Illustration of sustainable jewelry
With some dedicated time and research, you can find pieces that meet your preference and price point. (Illustration by Drew Parrott, Oswego University)

The Guide To Buying Ethically-Made, Sustainable Jewelry

A few jewelry companies allow you to be conscious of the environment and working conditions when purchasing new accessories.

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Illustration of sustainable jewelry

A few jewelry companies allow you to be conscious of the environment and working conditions when purchasing new accessories.

Over the past couple of years, the fashion industry and its consumers have gotten increasingly conscious of the damage that commercialization has done to the world. Recognition of fast fashion’s corruption has become widespread, and many newer, more transparent fashion brands have emerged in its wake. But ethical fashion doesn’t stop at clothing — the sustainable jewelry industry is growing rapidly and producing suave, minimalist pieces that are marketing to the everyday wearer.

What Is Sustainable Jewelry?

Up-and-coming entrepreneurs from across the world are creating small, ethical jewelry brands that make timeless products, the likes of which you can see on your favorite influencers’ Instagram feeds. Minimalism has been a part of the 21st century zeitgeist ever since the recession in the 2000s, with designers and stylists pushing the boundaries of acceptable fashion using the “less is more” model. And the trend hasn’t subsided since then — newer jewelry brands adopt the ethos of minimalism and scaffold it with sustainability and transparency in the creation of their pieces.

A whole industry has emerged around daily wear pieces that can complement your usual style. One of the most famous minimalist jewelry brands is Mejuri, known for its stellar staple pieces, but there’s more to the industry than that. So, to help us understand this evolving industry a little more, I’ve done some research on what goes into these pieces and what makes them ethical.

The metal that your piece is made with is key. Most affordable gold or silver jewelry is plated, meaning that a metal base — typically brass — is coated in a very thin layer of gold or silver. Most of the jewelry you can find at fast fashion stores like H&M or Forever 21 are made of this kind of metal combination. On the plus side, it’s quite cheap — but it’s not a good value for money. The brass metal base often reacts negatively with skin, turning your hands or fingers blue or green after prolonged contact. Also, as time goes on, the plating wears off and the piece becomes discolored. According to YouTube influencer Haley, these aren’t sustainable pieces. For a quick shot at a trendy piece, this price point can’t be beat, but if you want something a little more long-lasting, there are better options.

Gold filled, sterling silver and gold vermeil pieces form the sustainable, trustworthy midpoint between brass jewelry and solid gold jewelry. Gold-filled pieces are constructed the same way gold-plated pieces are, but with a significantly thicker coating of gold around the brass base. Sterling silver is the affordable, long-lasting material to go with if you’re looking for silver jewelry — it doesn’t tarnish and doesn’t discolor your skin. Gold vermeil is the best of both worlds — with a sterling silver interior and a gold coating, a gold vermeil piece is sure to last long and not wear away with time.

Of course, if you’re looking for something that will last forever, 14-karat or 24-karat solid gold is the way to go. By far the most expensive metal for jewelry, solid gold has the benefit of lasting for a lifetime (or even more if you look at heirloom pieces) and will never react negatively with skin contact.

Most sustainable jewelry brands sell pieces using a combination of these materials, and their prices will vary based on the percentage of gold in the pieces. But just as with ethical clothing brands, the price of this jewelry isn’t just for the piece itself, but for the purity of the metal, the ethics of the labor practices and the transparency surrounding the production process.

These brands market themselves as being close to their customers — they invite their customers into their creations, making them collaborators instead of just clients. The products they sell are often handmade and personalized, intended to be timeless investment pieces that you wear for several years. Here’s a list of some of these brands (that won’t break the bank) along with their ethical practices.

1. GLDN

This company advertises itself as creating pieces that “forge connection — between their maker and their owner, and between gift givers and receivers.” Their pieces are dainty and feminine and highly customizable. One of their most popular products, the Personalized Memoire Ring, allows you to engrave anything you want on the band. For most of their products, you can choose between sterling silver, 14-karat gold or rose gold fill, and solid gold. They make sure that at least 10% of their profits are donated to important causes — they’ve partnered with the Global Fund for Women and the National Immigration Law Center — and their Washington workshop is fair and ethical.

2. Hello Adorn

Run by a couple focused on achieving “a small dream… to create happiness,” Hello Adorn is an ethical, affordable jewelry company that takes pride in their minimalism. Their versatile products are designed to be unobtrusive so that you never feel the need to take them off. Two of their bestsellers, the Tiny Horseshoe Earrings and the Tiny Twist Earrings, have been created with utmost comfort in mind. They work with the highest quality precious materials, including sterling silver and gold fill.

3. VITALY

If you’re looking for a bigger company that specializes in punchy, androgynous jewelry — as opposed to the daintiness that typically comes with minimalist jewelry — VITALY is the place to go. They specialize in stainless steel jewelry because of its high sustainability and fascinating history. Because stainless steel is so often recycled, their pieces “may therefore contain remnants of skyscrapers, bridges or car parts.” Though their accessories are heavier, their design is sleek and elegant — you can see this for yourself in their GRIDLOK ring or their KABEL necklace.

4. Cinco

All pieces from this company are handmade in Portugal with top quality sterling silver. Their dignified, minimal jewelry is nonetheless striking — these pieces aren’t quite dainty and floral. Their style can be seen in pieces like their camille necklace and lang rings. If you’re looking for something eye-catching and grand, this is the company to check out.

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