When the Brazilian designer Ara Vartanian tells his clients to “buy better,” he doesn’t mean better jewelry. He means jewelry that does good.
Mr. Vartanian is one of a growing number of independent jewelers creating trends beyond just style or design. For them, the emphasis is on materials: using sustainably mined gold or precious gems, or incorporating organic materials into their creations.
It is all part of a movement to elevate jewelry beyond mere ornamentation and give it purpose through contributions to culture and the preservation of the earth.
But stones from miners who revitalize the rainforests destroyed by their production, or who invest in clean water or schools for their communities, inevitably cost more than those from other mines. Nonetheless, said the Dutch designer Bibi van der Velden, who works with recycled gold and often incorporates natural materials into her designs, “in the business that we are in, it’s important that we make a difference in the way things are made and the livelihoods of people.”
Here, three designers dedicated to sustainable-ethical practices share their stories.
1. Bibi van der Velden
Flora and fauna play starring roles in Ms. van der Velden’s designs, such as her Alligator Bite earrings, gold alligators that clasp earlobes in their mouths while their tails dance below; or the Monkey Ring in a Ring (18,850 euros in Europe and $22,620 in the United States), with brown-diamond monkeys circling a finger and another ring adorned with a gold banana hidden in their midst.
The designer has brought that same appreciation of nature to her materials, including scarab beetle wings collected from a Bangkok farm that cultivates the insects as a delicacy, recycled gold and a mammoth tusk she acquired 15 years ago. “The tusk has many properties of ivory,” she noted in a recent phone interview, “but without harming a living animal. Plus you’re actually preserving it, because otherwise once it’s exposed to oxygen, it rots.”
Much of Ms. van der Velden’s work is bespoke, which often allows her to recut or repolish stones from the customer’s existing jewelry for the new design. “I love everything you put into a new context and give a new life,” she said.
But sustainability is not the only inspiration for her designs. For the Ukrainian Alligator earrings she created after the Russian invasion, for instance, the 18-karat gold head and articulated tail were joined by a hand-carved yellow citrine and blue topaz — the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The entire price — €5,240 or $6,288 — goes to UNICEF’s efforts in Ukraine.
“It’s a way that jewelry is not just about something that is pretty,” she said. “I try, in a very honest way, to make a difference.”
2. Ara Vartanian
In 2019 Mr. Vartanian created the Conscious Mining Initiative, standards to encourage social responsibility in mining that he has invited other businesses to adopt. But it was nearly inevitable that he would work to reshape the industry: His designs center on changing the ways gems look.
His inverted diamonds, now a registered trademark design, are literally that: classically cut stones set with the table, or flat area of the stone, lying against the wearer’s skin and the point upward. The result is not only edgy and architectonic, but it’s an intriguing restructuring of form, refraction and light.
Case in point: his take on the classic tennis bracelet — a spiked, punk-like strand of black, white, or black and white inverted diamonds (€22,813) that bring the light into the stones as they thrust, pyramidlike, from the wearer’s wrist. Or consider his two- and three-finger rings, which rethink what a ring can be on the wearer’s hand: instead of a single band with a gemstone centered on one finger, these rings wrap around two or three fingers, balancing a bold center emerald or rubellite — perhaps flanked by inverted diamonds — between them.
The jeweler was born in Lebanon but raised in São Paulo, Brazil, with a jewelry-designing mother and a father who traded gemstones, an upbringing that imbued him with a near-instinctive understanding of how the cut and setting of a stone can affect a piece of jewelry. It also left him with a deep love for Brazil, where his business is based. That love is evident in his frequent use of Brazilian emeralds, rubellite and blue Paraiba tourmalines, all sourced exclusively from the Cruzeiro, Belmont and Brazil Paraiba mines in Brazil, which have committed to his initiative’s standards of ethical and sustainable practices.
Mr. Vartanian admits jewelers can’t always know or vet the sources of all their stones. But, he said, he has seen progress. “Ten years ago,” he said on a recent video call, “we would say, ‘What celebrity is dressing in your jewelry?’ That’s what was exciting. But really, who cares? Is this guy doing something good in his industry? This is the champion today. This is my vision.”
3. Lula Castillo
Ms. Castillo’s atelier in upstate New York looks nothing like your usual jeweler’s studio. There is no gold. There are no precious or semiprecious stones. The designer, who was born in Colombia, works exclusively in organic materials native to South America: acai seeds, lima beans, bombona beans, Peruvian chirilla seeds, tagua nuts and citrus peel.
“I love gemstones,” she said in a recent video call. “They come from nature and they’re beautiful. But it never crossed my mind to use them. Nature provides me with her own material.”
Holding a tagua in her hand, she explained her process: peeling the nut, then slicing it and crocheting the pieces together with other beans, seeds and citrus peel in the shape of roses. She drills the centers out of other tagua to make retro-style chain-link necklaces, some milk-white, others dyed in turquoise, raspberry or saffron — colors, Ms. Castillo said, inspired by the art and fashions of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
The techniques she uses are largely traditional to Latin America, though Ms. Castillo has modified them over the years. Unlike the artisans in her native country, for instance, where seeds are often machine-polished and drilled and dyed in large batches, she works them by hand, mixing the dyes herself.
Many of her designs — from simple combinations to complex, interwoven layers of form, texture and color — marry tradition with contemporary edge. Her amethyst-hued Purple Rain necklace ($350), for instance, interweaves jacaranda seed pods and bell-shaped silk cocoons.
Such pieces go beyond just using sustainable materials; her work also has supported craft traditions at risk of being lost and making them new again. “I like to think of myself as an alchemist,” she said. “Everything that passes through my hands should be transformed.”