For four straight weeks, packages arrived daily. There were large boxes and FreshDirect sacks stuffed with Ziploc bags, velvet cases and Tiffany & Company pouches. Some contained a single clip-on earring, bits of tarnished gold chain, vintage crystal brooches, a macramé bolo tie, a strand of pearls, a grimy Swatch watch and finds from the clearance bin at T.J. Maxx.
“It was a lot of fast fashion, disposable items — the sort of things that people have sitting in the bottom of a drawer somewhere,” said Rosena Sammi, founder of the Jewelry Edit (T.J.E.), a collective composed mostly of independent women designers that she founded in 2020.
The bundles delivered to Ms. Sammi’s doorstep had been crowdsourced through contacts in the jewelry trade and through a wide network of friends and friends of friends. And their contents — about 100 pounds in all — have been put into the hands of some designers affiliated with the cooperative who were willing to create new pieces of jewelry.
From April 28 to May 7, the upcycled jewels are to be showcased in an exhibition and sale at The Jewelry Library, a Manhattan reading room and gallery space well known to jewelry lovers and collectors. (The numbers still are fluctuating, but Ms. Sammi expects 13 to 16 designers will deliver one to three pieces each, and then prices will be determined.)
“We’re highlighting the idea that jewelry doesn’t have to be disposable,” said Ms. Sammi, a former lawyer turned jewelry designer who created the collective when she became disenchanted with the private label collections she had been producing for department stores and mall retail chains. At that time, she was frustrated by “this fast-fashion movement to make things as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, and purely based on trends,” she said.
For example, she said at least one prestigious department store kept pushing her to mass-produce her line in China (it thought her jewelry, handmade in Jaipur, India, was too expensive). Once she was asked to deliver 10,000 silk cord bracelets in response to 2012’s color of the moment, oxblood. When the product arrived, the buyer thought the shade was not quite right and would have scrapped the whole lot if Ms. Sammi had not persuaded her otherwise.
“Encouraging people to be more thoughtful about the kind of jewelry they buy is a huge mission at the Jewelry Edit,” she said. And the 50 designers on the cooperative’s e-commerce platform are similarly invested in ethical jewelry production, mostly focusing on small batch, hand-fabricated collections made with recycled metals.
Ms. Sammi’s concept of a jewelry donation drive that ends with an exhibition has been guided by Radical Jewelry Makeover (R.J.M.), a project of the nonprofit organization Ethical Metalsmiths. Founded by two artists/instructors who wanted to push the jewelry industry to embrace more sustainable practices, the organization has done similar projects in Boston; Richmond, Va.; and other markets since 2007.
“People are becoming more and more aware of how their habits of consumption impact the world,” said Susie Ganch, an R.J.M. co-founder and associate professor for the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. “Universities, art centers and other institutions are inviting us at an increasing rate to come in and work with their students. It’s an amazing way to catalyze a community.”
The organization’s goal, according to Ms. Ganch, is to get jewelry design students, hobbyists and trade professionals thinking about how they can make more socially and environmentally responsible choices in the studio, at the bench and when working with gem and metal suppliers.
“Collaborating with the Jewelry Edit is an opportunity to share the mission and story of this project and offer strategies that jewelers can use to change their practices,” she said. “If any of the jewelers we’re working with make different choices in the future? That would be a measure of success for us.”
Ms. Sammi’s program, which is called T.J.E. x R.J.M., would be the first time the organization’s pattern has been used in New York City. “Through the caliber and diversity of our designers, we’re taking R.J.M. to a much larger and more complex stage,” she said.
Among the participants is Lorraine West, the well-known jeweler based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose designs have been worn by celebrities like Beyoncé, Viola Davis and Ariana Grande. Ms. West has been in business for 23 years. She does not need the exposure and support system the cooperative offers, but she was interested in joining because Ms. Sammi’s support of designers who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color aligns with her own principles.
“I liked the fact that Rosena is about highlighting BIPOC designers and locally handmade products,” she said on the phone while working on a heart-shaped ring in her collection. “I’m cutting the sprues right now,” she said, referring to the casting components. “I’ll let you hear the jingle.”
And there were sounds of scraping and filing. Later, she would collect the dust and debris as part of her efforts to recycle every last bit of metal. “My mother was an avid recycler of clothes, to make them look like new again, and learning that from a young age has influenced the nature of my craft and business,” Ms. West said.
Lauren Newton, a designer based in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said she envisioned a T.J.E. x R.J.M. design that was “minimalist and structured, something that makes a statement without being too loud because that’s my aesthetic.”
She said she leans on the expertise she gained getting a degree in wildlife science and working at New York City zoos in Central Park, Prospect Park and the Bronx, whether in creating a pair of tusk-shaped silver earrings or a cuff bracelet tipped in crab claws (cast from pincers discovered on a beach).
However, “sustainability is not a word I love to use as a business owner because I think it’s kind of a broad stroke than can sometimes be exclusionary,” Ms. Newton said. “If you tried to find a business that touted themselves as being completely sustainable, they would be lying to you. I think everyone is trying to be a little bit better with each decision they make for their business and with every product they’re putting out to the public.”
The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan is home to Jill Herlands, a jewelry artist who had a career in the music industry before teaching herself various metalsmithing techniques and eventually debuting her line in 2015. Her experimental approach, and penchant for working with unconventional materials like concrete and silk, made her a natural fit for Ms. Sammi’s project.
“I’m making a one-of a-kind statement piece, because nothing I create can be replicated or mass-marketed,” Ms. Herlands said.
For inspiration, she often strolls around the Meatpacking District and the West Village, where, she said, her imagination tends to take flight at the sight of decrepit buildings, cobblestone streets and iron fences turning green with a lichenlike patina. Construction sites are another favorite haunt with their wealth of industrial materials.
“I like anything that’s sort of rough-and-tumble or in a state of decay,” Ms. Herlands said. “I like to rediscover things and break cycles and challenge the status quo. It’s the excitement of the unexpected that thrills me.”
All three designers said sustainable practices were a passion point for select customers and the question of diamond traceability tended to pop up, but overall there was a lack of public knowledge regarding the ills of mass-produced jewelry and nonrecyclable materials. (So the T.J.E. x R.J.M. project has an educational component, with classroom events to be held later this month at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Westchester County public school in April, as well as programming planned for the Jewelry Library.)
“We’re going to have 35 to 40 amazing pieces at the end,” Ms. Sammi said. “T.J.E. x R.J.M. is an opportunity for both designers and collectors, even the people who donated the jewelry, to really think about how jewelry is made. To examine why you bought that cheap plastic cheetah-print cuff in the first place.”