Kari is the founder and head designer of Australian jewellery label, Lott Studio.
Was there a particular moment that influenced you to begin contemplating your responsibility as a jewellery designer?
Prior to becoming a jeweller I worked in the buying department of a large retail chain. It never sat well with me: the idea of replicating designs as fast as possible for the sole purpose of a monetary return made me very unhappy. At my core, it felt like we were stripping away the very essence of what design is. So I left my job and Australia and ended up in Berlin for two years.
While in Berlin, I continued to work as a freelance buyer, but instead of being in an office I was visiting shoe factories in the south of Spain as well as jewellery factories in India, working directly with artisans. During this time I also found myself deeply interested in contemporary furniture design, industrial design and spatial design. An object’s purpose, the process by which it’s made and its aesthetic are all linked. I explored the contrast of old craft and new technologies, in terms of how one can replace the other as well as the way they can work together to achieve a more sustainable and efficient process.
One day I stumbled across a jewellery collective that was offering a short course in jewellery-making. It was only four weeks, but I was hooked. I couldn’t believe how liberating it was to work with your hands and create something. It was also incredibly challenging, with technique and motor skills needing constant improvement. The challenge made it really interesting to me. Once I completed the course I was able to continue using the space, and over the following year I focused on fine-tuning my skills and learning the basics of forming and solder work.
For me the responsibility of design—how we produce a piece, to the longevity of the design itself—has been a key focus from the start. I enjoy considering Dieter Rams’s concept of ‘less and more’ and ‘form versus function’. How do we take this concept and apply it to our own profession? Instead of producing endless collections, how do we create something more unique and interesting that can be enjoyed for many years to come? And from a business perspective, how do we make this approach sustainable so we can continue doing it?
I believe fine jewellery already represents an aspect of this equation. Jewellery, classically, is an investment that we can wear on a regular basis. The materials are durable and can be refined, separated and re-used. And in the process of making a piece by hand and working with local suppliers, we support a local community of trade.
From a design perspective it’s about exploring creative concept and the design process while simultaneously considering the purpose of the design. How do you take something conceptual, such as ear art, and simplify it to be wearable, timeless and elegant?
How is your studio / brand currently engaging in lower impact practices, and in what ways would you like to improve going forward?
My objective to create a low-impact product is an ongoing one. Slow design and slow-made reduces waste and as new technology develops I’m able to alter and adjust my practice.
Ultimately being able to continue manufacturing in Melbourne allows for greater control. The small scale industry here has allowed me to work closely and form close relationships with my contemporaries. This aids in the exchange of new and alternative techniques, and ensures transparency. Everything I need is within a four kilometre radius of the studio, and each piece is made in the studio.
Are you curious about any particular innovation or technology developments in this space?
I have an interest in experimental projects that intersect craft and new technology. 3D printing is changing the way we’re able to build designs that had previously been quite difficult—if not impossible—to construct by hand. The potential to construct custom components and joinery that previously wouldn’t have been possible is exciting. Currently I am experimenting with designing joinery that will allow a piece to come together using multiple components. Each element is an object itself, where the closure clasp is a feature piece and the closure point cannot be seen.
The business model is such an important key to driving long term change in companies and the way that they operate. Which business models (not just in jewellery) or ways of approaching sustainability do you find particularly interesting and why?
The ‘Cradle to Cradle’ model focuses on creating a holistic economy and social framework that in turn creates systems that are not only efficient but also essentially waste-free. Those are the systems and concepts that I am interested in. It will require a long term strategy in order to scale my business and attain more equipment, but once achieved it will allow me to recycle and reuse customers’ metals and stones to create new pieces.
In addition to creating a circular manufacturing model, I’m focused on both social and ethical practices and responsibilities. I aim to apply these values across the customer experience, and across every product, creating a positive energy and a greater customer understanding of what makes for good design and execution. I believe people seeing this in action and beginning to value it will assist with longevity and sustainability within the design industry.
“Prior to becoming a jeweller I worked in the buying department of a large retail chain. It never sat well with me: the idea of replicating designs as fast as possible for the sole purpose of a monetary return made me very unhappy.”
What does the Slow movement mean to you? How does this apply to jewellery?
The Slow movement for me is about creating a stronger relationship between design, and both social and environmental responsibilities. It’s counteracting fast-paced consumerism and focusing on a more balanced, personal approach to the way in which we make and enjoy design objects. Changing the way design business previously operated, in removing a consumer from the process, and re-focusing our attention to include and inform them across the process in the hope that as a society we will encourage not only buying less but buying better.
Within the studio, this means each ring being sized to fit, earrings adjusted, metal customised. Bringing the customer into the studio and having a conversation about the design and creating something they will love—it’s the perfect way to work.
Durability is a key aspect of sustainability. How can we identify whether a piece of jewellery has been made well and will last the test of time? How can we care for jewellery to ensure a longer lifespan?
Jewellery made from fine metal (silver or gold) will last the test of time, and will naturally have longevity. Avoiding plating unless its placement or purpose on the piece is part of its design. Plating that is in contact with skin will rub off over time.
It’s important to care for your piece by avoiding exposure to harsh chemicals or rough wear and tear. Clean your jewellery regularly with dishwashing soaps, warm water and a toothbrush. Polishing cloths and polishing compounds help remove tarnishing like blackening of silver and can bring pieces back to a high shine.
Most fine jewellers will clean their own jewellery for you as well; it’s a practise that has been around for many years. It’s always important to converse the care needed of a particular piece.
Who is the LOTT customer? Do you believe they engage with your ethos and consider their own purchasing behaviour / impact when shopping with you?
I believe my customer engages with the ethos of slow made. I am very fortunate to have a strong and loyal customer. They are highly engaged with the process in which their piece is made, and understand the value of the piece they are buying. Being fine jewellery and working with solid gold and silver, I think I naturally attract individuals who are interested in purchasing handmade jewellery. My customers have a strong appreciation for independent jewellery design and are looking for something minimal and sculptural. Each customer is very considered in their choices and I share in the process on deciding which piece(s) will best function for them on a daily basis. I also offer a tailoring service where small customisations can be made to each piece.
Often customers will admire a piece for a while before coming in to purchase. Jewellery is rarely purchased on impulse but, rather, something that has been highly considered. I feel this is a great compliment.
Systemically, what are some of the environmental and social issues associated with jewellery production?
Jewellery is an industry that’s divided into areas of specialty; jewellers must often engage with other specialty jewellers to complete a piece. That includes the sourcing of materials such as metal and stones, and engaging with suppliers that have specialty skills and equipment to take a piece through the various stages of build. Each process uses a different set of equipment and depending on how it’s setup, each set of equipment can have its own impact on our environment.
Fine metal can be refined, recycled and reused, and its reusability is often defined by its value. Silver, gold, platinum and palladium are refined back into their pure elements, and are of the same high quality as newly mined metals. The process by which metals are refined can be costly for smaller-scale jewellers, and we often rely on a specialist to undertake the process for us.
The industrial and chemical process used to separate metals needs to be taken into account when considering its environmental impact, alongside the impact of mining new metals. The supplier I use never uses mercury or cyanide to extract precious metals, and only sources new gold from Australian mines. In Australia, mining companies follow environmental and rehabilitation codes to ensure the area mined is returned to close to its original state.
People who say that they supply ‘recycled gold’ or even ‘primary gold’, they are only telling you part of the story. The question you need to ask is whether the gold is ethical and/or environmentally responsible. Ethical gold refers to gold that is sourced in ways that involve no illegality, no environmentally unsound practices, no conditions of gender inequality, no child labour, no contribution to conflict and transparent supply chains. Ethical primary gold comes from mines that develop training and other initiatives to support the miners and their communities. Ethical secondary gold is, among other things, bought by scrap dealers who pay a fair price for their material. Our supplier gets all of their major refining clients to document exactly how refining material is sourced. They’re Australia’s only major refining laboratory to be in NATA and ISO certified.
In addition to the sourcing of pure gold, Melbourne’s jewellery industry has transparency in the alloy mixes in the metals we buy. Metal such as nickel—which can cause an allergic reaction for many people—is not in any of the silver and gold blends that Lott Studio uses. This is not always the case for jewellery that is produced offshore.
The production process of making jewellery and the chemicals that are used can be harmful on the environment, so we must looking for ways to reduce environmental impact. For instance, we can install emission-cleaning systems like dust and fume extraction that use filters and charcoal, or use natural alternatives to chemical treatments such as a citric solution for pickling rather than acid. These are some of the ways jewellers take action in their studio.
Working in Australia we are lucky to have stone suppliers that can indicate the origin of their stones. I have come across companies that aren’t able to offer traceability on stones or supply a certificate of origin or quality, and in these instances we choose not to work with them. Stones are sourced all over the world, and it is the responsibility of the jeweller to ask for the facts, on a stone by stone basis.
In Australia there are legal obligations to follow with jewellery. All fine jewellery in Australia is required to be stamped with the percentage value of gold or silver in that piece. In Australia we have access to greater transparency of the materials we buy and processes we can use. Buying from accountable Australian jewellers can be a little more expensive, but knowing what you are buying is important.
“Buzzwords are used to add value, but understanding what makes a piece ethical, sustainable or handmade can be difficult to decipher.”
Given Intent’s focus on fashion, we usually ask people to explain what they think needs to be addressed in order for meaningful change to occur within the fashion system. Can you tell us your thoughts on this, as well as your thoughts on the jewellery industry.
I’ve always seen fashion as closely linked to personal identity. It’s a physical representation of our values, interests and personality. For consumers, embracing our individuality as opposed to participating in fickle trends is something we can control and actively participate in. Loving and investing in pieces, educating ourselves on how they are made, and enjoying them for many years—I hope my work encourages customers to think this way when purchasing!
As a jeweller I am actively involved in the process of making a piece. Starting with the right intentions and seeking out good practices is how I can build change from the inside out. And I believe that educating and encouraging jewellery designers of the future to undertake environmental and ethical best practices is important.
It’s also vital to support the industry around us. From my Abbotsford studio I am lucky to have a close network of friends and makers who are also supporting the slow-made movement. We’ve learned a lot together and I really value having a network that I’m able to discuss new ideas with.
Buzzwords such as handmade, ethical, sustainable, slow and boutique are commonly used in fashion. How are these used in jewellery and what are some of your concerns around these words?
There’s a strong focus on the term ‘handmade’ in the Melbourne jewellery industry. There are many highly skilled bench jewellers here that make each piece by hand, particularly in the wedding, custom, and contemporary jewellery industry. These are usually made in smaller studios in Melbourne and differ vastly from those that are commercially manufactured.
The term ‘ethical’ is used frequently in the jewellery industry, and is a focus point when it comes to responsible sourcing of stones and gold. Luckily, in Australia the details around how and where my materials are sourced are available for suppliers we work with. Not all jewellery labels make in Australia, and some designs are sent offshore where information around how or where something has been made can occasionally be lost in translation.
Buzzwords are used to add value, but understanding what makes a piece ethical, sustainable or handmade can be difficult to decipher. It’s still the responsibility of the consumer to understand what it is they are buying, but large portions of production are often ignored, making it difficult for consumers to link objects back to their original source. I hope with time we’ll see more transparency across all design industries.
When looking to the future of the jewellery industry, what excites and/or daunts you most?
A strong movement for slow-made and sustainable techniques is making the future of contemporary jewellery incredibly exciting. Jewellery is something we are able to make locally, which is something that lends itself effortlessly to the Slow movement.
Jewellery is a traditional industry, and although many of the techniques remain the same I think it is important to embrace new design technologies that assist us in better practice.
Originality and individuality is something that has always been an integral part of jewellery design; I hope that the small-scale jewellery model isn’t commercialised by bigger brands and we’re able to keep it slow-made. There is always going to be a large commercial jewellery industry; however, it’s encouraging to see customers choosing to support local businesses once again. Creating an intimate customer experience is important for supporting the movement.
Photography: Maddy Maeve
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub Editor Reb Mery