Living Room Session: Radical Jewelry Makeover

consumer awareness environmental issues living room sessions recycled gold sustainibility Jun 10, 2021

The World Gold Council estimates that as of the end of 2020 above-ground gold totaled 201,296.1 tonnes. Jewelry represents the largest amount of this total, equalling 93,251.1 tonnes or 46.3% of all the above-ground gold.

Could our jewelry “collections” be the source material for recycled metals and gemstones that meet your expectations for “responsible” recycled content?

Who says what we can or can’t melt down?

Could jewelry designers mandate the future of their designs so that the melting pot is part of the plan?

During May’s Living Room, we discussed jewelry recycling with the leaders of Radical Jewelry Makeover, Director, Susie Ganch and Co-Director, Kathleen Kenedy. Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM) was developed by Susie Ganch and Christina Miller in 2007. This discussion also included contributions from Curtis Arima, past participant in RJM and Adriano Mol, host of a 2021 RJM in Minas Gerais State, Brazil.

Like many of us, you might look into your jewelry box and find one earring left behind, a necklace with a broken clasp, or that funky costume jewelry you only wore once. What is the story of these pieces? Do they continue to sit in the jewelry box? Are they eventually tossed in the trash? What if they could become the source of new jewelry?

Those of us in the space of “responsible” or “sustainable” jewelry spend a lot of our time considering the beginnings of the lifecycle of jewelry. We think about where and how materials are mined, how they are processed and traded, and how they are made into pieces of jewelry. We think about the impacts these practices will have and how our interventions might improve these outcomes.

Rarely do we think about the end of the life of a piece of jewelry

Sustainability practice calls on us to consider the entire lifecycle of a piece jewelry. Each stop along the journey provides an opportunity to improve - especially very beginning and the “end” of the piece.

Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM) was born of a desire to explore how we might address waste and continue developing responsible sources.

Could our waste become our responsible source?

Susie Ganch and Christina T. Miller designed and developed the RJM project to raise awareness of the connection between mining, metalsmithing, activism, collaboration and art. RJM is an innovative community mining and jewelry recycling project that is both performance and event, linking recycling, reuse and collaborative work sessions with the creation of unique, innovative, handmade jewelry, concluding with an exhibition and reception.

Since its launch in 2007, RJM continues to serve as a gateway to collective exploration of the potential to create jewelry sustainably. An RJM project begins with a donation drive for old, unused pieces of jewelry - both fine and costume jewelry. Once collected by the project host, RJM volunteers convene for the sorting days, and take their time sifting through the piles, touching each piece and assigning values to the materials. Local artists are invited to participate through creating pieces of jewelry using the donated materials. The community at large participates by donating and if they want, choosing “remade” jewelry over conventional jewelry often for the first time.

Speaking to its pilot installment in Richmond, Virginia in 2007, Susie shared with the Living Room community that the first RJM was not just a project, but an awakening to the community’s desire for something different. Rather than surrendering to the constraints of traditional lifecycles, RJM provides a path forward using creative design approaches to give jewelry “waste” another life.

“The students literally stopped sleeping and stopped attending any class. We quickly realized that it was the most interesting thing that the students, and we were doing. It was the most important thing we were doing. It was fun. It was investigative. It was energizing.”

Christina and Susie quickly realized that this experiment could become a powerful platform for raising awareness and educating the jewelry community and public about sustainability in jewelry, and it could empower solution oriented thinking through artistic expression.

“When the exhibition was over, for the students it was like a hangover in the room where everyone was like ‘what can we do?’, and that's when we realized that we had something going. It was like Flintstones vitamins. They're tasty. ‘Yum. I'll take as many as you want me to’ - so, Christina and I quickly realized that we have a platform where we could do something with this, we could interrogate where materials are coming from. We can slip the bitter vitamin into the delicious project.”

Susie says that the project didn’t just impact those who participated, but also made people outside the program curious. When RJM was conducted in San Francisco, they filled an auditorium with a captive audience eager to learn and engage.

How has creating RJM changed ways of thinking about materials?

Co-director, Kathleen Kennedy highlighted how the ways in which we consider materials can also be radically redefined. There’s an opportunity to delve deeper at each stage. When it comes to materials, the RJM team has developed an approach that encourages participants to keep the most sustainable materials in circulation.

The idea is that if the material donated is something made with plastic, low melting metals, plating - generally less reusable materials, a small credit (5%) will be given to the donor. For materials with high reusability, such as a piece of jewelry with diamonds or gold, the donor receives a 100% credit. This method of valuing materials is meant to encourage valuing the most reusable resources available.

Of course, there are emotional and sentimental elements to reusing previously loved jewelry. One philosophical question that has surfaced as a result of the RJM project is, “Who decides which objects should be maintained and salvaged, who decides which pieces are broken apart, and how are these decisions made?” This question is an incredibly important one to explore as we collectively determine opportunities for circular supply chains.

Those who donate jewelry sign off on a consent form that the RJM team can obliterate the old jewelry at their discretion. Within the project the RJM team uses additional filters when assessing donated materials. “It’s really a community decision,” says Kathleen. As pieces are sorted by individuals and small groups, questions about shape, type of material, craftsmanship, et cetera are posed to the group at large.

What lessons can RJM share with the jewelry community at large?

Susie shared that the RJM projects have driven her to consider the lifecycle of her own pieces, as well as her legacy as an artist and person. “Over the years, the idea of an artist not wanting something to be heirloom or passed down like that is something that I really investigate in my own work. As I'm aging, my work is aging. When I die, maybe my work will die too. And I don't want to leave this pile of things like this evidence of my ego, from my lifetime, so it's something that I really think about and I have to to push on that in my own practice. With RJM, I hope that it brings those kinds of ideas to people who participate in the project.”

Former RJM artist-participant, Curtis Arima, spoke to how RJM has also influenced his practice and the way in which that has translated into how his students are educated. “One of the amazing things about radical jewelry makeover is that it kind of forces people to think about ethics and sustainability, in a way that is confronting but also engaging and not frightening. Some people don't necessarily want to engage in these conversations, and through jewelry and process and making it allows people to enter into these conversations really fluidly. It's pretty amazing. My own process has changed so radically by participating in Radical Jewelry Makeover with Christina and Kathleen and Susie in particular. It was an amazing experience that allowed my students to engage in the idea of sustainability in the environment, quite a bit more than they had before and really changed our program to think about that regularly, and it changed my studio practice. Now I do a lot of recycling of other people's materials and making new pieces for them, so they have a kind of memory of those materials.”

RJM doesn’t dictate, rather, it provides a space for self discovery and self realization. It’s unique to the location and the people who engage in each project. What RJM looks like, and the lessons that come from it, differs from one location to another. Because of this, we can learn how our own habits and practices uniquely impact sustainability. For instance, the U.S. has incredibly high consumption rates. Purchasing habits differ all over.

Next, RJM will take place in Brazil, which has different consumption habits and sustainability priorities - such as deforestation of the Amazon, and mercury pollution from gold mining, so it is expected that the experience and lessons there will be distinct to that environment, the materials donated, and the people who participate. Adriano Mol spoke to the upcoming RJM project in Brazil, “We always try to look at the whole lifecycle of the product. So it will be nice to be able to do this in these locations between different points of view and to try and see what holds more. It's always nice to have these new locations. We always shift perspectives. So, we sometimes come up with new solutions and new ideas, new ways to approach it.”

What do the outcomes of RJM look like?

Susie explained, “We supply the material and we ask the artists, in exchange, to give us their creativity and time. We ask that their work is a donation. [The pieces] have to be made with integrity. It has to be made with the values of the project. Then, we price it, we document it, we install it into an exhibition, and then the community comes and they purchase the pieces.”

“The exhibitions are very well attended, from the first one to the last one. I mean we just had hundreds and hundreds of people come to these exhibitions. The pieces are very, very different from each other - there's so much innovation in there.”

The proceeds from the sales are used in several ways. Some of the funds go back into the project to fund infrastructure needs, such as the website, social media, research, and travel. If the participating institutions receive part of the proceeds, they are asked to leave a lasting legacy behind, such as scholarships for students and artists. RJM is a community building project of Ethical Metalsmiths, so a portion of the funds also go back into the organization. The distribution of the proceeds across various actors allows the project to continue on all over the world.

While the project team has limitations in terms of their ability to host RJM projects all over the world, they have made an RJM Toolkit for institutions such as universities, high schools, guilds, and art centers to organize their own RJM! If you’d like to participate by donating your old jewelry, find out more here.

BIOS:
Susie Ganch, RJM Director, is an accomplished artist and an Associate Professor and the Metal Area Lead in the Department of Craft and Material Studies at VCU School of the Arts, Richmond, VA.
Kathleen Kennedy, RJM Co-Director, is an Adjunct Instructor and Metals Area Coordinator for the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
Curtis Arima, participant in the RJM Artist Project, Associate Professor of Jewelry and Metal Arts at California College of the Arts, CA.
Adriano Mol, host of a 2021 RJM in Minas Gerais and Head of the Center for Gemstone and Lapidary Design at the Minas Gerais State University.

Takeaways:

Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM) was born of a desire to explore how we might address waste and continue developing responsible sources. It is an innovative community mining and jewelry recycling project that is both performance and event, linking recycling, reuse and collaborative work sessions with the creation of unique, innovative, handmade jewelry, concluding with an exhibition and reception.

Rather than surrendering to the constraints of traditional lifecycles, RJM provides a path forward using creative design approaches to give jewelry “waste” another life.

“The students literally stopped sleeping and stopped attending any class. We quickly realized that it was the most interesting thing that the students, and we were doing. It was fun. It was investigative. It was energizing.”

“Over the years, the idea of an artist not wanting something to be heirloom or passed down like that is something that I really investigate in my own work. As I'm aging, my work is aging. When I die, maybe my work will die too. And I don't want to leave this pile of things like this evidence of my ego, from my lifetime, so it's something that I really think about and I have to to push on that in my own practice.With RJM, I hope that it brings those kinds of ideas to people who participate in the project.” - Susie Ganch

“One of the amazing things about RJM is that it kind of forces people to think about ethics and sustainability, in a way that is confronting but also engaging and not frightening.”

“Some people don't necessarily want to engage in these conversations, and through jewelry and process and making it allows people to enter into these conversations really fluidly. It's pretty amazing.”

“My own process has changed so radically by participating in Radical Jewelry Makeover with Christina and Kathleen and Susie in particular. It was an amazing experience that allowed my students to engage in the idea of sustainability in the environment, quite a bit more than they had before and really changed our program to think about that regularly, and it changed my studio practice. Now I do a lot of recycling of other people's materials and making new pieces for them, so they have kind of memory of those materials.” - Curtis Arima

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