New jewelry from old – The New York Times
Parcels arrived every day for four weeks. There were big boxes and FreshDirect bags filled with Tiffany & Company Ziploc bags, velvet sleeves and pouches. Some included a single ear clip, pieces of a tarnished gold chain, vintage crystal brooches, a macrame bolo tie, a pearl necklace, a dirty Swatch watch and finds from the TJ Maxx sale.
“It was a lot of fast fashion disposables — the kind of things that people have at the bottom of a drawer somewhere,” said Rosena Sammi, founder of the jewelry processing (TJE), a collective made up mostly of independent female designers that she founded in 2020.
The packages, which were delivered to Ms Sammi’s doorstep, had come together through crowdsourcing via contacts in the jewelery trade and via a wide network of friends and friends of friends. And its contents – around £100 in total – were given to a few designers affiliated with the co-op ready to create new pieces of jewellery.
From April 28 through May 7, the upcycled jewelry will be featured in an exhibit and sale at The Jewelry Library, a Manhattan reading room and gallery space well-known to jewelry lovers and collectors. (Numbers are still uncertain, but Ms. Sammi expects 13 to 16 designers to supply one to three pieces each, and then prices will be set.)
“We’re emphasizing the idea that jewelry doesn’t have to be disposable,” said Ms. Sammi, a former lawyer-turned-jewelry designer who founded the collective when she became disillusioned with the private label collections she had produced for department stores and mall retail chains. At the time, she was frustrated with “this fast fashion movement of making things as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible and purely on trends,” she said.
For example, she said at least one reputable department store kept pushing her to mass-produce her line in China (it thought her jewelry handmade in Jaipur, India was too expensive). She was once asked to supply 10,000 silk cord bracelets in response to 2012’s color trend, oxblood. When the product arrived, the shopper felt the shade was off and would have scrapped the whole lot if Ms Sammi hadn’t convinced her otherwise.
“Encouraging people to think about the type of jewelry they buy is a big mission at Jewelry Edit,” she said. And the 50 designers on the co-op’s e-commerce platform are similarly investing in ethical jewelry production, focusing primarily on handcrafted, small-batch collections made from recycled metals.
Ms. Sammi’s concept of a jewelry fundraiser culminating in an exhibition was led by the non-profit organization’s project, Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM). Ethical Metalsmiths. Founded by two artists/educators who wanted to push the jewelry industry to adopt more sustainable practices, the organization has run similar projects in Boston. Richmond, VA; and other markets since 2007.
“People are becoming more aware of how their consumption habits are affecting the world,” said Susie Ganch, an RJM co-founder and associate professor in the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. “Universities, arts centers and other institutions are increasingly inviting us to come and work with their students. It’s an amazing way to catalyze a community.”
The goal of the organization, says Ms. Ganch, is to encourage jewelry design students, hobbyists and professionals to think about how they can make more socially and environmentally conscious choices in the studio, in the workplace and when working with gemstone and metal suppliers.
“Collaborating with the Jewelry Edit is an opportunity to share the mission and history of this project and to offer strategies that jewelers can use to transform their practices,” she said. “If any of the jewelers we work with will make different decisions in the future? That would be a measure of success for us.”
Ms. Sammi’s program, called TJE x RJM, would be the first time the organization’s pattern is used in New York City. “Through the caliber and diversity of our designers, we’re bringing RJM to a much larger and more complex stage,” she said.
Among the attendees is Lorraine West, the well-known jeweler based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose designs have been worn by celebrities such as Beyoncé, Viola Davis and Ariana Grande. Ms. West has been in the business for 23 years. She doesn’t need the awareness and support system that the co-op offers, but was interested in joining because Ms. Sammi’s support of designers who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color aligns with her own principles.
“I liked that Rosena is about highlighting BIPOC designers and locally handmade products,” she said over the phone while working on a heart-shaped ring in her collection. “I’m cutting the sprues right now,” she said, referring to the cast components. “I’ll let you hear the jingle.”
And scratching and filing noises could be heard. She later collected the dust and debris as part of her effort to recycle every last bit of metal. “My mother was an avid recycler of clothes to make them look new again, and the learning I learned from an early age has influenced the nature of my craft and my business,” said Ms. West.
Lauren Newton, a designer based out of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said she envisions a TJE x RJM design that is “minimalist and structured, something that makes a statement without being too loud, because that’s my aesthetic. “
She said she draws on the expertise she gained from a wildlife science degree and working at New York zoos in Central Park, Prospect Park and the Bronx, whether it’s creating a pair of tusk-shaped silver earrings or a bangle with Crab tip claws (cast from pincers discovered on the beach).
“However, sustainability is not a word I like to use as a business owner because I think it’s kind of a broad term that can be exclusive at times,” Ms Newton said. “If you were trying to find a company that advertised itself as totally sustainable, they would be lying to you. I think everyone is trying to be a little bit better with every decision they make for their business and with every product they release to the public.”
The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan is home to Jill Herlands, a jewelry artist who had a career in the music industry before teaching herself various metalsmithing techniques and eventually debuting her line in 2015. Her experimental approach and penchant for working with unconventional materials such as concrete and silk made her an ideal choice for Ms. Sammi’s project.
“I make a unique statement piece because nothing I create can be reproduced or mass marketed,” said Ms. Herlands.
For inspiration, she often strolls through the Meatpacking District and the West Village, where she says her imagination soars at the sight of dilapidated buildings, cobblestone streets and iron fences turning green with a lichen-like patina. Construction sites, with their wealth of industrial materials, are another popular meeting place.
“I like anything that’s kind of rough and disintegrated,” Ms. Herlands said. “I like to discover new things and to break the cycle and challenge the status quo. It’s the excitement of the unexpected that excites me.”
All three designers said sustainable practices were a passion for select clients and the issue of diamond traceability tended to surface, but overall there was a lack of public knowledge about the ills of mass-produced jewelry and non-recyclable materials. (So the TJE x RJM project has an educational component, with classroom events planned for later this month at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Westchester County public school in April, as well as programs planned for the jewelry library.)
“We’ll end up with 35 to 40 amazing pieces,” Ms. Sammi said. “TJE x RJM is an opportunity for designers and collectors, even for the people who donated the jewelry, to really think about how jewelry is made. To investigate why you bought that cheap cheetah-patterned plastic cuff in the first place.”