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Building a Better Industry

Why diversity and inclusion matter

By Deborah A. Yonick

The national discussion about race that was raised following the murder of George Floyd last May reverberated through every industry, ours included. Although things were a long time coming, the jewelry industry and the individual organizations that comprise it have started having difficult conversations and examining how to address the inequality that exists within it. As a result, we’ve seen the launch of a number of new initiatives dedicated to making our industry more diverse and inclusive. This month we take a look at a few of those initiatives as well as some of the things that everyone in our industry can be doing to make it one of which we can all be proud.

What It Means to Be Diverse & Inclusive

Before an organization can address diversity and inclusion, it must first understand what the terms mean.

“Diversity and inclusion are interconnected, but they are far from interchangeable,” says Matt Bush, culture coaching-lead for Great Place to Work., an Oakland, California–based global authority on workplace culture. “Diversity is about representation or the make-up of an entity. Inclusion is about how well the contributions, presence, and perspectives of different groups of people are valued and integrated into an environment.”

Bush explains that an environment where different genders, races, nationalities, and sexual orientations and identities are present, but only the perspectives of certain groups are valued or carry authority, may be diverse, but it is not inclusive. Diversity that lacks genuine inclusion is tokenism.

“An inclusive workplace doesn’t just have a diversity of people present, it has a diversity of people involved, developed, empowered, and trusted by the business,” says Bush.

Valerie Madison headshot and rings

Following the death of George Floyd, "a lot of people wanted to support POC businesses and I was glad to see people finally honoring that and knowing that that was the right thing." —Valerie Madison

Research by this consultancy firm, which has more than 30 years of experience helping organizations become a great place to work for all, has found that equitable employers outpace their competitors by respecting the unique needs, perspectives, and potential of all of their team members. Among the many benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace are higher revenue growth, greater readiness to innovate, increased ability to recruit a diverse talent pool, and higher employee retention.

Embracing and reflecting real-world diversity not only boosts internal operations, but also helps marketers build greater brand affinity and deeper customer relationships. Many of today’s consumers, especially younger demographics such as Gen Z, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and people with disabilities, are rewarding brands that capture diversity, share their inclusive values, and espouse causes that support social equity, reported eMarketer, a market research company, in November.

And consumers will notice and recognize when companies are diverse. Following the tragic death of George Floyd last year, many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) businesses saw an increase in sales and media attention. One of them was Valerie Madison, a fine jeweler and designer in Seattle.

“It was really unfortunate that it had to happen for Black businesses to get exposure,” says Madison. “Not that I’m trying to monetize on that moment. It was bittersweet. A lot of people wanted to support POC businesses and I was glad to see people finally honoring that and knowing that that was the right thing. I would hate for this to be only a moment.”

Having the Conversations

Within the jewelry industry, the push toward becoming more diverse and inclusive as an industry has gradually been picking up steam over the last few years.

The Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) has long been out front in promoting gender equality and having important conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity in the fine jewelry industry. In 2017, it launched its Gender Equality Project, which develops programs and tools that empower women in the workplace, including training professional women to boost their confidence in making sales, negotiating, contracts, or landing a promotion.

And in 2018, the WJA worked with MVI Marketing to conduct a survey examining gender’s factor on workplace practices. The results have inspired initiatives that address gender-related issues, including training and materials about employment policies, employee self-advocacy skills, and mentorship.

Since then, the WJA has expanded its advocacy work. The Northern California chapter of WJA recently hosted a three-part webinar series for the BIPOC jewelry community. The series examined diversity, inclusion, and equity through the experiences of BIPOC women professionals throughout the jewelry supply chain. Their rich conversations powerfully set the stage for where the industry is and needs to go.

“It’s important to note that we’re having this conversation in 2020 and not in 2019 or before,” says Jared Holstein, owner of D’Amadeo, a San Francisco–based diamond, gemstone, and estate jewelry wholesaler who moderated the webinar discussing equity in the supply chain.

“The killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, and a wider embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement have forced these long overdue conversations,” says Holstein, who is also an advisory board member for Ethical Metalsmiths, which sponsored the event. In his introduction during the webinar, he acknowledged his privilege as a white man in a global jewelry industry “well stocked with white men.”

New York City–based jewelry designer Jules Kim, founder of BIJULES and a panelist on the webinar discussing barriers to entry and engagement, underscores that these conversations are going to be uncomfortable, but that companies need to delve inside of their discomfort. “It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in these times that we have to have these discussions. But this time was always coming.”

“We have customers who expect us to take a stance on something that is, to me, a human rights issue,” says designer Lauren Harwell Godfrey of Harwell Godfrey Jewelry in Marin County, California, who served as a panelist on the webinar discussing social media engagement. “Part of allyship is speaking up and defending these ideals, and being vulnerable is part of the work.” She encourages people to run toward, not away from, the conversation.

Lauren Harwell Godfrey headshot and earrings

Rather than run away from these difficult conversations, people should run toward them. "Part of allyship is speaking up and defending these ideals, and being vulnerable is part of the work." —Lauren Harwell Godfrey

Black people, however, don’t have the choice to opt out of the conversation, that’s a privilege, says fellow panelist Temi Adamolekun, founder and CEO of the San Francisco–based Pembroke Public Relations.

“If you have a voice, a platform, take the opportunity to speak out on this human rights crisis,” says Adamolekun. “It comes down to your fundamental beliefs and goals. What are you trying to achieve for yourself personally and professionally? For me, there is no difference when it comes to how to speak about Black lives because it’s a basic human rights issue, and that’s something that’s really straightforward.”

Black Lives Matter is not a political issue, it’s a human rights issue, Adamolekun underscores. “The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has declared the crisis on Black lives in America to be one of the worst human rights issues they’ve seen in modern day times.”

She recommends that industry members read up on the situation and use the information as a launch point for discussion. “It’s an entry point to the conversation, and you don’t have to think really hard about the right language if someone else has already figured it out for you.”

Adamolekun admits that race is a huge topic, and a difficult conversation to have, so pick a focal point, she recommends. “The best statements are action statements that are tangible and specific. There are so many things you can do, pick one or two that are authentic to you. If you are pro-education, there are scholarship funds at different schools for BIPOC communities you can support.”

She cites an endowment fund established in June by a group of 50 jewelry brands to support Black students attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City for jewelry design. She also recommends donating to causes such as the 15% Pledge, which is aimed at seeing retailers dedicate at least 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses (in alignment with the size of the Black population in the U.S.).

Karen Smith headshot and earrings

Metalsmith Karen Smith founded the nonprofit We Wield the Hammer to bring metalsmithing opportunities, economic empowerment, and access to vocational training to women and girls of African descent.

A panelist of the equity in the supply chain webinar, Rebecca Lee, a Miami-based photographer, jeweler, and metalsmith, says she donates 15 percent of her weekly sales to organizations that either are mutual aids for Black and Trans communities or give people of color access to the jewelry industry, such as We Wield the Hammer (WWTH).

Self-taught metal artist Karen Smith of Oakland, California, founded the non-profit WWTH in 2019 to bring metalsmithing to women and girls of African descent around the globe. She was inspired to this advocacy work by time spent in 2018 studying with a master goldsmith in Dakar, Senegal, that revealed the void of women in metalsmithing. WWTH’s mission is to offer opportunity for artistic equity, economic empowerment, and access to vocational training traditionally unavailable to women. Funding to do that is needed, which Smith says has been challenging to raise. She notes that jewelry supplier Rio Grande is a partner in the program, accepting donations of scrap metal in its name, as well as maintaining a wish list for donors to help WWTH build its studio.

Access Gets to Equity

Setting the stage for the conversation on equity in the supply chain, Holstein notes that he sits in San Francisco on land where thousands of Indigenous Peoples were displaced and killed in the California Gold Rush over a century ago. “There is nothing equitable at all in the distribution of the financial benefit or the human or environmental cost in the pursuit of this jewelry material.

“The lie that some lives matter less than others is at the root of so many of the ills and inequities in our global supply chains, inequities that primarily impact Black, brown, and Indigenous communities,” Holstein continues. He cites colonialism, racism, poverty, and gender inequity as playing “foundational and historic roles in the extraction, processing, and trade of the metals, diamonds, and color stones used in our jewelry.”

These systems have been in place for so long that it will take time to shift, says Kim, describing it as an “industry infrastructure problem.”

“Unless we are able to increase opportunities for people and communities that have traditionally and historically been marginalized and oppressed by systems like colonialism, exploitation, and oppression, we will not achieve fairness,” says Zulaikha Aziz, a Los Angeles–based human rights lawyer currently launching her purpose-driven fine jewelry brand, Mazahri.

Coworkers at conference table working

Among the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace are higher revenue growth, great readiness to innovate, increased ability to recruit a diverse talent pool, and higher employee retention.

Aziz sees equity in the supply chain as access to opportunities and resources. “Equity is a way that we can get to fairness and equality,” she says, sharing that equity is intertwined in her personal story. She came to the U.S. from Afghanistan with her family as refugees fleeing war. “Until everyone has the same access to resources, we will not have a fair playing field. Sourcing [gems and metals] are extractive industries based on those systems, and unless we acknowledge that, I don’t think we can make the necessary changes that will lead us to fairness.”

To this point, Aziz says that when we look at how much value is generated by jewelers selling in Western countries and how much value and benefit is left for the source communities, it’s “ridiculous.”

Amina Egwquatu, creative director of the gemstone and jewelry brand Mina Stones in Abuja, Nigeria, concurs that there’s a lot of value lost for local source communities. “There is a barrier in terms of sourcing cut stones from Africa. It’s something that we have to work on if we are looking to see some kind of change. In a country like Nigeria, we should have many master gem cutters and we do not. It is our responsibility, the people who are conscious of these things, to support more people to cut locally in the communities or countries where the stones are being sourced.”

Egwquatu, whose name Amina means trustworthy and honest, says she’s in business to help the artisanal miners. “For me, the decision to even do what I am doing is because of my experiences eight years back, trying to find gemstones from Nigeria that we don’t hear about in Nigeria. This made me want to explore the mines to see what was happening. Seeing the way the people were living and carrying on their livelihoods was a big slap in my face. It’s an anomaly; it doesn’t make any sense to me why there is such abject poverty in areas where people are making millions of dollars from these communities. Some don’t have good access roads or clean water. Some places are really bad. This inspired me to help in any way I could. For me, it is important to do the right thing.”

Barriers will continue to exist as long as the market is being controlled from abroad, says Miriam Wairimu Kamau, a miner, gemologist, and gem trader based in Nairobi, Kenya. “The colonizers are still controlling our businesses from the source. There has been a colonial approach to sourcing materials in the jewelry industry, with Western companies sourcing from Black and brown communities around the globe that often are not acknowledged or properly compensated for their materials.”

Committed to supporting local mining communities to source her gemstones, Aziz believes the industry can do better in creating networks of suppliers from marginalized communities in source countries so that they are more represented and emerging designers have access to their materials.

“For me, just starting out, self-funding, and attempting to create a company that’s purpose driven, access is huge,” says Aziz, who received last year’s WJA Gabriel Love Foundation Student Scholarship, helping her earn her Graduate Gemologist degree at GIA.

“Precious materials are expensive as it is, and when you talk about responsible sourcing, those materials can be even more expensive,” she explains. “It becomes cost prohibitive for many emerging designers to go the responsible route, even though that’s what they want and recognize is important for their work. I wouldn’t be able to source what I am from the suppliers I work with had it not been for Ethical Metalsmiths and others who have been doing this work for such a long time.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Another step in this journey toward a fully diverse and inclusive industry is breaking down the barriers that prevent or discourage people from entering the industry.

Kim says that many emerging BIPOC designers come from non-traditional jewelry backgrounds. “I wasn’t born into a generational business,” she says, noting the familial nature of the trade. “For any emerging talent to face any industry as a novice is intimidating. But there is a supreme lack of access to certain parts of our industry including materials, education, and business opportunities that’s standing in the way.”

After starting her jewelry design company, Kim began fielding requests for internships and apprenticeships. Knowing that she wanted to learn just as much from the people whom she worked with as they learned from her, she launched the BIJULES Incubator, a mentorship program that she created as a safe place to develop BIPOC and LGBTQ talent in the industry.

Jeweler using file at bench

Because of the familial nature of the jewelry industry, mentorships and apprenticeships are critical to getting members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities engaged with and started in the industry.

“Mentorship is essential, especially for people from marginalized communities,” says Kim. She cites an empowering initiative launched in November involving three Incubator mentees who are building collections exclusively for Wolf & Badger, an online/offline retailer that focuses on emerging talent. For their designs, they were given access to hundreds of stones to pick from for free.

“To establish yourself as a businessperson, you need to have infrastructure, and you have that through gaining knowledge,” Kim says. “There are also financial hurdles for those entering an industry that relies predominantly on expensive materials. If a BIPOC designer doesn’t have a budget to begin in fine materials, it takes that much longer to work in those materials.”

Fellow panelist Melanie Eddy, a London–based designer, bench jeweler, and director of the Association for Contemporary Jewellery, says that whether it’s implicit biases or more severe in terms of prejudice or racism, often individuals from certain groups have difficulty in fostering the important connections they need to gain momentum and thrive as they build their businesses and connections in this industry.

“A big barrier is finding out about the opportunities, as oftentimes the channels through which these opportunities are disseminated are going to people who already would be in a position to find out about them,” says Eddy, who was one of 29 BIPOC jewelry designers from the U.S. and U.K. who signed onto an open letter to the trade last summer outlining what these artists believe the jewelry industry should be doing to ensure long-term equity.

Lee notes that she had no idea jewelry was a possibility for someone with a fine arts background. “When I found out, finding a school or program that was financially accessible, and someone I could talk to to mentor me through, was not accessible to me.”

Metalsmithing for the past two years, Lee said that prior to that she worked in the jewelry district in Miami for someone who sold watches, but he outsourced his work. “The reactions I would get when I went to visit different vendors really let me know I wasn’t welcome,” Lee recalls. “At that time, I was in my early 20s and thinking I might like to make jewelry. I quickly noticed they did not want to answer my questions. They did not care for my curiosity or to help in any way.”

Tiffany Joachim CEO Celeste Sol Jewelry

Because small acts can help a big cause, Celeste Sol Jewelry, which employs and contracts with women whenever possible, donates a percentage of its proceeds to charitable partners to support women.

It really does start with the information that’s available out there to young people coming into the industry, says Tiffany Joachim, founder and CEO of Celeste Sol Jewelry, a Miami-based e-commerce jeweler. “I went to a predominantly white university, 2 to 3 percent Black undergrad students. There was a big presence of big-box retailers like Neiman Marcus and Kays Jewelers recruiting undergrads to be a part of their programs leaving university. There’s a big socio-economic difference if you have the resources to go to these universities and/or they don’t focus on historically Black universities. It gives people who are able to go there a leg up.”

Celeste Sol Jewelry employs and contracts with women and women of color whenever possible, says Joachim. The company also donates a percentage of its proceeds to charitable partners to support women. “That is some small act that we are doing to help the cause. Big companies have a huge opportunity to really make an impact by having women of color in leadership, and recruiting women of color to their organizations and educating them that these opportunities exist.”

As an educator in the higher education space for degree courses, Eddy has been involved for a dozen years in more accessible, community-based education around making and designing jewelry. “In this way, I’m accessible to more individuals who might not be able to be on a degree course. I have found that I am able to reach a broader cross section of individuals looking to engage with this industry, many of whom went on to start their own successful businesses.”

Eddy advocates the industry examine how it communicates with the youth and, in particular, wider segments of the population to make it more open and transparent about what the career opportunities are and the ways to engage in those areas.

“Sometimes when organizations are not diverse, there is a lack of perspective of how the things they’re implementing and decisions they’re making around their organizational model are by their very nature exclusionary,” says Eddy.

To help overcome barriers, the newly founded Black in Jewelry Coalition (BIJC) is working to invoke change throughout the industry. The first nonprofit membership association dedicated to the inclusion and advancement of Black professionals within the gem and jewelry industry, BIJC aims to help with access to grants, scholarships, apprenticeships, internships, mentorships, business education and capital funding, and assistance in fostering relationships with major distributors, manufacturers, miners, and gem dealers.

Finally, Kim cautions against approaching diversity as a box-checking exercise. “Expand your research for new talent outside of your comfort zone to liaison with grassroots movements to form authentic allyships. Risk more on providing instead of withholding. As a community of professionals and mentors we can remove this barrier.” She believes it is critical for the rest of the industry to play its part in helping to nurture emerging BIPOC talent.

“The world is changing,” adds Eddy. “It’s not just a moral imperative; diversity and inclusion benefit the bottom line. Fiscally, it’s a good way to move.”

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