Exclusive interview: CRED’s fair trade jewellery visionary Christian Cheesman
February 17, 2009 by greenmystyle
After a trip to India in 1998 during which he witnessed women and children working in inhuman conditions “like Dante’s Inferno”, designer Christian Cheesman, alongside partner Greg Valerio, made it his mission to revolutionise the jewellery industry towards fair trade sourcing, ethical practices and justice for workers. Christian and Greg created CRED Jewellery, a design collective that creates heart-stoppingly beautiful pieces supported by equally beautiful principles and working practices. Greenmystyle.com had the pleasure of interviewing Christian, a very inspiring man.
Greenmystyle: We love Fairtrade chocolate and Champagne, and of course, mugs of Fairtrade
coffee, and now we have Fairtrade jewellery to get excited about too. When did CRED begin?
Christian: We started CRED jewellery back in 1996 as a way to generate income for the CRED foundation. As such the ethics and impact of the business was paramount to us. We began researching this impact and the journey of looking for alternatives…
Greenmystyle: Wow, that’s quite some time ago now. What on earth was it like to get a fair trade jewellery range off the ground then? Difficult, I imagine.
Christian: You could say that. At first, and when we thought we were alone, it was impossible. We wanted to create jewellery from a transparent supply chain and were faced with an industry that was very conservative and had a tradition of secrecy. We wanted raw materials that were certified to social and environmental standards, however no standards or certification existed. Thankfully we met some kindred spirits along the way and began to make progress with producers, then miners and refiners. In 2003/4 we were able to create our first pieces of jewellery with fair trade gold.
Greenmystyle: What were you doing before CRED , and what brought you to create the range?
Christian: As a design graduate I was convinced that designers have a social responsibility and that this was often ignored or restricted by the way design is harnessed in consumerism. I was inspired by the theories of alternative designers, like Buckminster Fuller and Papenek. I was engaged in various responsible design projects, one of these was with CRED. We focused on wedding and engagement rings as symbols of love, believing that out of all jewellery these must be pure.
Greenmystyle: You describe yourselves as the ‘source of fair trade jewellery’. What does that mean?
Christian: We see ourselves as the source of fair trade fine jewellery because we are offering the general public and jewellers traceability to source. We have been, and continue to be, instrumental in creating the industry behind the jewellery. CRED is driven by the desire to see artisanal mining communities benefiting from the jewellery trade and people given the chance to own jewellery that is traceable and socially and environmentally positive. Having pioneered our supply line and chain of custody with CRED Jewellery we now distributing fairly-traded metals and gems to other jewellers and jewellery companies.
Greenmystyle: When choosing fine jewellery, why should we think about buying fair trade?
Christian: At its root it is the same logic that sends you reaching for the Fairtrade option in the supermarket/deli, but as you are buying something you will treasure for a lifetime we believe it is all the more important to make a positive choice. By buying fair trade you assured that everyone who has been involved in the creation of your jewellery has benefited and your purchase creates the demand that enables the process to grow.
Greenmystyle: These are pieces to treasure for a lifetime aren’t they?
Christian: We hope so, our focus is on creating jewellery that will punctuate people’s life stories and be valued as such.
Greenmystyle: Tell us about the jewellery you’re wearing right now.
Christian: I tend to keep my jewellery quite minimal, I am wearing my wedding ring, a flat court band and one of the silver torques from the Harigini co-operative we work with.
Greenmystyle: Does working in a fair trade way affect the design of the pieces?
Christian: The only restrictions we have on our designs are due to the supply, there are some semi-precious stones that we do not have traceable supplies for and so can not use. We have created some pretty wild design as private commissions for people. I do not think there is much we can not do.
Greenmystyle: You’ve worked with Central Saint Martins design graduates. How did the collaboration come about?
Christian: One of the students, Alice Holloway, contacted us to give a presentation to the undergraduates on ethical and fair trade in the jewellery industry. Following this presentation CRED sponsored the third year ethical track to their degree show. This was a collaboration initiated by the students themselves.
Part of it was CRED running a competition for the degree show that selected the three designers who in the opinion of CRED demonstrated the most design flare and commercial possibility. The winners would then have their work made from materials within CRED’s unique ethical supply chain. It was not only a success from the perspective of the degree show, it has also opened the door with Central St Martins to further explore the dynamic interface between excellence in design and fair trade and ethical sourcing. It is our belief that it is this critical relationship that will shape the future of our industry.
Greenmystyle: Is the fair trade challenge met now, or does Cred have more goals to meet?
Christian: We definitely have more goals to reach. There are only two certifiable fair trade products available to the jewellery trade; gold and platinum. If our mission of making it culturally unacceptable to buy a piece of jewellery that is not socially and environmentally certified is to become a reality we must continue to pioneer in the supply chain. We need coloured gemstones, diamonds, silver and of course all the jewellery findings that will allow the whole industry and all its creative genius to reach back to fair trade sources. With key partners like FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organisation) and ARM (Alliance for Responsible Mining) now working together, this dream is another critical step closer.