Flux Conference – 25/6 April 2017 – Assay Office, Birmingham

I was persuaded to attend the first day of the Flux conference by my colleague, Kate Thorley (Programme Leader of the new BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business course that opens its doors in September). I was taken by surprise by the passion and enthusiasm of the organisers and many of the delegates, and I felt like a complete Luddite for much of the day. Here’re my reflections on what I saw and heard.

The opening session was a keynote from Harriet Kelsall about the different circles of practice that jewellers work within. It was interesting for me to see the incremental steps that she has engaged in over the 10 years been in business, gradually building the ethical/sustainable element of business, while still maintaining options for customers who don’t want to/don’t have the budget to go full Fair Trade. She’s clearly held in some regard by the business community (she is on the board of the National Association of Jewellers, and is helping to shape its Better Business group), but she is prickly in her reference to the HE sector. She’s obviously had poor experiences with jewellery graduates (she questions their basic bench skills, and their ability to work with the public), but her criticism has a sweeping quality that sets me on edge: I think – thanks to some pertinent comments from Kate, and some active networking – we set the audience straight about the School of Jewellery’s commitment to our graduates.

The session before lunch was a panel discussion on the jewellery supply chain, chaired by jewellery journalist, Rachel Taylor. Five members of the panel reflected the different stages of the chain: mineral extraction (Gold from Columbia and gems from Sri Lanka), bullion dealing and manufacturing, to goldsmithing and jewellery production. A couple of points really struck me, here. The first was from Anna Loucah, who – in challenging the perceived value of ethical products – said ‘That’s just the way it is; it’s not a premium – it’s the right price’. This references the dark art of pricing, and the fact that – with luxury bespoke products – the higher cost of ethically sourced metal is absorbed into the accumulated costs of the product as a whole; the skill is being able to communicate this to the customer in a way that they can buy into. The second theme that really chimed with me was the panel members’ responses to the question – posed by Rachel: ‘what are the obstacles that stand in your way?’ Marcin Piersiak, of the Columbian Alliance for Responsible Mining, said – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s the actions of governments that represent the biggest obstacle to business. Pete Crump, of Vipa Designs, said his biggest obstacle was the continuity of supply; not being able to guarantee supply of products to the jewellers that buy from him is a key issue. Arabel Lebrusan felt that receiving negative feedback from suppliers and others in the trade was the key obstacle (‘how much better to have a conversation?’), and Anna Loucah felt that the provision of specific components (tube, chain, etc – in fairtrade materials) was key. Lastly, Stuart Pool (Nineteen48) identified the lack of a code of practice for the sourcing and processing of coloured gemstones as an obstacle, a theme that recurred throughout day one of the conference.

Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!
Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!

The breakout session after lunch was fascinating (and hilarious!). This was a lively discussion between Tim Ingle (Ingle and Rhode), Jon Dibben (Jon Dibben – Jewellery Design) and Sam Rose (September Rose), chaired by Jane. The discussion ranged around the issues of how ethical business can be made to work in the round. Sam’s point, here, about the danger of making it seem that all the problems had been solved – through the use of ‘badges’ such as FairTrade and FairMined – was an apposite one. Her approach is to work, on occasion, with pre-certified/up-and-coming mines, in order to create the maximum benefits for all concerned. In addition, the jewellers highlighted some of the tensions that existed in their business – establishing the right balance between creating demand, and being preachy or evangelical; being niche and shifting into the mainstream – and the focus came to rest on the need to raise awareness of the issues, without focusing (to the point that would be off-putting to customers) on the grimness of the situation for the worst affected. It’s a tough call, for those so invested in their cause.

Lastly, the session from Sarah Greenaway (of jewellery brand, Mosami) and Liz Tinlin (of brand strategist, Blue Babel) was really enlightening. The focus on their talk was on trust and truth, and this drew into sharp relief my own prejudice regarding the role of business in general. The notion that ethics in business is problematic (because of its overtones of moral judgement, and because of the religious framework that it might imply) is one I can get behind; however, the idea that business scores more highly on the Edelman Trust Barometer is something that challenged my thinking. Liz made the point that ethical business can maintain its place at the leading edge, and that the rest of the market will want to catch it up, generating real change in the market. She outlined the demographic of Globescan’s ‘Aspirationals’ who are interested in, both – to cut a long story short – shopping and values. There was some discussion around their values – abundance without waste; be truly as you are; get closer; all of it; do some good – which sounded, well, not exactly like empty slogans, but the researcher in me wanted to know about the methodology used (more info about this, here).

Globescan's consumer demographics
Globescan’s consumer demographics

However, Liz and Sarah’s point about the need to develop a brand that reflects the values of the person at the heart of it was more resonant for me. Placing this purpose at the heart of the business means that it can inform all aspects of the business: its values, its competencies and its sense of who its customers are. In this way, the values become the ‘driveshaft’ of the business, generating value and, ultimately, profit. Far from being an ‘Aspirational’, I struggle to fit myself into Globescan’s analysis as I feel capitalism needs much more radical change than is encompassed here; at best, I’m an ‘Advocate’ (interested in social value, if not shopping – actually, I’m interested in what jewellery means, and in its ability to facilitate the individual wearer’s performance of identity). However, let’s not be too fatalistic here: this focus is helping to shift the balance away from harmful profiteering; it is also enriching the stories that jewellery is uniquely placed to tell, beginning with the authentic (truthful?) experience of the maker (and, beyond them, the suppliers of components, metals, gems, etc). It was an inspiring talk from Sarah and Liz (all the more so for having snook past my inherent distrust of marketing-speak!), and I’m looking forward to seeing them speak at the School of Jewellery, as Kate has recruited them to deliver a session with her BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business students next year.

I had to scarper at this point, and wasn’t able to join in the evening drinks (or, indeed, the second day of the conference). It was a fascinating day, in which I learnt loads about the different motivations that drive the ethical jewellery business, and in which my faith in business as a driver of social change was massively shored up. Thank you to the Flux organisers, to Kate for bullying me into going with her, and to all the delegates who made me feel welcome, despite my early scepticism. I’ll certainly be back next year.

Sian Hindle

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Click on the image above for a Storify round-up of the event

Craftspace – Made in the Middle

We are SO proud of our staff, all enthusiastic practitioners in whatever field they work in, so it is great to see that FOUR of them have been selected to be in the prestigious and impressive “Made in the Middle” show curated by Craftspace and on display now in The Herbert gallery in Coventry, before embarking on an 18 month tour of the Midlands. Additionally, our ever-popular PhD student, John Grayson is also exhibiting.

Featured – Anna Lorenz, Sally Collins, Zoe Robertson and Dauvit Alexander.

A few random shots from the opening last night:

Sally Collins at Made in the Middle.
Work by Sally Collins.

 

Work by Dauvit Alexander at Made in the Middle
Work by Dauvit Alexander

 

Handling collection, "Made in the Middle".
The handling collection with work by Sally and Dauvit.

Talking Practice

Talking Practice was set up four years ago because staff at SoJ felt that, while we were doing some great things individually, there was little attempt to join the dots and make connections between the projects in order to make something better and more exciting.  We were interested in sharing our practice, making suggestions and critiquing approaches, finding partners to collaborate with and broadening the audience for our work.  What started out as staff talking to each other about their work has expanded and – as well as home-grown speakers – we’ve featured talks from artists, academics, curators and researchers from further afield.  Claudia Betancourt and Nano Pulgar from WALKA Studios, Chile, hold the record for the furthest travelled, so far, delivering their talk – ‘Islands or Archipelagos?’ – to a packed SoJ lecture theatre last February.

Poster for WALKA Studios talk (Feb 2016)
Poster for WALKA Studios talk (Feb 2016)

As times, it can feel as if the worlds of jewellery and its allied trades are pretty small ones: outside the four walls of the SoJ, everybody in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter seems to know everybody else and – beyond that – networks of jewellers are well-connected and tight-knit.  The SoJ building is beautiful and the small size of the campus means there is a great sense of community here, but it becomes a bit of a trap if we’re not able to branch out and explore the disciplines around us.  Talking Practice is an attempt to open up the conversation, to explore the wealth of creative practice and technical innovation that’s going on elsewhere to see how we can enrich our individual practice and our collective worlds.

So, this year, we’ve got a smorgasbord of fascinating speakers for you.  Next term we have Joanne Horton (De Montford University) talking about her innovative use of electroforming with fabric to make bespoke garments, and Jon Privett (West Dean College) speaking about patinas and the use of colour in conservation.  Not to mention Dr Sabina Stent (alumnus of Birmingham University) on women surrealist artists, and our very own John Grayson (a PhD candidate here at SoJ) speaking about the Parallel Practices project he’s been working on in collaboration with Kings College, London.

Beaulagh Brooks, speaking at the ChitChat event that launched In The Loupe
Beaulagh Brooks, speaking at the ChitChat event that launched In The Loupe

Talking Practice is delighted to have teamed up with the newly-inaugurated Vittoria Street Gallery.  In the Loupe – its opening show – kicked off last week with a fast and furious evening of ChitChat (based on the Japanese Pecha Kucha format), in which many of the exhibiting artists provided intriguing insights into their working methods and approaches in 3 minute talks.  In the Spring, the Gallery will feature the work of Jessa Fairbrother – an artist who uses self-portraiture and pin-pricking to create beautiful images – and we’re delighted to welcome her to Talking Practice to give a talk on her practice, alongside this show.

Shag (profile), Bharti Parmar, 2012
Shag (profile), Bharti Parmar, 2012

Our next event takes place on Tuesday 29 Nov 2016, and is a talk from Birmingham-based artist, Bharti Parmar.  I first met Bharti earlier in the year when she gave us feedback on the skills our graduates need when they enter the workplace, as part of the Transforming the Curriculum process that saw all of our programmes redesigned – and her work has intrigued and perplexed me ever since.  She isn’t a jeweller specifically, and yet her PhD (from Wolverhampton University, in 2009) is about sentimental/mourning jewellery, and she’s very interested in materials that carry a particularly emotional load, or which confuse and confound.  When I visited her studio in the summer, she showed me a series of images that are underpinned by ideas around race and identity that are produced with wood ‘veneers’ that are actually sticky-backed plastic and told me about her five foot square rug made of human hair, I just knew that we’d have get her in for a talk.  She’s kindly shared some of her hair-work and wig-making samples with us, and these can be seen in the pop-up cabinet in the Vitt Street Gallery until Tuesday: bunches of red hair lie next to grey asian hair, and samples of tatting demonstrate the Victorian methods of creating hair jewellery.  Bharti’s talk promises to be compelling stuff – do join us if you possibly can (booking, via eventbrite, here).

Samples of hair in pop-up cabinet in Vitt Street Gallery
Samples of hair in pop-up cabinet in Vitt Street Gallery

Talking Practice lectures are free, and open to students and staff from SoJ and the wider faculty and beyond, as well as alumni, members of the local trade and researchers and practitioners outwith BCU.  The talks usually take place on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, beginning at 5pm and concluding with a glass of wine and a chance to chat and network, in the Vittoria Street Gallery.  If you would like any further information about the series, please do get in touch – my email is sian.hindle@bcu.ac.uk.

Look forward to seeing you there – Sian Hindle, Lecturer in Contextual Studies, SoJ, and Convenor of Talking Practice.