BRITISH VOGUE FORCES FOR CHANGE X ANABELA CHAN INTERVIEW . 2022
Edward Enninful: Clara, for your third and final assignment, I’d like you to explore the world of sustainable jewellery, which I know can be a very complex subject.
Clara Amfo: No problem, I’m up for a challenge! There’s a jewellery brand that’s working hard to ensure its pieces are both ethically-made and eco-friendly – let me go and find out more now!
Anabela, what led you to start your own jewellery brand?
Jewellery is the most magical thing you can wear – it has the ability to empower and bring immense personal joy; for something so small that can be held in the palm of your hand, it can hold a world of emotions and memories. An object of art and craftsmanship that can be worn on the body, close to our hearts.
The beauty of high jewellery is that it is an escape from the ordinary to a realm where anything is possible.
It is notoriously exclusive, accessible only to less than 0.1% of all people, and I wanted to change that.
Have you used lab-grown gemstones since the beginning? Why did you decide to use lab-grown stones rather than natural gemstones?
When I launched my brand 9 years ago on graduation, it was my mission to offer a different perspective in the industry – I wanted to create equally beautiful and red carpet worthy jewels without the conflict, humanitarian and environmental issues and untraceable provenance associated with mining.
I was trained very traditionally in fine jewellery and natural gemstones at the Royal College of Art and Gemmological Association – but everything changed from a trip to Sri Lanka 10 years ago where I visited colour gemstone mines locally. Seeing the conditions of how the miners worked, how little they were paid and the lives they led – they were mining some of the most valuable commodities in the world and yet they also live and work in some of the harshest conditions just made no sense to me, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. That is when I decided to research into alternative materials – gemstones cultivated in a science laboratory rather than mined from the ground.
Independently founded in London in 2013, we are the first fine jewellery brand in the world to champion laboratory-grown gemstones and recycled metals paired with high jewellery design and artisanal craftsmanship, always driven by a focus on sustainable innovations. Today we also work with a carefully curated selection of fully traceable and responsible gemstones by artisanal miners, with a commitment to support multiple solutions to the cause that are mindful to planet and people, supporting local and global communities where it matters most.
Can you tell us a bit about the process used to make lab-grown gemstones?
Gemstones are made of minerals – much like growing crystals in science class as a child – it is made possible by mimicking the conditions within the earth where the gemstones are formed in a controlled environment – in a laboratory. For example, Diamonds are made of Carbon; Sapphires are corundum which is aluminium oxide and Rubies are aluminium oxide with chromium.
There are two types of laboratory-grown gemstones – synthesised meaning they are gemmologically and optically identical to natural gemstones, and simulated gemstones that are optically identical but chemically different to their mined counterparts.
Lab-grown gemstones, and in particular lab-grown diamonds, are still a bit of a controversial subject – why do you think that is? What do you think are some of the myths that remain around lab-grown gemstones?
Diamonds are among nature’s most precious and beautiful creations. They have been coveted for centuries across the world for its beauty and intrinsic value from as early as 4 century B.C. washed up on riverbeds as pebbles. Ancient Greeks believed them to have mystical protective powers, and it is from the Greek term ‘adamas’, meaning invincible, that the word ‘diamond’ originates.
But its popularity and synonymous association with romance and the notion of eternity really originated from the 1940s to the 1980s, as the result of possibly the most successful marketing campaign in history commissioned by De Beers, which includes its infamous slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’.
Commercial mining of natural resources whether it is for fossil fuels or diamonds is one of the most destructive industries on the planet. You have to consider not only a carbon footprint, which is only a single facet of the environmental impact that also includes the displacement of people, land and wildlife - the loss of natural habitats and ecosystems, and often communities of people. Mining is also inherently polluting, from air to water to soil – it is also labour intensive and often involves some of the harshest working conditions.
When it comes to industrial diamond mining, we have to consider the full life cycle of the mine from exploration to excavation, followed by depletion, closure and land restoration, all of which involves a great deal of efforts in both human labour and energy consumption. On the other hand, laboratory grown diamonds can be relocated and powered by renewable energy alone, which is not possible with mined diamonds.
We are excited to be currently working on a collaboration with a laboratory in Gloucestershire for 2023 – SkyDiamonds, whereby carbon dioxide is captured from the atmosphere through a technology pioneered by Climeworks in Switzerland to grow the diamonds using only the sun, the wind, the rain and atmospheric carbon. What is exiting about this is turning something that we don’t want, into something precious and valuable.
Many people will say that fine jewellery is timeless and can transcend generations therefore it is sustainable – and yes it is – fine jewellery itself is sustainable – but the mining of natural resources and gemstone can never be truly sustainable as it is not an infinite source.
Not many people know that to obtain one carat of diamond, 1100 tonnes of earth has to be dug up from the ground, and in the process releases toxic gases into the atmosphere.
What are some of the other materials you use to create your pieces? I know you use recycled metals too?
Our ground-breaking use of recycled aluminium from soda cans is a world’s first and pioneer in circular material innovation. It is a research and development project of 2 years to recycle and refine the metal into a state pure enough for casting just like molten gold and silver.
You do now also use some natural gemstones – what led you to make that decision?
In 2019, I came across an important initiative called Moyo Gems and subsequently in 2020, we introduced the first fully traceable and responsible natural artisanal mined gemstone collection, using the Everledger blockchain to trace back to the individual miner her/himself where they are guaranteed to receive 90-95% of the export price of each stone, 3-10 times what they conventionally receive, with proceeds re-invested back into local communities to fund education, social and community infrastructure support powered by the global non-profit organisation Pact and the GIA. For me personally, Moyo Gems is the first time I feel that it is done the right way.
We also became a partner for the non-profit charity Gem Legacy in the process, who work tirelessly to support artisanal mining communities in West and East Africa.
For 2021 - 2023, we also collaborated with 3rd generation eco-pearl farmers in French Polynesia to harvest natural Tahitian pearls through a slow regenerative process that has not only restored local fish populations including near-extinct species, but also regenerated coral reefs and the marine ecosystem surrounding the atoll. This is a perfect example of how we can work with nature to better it.
How important is it to you that you can trace exactly where your materials are coming from?
I think being able to trace to its origin is only a beginning – what makes a gemstone or product be it fruits and vegetables to fashion clothing to rubies and sapphires is that the people are paid fairly, working under safe conditions and have the access to the basic necessities such as clean water, medical facility and education for their children, for example. And that we do not damage the planet and natural habitats along the way.
For you and your brand, is social impact just as crucial as the environmental footprint of your pieces?
Giving back is an important part of our ethos since day 1, we support up to 10 different charities every year with both local and global impact, big and small ranging from a school bursary to non-profits such as Women for Women International, Save The Children and Gem Legacy supporting artisanal mining communities in west Africa, to SeaTrees restoring ocean coastal ecosystems in West Papua. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we raised over 88k between Jan to June alone for 10 charities worldwide, from Age U.K. to The Trussel Trust Food Banks, Mission Oxygen India to providing nutritional meals to children in mining communities in Tanzania due to school closures. We gave away jewellery to our national health service nurses and front line workers through their friends and family’s nominations. One particular special project to me was my flower therapy initiative- I found myself painting flowers in the garden everyday in the first lockdown as a form of therapeutic refuge, I shared these on social media and discovered people wanted to buy them, so we sold these flower sketches to raise funds for the NHS and 3 lockdowns later we also installed a permanent park bench at Berkeley Square in London, dedicated to all essential workers fighting Covid 19. We hope in time they can come and take a seat.
Our AC Ocean Initiative alone has the capacity to remove 9800+ tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere since 2021 to date. Through partnering with The Seatrees Project by planting mangroves, we create critical habitat for marine life and provide sustainable employment for local communities in West Papua, one of the world’s richest ocean biodiversities.
2020 was also a year of reflection - I became a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, as well as taken on the role of art and design ambassador for my former boarding school to help mentor girls from age 13-18 who wishes to pursue a creative career. I realised it is a privilege to be able to do what I love and If I am able to raise awareness and inspire other people to make a difference, then it is all worthwhile.
I think professionally to be able to design and create freely whilst pushing the boundaries of what is possible through innovation is what makes everyday exciting; and personally to be able to give back and support communities where it matters most makes what we do everyday meaningful.
What does that term, sustainability, mean to you?
I think sustainability means a permanence that is kind to both planet and people. It encompasses 3 pillars – human ethical, environmental, and social economical.
Human & Ethical Sustainability is a focus on human welfare free from exploitation, with fair pay, safe working conditions and access to basic human rights including clean water, healthcare and education regardless of geopolitical demographic.
Environmental Sustainability is a focus on minimising carbon footprint, pioneering circular material innovation and supporting nature conservation and restoration projects worldwide.
Social & Economical Sustainability is a focus on contribution to society locally and globally through business development, education and philanthropy.
You’ve had some high-profile stars wearing Anabela Chan pieces, from Lady Gaga and Beyonce to Taylor Swift and Rihanna. How does it feel to see these celebrities wearing your pieces?
It gives me as much joy and excitement to see women and men wearing my jewellery out and about everyday as it does global stars on the red carpet. As an independent brand discovered purely through word of mouth, we are also the first and only fine jewellery brand to place laboratory grown gemstone creations with recycled metals at every major red carpet events from The Oscars, Grammy’s, Emmy’s, Bafta’s, Golden Globes, MTV and Brit Awards to The Met Gala - worn by Stars from Beyonce to Rihanna, Lady Gaga to Anne Hathaway, Dua Lipa to Taylor Swift, Lupita Ngongo to Julia Roberts, Mariah Carey to J Lo, Zendaya to Zoe Kravitz and more - all without a single paid partnership.
This year at the Oscars, we dressed over 10 leading ladies and gentlemen from the Academy Awards to the Vanity Fair Afterparty. We created jewellery for Hermione at the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary special- Return to Hogwarts. From Mariah Carey’s Christmas Special to Beyoncé’s Black is King short film, to Rihanna’s global Harpers Bazaar cover to her private birthday and Halloween parties. Most of the time I believe people are drawn to my designs and aesthetics to begin with, and when they learn about our ethos and reasoning in our material choice, they are the more supportive and excited to champion our jewellery.
What impact can celebrities wearing your pieces have in terms of raising awareness about the importance of sustainably-made and ethically-sourced jewellery?
Having awareness is key – then you can make considered decisions that are mindful and responsible. As with all design discipline, I believe it is about learning from the past, to offer a different perspective in the present, and always with a dream for a better future. As Maya Angelou said, ‘’Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better.’‘