Waste to wearable: the designers driving a circular jewellery economy
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At first glance, the long, opulent necklace in white gold with a large, irregularly shaped pendant could be a relic of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia straight from an archaeological dig. On closer inspection, though, the patterned green stone is not malachite inscribed in an arcane language but a piece of electronic circuit board recycled by London-based Oushaba — a new brand that taps into the trend of creating jewellery from discarded materials.
Gillian Carr, who co-founded Oushaba and formerly worked for auction house Christie’s, says the idea was born during the Covid lockdown. “Our electronic devices were our only bridge to the external world,” she says. “They felt like an extension of our bodies, and I could not come to terms with the fact that a phone so close to our skin ends up in a landfill within 18 months.”
So, together with two other business partners who prefer to remain anonymous, Carr liaised with a jewellery workshop in Sicily to source discarded phones from a local repair shop and design jewellery around them. “It is the piece of recycled electronics that inspires the jewel; we design around it,” she explains.
Carr, who is in her early thirties, is from a generation raised in full knowledge of the pressing environmental challenges. As a result, she is sensitive to incorporating structural changes to her business to minimise its impact on natural resources.
And a 2021 report by McKinsey predicts that, by 2025, sustainability criteria such as these will influence 20-30 per cent of fine jewellery purchases. In another study, McKinsey highlights how 43 per cent of the Gen Z cohort of luxury consumers born — between 1997 and 2012 — already prefer brands with sustainability credentials.
“Aged 16, I was taken on a school trip to a local foundry where it was explained that our mobile phones’ circuit boards contain gold, platinum and silver,” recalls Eliza Walter. “This got me thinking about the huge potential of e-mining.” Seven years later, in 2017, she launched Lylie, a brand that uses gold recovered from electronics and dental fillings to create delicate jewellery designs set with lab-grown diamonds or antique recycled natural stones.
At first, the origin of the gold raised a few eyebrows among her clients, says Walter. But, she adds: “It doesn’t take long to win them over when we tell them that, if you were to mine one tonne of the earth’s ore, you would get a yield of fewer than 30 grammes of gold, while if you were to mine one tonne of electronic waste, you would get 300g.”
Yet, despite the abundance of gold lying in landfill, purchasing exclusively recycled metal is a challenge, as refineries usually mix gold from different sources.
Sarah Müllertz, Copenhagen-based founder of sustainable jewellery brand Kinraden, says that accessing recycled metal had been the bottleneck in scaling her business, until she established a partnership with a specialist foundry. Müllertz also sources her signature Mpingo blackwood, which she polishes and cuts to maximum brilliance like a diamond, from a WWF-protected forest in Tanzania. “Initially, there were doubts over the concept of a wooden ‘diamond’,” says Müllertz.
Establishing long-term partnerships is also the route chosen by the UK’s Royal Mint which, for its jewellery line 886, sources gold from e-waste foundry Excir and silver extracted from old X-ray film through Betts Metals, a precious metal company. Betts also deals in gold and has created the Single Mine Origin kitemark to address the traceability of the metal.
Meanwhile, Sole Ferragamo, a member of the Ferragamo luxury house, challenges received notions of preciousness by creating jewels for her So-Le Studio brand in which leather — traditionally used in jewellery as a support — takes centre stage, and the use of metals is kept to a minimum.
“When I first discovered the existence of so much abandoned leather destined to be destroyed, the desire to make something out of it came naturally to me,” says Ferragamo. She purchases unused leather — known in the trade as “slow-moving stock” — and leather remnants directly from fashion houses, suppliers or tanneries. She then treats it with gold foil and aluminium powder, among other materials, to give the leather the rigid appearance of metal in sculptural and voluminous creations, which are feather-light and soft.
For the brass that features in her Trucioli collection, Ferragamo uses leftovers from lathe machining of the metal.
“I go and hand pick them personally in the factories — choosing the ones that inspire me the most,” she says.
So-Le Studio pieces, stocked in selected retailers worldwide and her newly opened boutique in Milan, have attracted a broad base of clients looking primarily for originality rather than an environmentally friendly accessory.
“In consumers there is always a gap between the declared intentions and behaviour. Even if there is a desire to ‘give back’ to society, it is the emotional component that drives purchases,” says Elisabetta Pollastri, co-founder of Paris-based trend-forecasting company The Spotter Lab.
Ferragamo agrees. “They see in my pieces something else — kind of transcending boundaries,” she says. Of course, aesthetics come first, but sustainability is a welcome plus.