'Sustainability' in jewelry is not a notion frequently talked about. Though the issue of blood diamonds has been in and out of the news over the past few years, few are aware of the more far reaching consequences of raw material mining (i.e. gold, silver, copper, platinum) on the one hand, and the fact that the lion share of jewelry is produced in industrial manufacturing units, typically located in low wage, poverty ridden countries.
Arabel Lebrusan and Clare Winfield, the minds behind Leblas, an ethical jewelry label based in London, UK, have both worked throughout East Asia for over a decade and have seen with their own eyes the rather appalling working conditions in some of the factories and production sites, and the complete lack of security and hygiene. When they met and decided to embark onto their own jewelry project, they were committed to adhere to the most ethical parameters possible - to the degree of giving the working conditions at suppliers the same priority as to the design of the jewelry itself. At the same time, one of their major goals is to revitalize our Occidental artisanal heritage, the rediscovery of techniques and processes that are quickly disappearing for good, and to introduce them to a new generation of consumers.
Arabel Lebrusan trained in the art of jewelry in the most prestigious European schools, and has collaborated throughout her career in projects with international companies such as Swarowski. But then, three years ago, attracted by the narrative of the object, by its meaning beyond the aesthetic element, she decided to go her own way, and together with her business partner Clare set up the jewelry label 'Leblas'. Doing so meant leveraging all her experiences and her knowledge about artisanal techniques; apply them to contemporary designs, and to combine them with a strictly sustainable process. Leblas, in fact, defines itself as an ethical jewelry boutique that combines traditional techniques with modern design. But at the same time, Leblas stands for much more. It is a jewelry concept where the narrative of the designs prevails, where each piece of jewelry has a meaning and story beyond the aesthetics of the individual creation. Each piece has a history of artisanry, of expert hands that manipulate materials acquired under strict ethical standards, and of work that relies on refined techniques and processes, and that give each piece its own personality. As a result, the designs convince equally through exclusivity as well as through their strict ethical credentials.
But what is behind the rather abstract term 'ethical jewelry'? 'Ethical jewelry' is jewelry that has been crafted throughout and at any stage of the process under ethical and responsible criteria—a process that encompasses materials acquisition, creative techniques and the process of creation itself.
With respect to materials, this means the use of 100% recycled gold or silver, in addition to only precious stones of certified ethical origins, and whose journey can be tracked and traced from the day it was extracted in its mine of provenance. It also means the re-discovery of traditional artisanry, and its preservation for at least one more generation through transformation and adaptation, in order to attract modern buyers. And lastly, all production processes are carried out with a deep respect for the environment and, of course, the working conditions of the workers and artisans.
For Leblas, the first step to engage with their customers is always to try and understand the degree to which each is familiar with the concept of sustainability in relation to jewelry. Once they are attracted by a particular piece of jewelry, the next step is to try and educate them by providing visual information about the different stages of the creation process. They are, for instance, told that the raw material has been worked under application of strict ethical standards, or that the artisans behind each piece have a life time of experience. When it comes to the act of buying a piece of jewelry two types of customers exist: those who know about the dark side of the jewelry making process, and those who seek to buy consciously in accordance with their knowledge. On the other hand, the majority of customers still remains unaware, and is simply intrigued by the design. In either case, the design of a piece of jewelry features as the decisive factor at the time of purchase.
Leblas' trade mark design element is the use of traditional Spanish filigree. Filigree is a jewelry technique whereby threads of gold or silver shape a lace-style design, attributing equal importance to the filled as to the empty spaces. The metallic threads may be plain, twisted, or reeled. Comparing filigree to what is currently being seen on the cat walks, it in fact feels like the exquisite lace work popular in high-end fashion has finally made its way into the world of jewelery. And for Spanish-born Arabel, the filigree's metal thread depicts the history that materializes in each individual design.
Over the centuries, Spanish filigree work has been influenced by various civilizations: the Tartessians, the Iberians, the Phoenicians, the Visigoths, and finally the Arabs whose influence took the art of filigree to new dimensions. Then, in the 16th century, filigree became popular in connection to traditional events and costumes thanks to the influence of the Catholic Church and medieval academic institutions.
In the present however, there are only few artisans left that still own the expertise needed to produce high quality work. Leblas' filigree jewelry is made in a small artisan's workshop that Arabel discovered while scouring the country looking for the best artisans to collaborate with, and who would be prepared to develop new ideas. Her journey was over when she met Lorenzo, an artisan, who has lived and worked in a small Spanish town in the Eastern part of Spain along the Via de La Plata, his entire life. He is a unique third-generation artisan who has been making filigree for the museums and the Spanish Royal Family since he was 14, applying the techniques he was taught by his father and grand-father.
But artisans like him are among the selected few who have so far managed to resist the overwhelming pressure that rests on the jewelry industry to use fast and mechanized processes. Some of the workshops that used to employ 30 or 40 skilled artisans at one time now may only consist of the owner and possibly a small number of family members. Once they retire or are forced to close the workshop their knowledge and skills will be lost. Leblas hence, engages to maintain, rediscover and adapt the traditional techniques. In trying to do so, they have even established an apprenticeship plan that allows for the transfer of these unique artisanal qualities to future generations before they disappear altogether from our culture.
At the time of writing, Arabel and Clare are already heading towards their next design venture: Leblas has recently started to work with artisans from other countries, among them the United Kingdom, again with the goal to incorporate techniques and artisanal processes at the verge of extinction into their designs. The results, no doubt, will be a commendable continuation of this fascinating new chapter of European jewelry design.
Get to know more about Leblas on their website: http://www.leblas.com
Interview: Cristina Maraldés; Text: Pamela Ravasio
Cristina Maraldés is a consultant and lecturer specializing in ethical fashion communications. Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).