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The silver and gold are not clean: Discussing racism and jewellery

Robin Erfe is a jewellery designer based in Brooklyn. Photos courtesy Robin Erfe
Robin Erfe is a jewellery designer based in Brooklyn.
Photos courtesy Robin Erfe

Earlier this year, 29 BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) U.S.- and U.K.-based jewellery designers penned an open letter to the industry, inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

“We, as BIPOC designers, stand together united as one voice in the jewellery industry,” the letter states. “Our skill set and contribution remain valid and equitable to our peers and contemporaries. We choose to be part of the jewellery sector and seek to communicate our combined point of view as BIPOC designers.

“Our points of view are our pride and joy; we welcome support and an ongoing conversation.”

Brooklyn-based jewellery designer, Robin Erfe, was among the professionals whose name was on the letter. In August of this year, Jewellery Business contributor, Kyle Abram, spoke to Erfe as research for his upcoming article, ‘Where Black lives don’t matter to jewellers.’ Co-authored by Marc Choyt, the piece explores the complexity of race within the jewellery industry, as well as the history of the ethical jewellery movement and the ongoing mission to create a ‘fair trade’ diamond.

Look for the feature in the December issue of Jewellery Business.

Kyle Abraham Bi (KAB): How did you get into the jewellery world?

Robin Erfe (RE): I’ve been doing work probably since I was 13—going on 17 years now. It’s been on and off; I was doing bead work, then, around eight years ago, was when I wanted to get into silver and metal work. It was scary to get into it, because it takes money and education, but I found a school in Manhattan, Studio Jewelers, where they provide bench skills.

In the past two years, it’s been about bringing my brand out here and using my voice as woman—as a Black and Asian woman who creates responsible and ethical jewellery—to draw attention to my clients and audiences about responsible, ethical, and sustainable practices.

People don’t always want to hear the bad things; they just want that stamp of sustainability. So, it’s about engaging with my clients and audience and saying, “This is the truth,” while also selling them jewellery when the topic itself isn’t always so beautiful.

KAB: What was your involvement with the BIPOC letter that sparked this conversation? What can you tell us about how it came about?

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RE: I’m in a group, a Handcrafted Collective of women jewellers, and we were talking about the different things that have been happening and what we would like to see in the industry. So, that was our conversation stemming from the protests and all these different things that were happening.

KAB: So, you feel there should be a strong connection the whole way through the supply chain, in terms of addressing issues around systemic racism?

RE: It is the consumer who wants to buy ‘sustainable’ jewellery—but that’s vague; it’s really vague. There are some consumers who will do the research, but they don’t have access to information I may have, or even the knowledge of where to search. So, really, the jewellery designers, we are the consumer of these materials.

The industry knows what’s happening and it keeps slapping on what feels comfortable. I don’t know what to do to keep hopeful. The only thing I can tell people is everything is interconnected.

KAB: So, where do we go from here?

RE: I don’t know exactly what to do, other than coming together and continuing to put pressure on and ask these questions. There is no one solution. Racism is a global issue; environmentalism is a global issue. It’s connected.

I, personally, am doing a lot of research on Central and South America, and the Caribbean, because that’s where a lot of my family is from. So, when a mine is expanding in the Dominican Republic, and I go to their site and they say, “We’re going to make sure it’s sustainable,”—well, what does that mean? (I say ‘we’ speaking about the jewellery/mining industry as a whole.) We can’t just say, “Oh, well, we’re providing jobs.” This is not a saviour complex. We are not saving people. We are going to their land and we have to ask them, “What do you need?”

Right now in Honduras, there are five leaders of the Garifuna people who have been abducted. You have the Xinca tribe in Guatemala being told, “You don’t exist, so we can put a mine here.” So, it’s like, no. 1: do people even want you there? And, no. 2, what can you provide? Don’t think you’re the expert going to these people’s lands.

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“The industry knows what’s happening and it keeps slapping on what feels comfortable,” Erfe says. “I don’t know what to do to keep hopeful. The only thing I can tell people is everything is interconnected.”
“The industry knows what’s happening and it keeps slapping on what feels comfortable,” Erfe says. “I don’t know what to do to keep hopeful. The only thing I can tell people is everything is interconnected.”

I don’t know exactly what to do, because this is built on colonialism. It’s a manifestation that just keeps changing. This is basic human rights… what I can do right now is bring awareness to it, work within my community, continue my research, and support those who are doing truly sustainable and ethical work.

The silver and gold are not clean. I’m not saying we can’t have any nice things, but we have to be uncomfortable and come up with solutions. As an emerging designer, I’m still figuring that out.

KAB: I’m curious about your own experiences that would lead you to sign the BIPOC letter?

RE: Once I left school, I sort of isolated. I would go to one shop only because I felt like they kind of understood me, but other than that I didn’t go into the diamond district; I didn’t feel seen and I felt I didn’t belong there.

Only in the past two years have I started seeing community, because I was like, “I don’t belong in the fine jewellery world.” My jewellery is whimsical; it’s really based on my culture and me finding those parts of myself and expressing myself.

I’ve been told, “You don’t want your jewellery too ‘ethnic’”—whatever that means, right? Or, “Make sure your jewellery is for ‘everyone’”—and what they meant was, for white women.

I knew that—and that was a Black person telling me this. A fellow person of colour saying, “Hey Robin, you don’t want to do this.” So, for me, it’s like, how am I going to talk about these issues? I want to talk about my history and my art, but it’s not going to be mainstream.

KAB: Do you think that these experiences are particular to the jewellery industry? Or that anything having to do with luxury goods might make this worse?

RE:  It’s everywhere. In my area of the jewellery industry, I see that people are more vocal about it, but it’s a mindset that’s embedded in many cultures and many societies.

When I was selling at a pop-up, some women were saying, “You’re so cute,” you’re this, you’re that—but I realized I was just a caricature for them. Kind of like when you go to another country and you see people selling in the street and they become caricatures. They’re not human beings and this is their art. For [those women], I was a caricature of New York Black and Brown jewellers. I remember sitting there and feeling very uncomfortable, even though people were smiling at me.

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The thing is there are a lot of BIPOC jewellers who are just not welcomed. They’re not ‘official,’ but that’s the thing—big companies are copying these styles; from African artists, from Asian artists, really often from Native American artists. So, are these people not jewellers too? A lot of times, people go to different areas of the United States to learn traditional Native American techniques. I know there are a lot of jewellers who are not being acknowledged and supported.

A lot of designs, labour, and resources come from BIPOC people, but we don’t get to benefit the most or our communities. If we were able to have a brand like Tiffany’s or Pandora, would that mean causing harm that many of these large scale jewellery brands have been part of? I think many of us don’t want that. We don’t want to hurt our communities or the Earth.

And I think it’s a fallacy when it seems the only way to succeed in this industry is by hurting others, exploiting resources, and simply greenwashing brands to avoid scrutiny. That’s what’s been taught.

I love my work and I have a new campaign coming out—but I also feel this, not quite guilt, but responsibility. I’m going in with gusto; it’s just understanding change is taking time. It shouldn’t take this much time, but it is.

This interview was independently conducted in August 2020 as research for the article, ‘Where Black lives don’t matter to jewellers,’ which will appear in the December issue of Jewellery Business.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of Jewellery Business.

Kyle Abraham Bi (formerly: Kyle Abram) is the brand catalyst at Reflective Jewelry. His duties include brand management, online marketing, and SEO, as well as writing, editing, and conducting research on issues related to fair trade and ethical jewellery.

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