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The Struggle for Inclusion

Six months ago, BIPOC jewelry professionals put out a call for greater equality and diversity in the trade. How much has changed since then?

Jan 25, 2021 3:45 AM   By Leah Meirovich
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Six months ago, BIPOC jewelry professionals put out a call for greater equality and diversity in the trade, but how much has changed since then? 

 The dearth of representation for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the jewelry trade became the focus of a new manifesto and open letter that burst onto the scene half a year ago, following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in May and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement.

The BIPOC community, which had primarily operated in the shadows of the trade, decided it was no longer prepared to stay quiet. This pivotal moment was the impetus to make BIPOC voices heard. They wanted equal representation in the community, from scholarships and grants, to mentorship, connections, support and grassroots educational efforts. They also wanted to stop being seen as “Black jewelers” or “jewelers of color,” and to be thought of simply as “jewelers.”

The response was overwhelming. Businesses throughout the US and all over the globe stood up and took notice. They pledged to support BIPOC efforts and to promote the inclusion of those members in all aspects of the jewelry industry. But six months on, has there been any change?

Empty promises

Kassandra Lauren Gordon is a UK-based fine-jewelry designer who operates her own brand of collections and bespoke pieces. In June, she wrote an open letter to the jewelry industry at large, detailing the challenges she and other Black jewelers faced on a regular basis, and asking for change.

However, what started out as hope and expectation on her part soon turned to disillusionment and disappointment.

“There was a heightened response around June, but after that, things tailed off,” she says. “People promised to donate, they promised to give supplies. They didn’t do that. A lot of organizations made empty promises and have taken a wait-and-see approach.”

Gordon notes that many businesses stepped up early on, including famous jewelry bloggers and influencers as well as suppliers. But as the initial momentum of Black Lives Matter abated, so did their eagerness to help.

“[People] contacted me when the movement was created, and made promises,” she relates, “but when it died down, they all kind of moved away, they pretended like it never happened.”

While most businesses ignored her, Gordon says, one that stood by its promise was The Goldsmiths’ Company, which signed on to act as an administrator of a hardship fund she started. Together, they created a survey of Black jewelers in the UK, in which 51% of the 94 respondents admitted to having experienced racism in their careers. Notably, three-quarters of those never reported it, worrying about the consequences they would face or whether they would even be believed, the survey found.

“I don’t think the industry cares, to be honest,” Gordon laments. “What’s the point of trying to be part of the industry when you get backlash and racism for wanting equality?”

Gaining attention in the US

While progress toward diversity may have stalled in the UK jewelry industry, the wheels of change are still in motion on the other side of the pond.

A number of large US companies, including Macy’s and Rent the Runway, have made a pledge to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands, and in October, the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion coalition was created to advance racial equality. Many businesses began featuring more Black models and actresses in campaigns. The Natural Diamond Council (NDC) hired Latina actress Ana de Armas as the star of its first celebrity campaign, and Black actress Zendaya became the face of fashion house Valentino.

Signet Jewelers — which owns the Jared, Kay, Zales and James Allen banners, among others — chose to take a public stand against racial discrimination.

“We’ve been actively showing our support for fighting hatred and racial injustice,” says Jared chief marketing officer Bill Brace. One of the company’s brands put out charms this holiday season in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, underscoring Signet’s dedication to diversity and inclusion, he adds.

Striking the match

Those moves are just the first steps on a long road, according to Jules Kim. The creator of the Bijules jewelry collection, Kim also formed the Bijules incubator to provide mentorship and aid to emerging BIPOC jewelry designers.

“I think there is a lot of discomfort that needs to happen in order for the industry to acknowledge the need for a shift,” she comments. “And I know that there is a lot of acknowledgement going on right now, and it’s just the very beginning of how change can be implemented.”

Kim accepts that many people who stood up at the beginning of the movement have since sat down again, but what she doesn’t accept is failure. The only way to make change occur, she believes, is to keep pressing — and keep causing discomfort — until people have no choice but to respond.

“Instead of looking at this tendency to tokenize the moment, we need to look at it as the spark,” she insists. “We have to keep striking the match in order for the flame to actually be born.”

The complacency comes from a lack of accountability in the industry and throughout the world in general, asserts Kim. “There’s no system in place where we audit the responsibility of those who came to the forefront and volunteered themselves. There’s no way for us to hold them to their word or to really enforce their commitments.”

But that doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting defeat. “There is definitely a positive change coming,” declares Kim, “and we are not going to go away.”

An outpouring of support

Even while some in the industry have sparked and burned out, others are fanning the flames necessary to turn the jewelry industry into a melting pot.

“After the publishing of the [manifesto], there was a huge outpouring of people wanting to connect, and we ended up having to field a lot of the calls and cut a lot of them short because it seemed like there was a sense of urgency to showcase support,” says Michelle Orman, president of Last Word Communications, who has offered her PR services to the BIPOC community. “There were some that just wanted to wave a flag and say, ‘Look what I did,’ but there were also many people who wanted to make a sincere effort to create foundational changes.”

Kim has also noticed changes in how the jewelry industry is responding not just to designers, but to BIPOC consumers as well, crafting more impactful campaigns and messaging. The move is highly important, she believes, given the buying power of the Black and Latino communities.

“That’s the first step,” she says. “It’s a tap on the shoulder to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ The next step is to fill the boardrooms, [and] hire Black creatives and BIPOC talent in decision-making roles.”

Fostering talent

Of course, solving the problem is more complex than just offering support, or even interspersing national campaigns with Black models and hiring Black executives.

“It’s not necessarily that there’s a lack of incentive to support Black jewelers, it’s more that it’s hard to know about them,” says Valerie Madison, owner of Valerie Madison Fine Jewelry in Seattle, Washington. “And the reason it’s hard to know about them is because it’s not promoted, it’s not shared. It’s not an equal opportunity for Black jewelers and for their work to be shown on the same level as it is for other jewelers.”

Growing up in a Black family that was close to the poverty line, Madison had no notion that a jewelry career was even a possibility. It was only her creative nature and love of crafts that led her to begin making beaded bracelets, researching jewelry techniques, and chasing the dream of becoming a jewelry designer.

That challenge is one many in the BIPOC community face, Madison asserts. Lack of awareness of the luxury world, along with the absence of grassroots efforts to educate youth and provide mentorship and scholarships, is a major barrier to entry, especially in a business built almost solely on connections.

What the numbers say

Madison’s predicament, like that of many other BIPOC jewelers, is one backed up by data. While she’s largely self-taught when it comes to jewelry-making — as is Kim — she has taken a few classes at fine-arts centers in Seattle on metalworking and stone-setting. Of the four courses she attended, she was one of only two Black people out of 80 or so participants.

“As soon as we enter a room, we know exactly how many other people like us are in that room,” she says. “It’s just instinct to kind of pick up on that because of how weighted on one side the room can feel.”

The class demographics for the Gemological Institute of America’s (GIA) gemologist courses tell a similar story. Last year, students who identified as white accounted for 51% of the on-campus class in Carlsbad, California, while Hispanic and Latino students made up 6%, and Black or African American students were a meager 1.2%. Asian students attended in higher numbers, but were still a minority at 23%. And while many believe these figures are indicative of the state’s demographics in general, the institute’s New York campus didn’t fare much better. Classes taking place from 2019 to 2020 were 30% white, 27% Asian, 8% Hispanic or Latino, and 2.4% Black or African American.

Admittedly, these numbers may not give the full picture. “It is a frustrating reality that we do not have more information about our graduates,” says Duncan Pay, the GIA’s senior vice president of education and its chief academic officer. “Given the relatively small sample size for the GIA’s on-campus students, the relatively large number of students from outside the US and the significant numbers who do not identify an ethnicity, the statistics — such as they are — are...not indicative of our overall student population, which includes thousands of distance learners.”

Nonetheless, he recognizes and supports the need for change. “There is growing awareness of diversity and inclusion issues in the jewelry industry,” he says, and the GIA is “expanding how we recruit and interact with our students,” including looking outside the trade. “We are also moving toward a more targeted and intentional use of our scholarship funds, as both a recruitment tool and as a way to foster inclusion and diversity.”

Gradual progress

Despite the setbacks, the stand-downs and the unkept promises, change has begun, if slowly.

“I believe that in general, the jewelry industry is at least in a state of acknowledgement, and those who have the power to do something will,” says Kim. “One theme that is always present, and I believe will always be present, is that it takes time for change. This industry is a legacy industry, and it’s been this way for so long [that] in order for us to pivot, there is going to be a lot of work and a lot of time that passes before any real amount of change can be felt. And that’s okay. That’s one of the important elements of trying to precipitate a movement and not just focus on a moment. It may not happen now, but it will happen.”

This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of Rapaport Magazine.

Images (left to right): Kassandra Lauren Gordon, Jules Kim and Valerie Madison.
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Tags: Ana de Armas, Bijules, Bijules incubator, Bill Brace, BIPOC, Black Lives Matter, CEO Action for Diversity, Duncan Pay, Gemological Institute of America, George Floyd, GIA, James Allen, Jared, Jules Kim, Kassandra Lauren Gordon, kay, Last Word Communications, Leah Meirovich, Macy’s, Michelle Orman, Natural Diamond Council, NDC, Rent the Runway, Signet, Signet Jewelers, The Goldsmiths’ Company, Valentino, Valerie Madison, Valerie Madison Fine Jewelry, zales, Zendaya
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