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Can jewellery design do good?

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My daughter wanted to put a permanent bumper sticker on her body.

She was in first-year university, studying graphic design. When it comes to body adornment, I’d rather she chose the earrings I brought her from Beijing rather than a tattoo.

What I do know is that when I die, my legacy to her will include a box of precious and meaningful objects, most of them jewellery. There will be the antique pocket watch my Aunt Edith gave me when I was 12. The crystal my cousin Leslie hung around my neck at our first hippie Rainbow Gathering deep in a forest in North Carolina (in the 10,000-year tradition of amulets warding off evil) hanging from a $2 strip of leather that my best friend Steve gave me when I was 22. There will also be the Movado Museum watch I wear most days: a gift from a business partner, now passed away, who taught me a lot. I think he figured it would help me sell more design, and it probably did.

I don’t know a lot about designing jewellery, but what I do know is that jewellery design, like graphic design, is political. It’s personal. It’s powerful. It’s fundamentally social, and thus also about social responsibility. It’s about a broader definition of sustainability that includes culture, the environment, and ethics.

There has never been a better nor more important time to discuss responsible design. Back in 2001, when I first spoke about ethics at a design conference, my speech was a maverick presentation: the only one about socially responsible design. Just six years later, I moderated a social responsibility theme day at the World Design Congress and almost every speaker at that conference tied his or her work to the difference that designers can make in the world.

In the graphic design field, over the past two decades, we’ve succeeded in changing how the world perceives our profession. Twenty years ago, we were graphic artists: today we are professionals (often with certifications and codes of conduct).

Yesterday we were struggling to be seen as serious. Today we are seen as critical to adding value to corporate balance sheets. I suspect that jewellery designers, like others in craft, are early on within a similar transition.

Don’t just do good jewellery … do good!

Imagine what is possible if jewellery designers, artists, craftspeople, merchants and distributors, decided that the jewellery of indigenous and small-scale communities would not only be sought out, but that its production would be cultivated, supported, and that it would be fairly sold.

Imagine that certified labeling would be required to support the claims of authenticity, and that these labels would be issued only by the cultural group in question.

Imagine that the globalisation of jewellery doesn’t mean that those with access to mass production can copy and displace (with cheaper products) the beautiful and unique products of our amazingly diverse cultures, but instead that we would see the diffusion of unique authentic cultural treasures into a wider global culture in a way that materially and culturally enriches small communities, and spreads their cultural riches throughout our global village.

Graphic design meets jewellery design

What and how we design and market affects society. Whether as designers or jewellers, some of us choose to focus purely on the aesthetic of our creations. I know that simply creating beautiful objects, or surrounding yourself with beautifully-designed objects, can help create a seemingly fulfilling and comfortable life. However, that is only the surface of the potential good and sense of accomplishment you can achieve with your creative skills.

We live in a truly remarkable time. It has never been easier, never less expensive, never more immediate, to create products, and to make them available to large and distant populations. The Internet represents not only the democratization of the marketing of jewellery, but also the democratization of mass manufacturing and customization.

Will that sharing be of the idea of jewellery as an indicator of wealth and privilege, or of a deeper connection for humanity?

Will that sharing be of clasps that are increasing difficult for an aging population to use, or of a deeper recognition for accessible design?

Will that sharing be simply an echo of the cacophony of convincing ever-growing populations in the developing world that they need to consume stuff — lots of stuff — in order to feel they belong in the global culture? Will we prop up the greed disorder of the minority, by using our cleverness and creativity to help convince more and more people that they are not tall enough, thin enough, white enough, curly enough, cool enough…? Or will we share a new spirit of abundance and truth, dignity and equality, sustainability and justice?

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Reviewed April 28, 2014

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