The Double Life of Jewelry Designer and Anthropologist Pippa Small

A growing trend in jewelry design is artisanal work that inspires a visceral connection to our emotions and memories.

Sharing the need for a protective talisman with the now widely accepted tattoo to bring good luck, evil eye energy protection, superstition or sentimentality, the rules for jewelry are also undergoing a shift from the merely decorative to the meaningfully significant.

Although, London-based ethical jewelry designer Pippa Small, known for her evocative handmade designs and for leading a double life as an anthropologist, might say that the desire to adorn ourselves with some small trinket or design is indeed primal.

A visit to her recently launched online retail store reveals her passion for both lines of work and her belief that “there are ways of using the universal skills in craft and adornment to empower and provide incomes in areas of the world where it is much needed.”

In light of this week’s news from Zimbabwe, where details emerged of a torture camp run by Zimbabwe’s security forces operating in the country’s rich Marange diamond fields, we caught up with Pippa Small to talk about her fascinating work as an anthropologist and the pressing importance of buying ethically sourced jewelry.

Tell us about how you became an anthropologist? 

My interest in anthropology started when I was quite young, I was very lucky that my mother loved to travel and from a young age I was taken to many interesting countries in Africa and Asia. My interest in anthropology was fueled by a growing passion for human rights; I was an active member of  Survival International when I was at university, a charity that campaigns for the land rights of indigenous and tribal communities. They shout for the voiceless and give visibility to the invisible. I am now very proud to be an ambassador for survival. In my 20s I went to work in Borneo with a local grass roots NGO on land rights, cultural and language rights. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of very isolated and traditional communities living in the rain forest, their way of life and their knowledge of their environment ensures and demands that their land is protected. Threats from large, so called, “development” businesses like logging and plantations which destroy their land, way of life and independence are causing irreversible damage. I was humbled by the work and the courage of the local women and men I was working with. Often pressured and threatened by governments they risked much in their demand for self determination, the right to be different, the right to their land.

How did your anthropological work transition to jewelry making? 

I started making jewelry to fund my studies and attracted the attention of the fashion world, leading to collaborations with Nicole Farhi, Chloe and Gucci. Whilst consulting for Tom Ford, I managed to save some money to instigate a project in Botswana with the san bushman of the Kalahari Desert. It was the start of many projects that were aimed at generating an income in areas that desperately needed it. To revive and protect indigenous knowledge and their ancient skills with leather, and bead work, we made jewelry from ostrich egg shell beads, porcupine quills, scented desert woods. It was wonderful and I saw how the success of their work and the value put on it helped raise the women’s self confidence and sense of self worth.

Can you describe some recent projects? 

I went on to work in Rwanda with the Batwa Pygmies and in Panama with the Kuna Indians, in a slum in Nairobi in Kenya where we work with recycled materials like scrap metals and glass. I also work in Afghanistan with a charity to promote traditional craft and create beautiful jewelery with craftsmen and women in Kabul providing training and employment.

What do consumers need to know about the importance of buying Fair Trade gold? 

Fair Trade gold is a very new area for consumers. The first mines were only certified six months ago, although we have been working for four years with a small artisanal cooperative mine in Bolivia buying the gold and paying the premium that goes into mine safety, mercury management and into the community around the mine. I was in Bolivia a few months after the certification of the mine and it was wonderful to hear the miners talking about the impact of it. To see the environmental impact of not using chemicals like arsenic and cyanide to extract the gold and how the miners now get a fair price for their gold and are able to improve their lives through the premium is wonderful.

What is the impact of artisanal mining? 

Roughly three million people are involved in artisanal mining around the world and the impacts are huge. If the incentive is there for miners to produce clean gold, if the market demands it, the miners will invest in the Fair Trade certification and hopefully in time the larger companies will follow ensuring less environmental pollution from the highly toxic mining industry. The blood diamond campaign raised a very effective awareness about the politics surrounding the diamond industry, now we need to do the same with gold.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.