Meet Johanna Mejía, founder of Amalena – a new fine jewellery brand that creates peace through sustainable business with beautiful, 100% eco-ethical gold.
I’ve met Johanna Mejía, the founder of Amalena, for the very first time during the 2014 Greenshowroom and got completely fascinated by the intricate 100% hand-crafted fine gold jewels, the outstanding transparency of their ethical value chain and by Johanna’s fierce determination to create a better world through sustainable business. This Bogota-born young woman is energetic and quick, decisive and kind, opinionated and pragmatic – exactly my kind of person, one of the global Ethical Hero tribe.
If you are not sure why gold would be unethical at all, please have a quick read here.
(It’s really short, I merely give you some
And if you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll also remember that I gave away one Amalena bracelet for Christmas last year.I bought one for myself, and one for one lucky winner to support a social business and to say Thank you to one of my loyal readers at the same time.
Now please meet Johanna in this interview that, this I promise, is as long as insightful for jewellery lovers and jewellery makers alike, and maybe marvel at the stunning pieces as we go.
And there are so many tweetables in her answers!
Nath: Johanna, you hold a degree in International Business and Law. Why you’ve started an ethical business – I can relate 🙂 But why jewellery?
Johanna: My approach to jewellery industry is more from the material itself than from the design side.
I was finishing my studies in Austria – in International Business and Law – and I’ve always been interested in fair trade, in development of networks and organisations that support small scale producers in vulnerable communities, in having the certifications helping the end consumer recognise the products manufactured in a socially responsible way. So as I was finishing my studies I wanted this topic for my thesis.
It was a mere coincidence that Fair Trade and Fair Mine launched their initiative for fair mined gold. Luxury material certified Fair Trade, that was new. We know of Fair Trade coffee, bananas, or flowers – we know garments certified GOTS, but not gold. We have some other related certifications, for example for diamonds (the Kimberley process), but gold was something quite new. So I started to research this topic.
And I found very interesting information connected to my home country. The initiative from Colombia was a program called OroVerde, and as I began investigating I became really aware of all the terrible issues linked with gold, the environmental, the social issues.So basically the conclusion, the finding of my thesis is about what the direction for a jewellery brand is that works ethically, with transparent sources, with gold coming from small scale miners who work in a sustainable way and, additionally, who has a supply chain that takes into account the most vulnerable part of the population – women artisans.
And so my interest for the jewellery industry really came from researching about gold, from finding how to deliver solutions and new answers through sustainable business – that’s how Amalena was born.
N: The demand for gold is growing globally throughout the industries; also countries like China and India have a huge demand for gold. Working with small scale miners, do you think there is a chance to supply the whole industry, a huge market for gold?
J: Basically, since the economic crisis in 2005 the gold price has increased rapidly. And then gold was going into investment portfolios, not into jewellery industry. The demand is of course huge in the jewellery sector, also as you point out China and India.
Now, only 15-20% of the total world supply of gold is coming from artisanal and small scale miners, far away from being able to supply a whole industry!
On the other hand, I think, by supporting ethically responsible mining practices, uncovering the supply chains that lack transparency and traceability you can influence the industry to become more aware of the issues. Even if they can’t get all supply from small miners, they might be motivated to create more social projects for their corporate responsibility practices.
Empowering small scale producers and spreading the word about ethically responsible practices means that more and more small scale miners can be engaged in certification schemes or initiatives, so they can become more efficient and produce more gold. But of course they need the support from international organisations, from jewellers and consumers who are aware of the critical issues and decide to be conscious.
Also I’d say recycled gold is another option.
Of course our monetary system, our economic system, they are based on gold. But I think it is possible to supply enough gold to satisfy the demand of jewellery industry and the monetary demand with small scale and recycled gold.
N: What can a consumer look for when going to a jeweller?
J: I think the first question has got to be “Do you know where this gold, where these gemstones come from?” If the jeweller has an accurate answer to that question, we’re already going in the right direction.
(Editor’s note: you want to hear what mine they are from, not only the country of origin.)
Of course for the gold there are two main certification schemes, Fairmined and Fair Trade. Until end of 2013 both were working together, developing the initiative but they decided to split in November–December 2013. So we have two of them today. There are also other, smaller certifications, so my opinion is, if a jeweller can tell you the source of the gold, it’s already good.
Next would be the certification of other materials integrated into the piece of jewellery.
I also would like to highlight that while certifications offer an assurance for the end consumer that all precious metals were mined in a fair way, there are small miners who don’t have the certifications yet but are getting better and better.
It’s good to support small scale miners, to promote them, to encourage them to get into the certification scheme, to make them visible. It’s not an easy process for them. They are often quite isolated and vulnerable communities, some of them have problems with outlaw groups, asking themselves ‘should I be legal and so get into trouble with those guys?’ – it’s definitely not easy for those people!
N: Speaking of which, do small scale miners, the communities, do they get support to fight illegal structures? From Fairmined, Fair Trade perhaps?
J: If they have a small cooperative they can apply to become part of the Fairmined system and Fairmined will help them and support them to improve their mining techniques, to improve their infrastructure. But the protection from the shadowy groups – it’s completely up to the communities.
Take my mining community for example.
They are very committed to environmental issues and are networking beautifully to make themselves seen and heard, so they fight those illegal groups peacefully. The community of miners has to be supported to fight in a peaceful way. But otherwise it is up to them. That’s why it’s important that projects like mine work out, so we can to show other miners that there is another option, so we can spreading their story and their example to other communities. Better labour conditions, better education in one community and all the advantages of getting engaged become more visible, and so other communities would love to engage as well seeing that it works, seeing the good results.
N: Do you think you could advise European jewellers?
J: Yes, totally.
From my experience there are jewellers in Europe who work with Fairmined certified gold or Fair Trade licensed gold. But they make their own pieces from certified gold. I work differently, I work directly in the mining community, not only with the miners but also directly with the artisans, our female goldsmiths, so I create more social development by employing the vulnerable part of the local population, the women who create the designs form the locally mined gold.
But yes, absolutely, I think it’s important to make as many jewellers aware of certified gold and silver as possible, to encourage other jewellers to source ethical, certified metals and to create a traceable, transparent value chain.
In the end of the day our challenge is to change how jewellers buy materials, to raise their supply chain awareness, the sensitivity for the traceability of the materials they use.
But then you can give absolute assurance to the consumers, so it would definitely pay off for them. Not just because they would do the right thing, but because they would be able to give the complete info to their clients.
N: Let’s talk about the Amalena creation process. What I love about your designs is that they are modern and very traditional at the same time.
J: We work with an in-house designer, but it’s more like a collaboration between me, the in-house designer and the artisans. The key thing here is understanding the metal work techniques of our artisans.
We bring together traditional techniques such as filigree and modern view on design. For our first collection our main inspiration was the country of origin of our gold, Colombia.
We really went hunting for stories about goddesses, fascinating women, about tribes and nature to seek the very source of empowerment, to give everybody along the value chain this deep connection with beauty and strength. We had several ideas for the designs, sketched the collection for the final pieces to go with different styles and outfits, some more classic, some more modern.Our artisans are very skilful goldsmiths, and they work in the intricate filigree technique. We have a lot of creative freedom with our designs because everything Amalena is handmade by them, every charm, every chain link, every clasp, we can change and create as we like. It’s a very fun, rewarding process. The artisans then also learn from us how jewellery collections are created, about trends, so in the end we truly bring heritage back to now.
N: I think that the intricate, handmade look is really unique, in particular since the jewellery industry has a lot of copy and paste issues, most popular designs getting ripped off, such a meticulous technique is not easily copied…
J: We hope! 😀 I think the technique is difficult and the process of making our pieces is really demanding. They take a lot of time to make, there’s so much detail, so delicate connections. Seeing the patience of our artisans is a total inspiration for me!
With our ethical gold issues we aim to overcome, to me, seeing this unique, toxin-free ethical gold being worked by those artisans is pure poetry!
That’s what I hope the consumers in Europe will feel. I hope to be able to share the whole story, all the feelings, that long way for each piece to go from the ethical mine to the hands of those wonderful artisans into the hands of the customer. I think it’s very, very beautiful!
N: It is indeed.
Also what I see now in many industries whether it’s food, cosmetics, fashion, furniture and so on, and what gives me hope, is that new entrepreneurs emerge who step back from the “industrial age” illnesses like exploitation, destruction, poisoning, they find ways to be more sustainable.
This word itself has been overused, but I think there is a trend of conscious entrepreneurs who start their sustainable businesses by going to the origins of artisanal manufacturing, by creating usable, great value products that are not developed by the marketing department or shaped by the bigger-faster-more mantra, brands like Amalena, like Blyss Chocolate, Abury Berber Bags, or The 7 Virtues’ Fragrance of Peace.
J: Yes. You spoke of copy and paste. We have too many products today we can choose from and so there is just the point in creating a new model of business like that. We need more businesses striving to help and contribute to solving problems.
I really am a believer in socent, if I myself can change a thing in this world, I know I can do it through business. I can help people make a living and in the same time create a notable, unique product.
New socent must go into giving solutions, bringing problems to the table, and delivering new, different products to conscious consumers who want to be part of this change and who want to support socent.
N: Let’s look at the Amalena customer. Who is it? A conscious consumer who falls in love with the design?
J: People must might fall in love with jewellery pieces anyway. Fair traded and ethical is great, yes, but especially in jewellery – which reflects your personality – you have to LOVE the piece.
If it additionally reflects your ethical beliefs, it’s great, but it’s the emotion that gets you on board.
We are pretty new to the market now, but already now I can say that people fall in love with the delicate style, and are very surprised to hear that all pieces are 100% handmade. On the other hand it’s hard work to establish ourselves in the market as we offer 18 karat eco gold which makes our price segment premium to luxury, clearly not for everyone. So finding the right consumer in the luxury and ethical market is our challenge. We work very hard to spread the word, to become known with ethical consumers who also can afford the pieces. A lot of people love it but it’s not within their budget.
N: What about ethical silver? An affordable, entry-level collection?
J: At the moment the main metal in the community I work with is gold. And our model is to create a cluster of value, going mine to finished piece in the same community. We want to develop a similar model in the future with other communities, and if the material there would be silver and the source would be ethical and responsible, then we could develop a silver collection.
But our specific mining community works with gold.
And of course, coming from Colombia, this is my strongest connection, so I’m looking at communities there. For example, I would love to incorporate emeralds.
Being connected with the country and supporting the responsible practices, for me sustainability is making use of the sources that you have. Creating a real impact means choosing the materials you have, working with the skilled people you have, and this can change depending on the materials and skills of each new community.There is also a certain power in supporting and preserving traditional, local techniques. This craft goes through generations, it’s heritage. So many inspiration is in there, in the story of life, in the the nature, in the lore. Which makes it a great way to promote sustainability.
N: You are selling through your Austria-based e-shop. What about retail?
J: This is a very interesting question. Yes, we are connecting with jewellers but it’s rather difficult to really position your jewellery in a conventional jewellery shop. Why? Because our gold is amazing, our story is amazing, but the first question I get is this: “So, I will explain to my clients that Amalena is about responsible mining, fair jewellery, artisanal small scale production, and what do I tell them about the other jewels I sell? Are those ethical? What about those they bought in the past?” I can imagine this must have been similar when positioning the first Fair Trade products in the supermarkets. So right now, jewellers get scared 😀
In the near future we will connect with sustainable e-shops and retailers where jewellery is just one department of the whole range, so like concept stores. In the jewellery industry the retail is difficult at this point, today.
Our own web shop however is great, it helps us connect with people from all around the world, that’s amazing in this new century J Of course retailers are always welcome, but we could never scale up to the point of offering mass production. But for sure, the more we are able to sell, the bigger the opportunities for production we would be able to offer.
N: Fair Trade did receive some minimum-minimum wages controversy in Germany last year. Fair trade – go stronger or go away, was the claim. How trustworthy are those certifications, how helpful and reliable, what would you say, working first-hand with the community?
J: Well, there are the two systems now: Fairmined and Fair Trade. At the moment I trust in Fairmined, they connect with small scale miners. I know the people behind it personally, the board of directors and the academics who I really admire. I trust them, and I did my research myself, seeing first hand Fairmined versus illegal mine; there’s such a gap.
On the other hand, I don’t know about Fair Trade, not having seen any Fair Trade mine. I read about them, I follow how they go strong in Africa in different communities, but beyond that general knowledge I don’t know much.
I think however that what is Fairmined today must become the global standard so that we don’t need any certifications any more. What is a Fairmined standard today is how it should be in general!
I don’t want the certifications to last forever. We should aim at having labour regulations as in Europe or North America, and I think Fairmined do work in that direction. We need a regulated standard of living, we need to be able to rely on the awareness of consumers, all the factors you now find in the developed countries.
N: My hope is that due to our connected world, the technology, the incredibly fast, real-time information exchange, it’s becoming harder and harder to hide unethical processes from the public, that the outrage it causes can help us shape a better world and see it change in our lifetime, too.
J: I worked as a trader for five years, and what you do you buy stocks because you have high expectations for that company and will sell them with a profit. But this system is not sustainable. It can’t go on forever!
Second, the desire to having more and more and more leads to reducing production costs and selling more and more, which in turn creates a selfish, self-centred generation that has lost the empathy for other human feelings when the only thing you care about is yourself, your needs, your profits, your interests, making more and more.
I feel that if more entrepreneurs would go into socent and create sustainable, socially impactful products for a better world, that this is the right direction. Social businesses need to become more visible, stronger; we need to have a louder voice to be found easier by consumers who want to support us, who share our values, our empathy for others.
BUYER’s GUIDE to AMALENA:
Amalena is located in both Colombia and Austria.
Their Austria-based online shop ships internationally (standard shipping to EU countries is free of charge).
The prices range from €89-240 for bracelets; €280-915 for earrings; €155-355 for pendants and €560-885 for necklaces.
YOUR WAY TO FAIRMINED GOLD:
Consumers can look up licensed jewellers in their proximity at: fairmined.org