Meet the ‘Robin Hood’ jewellery designer
Jewellery designer Pippa Small says her job is a bit like being Robin Hood.
Instead of using bows and arrows to take from the rich and give to the poor, she uses the money spent by wealthy people on her expensive handmade pieces to help some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities.
With her jewellery selling for as much as £70,000 per item, London-based Pippa is in demand with fashion houses like Gucci, Chloe and Nicole Farhi.
Her designs are worn by celebrities including actress Nicole Kidman, and Pippa attends fashion weeks around the world. Yet in stark contrast to such glitz and glamour, she also inhabits a completely different world.
“Just as I was starting the business full-time 10 years ago, I had spent a summer working with Burmese refuges in Thailand, who were just full of horror stories, horrendous testimonies,” she says.
“And I remember coming back to Europe to go to the Paris fashion week, and just being struck dumb by the contrast. I just couldn’t reconcile the two completely different realities.”
Despite making jewellery as a hobby since she was a child, Pippa, 44, says she had no intention of going into the industry full time.
“I had studied anthropology at university in London, and ended up working in human rights, to do with indigenous tribal minorities, particularly in south east Asia – Borneo, Thailand – to do with land rights issues, cultural rights – nothing to do with jewellery at all,” she says.
“But I was still making and selling a few bits and pieces, and kept getting asked for more.”
Pippa decided to go into jewellery-making full time after she was invited to work with Tom Ford, who was then creative director at Gucci.
But from day one, she was determined to use her jewellery to help the type of deprived indigenous communities she had worked with as a human rights activist.
“I was asked to design some collections for Gucci, which was great, and I was able to earn some really good money.
“With the money I was able to do my first project with bushmen in Kenya, helping them to make jewellery from my designs, and sell it to tourists.”
Today Pippa gets 70% of her jewellery made in India, “the world’s gold jewellery capital”, with the profits she makes from this main part of her business being invested into special collections made in workshops in countries such as Afghanistan, Kenya, Panama and Bolivia from locally sourced materials.
While Pippa admits she has a profitable business and good lifestyle, in all countries she pays at least a 10% premium to ensure working standards are as high as possible, both in sourcing the metals and precious stones she uses, and for the workers who then make the jewellery.
Pippa Small aims to create employment among disadvantaged communities.
In Bolivia her jewellery is made from gold produced in a mine that is run as a co-operative, and is working towards Fairtrade accreditation through it being run in as an environmentally friendly a way as possible.
In marked contrast, Pippa’s Kenya-made jewellery is all made from recycled glass and scrap metal sourced from Nairobi’s largest waste tip. Working with the Made charity, 160 people who live in a slum next to the site are involved in the manufacture of the jewellery.
“They live in completely inhuman conditions, but they are really industrious, going through the garbage seeing what they can sell,” says Pippa.
“I know we are only helping a very small number, but it is amazing to see the difference we can make – it is all about giving these people the confidence of having a skill and being able to contribute.
“Within a couple of years, many people who we have trained up through the scheme leave to start their own micro-businesses. That is particularly pleasing.”
With two Pippa Small boutiques, one in London and the other in Los Angeles, she plans to continue to grow both the business and her work with disadvantaged groups.
The workers in Kabul are learning traditional Afghan jewellery-making skills.
However, Pippa, who was born in Canada and moved to the UK with her family when she was seven, admits that occasionally some people criticise her. “Some people do say to me, ‘So what you are doing is just making jewellery with really cheap labour sources’, but that is really not the case,” says Pippa. “If I wanted low cost I could have gone to China.
“Instead it is really important to me that my collections are inclusive, a genuine collaboration. It has to be sustainable to work for everyone, and I make sure that people are paid properly. “It is not world-changing, but I’m helping one or two people here and there. I’m making a contribution.”
In Afghanistan, Pippa works with a charity called Turquoise Mountain, which trains craftspeople – both men and women – to make traditional Afghan jewellery.
“There are 20 people at the workshop in Kabul, including eight women. The women tend to be in a room together, and the men keep their distance, which is fine,” she says.
“They have just hopes and dreams. One woman is just 18, and she is amazing, she is so thrilled to have a job, get of the house, and contribute financially to her home, which is the most important thing.” Because of the continuing security concerns in Afghanistan, the jewellery Pippa produces there is not made of solid gold. Instead it is made of cheaper materials, such as silver and gold plate.
Pippa, who usually spends about half the year travelling, visits the workshop in Kabul twice a year. She puts any concerns about her own safety while in Kabul to the back of her mind.
“I have been in Kabul many times when bombs have been going off,” she says. “It is a bit alarming when the rumours start that foreigners are being targeted, but generally it just feels a bit like when such things happen here [in the UK], so you just get on with things.
“I don’t have a bodyguard or any of that business.”
By: Will Smale