The future of jewellery is high-tech, lab-grown, dredged up from the frothy waves of a seaside shore – and excitingly, enthusiastically sustainable.
The jewellery industry has a problem. The problem isn’t new, per se. The problem isn’t even really that much of a problem – the solutions are all there, highlighted and underlined. The problem, despite conversations prompted by the – at-face- value, unrelated – question of “What’s the future of jewellery?” somehow lands immediately back on this quandary of sustainability we can’t seem to talk our way out of. Because unlike a fast-fashion microtrend, jewellery, especially fine jewellery, has largely been protected from op-eds about the rampant, ruinous ways in which we consume. After all, a hefty, carated heavyweight isn’t something someone buys every day – in fact, it’s specifically, fingers- crossed, a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
But jewellery and tokens of love can be made better; feel better; bought better. And though Tiffany & Co. might see the future of the trade in NFT pendants, there are many, many jewellers with ambitions – and always with sustainability top-of-mind – a little closer to home. Albeit with materials and processes that might verge upon the sci-fi.
To architect Jenny Wu, the future of jewellery might very well lie in scores of carbon-fibre and 3D-printed thermoplastic polyurethane. LACE by Jenny Wu started as a passion project for the Los Angeles-based architect, whose journey into jewellery design began almost a decade ago when she 3D-printed three necklaces – with that same skeletal, graphic signature also trademark in her architectural portfolio – to wear at Art Basel Miami. The feedback was so resounding – Wu remembers strangers coming up to her wanting to touch her creations and buy them off her person – it inspired her to start LACE.
“I feel LACE fills a void that’s missing in the jewellery industry, with its emphasis on design and technology,” says the designer, whose jewellery collection feels intimately kindred to the kind of kinetic, defiantly experimental projects her architectural firm Oyler Wu Collaborative (co-founded with fellow architect Dwayne Oyler) has espoused.
“I’ve always thought of jewellery as architecture on the body,” says Wu. “The way I approach the design of a jewellery piece is quite similar to how I approach the design of architecture. I’m much more aware and sensitive to the user experience and durability of my work – and that goes for both in architecture and in jewellery.”
And Wu, with her technology-focused vernacular transposed from one discipline to another, unwittingly stands in for a larger phenomenon in the creative industry. Unlike, say, medicine, the law or, well, architecture, in which formal training sprints parallel to a causal reading of codes, regulations and engineered specificities that must be respected, luxury fashion has recently ushered in a changing of the guard that honours talent and creativity much more than long lists of atelier internships or fancy, wooden-backed certificates that ascertain a Central Saint Martins graduation. The just-married Simon Porte Jacquemus, with no formal training in fashion design, comes to mind, as does Yoon Ahn of AMBUSH and Dior Homme Jewellery, with no formal training in jewellery design.
“Unlike LACE, there are very few brands that truly focus on design and embrace technology,” Wu adds. “By utilising the latest technology in design and manufacturing, we’re able to create one-of-a-kind pieces in unique materials.” This insistence on operating within frameworks with aims to innovate and use, as Wu calls it, “unique materials” has seen LACE by Jenny Wu collaborating with Impossible Objects, a 3D and materials company, for a collection of accessories made from 3D-printed carbon-fibre.
“I’ve always wanted to design a collection using alternative high-performance materials like carbon-fibre,” she says. “Previously, carbon-fibre was only suitable in applications with simple, flat surfaces. But now we’re able to produce unique geometries that have never been produced before.”
Instead of going the traditional route of soldering, everything is 3D-printed to order, thereby minimising waste and overproduction. “Because of our production technology, we’re able to 3D-print locally in the region the item is being ordered, by sending our 3D files to the manufacturer,” says Wu. “This allows us to minimise carbon footprint and promote local businesses.”
And it comes as no surprise that Wu is thrilled about all the new technologies being introduced to every aspect of the industry. “I’m really excited about some of the new research that enables customers to virtually try on jewellery through augmented-reality technology. This technology has really matured and is becoming a reality.”
Made Not Mined
For LACE, cutting-edge technology lies in material ingenuity and the process by which each piece comes to life. For Kimaï, though, cutting-edge technology cuts into the very genesis of the brand itself.
Kimaï co-founders Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus hail from Antwerp families with roots in the diamond trade. And while both might have all the reasons in the world to meander, eyes closed, through what’s always been the highly lucrative world of diamonds, that was never an option for Warch or Neuhaus – and especially once they’d become aware of the industry’s abhorrent inner workings, including murky supply chains, child labour and devastating impacts on the planet and local communities. “We wanted to do things differently,” says Warch, “which isn’t easy in an old-fashioned and traditional industry that doesn’t like change.”
When Warch and Neuhaus came across lab-grown diamonds in the autumn of 2017, as they were market-researching the skeletal blueprint of what eventually became Kimaï, a lightbulb went on. “At the time, this concept was still new,” says Warch. “We’d been looking for a way to make the industry we loved more ethical and relevant for our generation, and we’d found it.”
“Made, not mined” became mobilised as the beating heart of Kimaï. Unlike its mined counterpart, which might have exchanged hands 10 to 15 times before reaching its eventual owner, the traceability of lab-grown diamonds is easy to ascertain. And considering extracting a single carat of rough mined diamond can mean displacing more than 1,750 tonnes of earth at a time for a version of a gem that’s, really, physically and anatomically identical to the ones created in a laboratory, going 100 percent lab-grown, as Warch describes, is a “no-brainer.”
Slowly but surely, Kimaï is nudging the pendulum towards lab-grown diamonds, in spite of the forces working against the pair’s efforts. As Warch explains, the mined- diamond industry has long been monopolised by two big players that have largely controlled prices, supply chain and even marketing communications about the topic, which continues to be heavily gendered and patriarchal. “There’s been huge progress made over the past few years with more education and transparency, and customers actively looking for more sustainable alternatives and seeing lab grown diamonds as the best one today,” says Warch. “As soon as the customer is educated on the topic, there’s no way back for them.”
As for designers like Mia Larsson, diamonds – lab-grown or otherwise – aren’t quite nearly as interesting as a material you and I can easily scavenge for, with no cost to the environment or our pockets: seashells.
Larsson, who primarily works with slurped-and-supped oyster shells – the Scandinavian designer recalls she’d collect bags upon bags of leftovers from restaurants, which she’d peel in her bathtub – saw such potential in materials that were innately sustainable and imminently compostable. She wasn’t alone. She describes how customers were fascinated by the shells; fascinated by their patent connection to the ocean, to nature.
Just as can be assumed from the discovery of the very first diamond, which cannot be anything beyond happenstance between a small, sure sparkle and a curious eye, nature has always played host to beautiful materials – be it diamond or crystal or seashell. There’s mythology to discovery, ensuring it doesn’t become industrious, doesn’t become exploitative. There’s a quiet beauty to foraging for small and beautiful things just waiting to be found – and, if you’re so inclined, remade into something tender, something with meaning.
“Nature makes intelligent, hi-tech materials in a sustainable way,” Larsson says, surrounded by seashells she’s collected. “There are so many interesting materials that we can be inspired by.” And so there is. Some high-tech and science-backed. Some lab-grown with a mission. All with a grand, sustainable calling.
This story first appeared in Prestige Online – Hong Kong