Parcels arrived daily for four weeks. There were large boxes and FreshDirect bags filled with Ziploc bags, velvet pouches and Tiffany & Company pouches. Some include a single clip-on earring, bits of tarnished gold chain, vintage crystal brooches, a macramé bolo tie, a pearl necklace, a dirty Swatch watch, and finds from the clearance bin at TJ Maxx.
“It was a lot of fast fashion, disposable items — the kind of stuff people have at the bottom of a drawer somewhere,” said Rosena Sammi, founder of the Jewelry Edit (TJE), a collective made up mostly of independent female designers. which she founded in 2020.
The bundles delivered to Ms. Sammi were crowdsourced through jewelery trade contacts and through an extensive network of friends and friends of friends. And their contents—about £100 in all—have been handed over to some designers affiliated with the co-op who were willing to create new jewelry.
From April 28 to May 7, the upcycled jewelry will be showcased in an exhibition and sale at The Jewelry Library, a Manhattan reading room and gallery space known by jewelry enthusiasts and collectors. (The numbers still fluctuate, but Ms. Sammi expects 13 to 16 designers to supply one to three pieces each, and then prices will be determined.)
“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 disenchanted with the private label collections she creates for department stores and chain stores. At the time, she was frustrated with “this fast-fashion movement of making things as fast as possible, as cheap as possible and purely based on trends,” she said.
For example, she said that at least one prestigious 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 the 2012 color of the moment, oxblood. When the product arrived, the buyer thought the hood wasn’t quite right and would have scrapped the entire lot if Mrs. Sammi hadn’t persuaded her otherwise.
“Encouraging people to think more about the kind of jewelry they buy is a huge mission at Jewelry Edit,” she said. And the 50 designers on the cooperative’s e-commerce platform are similarly investing in the production of ethical jewelry, focusing primarily on hand-crafted, small-batch collections made from recycled metals.
Ms. Sammi’s concept of a jewelry donation drive that ends with an exhibition is led by Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM), a project of the non-profit organization Ethical Metalsmiths. Founded by two artists/instructors who wanted to encourage the jewelry industry to embrace more sustainable practices, the organization has done similar projects in Boston; Richmond, Virginia; and other markets since 2007.
“People are becoming increasingly aware of how their consumption habits affect the world,” said Susie Ganch, an RJM co-founder and associate professor for the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. “Universities, art centers and other institutions are increasingly inviting us to come and work with their students. It’s a great way to catalyze a community.”
According to Ms. Ganch, the goal of the organization is to get jewelry design students, hobbyists and craftsmen to think about how they can make more socially and environmentally responsible choices in the studio, on the couch and when working with gemstone and metal suppliers.
“Partnering with the Jewelry Edit is an opportunity to share the mission and story of this project and offer strategies that jewelers can use to change their practices,” she said. “If one of the jewelers we work with makes different choices in the future? That would be a measure of success for us.”
Ms. Sammi’s program, which is called TJE x RJM, would be the first time the organization’s pattern is used in New York City. “The caliber and diversity of our designers brings RJM to a much larger and more complex stage,” she said.
Among the participants is Lorraine West, the well-known jeweler from 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 co-op’s exposure and support system, but she was interested in joining because Ms. Sammi’s support for designers who are black, native, or other people of color is in line with her own principles.
“I liked that Rosena showcases BIPOC designers and locally handmade products,” she said on the phone as she worked on a heart-shaped ring in her collection. “I’m cutting the sprues right now,” she said, referring to the castings. “I’ll let you hear the jingle.”
And there were sounds of scraping and filing. She would later collect the dust and debris as part of her effort to recycle every last scrap of metal. “My mom was an avid recycler of clothes, getting them looking like new again, and learning that from an early age has influenced the nature of my craft and business,” said Ms. West.
Lauren Newton, a designer based in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said she envisioned a TJE x RJM design that was “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 earning a science degree and working in New York City zoos in Central Park, Prospect Park and the Bronx, whether it’s making a pair of tusk-shaped silver. earrings or a cuff bracelet tipped in crab claws (cast off with pliers discovered on a beach).
“However, sustainability is not a word I like to use as a business owner because I think it’s quite a broad stroke that can be exclusive at times,” said Ms Newton. “If you tried to find a company that advertises itself as completely sustainable, they would lie 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 bring to the public.”
Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood is home to Jill Herlands, a jewelry artist who had a career in the music industry before teaching herself various metalworking techniques, eventually debuting her line in 2015. Her experimental approach and penchant for working with unconventional materials such as concrete and silk, made her a natural fit for Ms. Sammi’s project.
“I make a unique statement piece because nothing I make can be replicated or marketed,” said Ms. Herlands.
For inspiration, she often wanders through the Meatpacking District and the West Village, where, she said, her imaginations run wild at the sight of dilapidated buildings, cobbled streets and iron gates turning green with a lichen-like patina. Construction sites are another favorite place with their wealth of industrial materials.
“I like anything that’s a little rough or in a state of disrepair,” said Ms Herlands. “I like rediscovering things and breaking cycles and challenging the status quo. It’s the excitement of the unexpected that turns me on.”
All three designers said sustainable practices were a passion for select customers and the issue of diamond traceability tended to crop up, 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 scheduled to be held at the Fashion Institute of Technology later this month and a Westchester County public school in April, as well as programs planned for the Jewelry Library.)
“We’ll have 35 to 40 great pieces at the end,” Ms. Sammi said. “TJE x RJM is an opportunity for designers and collectors alike, even the people who donated the jewelry, to really think about how jewelry is made. To investigate why you bought that cheap plastic cheetah-print cuff in the first place.”