Lisa Linhardt’s jewelry is the kind of thing that all types of women project their dreams upon. Bold and sleek, it would fit in equally in almost any setting where you want to make a statement–an art opening in Chelsea, a Bushwick coffee shop, a $10,000-per-table benefit.
What you don’t expect, when you see a Linhardt design, is that it is painstakingly produced to be ethically sourced.
I had the opportunity to meet Lisa at a show by Ethical Metalsmiths at her Lower East Side store this spring, and nerded out with her on what it takes to make refined and responsible jewelry. Like many designers of her caliber and price point, the look of the jewelry is at the front, and the ethical sourcing is in the background.
“People come to be first and foremost for design. There’s a Linhardt flavor threaded through the collection,” she told me. “A lot of the pieces are very sculptural and very large because I have a background in sculpture. We have a collection called the Signature pieces, and those are the big, bold, ones–I call it urban armor. It definitely takes a confident woman to be wearing these pieces. We have another collection called Essentials, that mirror the larger pieces but at a smaller scale for every day.”
“And then there’s the fact that we use recycled metals, Fair Mined metals, and Fair Trade certified metals,” she said. For diamonds, she isn’t satisfied with the Kimberley Process. “There was a controversy a few years back about including diamonds from Zimbabwe, where there were clear human rights violations. Human Rights Watch pulled out of the Kimberley Process as a result.”
So Linhardt takes it a step further, even though it adds cost. (Her pieces range from a few hundred to over $60,000 for a solid gold, complicated cuff.) “For us it’s important to make sure not only the origin is ethical, but we try to trace the manufacturing process as well. Which is difficult, because the diamond world is a very difficult world to navigate, especially if you don’t come from a family that’s already in the diamond industry. It’s very different culture from what I’m used to.”
Linhardt has been featured in several magazines, with celebrities wearing her designs. But she gets frustrated that information about the background of her pieces is never mentioned. “I can’t think of one celebrity who has worn my jewelry and knows we are transparent about our metals and our stones are ethically sourced,” she said. “I don’t know if the celebrity doesn’t ask, or the stylist doesn’t share that information with them, but it’s been just about the design, rather than the transparency. That is frustrating.”
On the other hand, she is wary of harping too much on that aspect. “What I’ve seen with brands that are all about ethical sourcing, the story is at the forefront – ‘Buy these bracelets because they support creating wells in Africa,’ but the quality of the bracelet isn’t great. High design isn’t really there.” The result is that luxury designers are hesitant to publicize the ethical nature of their designs.
She also says being so stringent about her requirements has hampered her brand’s ability to grow. “It’s so much more expensive to source this way, our margins are much lower. A lot of designers create a collection instead of an entire group of work, because it’s hard to stay in business, I think, when you’re constantly going through this process. It’s so much easier, especially in New York’s Diamond District, to purchase materials that are not responsibly sourced. If I need a piece done quickly, I wind up having to contact my Montana sapphire dealer to ship stones from Montana. If I wanted Thai sapphires, or sapphires where I’m not sure how they were manufactured, I can get them the same day.”
I asked her if she ever gets questions from customers about her sourcing. “I do, but I think a lot of people are not quite sure what they mean by ‘ethical.’ That word is so tricky for me. It’s hard to say that something you extract from the earth is ethical. So for me it’s more about being responsible rather than ethical. I tend to say that first and foremost, and then I got into the metals and the stones, and really explain it. A lot of people think if it’s conflict-free, it’s all good, but that doesn’t include the labor. So we try to educate that.”
Because it’s still a small store, she’s often there, and can tell the story of the brand to customers. “They get excited and tell their friends, ‘Look at this beautiful piece and it wasn’t made at the expense of people or the planet.'”
When I asked her what kind of women buy her jewelry, she said, “We are all across the board. We have women come in here with mohawks, leather jackets, and chains dripping from their nose, rocking their two-finger rings. And we have the sophisticated, Upper West Side or Upper East Side, ladies who lunch who come here and want to wear something to a MoMA opening.”