Heirloom pieces designed to last generations are sustainable by their very nature – and all the more so with today’s innovative jewellery designs incorporating found objects and reclaimed metals
Photography and Styling by Katie Burnett Text by Kasia Hastings
The rest of the world might be slowing down, but jewellers have always prized a more measured pace. A craft in its truest form, the process of making jewellery is one of time, technique and artistic talent. These artisanal principles enable today’s most compelling designers to produce pieces that are sustainably and responsibly made, without compromising on their creativity.
In fact, this reverence for lifelong treasures over trend-driven pieces and an increasingly eco-minded consumer consciousness means they find themselves with more creative space than ever. From enchanting talismans to sculptural delights, an exciting cohort of contemporary jewellery designers are paring back their output to focus on producing modern heirlooms that replace the constant need for new.
For Jennifer Sarkilahti, founder of eco-conscious label Odette NY, this slowing of pace (and a move from Brooklyn to a small town in Westchester County) has enabled her to return to exploring her jewellery as an act of artistic expression. “I haven’t felt this inspired and creative since I first started out,” Sarkilahti says. Since she launched Odette NY in 2006, its sculptural pieces have acquired an international fanbase that includes Michelle Obama, Gigi Hadid and Paloma Elsesser. “My measure of success has changed. I would rather grow my business slowly and create a thoughtful body of work.”
All of Odette NY’s pieces are crafted by hand in small batches from recycled materials, including high polish brass, sterling silver and 14-carat gold,with the help of local artisans and family-run businesses. It also offers gift boxes that are made from almost 100 percent recycled materials and an eco-packaging option that allows the customer to omit the box entirely.
Choosing to give second life to materials is an important part of the jewellery industry’s shift to greener pastures. Alongside Odette NY, newer New York labels such as Agmes and Alice Waese are also opting to make in ways that have less impact on the planet. Agmes, created by sisters Morgan and Jaclyn Solomon, realises its modern surrealist designs in reclaimed metals including 925 sterling silver, 18-carat gold vermeil and 14-carat gold.
Canadian designer Alice Waese believes her background as an artist naturally aligns her with more responsible jewellery making. To create her raw sculptural pieces Waese works with limited production, approaching her collections more like an extension of her art practice than traditional jewellery design. Waese uses wax to feel out her designs, handling the material as if designing a sculpture, and selects her materials carefully in order to make fewer, more special pieces to pass through generations. Her rugged bracelets and rings are also made with recycled and fairtrade metals and set with antique diamonds or ethically sourced gemstones.“Using antique and recycled diamonds and gold allows for a continual life of the material,” Waese says. “There’s no need to take more from the earth when we have already taken so much. There is enough discarded beauty that we can breathe new life into.”
London-based Alighieri is another cult jewellery label demonstrating the beauty of creating with previously used metals. Its Dante-inspired talismans are cast in recycled bronze before being plated in gold and any casting offcuts mixed with raw materials to form part of another masterpiece. Alighieri founder Rosh Mahtani hopes to nurture dialogue and community through the objects and stories she creates. One such community is London’s historic jewellery district, Hatton Garden: “Supporting the local heritage and craft there is so important to us, and we take great pride in the fact that we have a walkable supply chain,” Mahtani says.The designer’s cross-cultural approach (Mahtani is captivated by Italian and French culture) has also compelled her to design in a more eco-conscious manner. “I think that experiencing the way in which jewellery is a universal language across all cultures highlights how important it is to create things that last, that aren’t trend-driven but that have a meaning to the wearer,” she explains.
French designer Charlotte Chesnais shares Mahtani’s passion for creating “forever pieces” that foster emotional connections. Having worked under Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, the designer launched her own label in Paris in 2015 where she still practises the exacting laboratory process she learnt under Ghesquière. Chesnais has spent the past five years aligning her business with more sustainable practices; producing the majority of her pieces at ateliers in France, using bike deliveries in Paris, no-frills recycled packaging and only releasing two new drops a year (which Chesnais thinks is enough). It also offers to “re-vermeil” delicate vermeil pieces that may have lost their shine. But for Chesnais the real magic comes from helping give antique pieces a new leases of life: “I have a lot of people coming to me with old vintage jewellery pieces that they want to keep but in a modern version. So I take the stones, melt the metal and create a new piece with it. It’s one of my favourite parts of creation, making new with old,” she says.
While this and the other sustainable practices being adopted by the industry’s most compelling designers can imply a higher cost, this appears to be a welcomed investment reflected in rising jewellery sales. There is a genuine excitement building within the industry as an increasing number of consumers reject the fast, cheap thrills of a broken manufacturing process in favour of well-crafted, responsibly made design. Like many of her peers, Chesnais believes that there is a genuinely positive change in the way we are consuming that is protecting both creativity and climate.
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