Some years ago, I began to avoid cosmetics with paraben ingredients. I had read about how paraben, which is used as preservative, was an endocrine disruptor and how traces of it can be found in sea life from run-off. It just sounded like bad news to me. (I will bring this back to jewelry, I promise.) So, after years of struggling to avoid it, imagine my relief when the paraben issue caught fire and I could purchase familiar brands in the drugstore with labels that now boasted they were “paraben-free.” But, I found that, if you looked closer, you would often find that other harmful chemicals were put in the place of paraben – those chemicals had just not earned their buzz-word status yet and, therefore, they could escape a consumer’s attention.
I think that the tale of paraben is a cautionary one. When we only have the time or the inclination to educate ourselves about a portion of a problem, we create a marketing trend rather than a solution.
As conscientious consumers, jewelry, poses a number of problems. There is the question of the toll that it can take on the earth — the mining of metal and gems; the chemicals used in production. There is the highly publicized problem of gems as the currency of war. One might also wonder about the labor practices of the mining industries or in the mass production of jewelry. What are we supporting with what we wear on our bodies; become emotionally attached to; give as gifts; and pass on to our children? No one really likes to think about it but, often, we make a statement of tacit approval with the money in our wallets.
As I think I’ve made clear so far, I find jewelry to be an endlessly fascinating art form. It is sculpture and rhythm and color and balance. Jewelry is a storyteller. Each well-loved piece takes on a life of it’s own and, as it’s temporary custodian (because it will likely outlive you), you get to share it’s story and add to it. Not having it in one’s life is not an option. So, what to do about buying it with one’s conscience intact?
There are many “green” jewelry and ethical jewelry options out there these days. Right here in San Francisco, we have Brilliant Earth, a jewelry store founded by Beth Gerstein and Eric Grossberg to address some of the very problems with jewelry I have cited while still creating valuable pieces of fine jewelry. Brilliant Earth has a trusted reputation and has a done a great deal to educate consumers about how to make conscious choices in jewelry purchasing.
On the other hand, I think the idea of green and ethical jewelry is slowly catching on and, perhaps, there in lies the danger — “the paraben effect.” People begin to look for a buzz word that has holds no real standard and then inadvertently perpetuate the problem or create a new one.
While I have no solution to well-meaning consumers being taken in by less well-meaning marketing tactics, I can offer a few suggestions: Know the person attached to the two-hands that make your jewelry. Buy vintage and antique. When appropriate, recycle your metal and gems and have custom pieces made. In a way, all those suggestions are the same. While you might not be able to know everything about the potential pitfalls of jewelry buying, build relationships with jewelers and dealers you trust and avoid uneducated impulse buys. Buy for love and sleep soundly at night.