As she announces JewelryArts24, an innovative competition using art as a vehicle for sharing the message about responsibility, Melanie Grant, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC), reflects on the ups and downs of her first few months in the role, the future for responsible jewelry, and why it’s so important to get everyone in the same room.
After the successful State of the Art Jewelry Summit in June 2023, the RJC, Harvard University and Gemological Institute of America (GIA) are teaming up once again, on JewelryArts24, an art competition for the public designed to take the responsible jewelry message wider, as part of an RJC communications revamp. Launched today, at Frieze London, entrants will be challenged to create a piece of digital art, based on data from the Summit. The artworks will be judged by an expert panel and the winning piece will go on show at Frieze London next year.
“Part of what came out of the Summit, was a need to communicate more widely and more creatively, about the importance of responsible practice in jewelry,” Grant tells me in London. “People told us they wanted more storytelling, more education, and more communication around both the challenges and the positives, especially to the young people who will inherit the industry.” And the next generation was one of the groups invited to take a seat at the table at the Harvard Summit, alongside scientists, academics, jewelry designers, business owners, and representatives of industry bodies.
“It’s vital to get everyone together around this issue,” she says, “the people working in this space [responsibility in jewelry] want to do good, but sometimes, they’re worlds apart. I would love those worlds to understand each other and come closer together, we are only going to get action if everyone is in the room, from producer countries through to craftspeople and retail partners.” In the context of a complex industry going through a sustainability transformation, the Summit was a successful and inspiring highlight of her first year on the job, that Grant hopes to be able to hold again in the future.
Privately however, she was dealing with deep grief, after her the death of her father a few weeks beforehand. “When my dad died, all the color drained from my life. Grief teaches you a lot; that you sometimes need to let someone else take over.” After some time out, work became a refuge and she decided to go ahead with the Summit, which she describes as “the hardest single moment of my career so far. I do feel proud to have gone through that. But we don’t talk enough about how hard work and life can be, sometimes.”
As the executive director of the jewelry industry’s standards body, a big part of her role is managing expectations as the industry moves through energy transition and works towards net zero, including readiness for possible incoming legislation. Designers and smaller businesses want to make more informed choices but might be put off by the cost and complexity involved, while larger organizations are working to manage risk: “I didn’t foresee quite how diverse those issues would be,” she says, “ but I took this job because I felt what was coming was threatening the art.”
With B-Corp certification multiplying in the industry, and consumer-demand-driven sustainable jewelry flourishing, jewelry feels like a more ecological space. So are we at a tipping point for responsible jewelry? Grant is cautious: “we still have resistance. There’s not enough certification, we still need to work on elements like basic definitions.” The RJC “covers everything” and her to-do list sounds deceptively simple, but is likely to be anything but: a clear definition of recycled gold and standards for lab-grown diamonds are in the works, ready to provide a framework for accelerated change.
Grant is one of a cohort of women in power in the jewelry industry, including Feriel Zerouki, President of the World Diamond Council; Susan Jacques, President of the GIA, and Tiffany Stevens, CEO and General Counsel of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. Outside of diversity organizations like the Black in Jewelry Coalition, helmed by Adrianne Sanogo, she is also a rare woman of color in the industry’s upper echelons: “ten years ago, I wouldn’t have given this role,” she muses.
“Since I started in this job, more people have said to me ‘I’m pleased you’re a woman’, than ‘I’m pleased you’re black’. I visited a SMO gold mine in Côte d’Ivoire recently, women were working in mining, community projects — women are assuming roles they never would have before.” Yet despite the industry being overwhelmingly female on the design side, very few are in real decision-making positions.
“I think you have to create something to understand the industry,” she continues. “You have to create a piece of jewelry to really understand what the industry needs. Because it’s in the struggle of creation, that you find out who you actually are. And I’m finding out who I am through the struggle of this creation.” And thanks to the work of Grant and her team, it looks like the RJC also, will soon be facing the road ahead with a clearer identity, better able to help players big and small in the jewelry industry work mores responsibly.