent as one? ‘We called our brand Styled By Africa because we source collections from all over the continent and our mission is to showcase the diversity in African fashion,’ Yoliswa counters. ‘Traditional Ethiopian womenswear is very white with only hints of colour while West African women wear much brighter designs, in turn different from Mali’s mud cloth or Tanzania’s kitenges. To be ‘Styled By Africa’ means simply that the people and places of the continent have contributed in some way to what you are today, which is true of our customers, designers, and collections.’
Ok. With ‘African- inspired’ eliminated, how to describe the trends we’re currently seeing at Givenchy, Dior, Celine? What about ‘ethnic’?
‘Used to describe any non-European aesthetic. Without any real descriptive value,’ says Yoliswa.
‘Cringeworthy, patronising. And used to describe stereotypical geometric patterned prints or beaded jewellery that could be from anywhere. With feathers usually thrown in for good measure.’
Yodit Eklund, founder of Africa’s first youth culture brand, Bantu Wax, says the T-word should be deleted, not just because it is offensive but also because it reveals the writer as hopelessly out of date. ‘Tribal, to me, refers to anything but the cultural explosion that is taking place across the African continent today,’ she says. ‘Africa is moving at the speed of light. There are more mobile users in Africa than in North America.’
‘Global traveller’ is the euphemism of the moment. All it reveals is that fashion scribes – the majority still white anglo-saxon like me – aren’t very good at geography. Or history. Or politics. But how to describe the hottest collections of the season? Some writers called Dior ‘Africa-meets-Japan’ – a distinctly unequal collision if you visualize it, given one landmass measures about 8,000km tip to toe, the other comprises hundreds of islands, (and even then, sovereignty is disputed by Russia, China, Taiwan…). Style.com managed to teeter without breaking any eggshells by noting, ‘a Maasai neckpiece, a Parisienne wrap, a Shinto scarf.. colorful, optimistic emblems of national identity.’
So as long as you avoid thinking of Africa as a country not a continent, you are specific in the nations or cultural groups you cite and you avoid using terms that expose you as a complete colonial throwback, will you then be doing ok? Then what about this scenario:
You’re at the Vivienne Westwood Gold label show. The model coming towards you is wearing a trouser suit of fabric handwoven near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and she is carrying a bag screen-printed in Nairobi and beading by the Maasai in Lakipia, Northern Kenya. (All this is thanks to Westwood’s enduring collaboration with the United Nations ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative for which – full disclosure- I consult). With the best will in the world, how to be culturally correct in a tweet? Is “Dame Viv @FollowWestwood shows fab stripes and squiggles made with @_ethicalfashion #Africa” not ok?
‘I think it’s fine because it is made in different places within Africa. If it was just made in Kenya, there would be more of an argument to just say ‘Made in Kenya’.’ says Kiran Yoliswa.
Westwood’s collaboration allows marginalised artisans to join the fashion chain in a fair way. But what of all those designers who turn to the African continent for inspiration but produce elsewhere so that no profits go to the source?
‘When done properly, some places can actually benefit from the increased awareness about their cultural styles,’ counters Yoliswa, citing Burberry’s use of West African wax prints. ‘I do think this helped place African designers more in the mainstream and allowed the indirect growth of their brands as well.’ Yet, to add to the confusion, those wax prints are created by VLISCO, which is Dutch.
Let’s move on to how we describe designers themselves. In the unlikely event I were ever to cross the fence from journalism to design, I would most likely be ‘English’ (even though my heritage, not my accent, is Scottish). How to describe Nkwo Onwuka, a British designer of Nigerian heritage who lives in Nigeria yet finds inspiration from the traditional craft of the bronze casters of Benin? No wonder fashion writers opt for bland cover-all lines such as, ‘Nkwo Onwuka is worth watching.’
All this is not only ‘An African Problem’ (to use another sweeping and inaccurate term). Let’s travel to the Americas and Walter van Bierendonk’s recent menswear show which included milliner Stephen Jones’ take on a Native American feathered headdress. (Help! Should I be writing Cheyenne, Sioux or the Muscogee war bonnet?). This was daubed with the words “Stop Racism” ; allegedly a response to the headgear at the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Dallas at the end of last year. The Metiers d’Art show at the end of 2012 had been held in Edinburgh. Yet Lagerfeld’s plays on the sporran and tam o’shanter had my Caledonian heart beating with joy, not righteous anger. Is that because my forefathers, cleared from their crofts on the orders of greedy landowners to make way for sheep at least had a chance, unlike those slaughtered in long years of government-sanctioned genocide?
Damn, fashion is fraught.
I guess where I’m going with this is at least we should acknowledge we’ve got to try harder. But we have a long way to go. This is, after all, the business that refers to a plaster pink shade as ‘nude’. Maybe this season’s style crush, Lupito Ngong’o will at least knock that lazy terminology right out of fashion.
How has the recent terror attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi changed things for designers with manufacturing connections in Kenya? Marion Hume reports.
Business of Fashion | October 2013
NAIROBI, Kenya — Bex Manners, aka Bex Rox — which is the name of her costume jewellery line — figured it would be sensible to sit down for a proper brunch. A long working day lay ahead, then the midnight flight back to London. But time was pressed. So instead she grabbed take-out from ArtCaffe and went on her way. Less than 15 minutes later, terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall. The four-day siege in Nairobi left at least 67 dead, 39 still missing, a nation reeling.
You might be surprised who in the fashion world has ties to Kenya. Bex Rox is known for rock and roll, party-all-night-in-Ibiza edginess, not “ethical” or “Africa.” A connection to the continent happened by chance. She was in London’s Portobello Road, bumped into Cristina Cisilino (of the high-end jewellery producer, Crea Africa, based in Nairobi) “and the next thing I knew, I had a 40-piece collection being prototyped and I flew out to [Kenya] to see samples through the final stages.”
A Paris fashion week party to show off “Afrika” — including bold bracelets in gold-plated brass and knuckleduster rings in sock-it-to-you brights — went ahead as planned. Yet as guests sipped cocktails and took in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the private residence, on loan for the night, talk turned to near-misses. “The first thought was, ‘Are our friends safe?’” said Erin Beatty, design director of Suno and veteran of the New York-to-Nairobi commute. “Common sense told all of us not to go to Westgate,” said a subdued Max Osterweis, founder of Suno, the label named after his mother, who has had a home on the Kenyan island of Lamu since his childhood. “But when you need something for your laptop, it’s where the Apple store is. It’s where the book store is; the ATM.”So what now?
Does fashion “heart” Kenya?
Does fashion care?
“I can say our customers have been buying a lot,” says a still-shaken Manners. “Is that because of what just happened? Honestly, no. It’s because it’s handmade, lovely and I can cater exclusively for small quantities; I can offer an amazing colour palate with the Maasai beading.”
Osterweis is of the opinion that caring can never come first in fashion, this despite founding Suno because he cared so much. The son of a wealthy family, he launched Suno instead of writing a bit fat charity cheque after Kenya’s post-election violence, in 2008, claimed over a thousand lives and left 350,000 people displaced. As he told me when we met in Nairobi for a Time magazine story (April 2009), “I wanted to set an example to show that investment in Africa need not be about building more safari lodges.” An entirely “made in Africa” label was never the ambition however. “I’d seen brands being unrealistic, so we’ve invested in people’s strengths, produced what we knew could be done well in Kenya, while also producing elsewhere,” he told me then, revealing his aim to dress cool girls for hot, New York-summer nights, while, at the same time, providing work to skilled Kenyan artisans (as well as those in Italy and the United States).
Today, fans of Suno include the actress Elle Fanning, the artist Cindy Sherman and American First Lady, Michelle Obama. And as the label has soared, so too have the number of units made in Osterweis’ second home nation, bolstered by an additional online offering of sneakers, pyjamas and totes made exclusively in Kenya. “No one has said ‘I’ll order more,’” he says now. “People buy what they like.” As for his commute, “Nothing changes, except we won’t be eating pizza at Artcaffe. What happened is not a Kenyan problem, it’s a global problem. It’s not life as usual. It’s dealing with life as it is.”
Because it was founded by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, Edun attracted first ludicrous expectations then harsh criticism, especially after pragmatic, LVMH-appointed CEO Janice Sullivan insisted on scaling African production back to ensure a viable economic foundation for the brand. (“Out of Africa, Into Asia” was how The Wall Street Journal reported the decision, back in 2010). Sullivan’s tactic to pull back, shore up, then reintroduce the African production that was Edun’s central “raison d’etre” seems to be working at last. Over 80 percent of the line is now made on the African continent, although the percentage in Kenya, where it all began, remains quite small.
“No one has brought up Kenya once,” says Sullivan at Edun’s Paris showroom, this while fingering a goat horn and silver collar, made in collaboration with Nairobi-based jeweller, Penny Winter. Instead, she says, the chatter is about the brand’s new designer, Daniela Sherman (formerly of Alexander Wang and The Row). So will Edun stick with Kenya, especially given growing production in Madagascar means the brand could easily pull out of a trouble spot and still hit its “made in Africa” targets? Ali Hewson, who has joined us, looks incredulous at the suggestion. “We were in Kenya for the riots of 2008. We were in Uganda for the attack at the World Cup. We were in Mali two weeks before the coup. We’re Irish!” by which she means proximity to risk won’t change a thing.
Ilari Venturini Fendi admits to being nervous in Nairobi, “constantly aware of the possibility that something so bad might happen. It’s always been quite complicated to work in Kenya.” Whether she returns soon or not, there’s no question that her socially conscious, made in Africa accessories brand, Carmina Campus, will continue to operate in the country, where the facility to achieve the label’s ethical goals at the high quality expected by a Fendi is already established. Each season, artisans in Italy connect with those living in the slums of Korogocho and Kibera via video which, Venturini insists, is not about “us” teaching “them,” but instead an exchange of ideas and know-how.
Chan Luu’s seed bead wrap bracelets in raw-cut leather are hot sellers. Do global stores care that the Los Angeles-based celebrity jeweller produces in Kenya (where she may be the largest single contractor of Maasai beaders, all paid a fair wage)? “What matters is everyone buys!” she shouts across the melee of those placing wholesale orders at a showroom in Paris. In a quieter moment, she adds, “I believe poverty can create violence. My customers want to do good for the world, so they support these ethical fashion projects.”
Both Luu and Venturini Fendi were introduced to Kenya via The United Nations’ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, (full disclosure: it was on assignment in Kenya for Time that I met the head of the initiative, Simone Cipriani, and, as a result, began working with them). “The terrorist attack has produced a double effect,” Cipriani says. “Yes, short-term travel plans of colleagues in the fashion industry have been disrupted. First of all, we work to keep collaborations with us stable, supplying African artisans with ongoing work in a meaningful way. Another important reaction is from fashion brands wanting to bring work to Kenya (several more brands have reached out since the Westgate siege). Terrorism is a global threat. A way to fight is by giving work and dignity to every human being. And if we do it, by creating beautiful, unique and gorgeous products, so much the better for everybody.”
Surely eternal activist and ethical pioneer, Vivienne Westwood would agree? Did she include so many Kenyan bags in her Paris show this season out of solidarity with artisans she met when she visited Nairobi in 2011? “They’re my favourite bags, that’s why I show them,” says ever-honest Dame Viv backstage. “I show them because they’re lovely.”
Fashion’s New Stella
With Milan Fashion Week in need of fresh blood, Giorgio Armani has invited emerging Italian designer Stella Jean to present her ethical Spring/Summer 2014 collection at the Teatro Armani, his Via Bergognone show space.
Business Of Fashion | September 2013
MILAN, Italy — In a business of first names — like Miuccia, Raf, Dries, Alber — things are about to get complicated. Meet fashion’s future star, Stella. That would be Stella Jean, who no less than Giorgio Armani has anointed a fashion supernova. Taylor Tomasi Hill, social media star and creative director of Moda Operandi, is another supporter. So is Natalie Kingham, head of fashion at Matches Fashion.
During Milan Fashion Week, Stella Jean — a resident of Rome — is set to show at the 550-seat Teatro Armani, the first womenswear designer so honoured, other than the emperor himself.
The show is scheduled to start at 10.30am start on Saturday, September 21st, which, while sandwiched nicely in the calendar between Emporio Armani on Friday and Giorgio Armani on Monday, pits it against a considerable challenger. Saturday morning during Milan Fashion Week is, you see, the sacred time for “shoe appointments,” a euphemism for shopping. Yet the buzz around “the new Stella” is such that the front-row set are confirming attendance in Via Bergognone rather than Via Monte Napoleone.
So why Stella Jean?
Firstly, she isn’t a baby designer. Rather, she is a woman of 34, mother of two and a former model (although she disliked all but the fittings and watching the designers at work). She launched her eponymous label in Rome in 2011, but far from being an overnight success, she twice failed to even qualify for the talent competition “Who Is On Next,” supported by Vogue Italia as part of the Alta Roma schedule. It was third-time luck when she finally qualified, then won.
Alta Roma’s elegant talent scout Simonetta Gianfelici helped to turn things around for Stella Jean, advising her to “be more sincere; do something that belongs only to you.” Stella Jean (her surname, though she doesn’t use it professionally, is Novarino) is half-Italian and half-Haitian. “I had struggled to find my identity,” she says. “I found it through my work. I put my two worlds together and found fashion was looking for that.”
She calls her unique vision “Wax & Stripes” — the latter for a father who hailed from industrial Turin and the former “for the black side of me, the black roots of the Caribbean islands.”
Certainly, the first thing that attracts the eye to Stella Jean’s work is her vivid use of colour and riotous prints; these in contrast to somber stripes and silhouettes so proper, they’d suit Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.
Here the story veers off into the history of “wax,” vibrant cotton prints worn across West Africa. Their original roots lie in Java, however, in the batik the Dutch transported, first back home, then to the Netherland Antilles in the Caribbean and thence to Africa with Helmond, Holland-based textile giant Vlisco, the dominant wax trader from 1846 to this day. “We think wax comes from West Africa. The slaves sent to the Caribbean islands came from West Africa. Yet wax is European, like me. No one ever believes I am Italian, but I am,” says Stella Jean.
Having witnessed her sophisticated global mash-up in a group show in Rome, last July, Suzy Menkes became an ardent champion of Stella Jean. And rumour has it that it was she who whispered in Armani’s right ear as Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani was whispering the same name in his left. Whatever the facts, the designer herself had no clue.
“I was on the expressway when a friend called and told me to pull over. Then I was screaming, ‘Is it for real?’”
Calmer now, she describes Armani’s offer as “a giant giving a hand to a new name. It’s not just for me. It is a symbolic act that gives hope to my generation.”
Mr Armani says he did it because “the new generation of Italian designers needs support. Stella-Jean will be the next designer to organise a fashion show at the Teatro Armani and I hope this experience brings her luck.” No word yet on whether he will be there to wish her that personally.
Matches Fashion will certainly be in attendance, having signed up Stella-Jean after a look book arrived, unheralded, at their London offices. “I was initially attracted to the styling which was exceptionally strong, as was her use of colour and print,” recalls Natalie Kingham, the company’s head of fashion. “When I looked at the collection up close the next time I was in Italy. Her clever mix of traditional fabrics in such modern shapes made me realise how interesting the label was. It felt relevant and really stood out. That it sells out the minute it hits the site is a sign that she has potential to be big.”
Taylor Tomasi Hill, Moda Operandi’s creative director, praises her Stella Jean’s “distinctive aesthetic — no small feat for an emerging designer. Her bold patterns tempered by ladylike silhouettes capture precisely how our customer wants to dress: unconventionally, but not at the expense of luxury or intelligent design.”
For myself, a fashion scribe of over 25 years, Stella’s first solo show, in Rome last January, stands among those rare debuts that feel right on target: John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, Phoebe Philo for Céline…. Yet bear with me here while I change hats, because (full disclosure) I also work as a consultant for the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative, a United Nations initiative aimed at changing the way the international fashion business works. The aforementioned Simonetta Gianfelici is a consultant too. And it was she who first recognised Stella Jean as the right creative collaborator for a collective of marginalised artisans far across the world.
Although the Ethical Fashion Initiative is active in Stella Jean’s mother country, Haiti, when she and Gianfelici found themselves wilting in 47-degree heat last April, it was not in Port-au-Prince, but Ouagadougou, in landlocked Burkina Faso, West Africa.
“Burkina Faso is rich in cotton and incredible weaving traditions. The poorest of the poor are the heirs to ancient artisanal traditions that can only be rejuvenated at the luxury level because handwoven fabrics are extremely labour-intensive,” explains Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative.
“Stella’s capacity to use materials from all over the world, along with her passion for involving people in a fair way in her supply chain — she is extremely serious about that — persuaded us to ask her to join with us.”
Cipriani’s delight when the news of Mr Armani’s support came through was at least as loud as Stella Jean’s. “It is something incredible!” he says now, still rather loudly.”That this work will be seen in the theatre of Armani!”
He will not be front row to witness it, however. He’ll be in Ouaga, where he will share the glory with the weavers of the collection, for whom a video of the event is being made.
Everyone agrees ethics can’t carry fashion. First, the design must be great. What ethics provide is “another positive dimension,” says Kingham.
“[Ethics] resonates, not only with our core values, but also our clientele,” says Tomasi Hill. “We’re passionate about representing ethically-minded designers who collaborate with artisans around the world.”
As for Stella Jean, “the world doesn’t need someone else to [just make] beautiful clothes,” she says. “We don’t need more empty aesthetic expressions. We have to grab a chance to do more, to tell more.”
“I come from two worlds and I believe the more we meld together, the stronger we can be.”
by Marion Hume
What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?
The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.
I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.
The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia, twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.
Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.
I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.
I learn another new word; “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”
Diamonds That Are Not Forever
A mining company produces Australia’s ultimate raw luxury: pink diamonds. Marion Hume visits Jaipur and Antwerp to discover why the fine jewellery world loves Rio Tinto’s rare gems.
The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013
Half a century has passed since the famed fashion maven, Diana Vreeland, declared: “Pink is the navy blue of India”. Yet you can’t go to Jaipur in 2013 without the phrase passing through your mind. It isn’t just the famed pink city, it is the tunics of the guards, the dress worn by Bollywood star Pallavi Sharda, even the elephant’s trunk has a touch of pink. This is because a famous fashion photograph, originally taken by Norman Parkinson, inspired another photo shoot, commissioned by Argyle Diamonds, to tell the story of India’s new love affair with pink diamonds.
The necklace Sharda is wearing is spectacular, 100-plus carats, of which more than a few are very precious pinks. Pink diamonds comprise about 0.03 per cent of global diamond production. Almost all of these come from Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine in Western Australia where, in turn, less than 0.01 per cent of production is pink. In turn once more, 1 per cent of that 0.01 per cent are the finest “fancy pinks” destined for some of the world’s most costly jewellery.
Every year, about 12 million tonnes of Australian earth is shifted in search of diamonds, of which the rarest pink ones, all together, would rattle around in a teacup. It is these that the world’s top jewellers most desire yet have no guarantee of acquiring. Since 1984, the somewhat secretive Argyle Pink Diamond Tender, a moveable feast which tours international cities before the auction takes place by sealed bid, has caused considerable excitement; that is, if you are among the few hundred people worldwide who even know it is happening.
The 2013 tender, of less than 60 stones, is likely to tour from Perth to Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and beyond – the diamond world does like to be rather cryptic about specifics. Bidders such as Graff, Tiffany & Co, Calleija and Moussaieff face competition from the likes of Bollywood jeweller NiravModi and China’s Chow Tai Fook.
The world’s top jewellers have seen interest in pinks soar among their wealthiest clientele, which is somewhat inconvenient because the supply will probably be exhausted by about 2020. For years, there have been murmurs that the only consistent source of pink diamonds was coming to an end. Technological advances mean a shift from open cast to underground mining at the Argyle mine is possible, with diamonds buried as deep as 450 metres soon to be accessed by a honeycomb of funnels. But they can’t keep going to the centre of the earth.
The luxury world makes many claims to “rare”. Yet pink diamonds truly are. Their hue is not a result of impurity; it’s instead due to extreme pressure beneath the earth’s surface and geologically freaky conditions long before dinosaurs walked the earth.
Nirav Modi of Mumbai leads the field of what to do with a pink. His Golconda necklace was sold for US$3.6 million at Christie’s in 2010. Lightness is the leitmotif of this third generation jeweller. He has worked out how to almost remove the necklace part of a diamond necklace, which is to say, even the links are made of (white) diamonds. “The metal is less weight than the diamonds,” he says of creations that slither like mercury. The stars in each piece are pink but of different hues. “It’s not about getting every single stone to be the same, homogenous colour. With white diamonds, it is all about the clarity.With fancy pinks, it is the intensity of the colour. In fact, the appeal is the range of colours, from a pale pink to a purplish pink, then there’s candy pink. Some are this gorgeous bubble gum pink – except, saying that, it does not sound like a wonderful colour. In diamonds, it is. You need to look at it.”
Modi points to a delicious pink: “Look at that.You don’t often see a colour like that.” As for style, he aims for “modern, not trendy. If you look at your photos 20 years ago, you probably wore bell-bottoms. You cringe at that. You can’t do that with jewellery.”
Pinks are Australia’s ultimate raw luxury, yet the story of their discovery is a grubby and gripping tale of men sporting facial hair and stubbies. They drilled, they dug and on October 2, 1979, they discovered they were literally standing on top of the richest pink diamond deposit in the world.
Nik Senapati, Rio Tinto’s managing director for India, has been with the mining giant for 31 years. A geologist by training, he recalls the “Eureka” day in 1979. “There was elation. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the initial discovery, especially for the geologists who did it, was amazing. Most geologists in the world – I would say 99 per cent of geologists in the world – never discover anything.” Senapati sees Argyle as a very Australian story. “That perseverance; the geologist who was leading at the time, went out and said: ‘well everybody’s looking here, I’m going to look there’.”
Senapati loves diamonds, in a geologist’s kind of way. “A rough diamond formed 150 kilometres down in the earth, transported to the surface in its beautiful crystal form,” he muses. “To hold that. Maybe they should just leave them as beautiful roughs.” Since Argyle, no other consistent source of pinks has been found. So given a diminishing supply by the end of the decade, should the wise man stockpile? “I don’t think you can talk of a stockpile when the entire production since it began wouldn’t fill a glove compartment,” laughs Senapati.
Although the vast majority of all diamonds are cut and polished in India, the largest,most stunning pinks go to Perth. But first, the majority of all rough diamonds, however valuable, take a trip to Antwerp for initial sorting and valuation. While India is the leading nation for diamond cutting and polishing, little Belgium, home of Tin-tin and Dries van Noten, is the rough diamond trading centre of the world. It is in Antwerp that we find Jean-Marc
Lieberherr, Rio Tinto’s general manager for diamonds sales and marketing, in a dull office in a dull building with double door airlocks and shoe mirrors. Security is tight.
Lieberherr, a marketing man, formerly with LVMH, was headhunted. “I knew absolutely nothing about diamonds,” he says. “I started thinking about a mining company producing the ultimate luxury, and a wonderful pink diamond business asking to be developed. The whole concept of marketing and branding is to build a system. But to have this fantastic product which is effectively not marketed at all, it’s really just a joy.”
Diamonds were once marketed brilliantly. De Beers is a tiny chip of the monopoly it once was. Back in the days when it controlled a global cartel, the company needed a slogan that expressed romance and yet would also inhibit the public from reselling. The Mad Men of Madison Avenue came up with “A Diamond Is Forever”, and at a stroke, tiny crystals of carbon became synonymous with wealth and with love.
“Diamonds are forever in that they carry emotions in a timeless manner from one generation to another,” says Lieberherr. “But all the great stories there are around diamonds aren’t told.” What he means is that the old evil stories (blood diamonds, absolutely nothing to do with Argyle and no longer true of 99 per cent of diamond production today) still linger. “Think about the history that goes back billions of years. The chance of it coming up to the surface, people finding it, the impact on the communities. Not one natural story is as exciting as the diamond. We need to start marketing the diamond story a hell of a lot better.”
When it comes to underselling, Lieberherr makes the comparison with the vast land from which pinks hail. He believes Australia is a great brand and that our diamonds can make it even stronger, if we get the narrative right. “I would start with the fact that it’s a world in itself, so how can you live on this planet and not know it?” he suggests. “It’s a very intense place, in terms of its colours, its nature, its landscapes, its dangers. Then I’d talk about the people. I’d develop a brand around Australians being very genuine; their friendliness, their resilience, their resourcefulness.Then I’d probably go to the treasures of Australia, and go to ‘the most expensive substance on earth is here below the surface of Australia, and it’s Argyle pink diamonds’.”
But even for the brand man, isn’t there a conundrum in marketing a diminishing resource? “I think the Argyle pink diamond brand has fantastic potential,” Lieberherr says. “When you think of the awareness it has for anyone who has any interest in jewellery or in diamonds, they know how expensive they are, how rare they are. And that’s been built from what is effectively a tiny, tiny production. “What I dream about is the Argyle pink diamond could become a fantastic jewellery brand, also a watch brand, so that in 50 years time, it’s still there … Argyle the brand will survive the mine. The brand will be about Australian luxury.”