“Women of the Diamond Industry” focuses on the issue of gender equality along the entire diamond and jewelry supply chain. The series provides a platform for women in the industry to tell their own stories and describe the particular challenges they have faced in their careers.
The 11th article in the series is authored by Melanie Grant, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council. A journalist, she formerly was a luxury and jewelry correspondent for The Economist, and also assignment editor at The Times. She is the author of a book on art and jewelry by Phaidon Press.
Making the business of jewelry
as democratic as possible
My two favorite TV programs when I was a child were Newsround, a show on the BBC explaining current affairs to young people, and Sesame Street because they explained how to use big words and what they meant. I knew from around the time I was eight years-old that I wanted to tell people’s stories and to understand and explain how the world worked.
I remember going to school when I was older and sitting with our careers adviser who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a writer and she scoffed “No, you should be a baker’s assistant. People will always need bread.”
I was baffled by that response, and it dawned on me as time went on that there were very few expectations for someone like me growing up on a council estate in London in the 80s to achieve anything extraordinary. The highest I should hope for, I was told, was to be useful and to stay out of trouble.
A lot of my fellow students dropped out of school either with underage pregnancies or they got in trouble with the police. But I knew I was destined for more than that.
‘This ring will change your life’
My grandma Eileen was the one who opened the door to jewelry for me. She was a skilled gardener and loved flowers. As the oldest grandchild I would “help” her in the garden which mostly consisted of me dancing around in all her best jewelry while she tended to her roses.
Melanie Grant, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council. (Photo: Andrew Werne)
It was a wonderful time full of conversation and creativity and from then on, the most important times in my life have been heightened by jewelry.
When she died many years later, I was devastated and to get me out of the house, my friend Tamara took me to her family jeweler, Keglim Laufer, who she had commissioned to make a bracelet. I had played at jewelry before that in the flea markets of Camden Town with gothic silver, but I had never seen a diamond up close and that day changed my life.
Keglim handed me a ring so powerful it pinned me to my chair. It was a swirling white gold affair in white diamonds, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t look away, but I knew I couldn’t afford it, so I resigned myself to holding it for as long as possible.
She gave me this knowing look which I’ve seen witnessed in others the first time they see proper jewelry.
She said, “This ring will change your life.” I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I bought it on a plan which took me three years to pay off and every time I wear it, I think of Eileen and how that grief evolved into something life changing.
Showing the best of jewelry
Years later I found myself at The Economist where I learned to become a writer and again, that was fuelled by jewelry. I was styling shoots for them, and Cartier London asked me to go to Paris to write a review on an exhibition they were having.
In the darkness of the Grand Palais, I stood next to four older women who were staring at a selection of tiaras. They had tears in their eyes, so I asked the woman nearest to me why she was so emotional. She said they were cleaners and that they didn’t ever think that people like them would be allowed to witness something this beautiful. That floored me and I started crying too because well really, I felt the same.
Coming ace to face with diamonds. Melanie Grant visiting WDC members Dimexon in Antwerp, Belgium.
It has been my mission ever since then to show the best of jewelry to anyone who wants to see and understand it. To make the business of jewelry as democratic as possible.
I was told a long time ago at a well-known newspaper that I couldn’t apply for a job because I was a woman and I’d be too emotional. I argued that everyone is emotional, but some people choose to express it which is a strength. I got the job and a year later that person apologized.
The old days of newspapers I imagine were like the old days in supply chains. I never set out to prove anything, I’m just me and I find if you’re good at something people come to respect that over time.
Jewelry in the hierarchy of art
A few years ago, I wrote my first book called Coveted: Art & Innovation in High Jewelry asking the question “Can jewelry be art?’” and the response to it took me by surprise. I took three months off to write it and it took me three years.
I questioned the hierarchy of art in that fine art such as painting and sculpture were considered the pinnacle, and decorative art for some reason languish at the bottom. I argued that anything can be art and that anyone can create it.
Women have long been the muses in art and men its creators or as Grayson Perry told me “Women are the objects and men are the subjects” and as that changes, we’re seeing a parallel shift in jewelry as well as society in general which I think is long overdue.
Historically only nobility and the clergy could own diamonds but now, in this democratic age of women earning their own money and working-class people buying whatever they want, anything is possible if you work hard enough.
Sustainable ethics underpinning our future
I stayed at The Economist for 16 years and I was privileged to write about some of the most iconic, transformative creations in the history of art and design. Many of them contained diamonds.
I realized a few years ago in between all the interviews and all the research I was doing that responsible practice and sustainable ethics would underpin the future of jewelry. If we can’t get our act together and agree on a way forward collectively, we will threaten the art and that goes to the heart of desirability. After thousands of years of bejeweled evolution, we can’t let that happen.
Jewelry is the love of my life, and I knew it the second that Keglim handed me that first diamond ring. If I can play a part in its future then I will have succeeded in doing something worthwhile.
Sometimes I think back to that ‘baker’s assistant’ conversation and chuckle to myself. Not even the baker! I think things have changed a bit since then but not that much. I mentor quite a few promising young black kids from backgrounds like mine and that lack of expectation lingers.
I believe women will carry this industry forward in new and innovative ways and I’m proud to be part of that.
Melanie Grant visiting the Ity gold mine in Côte d’Ivoire.