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Two steps forward: Discussing racism and jewellery

Alexia Connellan is an award-winning jewellery designer based in the New York tri-state area. Photos courtesy Alexia Connellan
Alexia Connellan is an award-winning jewellery designer based in the New York tri-state area.
Photos courtesy Alexia Connellan

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.”

The following discussion took place in August of this year between Jewellery Business contributor, Kyle Abram, and Alexia Connellan, an award-winning jewellery designer based in the New York tri-state area. The conversation was inspired by the aforementioned letter, and served as research for Abram’s 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 Abram (KA): Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into the jewellery world and what are some of your inspirations?

Alexia Connellan (AC): I loved collecting rocks as a kid. Eventually, I earned an art degree from Columbia University. To pay for this degree, ended up going into tech, but it wasn’t a satisfying career for me. So, as I was collecting gemstones, I was taking classes at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], and one of the professors said to me, “Why don’t you design jewellery?”

I thought, “You’re right!” I had paid off my loans by this point. Around the same time, my father nearly died of a rare heart condition, and I discovered I had the same condition. I decided I didn’t want to die in some boring meeting where I’m not doing something I love. So, in my late 20s, I decided to go back to school to design jewellery.

KA: From looking at your website, it’s clear that sourcing of gemstones is important to you.

AC: Paying attention to conditions is always one of my guiding principles. It’s not such a clean and easy subject to talk about it.

In Jamaica, where I was born, lots of mining takes place. They always say it’s safe, but I’ve seen first-hand the high cancer rates and the plants that are dying. We have to admit the jewellery industry has a lot of grey area, and just because a mine is clean one year doesn’t mean that it always will be; you have to check and triple check….

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If you think about the jewellery industry, it often works the same way colonialism did: people from a rich country go to a poorer country, exploit the locals with back-breaking work, and damage the environment…the rich foreigners take out the valuable goods, pay locals a nickel, go back to their country, and enjoy their spoils.

It makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but it’s the truth. Baby steps are being taken to try and change this, but not nearly enough and it’s not yet widespread. We can do better.

KA: How do you ensure what you buy is ethical?

AC: It’s a lot of asking questions—“Where did this come from? What year? Is it post-consumer?” I like to buy from people who are selling their collections or directly from the miner or gem-cutter where you get to know what the conditions are. There are lots of mines in America you can do this with.

KA: Millennials and gen Z—are they willing to pay higher prices for something more ethical? Does your experience line up with this?

AC: I can see there’s a change in the culture. My siblings are on the younger end, and they spend their money on their beliefs. There are more of them; they have a lot of purchasing power, so the jewellery industry and others are going to have to shift if they want to keep them as customers. Companies that invest in good ethics, and follow through—their shareholders love that.

And I think it’s important for companies to be authentic; to admit they’re not perfect, but state their intentions and what they’re working on, what they’ve done. I don’t like greenwashing, where it’s like, “Oh, it’s all cool! We’ve never done bad stuff, so we don’t have to make any changes!” Let’s be honest here.

KA: Do you think this new market is driving change?

AC: I think change has to come from within the industry. Right now I see it more from smaller designers and manufacturers. Larger companies might have too many vested interests, and they don’t want to change… but I feel like they’ll either have to change or go extinct.

KA: What sort of connections, if any, do you see between what’s happening in the United States today—in terms of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests—and colonialist mining practices in places like Africa or Jamaica?

AC: One of the good things about a social breaking point is that you go so low, you can only go up. People were so fed up and started thinking about what change could look like instead of just accepting it.

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I was personally shocked—with so many of the micro aggressions I live with, it never occurred to me that so many other Black people were going through the exact same thing. To have people be more educated is important. It was fertile soil for things like the BIPOC letter, along with calling to change the way our policing system works.

KA: Do you have any thoughts on specific things the jewellery industry can do to improve its relationship with miners?

AC: I think it would be best if we approached mining communities and asked them what they needed most and started from there. Is it better health care and safety protocols? Better schooling? Access to better mining equipment so they don’t need to use mercury to mine gold?

I heard a great quote the other day: “Version one is better than version none.” You have to start somewhere instead of saying, “This is too complex, so I’m not even going to bother.” When I dive deep into these issues, it’s very confusing—there are many moving parts. But that’s OK.

KA: You seem hopeful about the future of the jewellery industry. Are you also hopeful about the future of Black Lives Matter? Does 2020 feel different?

AC: Looking at American history, everything is really cyclical: it’s two steps forward, one step back…two steps forward, one step back—but it’s important to keep pushing. You really need to convince everyone before you can start to make changes. Just because something is the law, that doesn’t mean people in their hearts will stop hating. You have to change the culture. You need both hearts and laws to change to start moving forward.

KA: What do you think would change the hearts of the large mining conglomerates?

AC: What I think would change their hearts would be a lot people saying, “I’m not buying your product anymore!” A bit of carrot and a bit of stick; sunshine is the best disinfectant—we could shine a little light on what’s going on and close our pocketbooks if we don’t see the changes we want. Until these companies are actually taken to task, I don’t think they’ll have a change of heart.

KA: What’s your sense of racism in the jewellery industry? Is there anything you personally have experienced you would want to share?

AC: One thing about the jewellery industry is that there are so few BIPOC on the creative side. It’s a really small percentage—and I think a part of that is [the profession] is so often passed down through your family. And, when you come from a place of oppression, you can’t usually enter the industry that way—you can’t be a sixth-generation lawyer or a 10th-generation jeweller. So there’s that exclusion there, which in that sense is systematic.

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On the back-end, I have personally never experienced any kind of racism or even sexism when I’m sourcing gemstones or when I’m working with jewellers. It’s more a question of, do they think I know my stuff? And I see them do that with everyone, so there’s no problem there.

When it comes to her work, informed and ethical sourcing are among Connellan’s guiding principles.

But it’s on the other side—on the sales side and in approaching stores—where some unfortunate things have happened. I was actually at the AGTA [American Gem Trade Association] Spectrum awards dinner, where I won an award, and someone turned to me and said, “Oh, I didn’t even know Black people could design jewellery!”

Or they’ll call my name at a jewellery event, and, when I come up, they actually look around me, [expecting] to see someone else. I’m like, “No no no, it’s me—that name on your paper, that’s me!” And then they ask for ID, when no one else has been asked for identification.

Other times I’ll go into a jewellery store and be followed around by security, or not allowed to try something on. And I’ll think to myself, “Hmm, definitely don’t want to sell here!”

With these micro aggressions, I’m not really sure how to broach these things in conversation; if you say, “OK, that was a racist remark,” then the other person puts their guard up. So, I try to deal with it with humour best I can—and I try not to work with stores that have snobby or potentially racist employees because I don’t believe that we could build a good relationship.

KA: Thanks so much for sharing. Is there anything else you’d like to add?  

AC: Just that I am hopeful about change. I haven’t figured out the exact right path forward, but I’m trying. I think if everyone in the industry—or in the country, or in the world—tried to make one small change, that’s already a big step, and we can take it from there.

Younger people are going to take over making decisions. Those people that have power, they’re not going to live to be 200 years old.

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 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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