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Personalisation of products is a drawcard for many shoppers and when it comes to engagement rings, the degree of personalisation is dialled up to the highest level as customers seek to design a custom ring that conveys their deep love and commitment.
Custom fine jewelry design firm Alexandra Brooke Designs puts a unique sustainable spin on this notion by offering customers something that most big-name jewelers don’t: made-to-order designs specializing in recycled or reclaimed diamonds and precious metals.
Based in the mountain village of Steamboat Springs, Colorado known as a world class ski resort destination, founder and principal designer Brooke Lawrence, sought to find a creative activity outside of the ski slopes. The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity, opening her up to the artistic world of jewelry making and design. “Doing medical work on the hill in challenging conditions can be overwhelming,” shares Brooke. “Working another job that fosters creativity in a calm and nurturing environment is the perfect balance for me.”
Getting her start in the industry by working for another jewelry designer, Brooke was enamored by the process of making jewelry but was less enthused by what she was learning about the mining and extraction process. “I couldn’t continue to work for an industry that was damaging to this Earth,” she admits. When she decided to branch out on her own, the seed was sown for the concept that lies at the heart of her business: veto newly mined diamonds and offer only recycled and reclaimed ones. “I saw how the diamond industry was profiting off of unethical and environmentally destructive practices so when I learned about recycled diamonds I was hooked.”
Many people will have learned about the issues within the diamond trade having watched the box-office smash hit Blood Diamonds starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film introduced a worldwide audience to the role that diamonds can play in inflaming civil war in countries like Sierra Leone. Such diamonds are mined in areas controlled by rebel forces who sell them to fund the purchase of weaponry and fuel armed conflict, resulting in bloodshed and other war-related crimes such as the kidnapping of children for the purpose of training them to become child soldiers. Diamonds that fuel armed conflict are commonly known as conflict diamonds.
Since the film’s release in 2006, the industry has been under intense scrutiny with advocates demanding jewelry companies make their supply chains transparent. Under pressure to make changes and with sustainability and social responsibility now on the minds of many consumers, the diamond industry responded with a solution of sorts– “conflict free” diamonds.
But are conflict free diamondsreally free of conflict?
Brooke explains that the term “conflict-free” is used to classify diamonds that have not been mined by non-governmental armed groups to fund violent conflict. The issue with the term, however, is that it is too narrow in focus and doesn’t factor in unfair and exploitative labour practices. “Conflict free diamonds can still be mined by child workers in unfair and very unsafe conditions with no worker protections,” explains Brooke. “Conflict free doesn’t mean exploit free and I think it’s important to highlight this.”
The sustainable jeweler reveals that 15-20% of all mined diamonds labelled “conflict free” are still mined under exploitative conditions and because the real origin of a mined diamond is difficult to track, these unethical diamonds – roughly one in five of all diamonds extracted – still enter the market. There are some diamonds, Brooke says, such as Canada-mined diamonds, that are easy to trace but they come with a higher price tag. And what about lab-grown diamonds? She admits that lab-grown diamonds are another option but “they don’t hold their value and take huge amounts of energy to produce.”
The mining of precious metals such as gold and silver also comes with its own set of environmental and social problems. For instance, gold, one of the world’s most sought-after commodities and a mainstay in the jewelry industry, is extracted with the aid of explosives and harsh chemicals such as arsenic, cyanide and mercury that not only results in environmental destruction, but also leads to human health issues as waterways are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic pollutants. Furthermore, in many parts of the developing world where gold mining exists such as Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Peru, exploitative labour practices and child labour is rampant.
It is the plethora of environmental and social problems linked to modern-day mining that has led Brooke to conclude that recycled and reclaimed diamonds is the most eco-friendly way to source diamonds. “Recycled, second-hand, pre-owned, antique, vintage – whatever you want to call it, it is the most eco-friendly way to buy diamonds. They are already in circulation; their footprint cannot be remade.” Additionally, the jeweler only uses reclaimed and recycled metals in the making of the fittings and mountings.
And while recycled and reclaimed inputs are the focus, Brooke also sources USA-mined gemstones for clients searching for something a little different. Sourcing domestically mined gemstones makes them easier to trace and enables the business to minimise carbon footprint whilst supporting other American-made businesses.
As Alexandra Brooke Designs is still a one-woman small business, customers can expect to receive ongoing one-on-one consultations with Brooke who guarantees a positive and beneficial experience. “I limit the number of clients I take on so I can give plenty of attention to everyone I’m working with. It really is a process of co-creation and I encourage my couples to communicate with me consistently about what they like and don’t like.”
Most customers who approach the jewelry design firm intend to propose and get married, so much of Brooke’s work focuses on custom designing engagement rings and wedding bands. Working virtually from her design studio, she will spend hours handpicking the best diamond options from 11 trusted vendors. Her commitment to helping clients design and create the ring of their dreams is unwavering, whether a couple has a budget of $2,000 or $15,000. The icing on the proverbial cake? Recycled diamonds and reclaimed stones are generally more affordable than freshly mined stones, proving that sustainability doesn’t need to cost the earth.
With a love of the great outdoors and geologist parents who Brooke credits with fostering her fascination with gemstones and crystals, the journey into sustainable jewelry design was seemingly destined. And despite launching the business in the midst of COVID-19, the start-up is attracting a steady stream of clientele. “Seeing how many people care just as much as me about choosing to buy things that will benefit the Earth and our future in it is truly inspiring. It’s humbling to see the side of humanity that really cares.”
With the sector’s growing list of negative environmental and social impacts, it’s hardly surprising that Brooke, an outdoor adventurer and nature-lover, has chosen to establish a jewelry design studio that in its small way attempts to right so many of the industry’s wrongs – all while centering her client’s wishes every step of the way.
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