The celebrated writer, editor, and curator is the first Black woman to take the helm of the jewelry industry’s biggest professional organization, at what she calls “a pivotal time for jewelry”.
Melanie Grant, the award-winning jewelry writer, curator and change-maker, takes over tomorrow, January 23rd, as Executive Director at the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), the body that sets the agenda for sustainability in the jewelry and watch industry. Grant is expected to raise awareness and understanding of what responsibility is, encourage creativity in the way the industry approaches it, and bring clarity to the opaque world of raw materials supply chain. “It’s a huge honor, both thrilling and terrifying,” she says on her historic appointment. “Both society and the RJC are evolving; I’m excited to be in a leadership position at a pivotal time for jewelry”.
A highly respected editor and all-round force for good in the industry, in recent years she has been behind such boundary-breaking projects as the 2020 book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, which made the case for jewelry as art, and Brilliant & Black at Sotheby’s, the watershed showcase for Black jewelry designers. With each bold move – writing what became a seminal work as her first book, or approaching Sotheby’s with an idea for a Black-only sale – the results have been felt around the jewelry community. Now, she is taking on sustainability, from a platform that could reach the whole industry, no megaphone required.
When the RJC was founded in 2005, two years after the Kimberley Process, practices in mining and supply chain in particular, were opaque. While great strides have been made over the past 15 years, enforcement with international standards — like the Fairtrade framework which requires that every entity handling gold from miner to designer holds a license — sometimes seems near-impossible. This is where the RJC comes in.
The organization was set up by a group of major jewelry players spanning mining to retail, to enable companies to operate more responsibly. Now the jewelry’s biggest professional body, it counts 1,700 members across 71 countries, each of whom have committed to sustainable business practices via the RJC Code of Practices for ethical, social, human rights and environmental practices; and the RJC Chain of Custody for fully traceable and responsible sourcing. As a whole, members represent 60% of the $164 billion global jewelry market, and a huge opportunity to shape a more sustainable future for jewelry.
Grant believes traceability to be the single most important priority for brands today: “trust has become a beacon over the past few years and RJC certification plays an important role in making sure materials sourcing is done responsibly. Society has undergone a seismic shift in the past few years, Generation Z consumers make decisions based on trust, they need to be sure that the jewels in their hands are as responsible as possible”. With 65% of raw materials for jewelry produced in Africa, a Black woman who has risen to such a leadership position at the top of the industry, makes for a powerful symbol of circularity, signaling a willingness to be more open and think creatively.
“We are with sustainability, where we were with digital 20 years ago. Those who embraced it thrived. Those who dismissed it, in many ways, got left behind,” says Grant. “I want to help everyone understand what they can do to help, because all our futures depend on it. You have to do it, but you won’t be alone – we’re in it together,” she continues. That sense of community, of a shared commitment to driving change, is something Grant is skilled at creating: she gathers people up and inspires them to work for the greater good, whether that means challenging the under-representation of Black people in the jewelry or addressing the challenges of sustainability more creatively.
Growing up in London with a White mother and Jamaican father, Grant had few templates for Black success. But she was determined to find her way into journalism and has held positions at titles including The Times, The Financial Times, and most recently, luxury editor of The Economist‘s 1843 magazine, where she began specializing in jewelry. “Working in the press, whenever I saw someone a bit different – Black, brown, female – profiled for a big job, I’d read the story to find out why they were chosen. I hope that someone who feels like an outsider looks at me and thinks ‘that’s something I could do one day'”.
At a time when clear messaging is vital, the RJC has made a shrewd choice in hiring one of the industry’s most skilled and passionate storytellers. As the first creative to take on the role, top of her to-do list tomorrow morning, will be to simplify what it means to be responsible and create “desire, understanding and action at all levels. It’s about making sustainability more compelling, by including the human experience, and injecting passion into the discourse. The consumer should care enough to make the right decisions, professionals should understand what they can be doing.” And all that only comes from careful communication.
“Jewelry is the love of my professional life, I’m excited to be able to honor it in a new way,” smiles the Gem Awards Media Excellence winner. To anyone interested in working in jewelry, but who might be worried that they would not fit in, she says: “come on in, it’s brilliant! It will come for you when you’re ready, give it everything.” Throughout her own career Grant has made her own luck; but now the RJC has found her, at just the right time for everyone else in the industry.
This article appeared on 22nd January 2023.
Written by Kate Matthams.