The Rock Hound, Ethical Fine Jewellery: An Interview With Founder Susi Smither

The Rock Hound is a fine jewellery brand that uses responsibly sourced raw materials to create bold and inspiring pieces. Their designs are hand-made in their East London studio, where those interested can step in and discover creativity in action. This approach is all about promoting greater transparency in the jewellery industry – an aspect that is at the core of this brand.

I first met Susi Smither, the founder and designer behind The Rock Hound, in late spring when I attended an event at her studio. I had heard about it from the Fashion Revolution website and was particularly interested as I had just started my blog and had zero knowledge about the jewellery industry (let alone ethical jewellery)!  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but I imagined something along the lines of a large and noisy art gallery with glass jewellery display cases placed around the room. But the studio was quite different; it is a cozy loft, with a beautiful hand-painted abstract feature wall, and small chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Inside, there were a few people chatting away, and for a split second I thought, “Great, I’ve just walked into a private event”. But within seconds I was given a very warm welcome from Susi, with her infectious friendly smile and bubbly personality! As more people arrived for the event, I was struck by the great atmosphere and the fascinating pieces of jewellery on display.

The Rock Hound has a strong emphasis on responsible sourcing and is also a Fairtrade Gold Licensee. According to IJL, the brand launched it’s fully fairtrade collection, Goldrush, in October last year. This collection is inspired by the journey of gold, from its source as a “nugget” in the mine to market. All of the pieces in this collection are made by hand in the studio from 18ct Fairtrade Gold. Prices for this collection start from £360. According to The Rock Hound website, all of the gold comes from artisanal and small-scale mines (ASM) that meet the Fairtrade Standard for Gold. This means that the gold has been mined responsibly and the miners are guaranteed to receive a Fair Minimum Price and a Premium to spend on improving their businesses and community.

According to Fairtrade Gold, in order to achieve Fairtrade certification, small-scale mining organisations need to meet rigorous Fairtrade standards on working conditions:

  • No child labour
  • Gender equality
  • Clean technology
  • Health and safety
  • Organisational transparency and democratic decision-making
  • Responsible environmental management practices
  • Miners guaranteed minimum price of 95% of LBMA daily fix
  • Premium paid to mining groups of $2,000 USD per kilo to invest in community or business development projects

Jewellery and gold products created from certified gold and other precious metals are stamped a unique and exclusive Fairtrade gold Mark. This stamp shows that the gold the consumer is buying is fully traceable from the certified mine to the consumer.

To read more about this, see Fairtrade Gold‘s website.

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The Rock Hound’s newest collection, Chromanteq, takes uniquely cut responsibly sourced colourful gemstones and 3D scans them to ensure a perfect setting to that particular gemstone. The pieces are then cast in recycled precious metals and coated in a kaleidoscopic array of nano-ceramics. Chromanteq is an ever growing bespoke collection and no two pieces will ever be the same! All of the pieces are made to order and only recycled precious metals and responsibly sourced gemstones are used. Prices for these pieces start from £4,800 and viewings are, at present, by appointment only. A little added bonus for this astonishing collection is that the pieces come in a fish leather pouch. This leather is a bi-product of the fishing industry and the production process makes use of renewable hydro and geothermal energy!

“With Chromanteq I’ve accumulated gemstones which are the embodiment of colour and life. I’ve designed each piece to show this off to the maximum and have used complimentary colours to make them pop!” – Susi Smither 

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I asked Susi some questions about her brand and experience in the ethical jewellery business.

Nataly: What made you want to become a jewellery designer?

Susi: It’s been quite a long journey to where I am now, in fact it will be my tenth year in the industry next year. I’ve always loved jewellery from a young age but never really thought of it as a career (nor was it ever mentioned through all various careers advice sessions). It was only when I’d exhausted all I could learn in the events world after university and as I was getting bored that I thought to myself I’d like to give jewellery making a go. So I enrolled on a beginner’s course at Central Saint Martins in 2007 and was hooked. Fortunately, my teacher for that short course had his own class opening up in Hatton Garden which I went to once a week for four years. Alongside this I started my own silver jewellery company and learned as I went along, both in the business side of things and the making of things.

My method of learning is through exhaustive researching of a subject. Faced with buying gemstones from Hatton Garden’s gem dealers I felt like I needed to gain a greater understand of the subject. I dived in head first and eight months later was awarded my Diploma in Gemmology from the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. The mixture of geeky science and aesthetic beauty was fascinating.

So from the making side of things I then traversed into the gem world, working as Stock Controller for Holts in Hatton Garden. After working there for three years and learning even more about gems, jewellery, and more widely how jewellers work, it wasn’t until 2014 that I felt ready to give it a go on my own. The last bit of training I wanted to take was a Jewellery Design course at GIA, an intensive course learning the art of design and hand rendering, which I adore. Whilst a lot of brands are heading in the direction of CAD, and we do use this in our production, I find hand rendering and design much freer and more organic. Not to mention more romantic when working with clients on their designs such as engagement rings.

So now I’ve almost come full circle and have control over the whole process from initial design and choosing of gemstones all the way through to the finished piece. I think it is crucial that a jewellery designer knows how to make the jewellery themselves, even if they then use master craftsman to do the job.

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N: What first got you interested in working with certified Fairtrade Gold?

S: I’ve always been a conscious consumer and chosen Fairtrade products over others since I first heard about the Foundation’s work over 20 years ago. As I was getting into the jewellery industry I enquired about ethical precious metals but it was still a long way off from how it is today and wasn’t right for the jewellery I was producing. Now it is easy for a jeweller to be registered and the Fairtrade Gold can be purchased in different forms (grain, sheet, wire and chain). Once you’ve heard what unregulated miners go through to extract the gold ore it is a simple decision to make: Fairtrade Gold is the proactive choice.

N: Generally speaking, as a manufacturer, how would you say the price differs between Fairtrade Gold jewellery and non Fairtrade Gold jewellery?

S: The only difference for us when we buy the gold is the slight additional percentage which is the premium paid over the gold price; so it isn’t so different. Often there are many other factors relating to price in jewellery, especially gemstone prices, so that is just one of the variables. The price of gold is variable too so we make sure that we are up to date with our prices, whether they go up or down.

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N: How has your experience been in starting an ethical jewellery brand?

S: It’s been harder than just starting a jewellery brand and a finding the right suppliers has taken much longer. I always had at the forefront of my mind that I never wanted to compromise on the design so we’ve had a to be inventive along the way too. We are a jewellers first and foremost, but the bonus is we are ethical. In the future I hope that this is the industry standard and everyone will hold the same sourcing principles.

N: What have been the most interesting and challenging parts?

S: Finding fully traceable coloured gemstones has been more challenging than the precious metals or diamonds. Often gem dealers don’t want to share their sources, which is understandable as they might be worried about losing trade but this makes full traceability impossible so we’ve now started faceting our own gemstones enabling us to have greater control over our supply chain. 80% of the coloured gemstone mining is artisanal small-scale mining spread over 50 countries. Often this is unregulated and a gemstone may pass through a myriad of brokers, traders, dealers and middlemen traversing the world before it is worn as a piece of jewellery. We are working to shorten this pipeline and choosing who we work with is key to this.

N: Can you describe the process of finding ethical sources?

S: Talking, sharing, asking, and listening are key. Building relationships with suppliers is vital, a lot of this industry is built on trust and that can’t be rushed. If there are parts of their supply chain they aren’t sure on, and they are willing to delve deeper, we will work with them giving support where necessary to make sure that their supply chain is compliant with our code of conduct.

I like to do things face to face so one of the first stops once I’d got The Rock Hound off the ground was to head to Tucson for their annual gem show. I’m heading back there next year to meet again with the suppliers I met two years ago to reaffirm our relationships as well as looking to make new ones buying rough traceable gem material to bring back to our workshop.

Within the ethical side of the jewellery business people are really supportive of each other since we all have same goals and are facing the same challenges.

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“Once you’ve heard what unregulated miners go through to extract the gold ore it is a simple decision to make: Fairtrade Gold is the proactive choice.” – Susi Smither

N: Where did you get the inspiration for your new collection from?

S: The gemstones themselves are the inspiration for this collection. All the gems we’ve chosen are exceptional examples of colour and saturation. We’ve used the nano-ceramic plating to complement these gems and make the colour pop to let the rocks be the stars of the show.

N: Where do you see the Rock and Hound in 5 years?

S: I can’t wait for us to open our first bricks and mortar shop. Currently we have a studio which is appointment only and we love it when customers visit because they enter our world and can see where we make the jewellery, can handle rough gemstones (often for the first time) and ask any question they have about where we buy them through to design and how to care for their jewellery. Our shop would have all these elements and more. We are a little bit obsessed about gems so alongside this sell a variety of other gemstone related gifts – we want to spread the gem-love.

Alongside this our brand will have grown and established itself as a respected fine jewellery brand, the go-to place for aesthetically beautiful ethical jewellery.

N: And lastly, what is your favourite piece of jewellery that you have made?

S: This is a hard one, it’s like choosing a favourite child! Often the designs start off as ideas floating around my head (I can often be found daydreaming jewellery) so when they are made I’ve grown really attached to them.

Most recently though the first pair of earrings from our new collection made me giddy with their sparkle. The main gemstones were urban-mined so it took a long time to have all the stones I wanted to include together before we even designed them – two years in fact. Often if I fall in love with a stone I’ll buy it and then it sits quietly in our safe waiting for me to find friends to go along with it.

To view and purchase beautiful pieces from this brand visit their website

www.therockhound.com

*All photos belong to The Rock Hound

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Sustainable fashion, ethical luxury, and lifestyle blog by Nataly Elbaz Björklund. Creating awareness on sustainability issues and introducing ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly, slow fashion & lifestyle brands.

3 thoughts on “The Rock Hound, Ethical Fine Jewellery: An Interview With Founder Susi Smither

  1. Wow! There are some seriously stunning pieces right there and this post was really interesting. I loved finding out about The Rock Hound in your words but also learning more about Susi. I totally imagined the story behind the collection of a gold nugget traveling from mine to market. We recently went to the Natural History museum and I was gawping at gold nuggets from the gold rush. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

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