The findings of research commissioned by Kassandra Lauren Gordon and the Goldsmiths’ Company into the challenges faced by black jewelers in the UK paint a somber picture of endemic racism, under-representation and significant barriers to success. Here’s why it’s high time for the industry to take a more proactive approach to nurturing black creatives, ensuring equal opportunities and giving the talented BIPOC professionals in the jewelry industry the visibility they deserve.
When the movement for social justice exploded onto the streets in the summer of 2020, London-based jeweler Kassandra Lauren Gordon wrote an open letter to the jewelry industry via The Jewellery Cut, detailing the lack of diversity in the British jewelry industry and the experiences of the BIPOC community who work in it. Her words hit home, and she went on to launch the Kassandra Lauren Gordon Fund, eventually awarding 21 crowd-funded grants to black jewelers. She used a portion of the money raised to fund a social research study of the experiences of black jewelers in the UK, with help from the Goldsmiths’ Company Charity, the 700-year-old London-based organization that supports craftspeople in the jewelry industry.
As the summer wore on and masked demonstrations for social justice became regular occurrences in cities around the world, people who identify as BIPOC in the British jewelry industry responded to Gordon’s survey in their scores, detailing their professional experiences and outlining the challenges they faced in their work during follow-up interviews. Starting with difficulties accessing education, training and even supply chain, through experiences of varying degrees of racism on the day-to-day and a lack of representation in the press, their answers provided a snapshot of what life its like for the estimated 3% of BIPOC people working in the UK industry in 2020, “most” of whom have experienced some form of discrimination, according to the study.
They make for tough reading, but for the Goldsmiths’ Company, the findings are invaluable: “this research shows where the opportunities and challenges lie for black jewelers in our industry and provides an important roadmap for change,” says CEO of Goldsmiths’ Company, David Reddaway. The Company is keeping the momentum going with “a series of collaborations focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in education and training, particularly for people coming into the industry through alternative routes.” These include financial support for initiatives set up to train and nurture under-represented communities in the industry, like the Jewellery Futures Fund, as well as a grants fund for BIPOC jewelers.
‘You turn up to the interview and suddenly the mood changes’: negative experiences from workshop to classroom
From stories of workplace micro aggressions, to experiences of overtly racist treatment during recruitment and a perceived lack of recognition for performance, BIPOC jewelers in the UK feel they have to work harder to get the same results as their white peers from their training onwards. “You’ll have a telephone interview, and they’re really impressed with your CV. Then you turn up to the interview and suddenly the mood changes,” reported a participant. One industry veteran said they had seen an improvement in the situation since the 1990s, however: “I couldn’t get any work, anywhere. [As a] young, skilled black man, you aren’t going to get any work… today, it’s a lot easier, but in the beginning of the 90s, there was just no love.”
Black women jewelers surveyed also shared negative gendered experiences at work, often based around their appearance or suitability for their chosen career, all of which points to a desperate need for employers to better adhere to diversity and equal opportunity policies and be more inclusive in their communications, ideally, with large companies and industry bodies leading the way.
According to the study, the challenges of an industry seen as exclusionary and professional networks perceived as “closed”, have lead black jewelers to form their own collectives, collaborating on pop-ups and exchanging contacts. Difficulties accessing supplies has pushed some participants to source materials exclusively online, while others reported anxiety while buying: “”I remember one instance, I don’t know how this person didn’t fall down the stairs she ran down them so fast when she realized I’d gone down on my own [to look at supplies]. I just thought, ‘don’t you guys have CCTV?'”.
The report called for a widespread review of customer service policy amongst suppliers and help from industry bodies for those sourcing materials. One respondent had already taken grassroots action to set up a listing of black jewelry industry professionals covering everyone from gem setters and designers, to PRs and suppliers, which has been an effective entry point into the supply chain, boosting social capital for many who previously felt excluded.
Classroom incidents of racism during training were also reported, both from fellow students and course tutors, which led to a perceived lack of guidance and support, to the point that one survey participant reported it affected their mental health enough for them to go to their doctor: “I got really depressed, [I thought] she’s going to fail me and there’s nothing I can do.” Ethnic stereotyping from teaching staff (“you should just make jewelry for your community”) and curricula that focused too heavily on a euro-centric aesthetic were also noted, as well as complaints being met with apathy. More black jewelry tutors, more open communication between staff and students and curricula reviews are all measures that will help change the culture in the classroom.
With evidence like this, it’s not hard to see why young black students might prefer to train in alternative establishments. One respondent said she had experienced so much racism during her training, that she planned to start up her own jewelry academy, a venture that the UK’s National Association of Jewellers is now behind. The Goldsmiths’ Company is supporting the MasterPeace Academy in Birmingham, a school for African Caribbean master jewelers, and runs a schools outreach program to encourage under-represented communities into the industry. But the challenge lies in creating interest amongst students who may never have even considered the jewelry industry in career terms.
No representation, no inspiration
Press visibility is essential for independent designers in any field, but it is also an important tool for inspiring the next generation with examples of successful professionals from similar backgrounds: “minorities always feel the disparities in any career choice,” says jewelry designer Valerie Madison, in the US. “I have no family ties or connection to the jewelry industry and have learned everything on my own.” Media representation can challenge notions of what is and isn’t possible for young people but historically, there has been a perception amongst BIPOC jewelers that journalists did not pay equal attention to what they were doing: “the press haven’t been amazingly supportive. What I’m learning is that the industry is quite closed and cliquey,” said one respondent.
More recently, perceptions have begun to change and the UK press is starting to cast its net wider with a more inclusive editorial line. In September 2020, Vanity Fair on Jewellery published the first issue of the magazine to mix up the work of black designers – indeed, of any independent designers – alongside pieces from big-name brands who usually request exclusivity on the page. Two months later, British Vogue ran a feature spotlighting five UK-based black designers (Jacqueline Rabun, Melanie Eddy, Emefa Cole, Simone Brewster and Jeff Awah of Laud), but while concrete action like this to change attitudes has been broadly welcomed, there is still a way to go to level the playing field of representation: “you should be including everyone who has excellent jewelry, it’s disheartening we have to point this out,” read one comment.
Breaking through the barriers
According to the report, black jewelers require resilience and “fighting spirit” to weather these experiences and overcome the challenges they face. But disappointingly, despite making the right noises during summer 2020, there has been little in the way of tangible support from the better-known jewelry companies. For Gordon, this “highlights the barriers unique to black jewelers even more.”
In December 2020, Gordon and the Goldsmiths’ Company followed up with a public discussion hosted by The Jewellery Cut, featuring jewelry industry representatives on how the UK industry can move forwards. For panel member Professor Sarita Malik, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications at Brunel University, as a hybrid sector spanning retail, branding and manufacturing, jewelry is “uniquely positioned to be able to make a change… I hope they’ll look back and say ‘there was a moment and a movement and actually, there’s been change'”.
More broadly, the hope now is also that as attitudes and behaviors change, momentum will gather in the wider industry and the larger, less nimble organizations will catch up with the shift currently happening on the ground. “I have done my best to inspire change,” says Gordon, who is currently focusing on her work with the Black Jewellers Network alongside her business, “but as a small jeweler, I can only do so much.” Now it’s time for the rest of the sector to step up and make the jewelry industry more diverse, richer and fairer for everyone.
Learn more about the findings of the Kassandra Lauren Gordon into the challenges faced by black jewelers in the UK: