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.”
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.”
The Siblings of Chopard
AFR | September 2011
by Marion Hume
Could you work with your brother or your sister? For every entrepreneur who shrugs, “Sure”, there’s another who snaps, “not until hell freezes over.” For Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele and Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the response is, “we’ve shared an office for 25 years.” These sibling co-presidents of the Swiss watch and fine jewellery company, Chopard, are German-by-birth, Swiss by choice, (having braved the rigors of gaining a Swiss passport).
But it would be misleading to imply they have been locked in each other’s company for quarter of a century- during which time Chopard, based in a suburb of Geneva, has grown into a glittering name. “If I am in Geneva for a week, I feel I am not doing anything,” says 49-year-old Caroline, when we chat at the 64th International Cannes Film Festival. “I’m always travelling. My brother and I are very different in character and we are complementary,” she adds.
“Maybe I’m more spontaneous. He would sit more and think and analyse things.” When we meet at the Chopard Headquarters, where about 750 craftsmen are hard at work (the company employs a total of 1,700 people and has more than 120 boutiques and 1600 points of sale), her older brother concurs: “Each of us has very specific areas where we excel.”
The Chopard story is not just a tale of two siblings, it’s a tale of two families; the Scheufeles, German goldsmiths for four generations; and the Chopards, who sold out in 1963 to Caroline and Karl-Friedrich’s parents. Chopard was established by a Swiss horologist named Louis-Ulysse Chopard in 1860 and, when it comes to watches, it turns out 75,000 a year.
I am more fascinated by Chopard’s fine jewellery, launched in 1990. And, more specifically, I’m intrigued by how soon after Uma Thurman’s apperance at the opening night of the Cannes film festival the cascades of emeralds she wore on her ears were sold. (Answer, first serious interest logged within minutes of her appearance, sale concluded the following morning. “And we could have sold them five or six times,” says Caroline of these red carpet one-offs that sold for €270,000.)
By now, it is lunchtime at Cannes. Elegant women, some looking a little the worse for wear after a Chopard-sponsored glittering after-screen beach party the night before, are nibbling on the chilled seafood pasta, served buffet-style on the penthouse terrace of Hotel Martinez. For those whose surnames do not end in Thurman, De Niro, Pitt or indeed Jolie-Pitt, this is where EVERYONE stays during the festival. It’s where you hop into the lift as the doors are closing, say “press seven please for the Chopard lounge,” only then to realise your lift operator is Oscar winner, Adrian Brody.
While Chopard has a presence at the Academy Awards as well as the French Cesars amd the British BAFTAs- and now, thanks to a current push into Australia, is targeting the AFIs as well- it is here at Cannes that the brand has pulled off its greatest coup. While no single commercial brand is particularly associated with the Oscars and the statuette, designed by an MGM studio art director remains almost unchanged since 1929, Chopard designs The Palme d’Or trophy.
Another prestigious Cannes award, presented each year by the biggest star in town to the young actor and actress who show outstanding promise, is called the Trophée Chopard. (Audrey “Amelie” Tautou, and Marion Cotillard are just two winners who have worn “lucky” Chopard jewellery ever since).
These close associations with the film festival have given the brand unequalled muscle on the Cannes red carpet, the scene of not one big night, but twelve. All this promotion comes at considerable cost (how considerable, no one in this private company will say). That it reaps rewards caused London’s Financial Times to highlight Chopard for its soft-sell “masterclass in the art of celebrity endorsement”.
The top floor of Hotel Martinez enjoys a sweeping view along La Croisette to the Palais des Festivals – as long as you can get past the squadron of security guards. Up here, there’s a beauty salon, a nail bar, a chill-out room, complete with both Grey Goose vodka bar and a bank of TV monitors, on which a montage of images of movie star plus Caroline Scheufele, movie star runs on an exhausting loop.
Outside on the terrace, a band, wittily titled The Gypsy Queens provides live music. As a visual centre piece, there is a pair of bejewelled stilettos under glass, billed as “the world’s most expensive shoes”, these the result of a collaboration with Italian shoe-maker, Guiseppe Zanotti. They are in such a small size that when Caroline Scheufele bounds onto the terrace to greet me, I look first at her tiny feet.
I have already decided I like Gruosi-Scheufele, who looks bright as a button, given she is the first (co-) president I have ever encountered whose PA has said, “she never does interviews before noon”. “I’m a night bird, I’m a natural party person,” she says as I take in flawless diamond earrings so massive (5 carat), that on anyone else, I would assume them to be fake. “They have no weight, diamonds have no weight, only gold has weight,” she tells me as she leads me to the VIP area of this already decidedly VIP terrace atop a VIP hotel (by now, I’ve cleared five security checks, three of which are operated by the hotel to keep fans at bay).
Through French doors, I can spy what must then be correctly called the VVVIP suite, where bodyguards protect a client from the Middle East who is being shown an emerald necklace. Of course, I’m supposed to be conducting an interview, not clocking a customer via eyes in the back of my head. But it certainly seems that, in the time it takes me to ask Scheufele a bit about her life in the family firm, a deal is reaching its conclusion. “Is that lady just looking?” I say, feigning innocence. “Buying,” Caroline confirms.
“Sometimes, we sell to the [movie star] who [has borrowed something for the red carpet]. I think it works when the celebrity is first of all choosing what she likes to wear and what she would wear anyway. Then it’s a natural thing. Sometimes, we sell to other clients who like what they saw.”
“But if that lady were a movie star, wouldn’t you give it for free?” I push.“Of course it happens I like to give presents because that would be an honour for the house. It means that people are really appreciating what we do. But they also buy. Jude Law was talking to me yesterday. He said he really liked his watch, and as he’s happy to wear it, he will buy it.” Behind her head, the Middle Eastern lady and her entourage prepare to leave. The necklace is sold.
The Cannes Film Festival has become a truly international gathering of the glam clan. While the late Liz Taylor was a paying customer, the lion’s share of jewellery purchasing power lies now in the Middle East and the BRICS economies, from whence plenty of wealthy customers, with just scant interest in the movies, show up for festival fortnight in their superyachts. There are other jewellers, with pop up shops along La Croisette and selling suites in smart hotels, but what is beyond debate is that Chopard is in the lead here, ever since, some 15 years ago, Caroline Scheufele took herself to Paris to meet with the festival president.
“I said to myself, I’m a cinema lover and that’s how the whole thing started.” That said, her personal taste in film, perhaps similar to that of many guests of sponsors who get the most-prized tickets to evening premieres, does not parallel those movies chosen to screen in competition, of which this year’s Australian entry, Sleeping Beauty was far from the most bleak and disturbing. Caroline’s favourite recent movie? “I liked that one with Julia Roberts in Bali….”
The Chopard HQ, just outside Geneva, betrays no hint of glamour. When you arrive at a cluster of squat grey buildings, the first thing they do is take away your passport. Inside, it is unexpected- that is if you expected the place where they kit out Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Carlize Theron, Penelope Cruz to movie-star fabulous. It turns out this place is fabulous, but in a different, hi-industrial kind of way.
After being ushered past enough steel rods, forged in Japan, to support a Shanghai skyscraper (here used to make watches), there is a machine so enormous that it looks like it should have been delivered instead to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on the nearby Franco-Swiss border.
So perhaps it’s the scale of the next machine that I like: for in contrast, it is about equal to that of a top-loading ‘nana’ washing machine, (one of those cylindrical ones you had to drag out on wheels and then put the hose pipe out the window). This one is for smelting gold. Some 12 tonnes of it (current spot price, $US52,000 a kilo) is delivered here each year from the nearby UBS vaults. Hardly any jewellers smelt their own gold. Chopard does because, as my guide puts it, “it means we control baking the perfect cake.”
So in goes a bit of copper for a rosy hue, a bit of palladium, a sprinkling of pure silver for strength and then a pile of 24-carat ingots, which are much smaller than those bricks of bullion villains steal in heist movies. The machine heats up to 1,000 degrees. There’s a viewfinder on the top. But what you see through it looks less how you might expect molten gold to look, (my reference; chocolate ads on TV) and more like the view through the Hubble Telescope to Mars. Weird. Wonderful.
Inside the fine jewellery workshop, a craftsman is tweaking the beaks of a pair of jewel-encrusted humming birds, each hovering over a diamond earring. Another holds the empty casement of a dress ring containing a massive 102-carat sapphire secured on a mount full of tiny holes, each of which will be filled with marquise diamonds. Then there’s the strand of 133 perfect South Sea Pearls. When I ask if I might try it on, it weighs me down like a yoke. “We will make the setting very light, with diamonds,” says a master craftsman.
Karl-Friedrich Scheufele meets me in the Chopard museum, which houses 18th century pocket watches and (bizarre this), a fully-stocked bar. While he shares twinkling nut-brown eyes with his sister, his gestures are smaller. Yes, he’s content with running a business in Switzerland, “although our currency is quite strong at the moment and it may become more difficult for us in the next 6-8 months.”
Yes, he’s content with how Chopard is navigating these tough times, “although as we work with our own capital, certainly in our case, we are very careful.” And actually, he is glad his parents did not change the company name to Scheufele, “because we want our product to be the hero. We want people to believe in our brand name, respect it, cherish it. We as a family are not so important. We’re not really so keen about personal publicity.”
What Karl-Friedrich is obsessed by is provenance; a potentially sticky subject if you deal in gems. While the transit of diamonds is now tightly-controlled, it remains relatively simple to smuggle, say, banned Burmese rubies into the Thai supply chain. Karl-Friedrich aims to make Chopard completely transparent, pretty much from rock to ring, and the company is two-years into a three-year process to achieve that. “To be frank, this is not what our customers are asking us yet. But we must ask,” he says.
As to where those customers are, a growing number are in cities he’s still not sure how to pronounce, such as the Chinese coal-rich city of Urumqi. Australia is also on the radar for expansion, where the company hopes to stake a claim to both local custom and the upper end of the tourist market.
But there’s one family question i’ve yet to ask. Did these siblings have any choice of career? Karl-Friedrich pauses. “At one point, I wanted to pick up art as a main study in university. But then I entered into a jewelry apprenticeship and saw that it was also interesting and slowly but surely I found my way to the company.”Caroline has answered the same question at Cannes. “I would have liked to become a singer maybe,” she said, gazing over the Cote d’Azur. “Ballet was also something that I loved. But I had a choice. If my father had been producing lorries or cars, for sure, I would not be there.”
Glittering rubies from Mogok; vivid emeralds from the Panjsher Valley; gold all the way from Serra Pelada: time was when fables of gems and precious metals coming from far-flung corners of the earth were imbued with thrilling thoughts of romance and daring-do.
Today, we know it’s much more complicated. The 2006 movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, brought the issue of conflict diamonds to the forefront of the public consciousness. (To be fair, the diamond industry was ahead of Hollywood having set up the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which tracks gems from mine to retailer, in 2003).
However, the trade in coloured stones can still be murky. Fancy helping a military junta to continue persecuting Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Sui Kyi, with that ruby? Or propping up an Afghan warlord with those emeralds? As for gold, photographer SebastiЛo Salgado shocked the world with hellish images of the Serra Pelada gold mines of Brazil, published in 1986. What’s chilling is that, in some parts of the world, people still clamber like ants over slurry in open mines. Still feeling smug about the “fab” ring you picked up cheap on an exotic holiday?
Thankfully, change is happening right across what was the least ethical area of the luxury business. In recent years, De Beers, which remains the global force in diamonds, has undergone a remarkably positive transformation.
The World Gold Council has a strict code of social responsibility and earlier this year, The Responsible Jewellery Council introduced a certification scheme to ensure high ethical standards.
This week is Coutts London Jewellery Week. This offers the public not just the chance to take part in a treasure hunt with a difference and to meet both upcoming jewellers and such home-grown international stars as Theo Fennell, Shaun Leane and Stephen Webster, it also lets us do so with a clean conscience: every participant has had to sign an ethical charter.
“Sellers must guarantee that diamonds or other gemstones are conflict free, based on personal knowledge or written guarantees provided by the supplier,” explains councillor Guy Nicholson, board chair of the City Fringe Partnership, the public body which oversees funding of an initiative which has also helped create or safeguard more than 170 jobs and establish 15 new businesses in the capital since it was set up two years ago.
“Many of the participants in the week have chosen to highlight the role that ethical sourcing and production play in their work,” adds Cllr. Nicholson.
One of these is Tanya Bowd, who travelled to Colombia in March to witness indigenous mining communities united in both saving their rainforest environment and their livelihoods. Bowd is helming “The Candescent Project” at the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury next week (June 8 – 14, www.artworkersguild.org), an exhibition which aims to draw attention to a “green gold” called Oro Verde. Cyanide, used in some mining, can spell ecological disaster – a single wedding band from an unpoliced source can leave three tonnes of toxic waste in its wake. Oro Verde uses no harmful chemicals and the miners receive a fair wage. “The success of this small project has shown there’s a much bigger market for ethical gold,” says Bowd.
Artisan jeweller Daphne Krinos, who makes one-off pieces retailing from £500 to £14,000, recycles gold herself. “I melt it with a torch,” says Krinos, whose work can be viewed at the Creation II exhibition at The Goldsmiths’ Hall in London (020 7606 7010, www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk). “It’s a pleasure to take apart a small piece that would lie forgotten and to create something new.” As for stones, Krinos favours rough, brown diamonds from Australia, where the supply line is clean. “My clients certainly ask questions and I’ve always asked those questions first,” she says.
But rogue stones do reach the international market place. That the diamond trade is now bound by the Kimberley Process has reduced conflict gems to 1 per cent of supply, an improvement on 15 per cent in the Nineties. However, the transit across borders of easy-to-conceal rubies, emeralds and sapphires continues. “Most gems are found in the poor parts of the world and they end up on very rich people’s fingers and it’s complicated,” says Stephen Webster, whose clients include Johnny Depp, Kate Moss and Jay-Z.
Webster, who is opening a London flagship store on Mount Street next Thursday, has earned a reputation for agitating for change. “When I started [as a junior in 1975], no one mentioned ethics, but then the working conditions in Hatton Garden [the centre of London’s jewellery trade since the 1870s] were bad enough. You didn’t have to go as far as Africa!” he jokes. His “Eureka moment” came when he took part in a Radio 4 broadcast a decade ago, “up against a journalist who ripped into me about conflict diamonds.” Since then, he has visited mines, put pressure on smelters and ensured his stones are as pure as possible.
Webster is a fan of Tanzanite, the royal blue gemstone found only in a 13km seam in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, where the mines are now considered among the safest in the world. This, plus some profits, go directly to the indigenous communities in Tanzania. However, Webster points out that boycotting gems from other sources is not the answer “because you wipe out whole communities. You have to stick with it to make it better. None of this is easy”. Indeed; De Beers recently suspended operations in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo but as a result, thousands lost their jobs.
“I’m 50 now,” says Webster, “and of my generation, some of us are bothered. But anyone coming into the industry is very bothered.” “Ethics are key,” concurs Marisa Hordern of Missoma, which is featured among 10 upcoming names in Liberty’s Rising Gems exhibition at London Jewellery Week. “We visited at least 20 manufacturers before we chose the one we work with in India. We try the hardest we can.”
To Bec Clarke of jewellery e-tailer Astley Clarke, fine jewellery without ethics simply has no sparkle. “Before people spend, they want to be sure that what they are buying comes from a sustainable source and is made by people who are paid a decent wage,” says Clarke, who next week launches a futuristic capsule collection of rock crystals with sapphires created in collaboration with fashion designer, Osman Yousefzada.
When Londoner Richard Thomas proposed to his girlfriend, Fiona Lee, last year, that he didn’t hand over a ring was, “thanks to Hollywood,” says his fiance. The pair had seen Blood Diamond so “we started Googling, but when it came to buying a 100 per cent ethical ring, there were tiny places in America – and obviously, we’re in England – or online only and we just didn’t want to buy an engagement ring off the internet,” says Lee. The solution was Cred (01243 773588, www.credjewellery.com), an ethical pioneer since 1996, based in Chichester. “So we took the train down, then to get the right diamond and the right size took another three months,” continues Lee, who will marry Thomas in September. The result? A white-gold band with a sparkling Princess-cut gem, “which is gorgeous and I don’t feel bad when I look at it,” she beams.
– Coutts London Jewellery Week, June 8 – 14; 020 7630 1411, www.londonjewelleryweek.co.uk