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A Conversation with Harriet Kelsall – Part One

A Conversation with Harriet Kelsall – Part One

April 29, 2016, by Anna Barker



As part of our new blog series tracing the supply chain, Anna Barker was lucky enough to interview Harriet Kelsall, award-winning ethical jeweller and one of the most respected bespoke designers in the UK jewellery industry today.

I met Harriet at her converted-barn studios in Hertfordshire, designed by Callum Lumsden, of Mary Portas ‘Queen of Shops’ fame. They are beautiful, set in picturesque English countryside. Inside, the glass cabinets showcase jewellery created by specialist HK Bespoke designers, and crafted by the in-house metal smiths and gem setter.

Harriet Kelsall speaking at the Flux conference on the 19 April at the Goldsmith's Centre

HK Bespoke is a transparent company, in principle and practice. The café looks onto the glass panelled workshop, where you can watch jewellery be made whilst sipping Fairtrade coffee and eating homemade cake.

Sketches and old designs are everywhere: telling the story of jewellery from every angle. Cabinets include educational displays about sourcing policies and mining communities, and demonstrate the packaging: a sustainable, reusable bamboo box. The ethos of the company is apparent, before I even speak to Harriet.

The start of the ethical journey

‘I learned to make jewellery from my dad, who is a doctor and a keen, and very talented, hobby jeweller,’ Harriet explains. ‘I think this was important’ she adds, reflecting on what motivates her to be sustainable, ‘I grew up in a house where other people came first.’

This ingrained compassion was further reinforced during her experiences at university, where she studied Industrial Design. ‘I’d always had a passion for jewellery, but I’d never thought you could do what you love for a living.’

A pendant designed for Lisa Snowden (HK Bespoke ©)

The choice to study Industrial Design was a pragmatic one: it allowed Harriet to nurture her creative energy through practical, applicable ideas. She tells me about a completely new course she undertook called Environmental Design, run by forward thinking Eric Billet, where they analysed how product design could reduce environmental impact.

‘Our customers may have never heard of FT gold before in their lives…but…by the time they finish, they have not only often chosen that route, but they’ve also learnt what that is all about. I don’t think they’ll ever buy a non-Fairtrade banana again, either!’

This course would have a long-term effect on Harriet. ‘I felt very at home in that environment, and asking those questions,’ she explains.

Before jewellery was her full time occupation, and Harriet was in the computer industry, she would make commissions for friends in her spare time (always one for bespoke design). ‘I would go into London and I would source the stones,’ she explains. She asked about which ones were more environmentally sound, which ones were at risk of child labour, and what they knew about the sourcing of the stones.

I remember asking one of them, when I was about eighteen, a lot of questions, and he said to me, ‘you’re in the wrong industry for that hippy crap, love.’’ Harriet describes her shock at his reaction, and what it said about how dire the state of the jewellery industry must be.

‘I realised, at that moment just asking these questions was a good start.’ She persisted, and she questioned, and they finally could no longer ignore her. One dealer began to ask their suppliers, and the information eventually filtered through. At last, Harriet was able to make more responsible sourcing choices.

Ethical practice in a famously unethical industry

‘I realised that I had aspirations for the business,’ Harriet says, which unfortunately came with the realisation that it would therefore be impossible to be an exclusively ethical jeweller.

Did it bother her, that she was stocking two such different products? ‘No, it’s really easy. It’s just like offering Fairtrade coffee, or ordinary coffee…. What we can do is, as we retail, we can educate people.’

‘Our customers may have never heard of FT gold before in their lives…but when they sit down with us, we have the opportunity to talk to them about that, and by the time they finish, they have not only often chosen that route, but they’ve also learnt what that is all about. I don’t think they’ll ever buy a non-Fairtrade banana again, either!’

Harriet explains that it’s up to…the larger retailers… to stock Fairtrade and educate their customers, just as HK Bespoke does

They are in the position to educate. And this is where Harriet’s frustration lies: the big retailers and chain jewellers claim they don’t stock Fairtrade gold because of supply and demand, and that there isn’t sufficient demand.

But Harriet explains that it’s up to them to generate the demand, and that the larger retailers need to stock Fairtrade and educate their customers, just as HK Bespoke does. ‘It’s really frustrating, because they have ability to change things.’ There have been significant improvements, she adds, but they remain a long way off.

Alice Rochester, Senior Jewellery Designer at HK Bespoke, has been quoted as saying ‘we don’t call ourselves ‘ethical’ jewellers as… we are aware that we are first and foremost bespoke jewellery designers.’ [1]

I ask Harriet about this. Is it because it is too hard to be an ethical jeweller and, besides the additional costs associated with ethical jewellery, why is this?

Firstly, it’s just not feasible, I’m told. ‘If we could find everything an ethical solution that was only a bit costlier, we definitely would,’ Harriet explains, but unfortunately this is not yet possible. Secondly, the title of ethical jeweller frightens people away. The priority of the customer is a unique, one-off piece of jewellery, whilst ethics comes a close second.

What are the obstacles to being an ethical jeweller? ‘For me, only one, which is the supply of what we can find.’ Fairtrade silver, for example, is in minimal supply, and Fairtrade platinum is rare and extremely expensive.

Harriet believes in engaging with artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), but it’s about how to do this responsibly, and what is available. ‘There is still such a long way to go,’ she sighs, ‘even now we have Fairtrade gold, we can’t even get all the gold we need.’

This is the first of 2 parts. Next time, Harriet shares about sourcing from ASM and Cambridge Geek Chic.

Harriet founded Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery (HKBespoke) in 1998 and has since collected over thirty national and international awards. Harriet was Everywoman’s ‘Retail Woman of the Year’ in 2011, and was one of the IoD Director Magazine’s six ‘Women who have most changed the business world’ in 2014. As a champion for ethics, the environment and CSR, Harriet has tirelessly campaigned with others for improvement: in 2011 she helped launch Fairtrade Gold worldwide and her business became the first in the world to be both Fairtrade licensed and certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Please visit her online shop to learn more about her work and buy something sparkly: https://www.hkjewellery.co.uk/ .

[1] Alice Rochester. 22 February 2013. ‘Fairtrade Jewellery… at Harriet Kelsall Jewellery Design.’ Accessed 21/01/2016 via https://fairtradecambridge.wor...

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