When the world’s physicians and nurses would happily trade a piece of their fine for jewelry for Coronavirus test kits or N-95 face masks, how can we justify buying and giving jewelry?
The short answer, according to New York-based designer Yasmina Benazzou, founder of the fine jewelry brand Haute Victoire, is rooted in compassion and recognition of human vulnerability. “Gem sourcing and jewelry fabrication provides a living for working families in industrialized and developing countries all over the world.” Benazzou, who creates some of her pieces by hand in her home studio, also employs an artisan family in New York’s jewelry district to fabricate her creations.
Distinguished for classic and organic silhouettes that incorporate sustainably farmed pearls, turquoise, repurposed and vintage jewelry materials nestled in 18-karat gold settings and attached to 18-karat gold chains, Haute Victoire retails online at Lingua Franca, Moda Operandi, Olivela and both in-store and online at Mitchell Stores. “As a jewelry lover and as a participant in this economy, “ Benazzou continues, “I feel responsible to continue to design, craft and buy jewelry as my way to help support people during this difficult time. While some may view gold, silver and various types of gemstone and other fine jewelry as an extravagance, Benazzou adds, “It is important to keep purchasing whatever jewelry each one of us can afford, as the survival of so many working families depends on it.”
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Indeed, jewelry and its materials embody and provide the human family with so much more than material adornment. The hard human realities, economic truths and environmental facts related to global gemstone and gold mining, pearl farming; jewelry design and fabrication mean that if the general public stops purchasing jewelry, entire communities will struggle to survive during 2020’s global Coronavirus pandemic, which is the world’s most serious respiratory virus threat since the 1918 flu pandemic.
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“Now is the time to support independent jewelry designers,” says Valery Demure, a jewelry brand strategist with offices in London, Paris and New York. “They are always innovating in terms of materials, technical advances, style, substance and silhouettes.” Championing independents who work with master goldsmiths, stone setters and other artisans to create their adornments, Demure also founded and curates Objet d’Emotion, a selection of one-of-a-kind, handmade and highly distinctive jewels available online, in Demure’s London showroom, or at the annual; connoisseur-driven PAD London and PAD Paris art fairs. “Whenever you buy a handmade piece from an artisan,” Demure ventures, “you are actively helping preserve jewelry-making traditions, and this is meaningful.” Given that mass-produced jewels are marketed by global brands as so-called luxury items, unique, handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces produced in small ateliers such as those by Beirut-based Nada G ™ arguably embody more artisanal and luxury value.
According to World Bank figures, there are approximately 100 million artisanal miners globally, with artisanal and small-scale mining operations in approximately 80 countries. The World Bank estimates that artisanal and small-scale production supply accounts for 80% of global sapphire mining, 20% of gold mining, and up to 20% of diamond mining. “When you buy a handmade piece of jewelry, you are doing so much more than buying an accessory, for you are helping artisans practice their craft and pass on the intangible cultural value of jewelry making to the next generation,” say designer Oriana Sabrier and her business partner Candice Ophir of Geneva-based Margaret Jewels.
The fact is, “Small-scale gold and gem mining and production of gem materials such as naturally shed horn is prevalent in developing countries throughout Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America,” says Dallas, Texas-based gemstone mining and jewelry business consultant Benjamin Guttery, GIA G.G. The curator of the Instagram gallery @thirdcoastgems, Guttery adds, “Though informal, low-tech artisanal mining generally yields low economic returns, these nevertheless help feed impoverished local populations, supporting millions of families in rural areas of developing countries.”
Guttery has inspected and worked in various mines in many nations, including those that are on family-owned land in the U.S.A. “People who mine on land that they own devote their lives to supplying designers and consumers with beautiful, precious and semi-precious gem materials,” he observes. While 100 million workers and their families may depend on artisanal mining for their lifeblood, Guttery is quick to add that, “About 7 million people are employed worldwide by industrial mining companies.”
As for gems born from oceans and rivers, it may come as a surprise to realize that approximately 100,000 humans feed their families by farming, sorting and selling pearls in Mexico, the United States, China, Japan, Hong Kong and throughout the South Pacific. As Laurent Cartier, Ph.D. and Saleem H. Ali write in their research report, Pearl Farming As A Sustainable Development Path, published in the academic journal Solutions, “Pearl farming can be one of the most profitable forms of aquaculture and may be carried out in isolated islands where there are otherwise very limited economic opportunities. Cultured pearls have become important economic pillars in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands as main sources of export revenue.” (Indeed, pearls are French Polynesia’s second-largest resource, representing 54% of its export revenues in 2015.)
In a March, 2020 telephone conversation, Dr. Cartier, who is also a project manager at the Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), described how the Kamoka Pearl Farm is a sustainable pearl farm famed for the quality of the pearls it produces. (Independent tests by the Tahitian Service de la Perlicuture concluded that Kamoka’s mother of pearl nuclei produce triple the number of high-quality pearls than are made with foreign shell nuclei.) The mussel shell nuclei used in most pearl culturing has contributed to the decline of this species, while Kamoka Pearl uses mother of pearl, a renewable resource from the oysters it cultivates.
Located 300 miles from Tahiti in the Ahe atoll, Kamoka sources electricity from the sun and wind, while its fresh water comes from rainwater catchment. This family-owned farming operation represents the gold standard in pearl farms. Because fishing is forbidden in the farming area, the lagoon functions as a marine reserve where fish can thrive and reproduce. Since Kamoka’s environmental stewardship is keeping the underwater zone so pristine, coral reefs in the area are thriving. Moreover, while many farms damage local ecosystems by cleaning oysters with high powered hoses, Kamoka Pearl hangs its oysters in shallow waters near the reef, where they can be naturally cleansed by numerous species of tropical fish.
“While it’s true that many people are struggling in these uncertain times,” Demure ventures, “it is my hope that jewelry lovers with disposable income will buy whatever pieces they can afford from sustainable brands and ethical designers.”