Arabel Lebrusan is the founder of Lebrusan Studio and The Vintage Ring Company.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
My name’s Arabel Lebrusan and I’m an artist, designer and, as one of the world’s very first Fairtrade Gold licensees, a key founder of the ethical jewellery movement. Born and raised in Spain, I studied Gemmology and Fine Art in Madrid and Utrecht, Holland. Since then, it’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been dedicated to beautiful jewellery. I began my journey as a fashion jewellery designer, travelling the Far East and learning the ins and outs of the trade as I went; the good, the bad and the ugly. Unsettled by much of what I’d witnessed, a Master’s in Design at London’s Central St. Martin’s followed, with a deep investigative focus on ethics in the jewellery industry. I then went on to spend five years as Creative Director of Leblas Jewellery – the first ever ethical jeweller on London’s famed Sloane Street – before winding up as designer and conductor of my very own brand, Lebrusan Studio. Today, I use my platform as an artist and designer to establish social commentaries and ultimately try to succeed in altering the face of the luxury jewellery industry for good.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
When I was a child, my mother had a beautiful pendant in her jewellery box; a miniature eagle clasping a sapphire in its claws, that she only wore on special occasions. To this day, I still remember my fascination whenever it was taken out of its box; the exquisiteness of the carving, the deep midnight blue of the sapphire, the sheen of the yellow gold, and how beautiful my mother was when she wore it. That one jewel settled my fate; it had me hooked on beautiful jewellery forever.
Though I knew from a young age that jewellery was to be my forte, it was my experiences along the way that dictated the course of my career. I still recall fondly my trips to Hong Kong at the very beginning and the incredible stones that quite literally surrounded me; carved, engraved, whittled into miniature sculptures, cut to enhance their natural flaws… I felt like a kid in a sweet shop. However, it was during those trips that I became aware of the dark side of the jewellery trade and everything that was wrong with the precious metal and gemstone industry; the cheap prices, the child labour, the abuse of natural materials and the appalling mining conditions. Later, when I was researching for my Master’s in Ethical Jewellery, I was told bluntly by a London diamond dealer: “When you work in this trade, you sell your soul to the devil.” It was at that point that I became adamant to make a change.
Since then, I’ve careered into a new realm; one of campaigning, questioning, learning and educating, all inextricably intertwined with my designing and creating. At the beginning, I would never have predicted this turn – but I’ll never look back.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
The harsh reality for jewellers who wish to create sustainable pieces, is that ethics majorly limits material and manufacturing options. 10 years ago, when I first started out, the process of bringing an ethical jewel into fruition was unbelievably awkward and arduous. What we’re working with is an old-fashioned industry; many of the people involved are of early generations and would prefer if things simply stayed the way they were 30 years ago. The old boys and large diamond companies who control the market are adamant not to disclose the provenance of materials.
Whilst the trade has progressed since I first started my journey, my palette is still far more limited than if I were to produce jewels en masse, using industry-standard materials. It’s not just the processes of sourcing and creating that are challenging for ethical jewellers like myself, but the costs incurred – ethically-sourced materials and sustainable manufacturing techniques are simply more expensive to commission. What’s more, we’re speaking to a much smaller market; one that we need to convince constantly of the worthiness of this price premium.
With all that said, I simply cannot see myself doing anything other than this. Though creating ethical jewellery might not make sense in terms of margins and growth for a small brand like mine, the work of ethical jewellers is crucial if the industry is to evolve.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Becoming one of the world’s first ever Fairtrade Gold licensees back in 2012 was a huge turning point for me. The Fairtrade brand is synonymous with ethics and recognised globally, and so the founding of Fairtrade Gold propelled the notion of ethical jewellery into the mainstream. It was really exciting to be an integral part of this pioneering movement.
I feel very fortunate to have been recognised with a number of accolades throughout my career – from the NAJ’s Jewellery Designer of the Year 2017, to a place on Professional Jeweller’s Hot 100 in 2013 and, most recently, my role as an Ethical Retail Ambassador for the Women’s Jewellery Network. Much like our Fairtrade Gold license, having this kudos against my brand’s name affords me an ever-so-slightly higher platform on which to push my cause.
Delivering my very own TEDx talk in 2015 was also a huge milestone in my campaigning career.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
My passion. The Spanish fervour in me overflows when I speak about the jewellery industry’s issues and I think that’s a voice that makes people want to listen and inspires others to follow.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Sometimes when I observe women in the jewellery industry I can sense that they’ve been left with no choice but to adjust to a masculine environment, adopting characteristics like individualism, lack of empathy and a hesitation to share knowledge, just as a means of surviving. I believe that gender equality can only be achieved if we build an industry based on compassion and nurturing. We should be sharing knowledge, supporting and encouraging one another and trusting our senses when we feel that something is unjust. This approach would create a positive environment with better opportunities for the industry’s female players to boost one another and seek new positions.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
The market is saturated, overflowing with voices and creativity. It’s crucial that you are authentic and unique. Take some time to sit down and really consider what it is that makes you unparalleled. What’s your innovation? What’s gorgeous about what you do? What makes you stand head and shoulders above the thousands of other jewellery designers out there? Once you’ve found the answers to these questions – and you believe in them – you are unstoppable.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
To change the world – one gram of gold at a time!
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