Firstly, I want to congratulate you on begin such a pioneer! How did you first discover the method you use to process the metals?
It's been a really long but rewarding journey! Firstly, I was very lucky at school to have such an amazing design department where we had a resident jeweller. When I did my GCSEs, I did my first casting project there and went on to Peter Crom's foundry in Melton Mowbry. It was actually there that I found out about the possibility of Urban Mining. Then once I was at University, I got a grant from the Enterprise Society and that enabled me to understand the importance of the supply chain in terms of development and affordability. The problem is that when you buy Bullion, you have to buy it in quite large quantities, so it's working out how much you can initially buy to make it worthwhile for the Refiner. I'm thrilled to have now found a Refiner in England, whereas before I was using one in Germany — making it that bit more sustainable again!
25-year-old Eliza Walter of Lylie's jewellery may be a classically trained goldsmith, but the method and message behind her jewellery is far from traditional. Lylie's environmental approach is a leading example within the jewellery industry and goes far beyond recyclable packaging (although she does that too). Lylie's gathers the precious metals for Walter's designs from unwanted technology, whether that be in televisions, laptops, computers or phones.
Who knew that the standard mobile contains 0.2 grams of gold and the life expectancy of the phone itself is only 22 months? With technology companies bringing out the latest `must have' item every other day, there is plenty for Lylie's to choose from. Not only can hallmarked gold be extracted from our household landlines, but other non-precious metals, plastics and ceramics can be found there too. This form of `Urban Mining' drastically reduces the carbon footprint of jewellery creation; making it both ethically and aesthetically pleasing. After all, why should you have to compromise by having one or the other? With a eye for design that is unafraid to look critically upon the past, and is full of hope for the future, Lylie's designs are a stunning gift. They're a present for you, your family and friends, and more importantly, for our planet.
Is it possible for precious stones to also be sustainable?
We use a combination of stones. We use recycled diamonds from clients who want to reinvent a piece and I also have a family-run diamond dealer in Hatton Garden who sources recycled antique diamonds from estate sales, scrap dealers and at auction. Often, these stones are particularly beautiful because they've been hand cut, giving them a more interesting play of light. I personally would never buy a new gemstone.
Then there are also man-made diamonds on the market, and you'd be amazed by how many people want to have them in their engagement ring. I assumed people would want man-made diamonds in lots of jewellery but perhaps not those sentimentally valued pieces, but I've been proved wrong! They are completely identical to natural stones, visually you wouldn't be able to differentiate between the two. All the man-made diamonds I use are sourced from MadeStones, in Antwerp which are made in a simulated compression chamber that takes around six months to make in a controlled environment.
Finally, with gemstones we just use man-made stones for ethical reasons. Gemstones are cheaper which make them harder to trace. Garnets for example, are pennies to buy but they are mined in India by bound labourers, who aren't slaves exactly but are on that spectrum and work in awful conditions and are paid practically nothing. It simply doesn't make sense to use natural stones.
Does it make more sense economically to use man-made stones rather than natural ones?
If you sat with a man-made and a newly mined diamond (of the same cut, colour, clarity and carat) it would be impossible for you to differentiate between them. The price point is around 45% less then newly mined stones, and in my books, that's a win! To me, the beauty of a stone cannot be divorced from the source. There is no beauty in cruelty. Even so-called "fair-mined" stones cannot be 100% assured of source.
Ultimately, there are just too many negative points: tons of earth and countless hours of hard labour are needed to bring these gems from mine to market; in many instances, workers are bonded labour to mine owners and working conditions are intolerable and at the extreme end of human rights' abuses.
Would you say the UK is quite backwards when it comes to environmental awareness?
I think Australia seems to be the country that is the most interested in sustainability. Last year was such a good year for sustainability as everyone was talking about it. It's interesting because I'd done a Christmas fair, and this American guy came up to me and asked if I'd heard about Zero Waste as that was the way he lived. Luckily, I had read about it previously, but he was shocked because he said I was the first person he'd met in the UK who knew what he was talking about!
I've found that it's fairly normally for Generation Z and Millennial's to talk about sustainability but not so much for our parents' generation. Of course, it's not their fault, reusable cups were not au fait in the 'have it all' culture of the 80s. Over the years, they've managed to collect an alarming overabundance of stuff, which people my age would be embarrassed about. Thanks to David Attenborough's stunning work and Stacey Dooley's eye-opening documentaries, the message is spreading across all generations.
Have you found this to be the case with your customers?
Absolutely. The greatest difference between the two generations is how we consume. I don't even consider buying something new anymore. For example, whilst I was furnishing my flat, everything was second hand from Gumtree — it's much cheaper and in some respects much easier to get. It's such a different mindset. Now when you don't need something you sell it; you don't put it in a drawer and forget about it. When I was growing up, we used to have drawers and drawers filled with old electronics or just anything we didn't use anymore.
Have you found the jewellery industry to be quite a regressive industry?
When you consider that it's very much run by families or huge companies who make it extremely difficult to get your foot in the door, then it's a definite yes. However, it is about to change because there is an app launching soon, which should hopefully democratize the industry. Every dealer on the app can choose to put all of their diamond stock online, so you get an exact fair comparison of price from one stone to another. This is where the problem lies at the moment because the value side of the industry has always been shrouded in mystery, enabling it to stay as a sort of old school club that's so difficult to get into. I think, due to market demand, once clients realise that they can actually see the value of their stone via this app, then the industry will need to quickly adapt.
Do you think the big corporate jewellery houses could do more environmentally?
Especially considering that they have the big budgets so have the chance to push it. Is there a reason why they don't? I can only speak about my experiences in the industry, and that comes from working for Boodles. They really are doing great things, but they don't shout about it. Their manufacturing is entirely based in Liverpool or London and they pay fair salaries. My bigger issue is with the demifine jewellers who are manufacturing abroad yet push such low prices. It would be fantastic if there was some sort of supply chain grading system out there. It's very easy to say that brands are using 100% sustainable and ethical materials but who's actually holding them to account over it? Is every brand being truly honest?
What is your favourite part of the process?
I love designing. To go on a journey with a client and take apart bits they no longer want to wear, to work out what their style is and then to transform it into something they love. The whole process of casting and re-setting stones is the most fulfilling part of the process for me.
Are there any brands you admire?
I think Stella McCartney is doing wonderful things and she's been campaigning for so long now. I also love Reformation, Asceno, Sir Plus and Marina London.
In the future are there any collaborations you would love to work on?
Yes, I'd love to collaborate with a brand at Fashion Week like Aligheri did with Joseph, that would be a real dream come true. I think viewing jewellery online is one thing but seeing people wear it is a completely different thing altogether.
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