When I arrived to Melissa Joy Manning’s studio in SoHo for our interview, a small, sunlit office overlooking Broadway, my eyes were immediately drawn to the jewelry neatly displayed on every available surface—necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelets, glittering in colors ranging from obsidian black, to pink, to earthy, forest green and carved bone.
My timing was lucky, as several new collections have just been completed and are ready to be shown to retailers (like ABC Home) and the public. I set about taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.
Manning bustled in 15 minutes later. She was late, she said, because she had been kidnapped that morning by the CFDA and whisked out of Manhattan to try to convince a designer to sign onto the CFDA’s sustainability initiative. She apologized profusely and, before showing me her pieces, told me her story.
How You Build a Sustainable Jewelry Company
In 1997, Melissa Joy Manning worked in high-end retail, despite having studied traditional Mexican silver smithing in college, along with European design principles in Barcelona and jewelry design at San Francisco State University. When a career counselor told her she would thrive if she were self-employed, she turned to jewelry making. She started with just $1,000 in funding, but more than 15 years later, she employs 20 people who make and market her stunning collection of luxury jewelry. She should be opening her own store in SoHo sometime near the end of this year or the beginning of 2014.
“When I started, I had this idea that I wanted to start a jewelry company that supported craft of local artisans, a social sustainability model. At the time, everyone I sat down with and talked with said, ‘You can’t do this. It’s not feasible.’ Luckily, my personality is when people tell me no, I’m going to do it.”
The process of building a conscious and sustainable jewelry has been long. Manning started by hiring only US-based artisans and offering them a living wage and health benefits. Her first pieces were made simply from recycled metal, sourced from a certified green refiner. As she grew, she started incorporating fossils, vintage non-Western charms and semi-precious, sustainably-mined stones and Kimberly Process-certified diamonds in her pieces.
Along the way she has asked and answered plenty of questions: what stones are the best choices? Who are the best partners to use? How are they treated, where were they mined? And as a certified green producer in California (the company was originally based out of Berkeley and still does production there) Melissa Joy Manning jewelry gets down to nitty gritty things like low-flow toilets, electricity sources, and waste treatment at the workshop.
But they’re not all the way there yet. “Jewelry is challenging. We’re not 100% sustainable and we’re not going to claim that,” Manning says. “Anyone who says so, that’s an immediate flag for the customer. I would say we’re probably 80% green.” And the process continues–they’re currently switching from brown leather jewelry pouches to domestically-made felt ones.
She’s also proving to be a force in the fashion industry at large. On her first day as a member of the CFDA she caused a stir when she stood up. “I didn’t know anyone. I’m like the kid from Berkeley. The Olsen twins were sitting in front of me and they turn to stare at me, and I turned bright red,” she says. But she asked the question, “What are the CFDA’s plans for sustainability?”
“They all looked at my like I had two heads. There weren’t any.” Turns out Manning wasn’t the only one wondering this. Other designers approached her, saying they knew something about sustainable production, and after a year of work she had a sustainability committee together. Every month the CFDA hosts a panel to educate its base on smart design. Plus, it’s working on an open-source database that would allow designers to quickly find suppliers of specific sustainable materials.
Not Your Average Eco-Friendly Jewelry
Manning shows me around the studio, starting with her all-metal jewelry, featuring delicate, hand-made links of gold. Then she shows me her own necklace, a jangle of vintage talismans, a Tibetan hair pick used in ceremonial tribal dress, and protection talismans from the Ural mountains of Afghanistan. She has several more like it waiting to be picked up by eager collectors. “It’s one of the collections I’m most passionate about, because there’s a history and story behind each of the pieces.”
Manning may come off as a hippie to some, but she’s not a vegan when it comes to her jewelry. Bone is featured prominently in the collection, especially the vintage kind. Some of her more interesting and edgy pieces have shapes cast from tiny bat mandibles and flying fox paws, which serve as prongs holding the stones.
“I’m really inspired by non-Western culture and reuse,” she says. “When they took an animal, they honored it by using every single part, and in doing so they also imbued the spirit of the animal into its wearer. It’s very different that PETA’s idea that you can’t use anything.”
Next is her best-selling collection, which has been around since the late 90s. It’s simple, with drop jewels. But the sourcing of the stones isn’t as transparent—she’s told they’re ethical, but it’s not certifiable, as they come from China and India. “We’re hoping what they tell you is right,” she admits. This collection isn’t what sets her creative heart on fire, though. For that, we turn to the main show: her limited edition and one-of-a-kind collections.
Aside from being more creative and unique to Manning, these one-off collections are also transparent in their sourcing. The stones are domestically cut and manufactured in the U.S. “I know who made them, where he got them. I know what his studio looks like, and I know he treats his wastewater,” Manning says.
Perhaps some designers would find the sustainability aspect limiting, but Manning prove the rule that working within parameters can yield stunning originality.”The choices I make from the materials and the materials tell me what they want to be, as hippie as that sounds,” she says.
For example, there is the issue of coral. “I love coral but I can’t touch it anymore. I signed a pact in maybe 2005 to not use it, because coral is so endangered. So the only way I can use them is through fossil coral that is thousands and thousands if not millions years old.” She sources her fossil corals–cut to highlight gorgeous natural designs–domestically from Utah and Colorado.
Her collections are also inspired by her trips to exotic locations. The greens and blues and even patterns of one looks like the moss and water she took pictures of on her trip to Bali. The reds, brown, black and bone in another reminds her of the topographical layers and sedimentary rocks she saw as she hiked in Death Valley.
And the stones themselves are fascinating little pieces of art, with complex patterns created by nature—crystals and fossils in patterns reflective of ornate wallpaper or modern architecture. Opals and agates in wildly different colors highlight the stunning range of nature’s creativity, which she then polishes and puts together into simple yet eye-catching dangling earrings, rings and necklaces.
Because of Manning’s unique perspective, price point and the meaning with which she imbues each piece, her clientele consists mainly of wedding and same-sex commitment jewelry, plus collectors. Just another Tiffany necklace for a striving 22-year-old, this is not.
Leading the Way
While Manning seeks to change the industry from the inside with her work with the CFDA, she’s also hopeful change will come from the consumer as well. “Consumerss choices can dictate the market. As we change the demand the supply will change, you force factories to make better choices with the waste water treatment, the dyes that they choose, and the electricity source they choose,” she says.
And what better place than to start with the high-end market, where consumers can afford to pay more? “Demanding a green product is a luxury. A lot of people are concerned about where their water is coming from, or eating, or finding a job,” Manning says. “As luxury designers we have to start the movement. Because we can ask people who are already spending a good amount of money on something to spend $5, $10, $15 more for the same product if it is made in a way that honors the environment and upholds high social values and standards.”
“Our hope is that as we start this movement, in 10 or 15 years you won’t have to say, ‘Oh, this is a green product.’ Because all products will be green.”
Check out Melissa Joy Manning‘s jewelry on her website, and in boutiques across the country, including over 30 in New York. Prices range from about $200 up to $7,500. If you see something you like in this story, contact the ladies at Melissa Joy Manning directly. If they no longer have it, they would be happy to work with you to make a custom piece.