We spoke with Shivani about her shift to sustainable and accessible fine jewellery making.
What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?
My family ethnicity is Gujarati Indian. My mum and her family were born and lived in Uganda until the early 1970’s when they were forced to flee to the UK under dictatorship. My dad and his family moved to the UK from Uganda shortly before. I graduated with a degree in Silversmithing, Jewellery and related objects and have been working as a Jewellery designer, maker and goldsmith for the last 13 years.
Can you tell me a bit about your jewellery business? How did it all start?
It started with my tutor during my year completing my Art foundation. I had always wanted to work within the fashion and textiles industry but my tutor could see where my skills lay and pointed me towards exploring jewellery. I immediately fell in love with working on and experimenting with small scale sculptural pieces.
I continued on to do a BA in Jewellery and Silversmithing, this is where I focussed on pushing myself creatively both in terms of design and making 3 dimensional forms in metal. I embraced the fact that as a student, there are no limitations on making pieces a certain way or a particular style – we were free to be as wildly creative as we wanted to be. The work I produced for my final show were more object than wearable jewellery; they were beautiful sculptural pieces in their own right and that idea has continued through the evolution of my work.
I started out working in silver, progressing into working exclusively in gold when I became a mother. My time to work was limited and making less but more involved pieces worked better, it also meant keeping a lean collection of one of a kind pieces and sourcing the best quality materials.
Seven years on and my business is opening into its next stage. With time, allowing myself the breathing space I have questioned and delved deep into aspects of heritage, culture (work, consumption, productivity), personal values, accessibility and identity. The results are in the work I am starting to build now after a recent relaunch.
What inspired you to become more sustainable and accessible? Is there a particular story you can share?
I think it started from a young age, seeing family, particularly the older generation share clothes, use and reuse everything, never being wasteful. The idea of excess, accumulated materials doesn’t sit well with me and never has. I remember even at the age of 10 or 11 having huge purges of ‘stuff’ in my bedroom and the sense of calm at seeing a clear space.
Over the last 20 years we (as a global society) have seen the devastation to the environment and the human cost of excessive production and consumption – I continue to educate myself about the harm being caused and try to find solutions by actively pushing against these standards. I think we have to build new models from the ground up rather than amend existing ones, show that there is another way and that it can work with a shift in mindset and active resistance to the status quo.
What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?
One of my biggest successes has been to follow my own path and intuition, coming from a South Asian immigrant background and choosing to work as a creative has not been easy.
Unlike many of my peers at university or those I have met through work, I didn’t grow up in a family that worked in the arts or had much interest in it outside of music. That privileged background just wasn’t there, on the flipside it meant that I had the freedom to make my own way. The striking learnings have been to avoid trying to fit into a box or anyone else’s expectation of what my work or I should be. Assimilating in this way can be more harmful than we realise, especially at a young age when we start our careers.
How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?
At home we have gradually switched to buying natural products for our bodies and cleaning, soapnuts for all our laundry. We have consciously made decisions to support smaller local and more ethical companies whenever we can. One of the biggest changes for me has been learning how to make my own clothes. I understand now how much work goes into making our clothes, how materials and fabric production affect farmers and land on which they’re grown.
My aim is for pieces to be loved and worn, mended, handed down, remade/upcycled if possible. We still have a way to go as a family but we’re mindful and making small changes as we move forward.
Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?
I wouldn’t call it a stigma, more of a resistance to change/inconvenience. The lack of understanding I can see in older generations who may not engage with information about the environment in the same way that we or our parents might. I have noticed a shift as global awareness is raised, it’s impossible to ignore.
An area that I think is a blocker and difficult to overcome within South Asian communities is a cultural one, that lies in proving your status through material wealth. This has increased rapidly with each new generation due to the influence of western capitalism and the growth of economic wealth amongst the ‘upper class’ both in South Asia and the diaspora.
As always the best way to move past these blockers particularly with our elders is to talk to them. They tend to be open and respect the knowledge that younger generations bring.
You mentioned accessibility being a large factor to open up your market to other buyers, can you tell us more about that?
It boils down to the fact that I want my work to be available to anyone that would like to own a piece. I have spent time over the last year looking at who I am making the work for and why. My current collection of one of a kind pieces made in gold are true luxury items, I am well aware that they are for a small and niche market.
I am slowly building a collection of limited edition pieces that can be made to order. These pieces will be made in recycled gold to last a lifetime, they are designed to be repeatable and the price point will therefore be much more accessible.
Accessibility will also come through how I show and talk about the work.
To be open about the experiences that we as a community live through while also holding space for and supporting other minorities.
What processes are involved in being a more sustainable goldsmith? How do you cut down waste and reuse gold/silver?
I have slowly changed the way I run my business to be consciously sustainable both in the products I offer and how the studio is run. Every piece is now made using recycled silver/gold or Fairmined gold. Fairmined supports miners and their communities through providing safe working conditions, responsible use of chemicals, fair pay and social and educational development.
I produce small amounts of stock as currently the majority of my work is made to commission. As I start to move towards limited edition lines, I will continue to make pieces to order so that I can avoid overproduction of stock and waste. All metal offcuts and dust from the workshop are collected and remelted. I offer a bespoke recycling service, clients may have pieces that they have at home and no longer wear. I extract the stones and rework the gold to create a new custom-made piece with their materials.
In the workshop I minimise the use of harmful chemicals and water, I am making the transition to plastic free packaging and storage where possible.
Buying materials from small businesses is a way to be more sustainable. I work with suppliers and manufacturers that I have known and built relationships with. Suppliers of specialist cut stones work directly with mines where they can be sure that they are avoiding harmful practices to extract raw materials.
Can mining precious stones ever really be truly sustainable? Any thoughts on lab-grown stones?
The short answer is no. There is a finite amount of natural raw material on the planet and extracting these materials whether stones/mineral or metal has a human and environmental cost. I have done and continue to research the positives and negatives of natural vs. lab grown stones and it comes down to personal choice and the individual’s values.
Natural stones can be mined in ways that minimise damage to the environment; though human exploitation and working conditions are of more concern to me. There are over 40 million small-scale artisanal miners around the world extracting stones and gold and the majority of them face extreme working conditions and lack of safety. If we moved to producing all of our gems in labs these communities face more instability and often fall into greater poverty. There are many reasons that this continues to happen but really, when it comes to stones, particularly diamonds companies stand to make huge profits with miners receiving little monetary gain.
Lab-grown diamonds eliminate damage to the environment and human cost, so consumers can feel assured on this front. I looked into buying lab grown for my business, the more I researched I found that there is a huge amount of misleading information targeted towards the ‘ethical’ market. Lab grown diamonds use large amounts of energy to produce and where that energy is sourced is another factor to consider. You can read more here.
What advice would you give in relation to sustainability and the environment?
I would say get curious. Ask questions about where your products come from, how they are made, who is growing or making them. Hold companies accountable for their actions, write to your MP if you can. The best thing to do is choose one thing that matters to you and take action. It doesn’t matter how small the actions are, so many people feel overwhelmed, leading to inaction, but the small things do add up. Keep learning, keep challenging, and take care of yourself. Change starts with us!
Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?
I think that being so connected to a history of being uprooted, having grandparents and parents that moved to the UK with little in the way of possessions has subconsciously informed the way that I see materialism and excess. I try to be mindful about accumulating items by considering the intrinsic cost and value before I buy. This approach is crystallised in the way I think about production, it’s inevitably reflected within my work.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A few brilliant disruptors in the sustainability space and outside that I’m loving:
- Aja Barber
- The Slow Factory Foundation
- Priya Alhuwalia
- Shado Magazine
- Ka Sha
- Nikita Gill
- Rida Suleri Johnson
- Nikesh Shukla
- The Other Box
Find Shivani’s work: https://www.shivanichorwadia.com