I have always loved how a well-chosen piece of jewellery can transform a plain outfit into something special, so when I discovered a brilliant fair trade company called Just Trade making beautiful ethical jewellery, I knew they were perfect for Decorator’s Notebook. This week, we launched our first fair trade jewellery collection and I caught up with Laura Cave, founder of Just Trade, to learn more about why their necklaces, earrings and bangles are so special.
Introduce us to Just Trade in a Tweet
Just Trade: valuing people and creativity with ethical jewellery designed for a fairer world.
What motivated you to start Just Trade?
I founded Just Trade in July 2006 with the primary aim of providing fairly paid, flexible work and training for women living in some of the poorest shantytowns in Lima, Peru.
Whilst studying jewellery design at The School of Jewellery in Birmingham and later the Royal College of Art in London, I visited Peru on numerous occasions to volunteer with a fair trade jewellery project. It was there that my friendships grew with local women. I saw incredible potential in the skills that they already had, materials that were available locally and their desire to learn more. I wanted to collaborate with them make desirable products that are valued not only for their fair trade approach but also for the quality of the design and craftsmanship.
Was this your ‘Plan A’ or did you have another career before?
I always wanted a career in jewellery, but I never had a specific plan as to what exactly that would look like. After graduating I worked freelance, trying to get as much experience as possible. I juggled making my own work with lecturing at various universities and worked part-time for designer maker Jane Adam. Throughout this time, whenever I could, I saved up money to go to Peru. As Just Trade has grown over the last nine years I have given up a lot of my other work, but still do the occasional day of teaching. One day I would love to make my own work again, but can’t see that happening anytime soon!
Who comes up with the jewellery designs?
Every year we visit the projects in Peru, Ecuador and India to work alongside the artisans. We always approach all new product development and skills training in a collaborative way, listening and learning as much as teaching and demonstrating. I strongly believe that this collaborative approach leads to better products and encourages a greater sense of worth and self-esteem amongst the producers.
Decorator’s Notebook sells jewellery made by Flowering Desert in India and The Zoe Project in Peru. Tell us the story of these two projects…
The Zoe Project is based in two shantytowns in Lima called ‘La Tablada’ and ‘California’. They employ 22 lovely ladies and one man! It’s our longest-running partnership and we’ve been working with them since 2006. At that time, the women were struggling to find a viable route to market for their products and needed help with design. Some of the ladies were already highly skilled in the art of crochet using silver wire. We helped them develop new designs with that technique and also introduced them to working with brass, making pieces like the Ribbon Bangle for Decorator’s Notebook.
Flowering Desert is based in a remote rural community in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. We partnered with them in 2010 when they employed eight women. They were working in textiles but struggling with an unreliable electricity supply in their workshop and needed ideas for products they could make even when the power was off. We taught those eight ladies some basic jewellery-making skills and the project now employs 28 women who have mastered beading and hammering techniques to create some of our most popular items, including the hare, fox, cloud and umbrella necklaces and earrings.
It must be very rewarding getting to know individuals from the projects over time and seeing them flourish…
Yes, I get to witness the difference fair trade can make in a really personal way – it’s hearing the women’s individual stories that really makes the power of ethical trade hit home…
“I’m Madhammal. I love to be creative and work on new designs. Now I am in charge of quality control and I can earn my own money in a safe workplace. In my spare time I am learning to read and write. I did not have the chance to do that before.”
“I’m Primi. I work at The Zoe Project in Peru where I make crocheted jewellery. My son, Bryan, has serious medical problems and I travel two hours by bus every week to take him to a specialist clinic. I can work flexible hours to fit around my family. It is a blessing from the heavens and I don’t know how my family would have coped without it”
“I’m Lidia. For me, it is a huge help to work in the project. I have been able to pay for treatment to enable me to have a baby, which I have always longed for. I am happy to say that I gave birth to a healthy baby girl on 11th April last year and I have named her Natali Maria.”
“I’m Naty. At 59 years old I have learnt to make jewellery… I never thought that I would do this! I like this work and now I can help the economy of my household and pay for food for my husband. I feel important now because I never had the opportunity to work before.”
Why should people in the West invest in ethically-produced goods?
I would love people in the UK to have a better understanding of how the choices that we make can have a positive impact on the choices that others are able to make, for the benefit of their future and their families.
I believe that if people were better informed they could start to make more choices about the way they spend their money. It doesn’t mean sacrificing style for ethics – I believe you can have both, this is why companies like Decorators Notebook are so important.
You have travelled widely. I bet you’ve had some interesting experiences…
Oh my goodness there are so many random, crazy, wonderful and sometimes scary stories, I could write a book! If fact if I wasn’t so busy and so dyslexic I probably would!
One of the scariest was on a bus late at night, travelling from a shanty-town on the outskirts of Lima. It was only after I had got on the bus that I realised the driver was involved in some kind of dispute with a rival bus. They were racing in a competition to pick up passengers and overtaking into oncoming traffic on a main road. Then the other bus rammed my bus off the road. As we came to a standstill the driver of my bus was hauled out of his seat by the rival driver, beaten up and his keys stolen. After a bit of shouting, commotion and mopping up of blood, my driver jump-started his vehicle and carried on his route picking up passengers as though nothing had happened. I have to say I was pretty pleased to get to my final destination in one piece!
What challenges have you had doing business in developing countries?
During the last nine years we have faced numerous potentially devastating set backs, alongside the day-to-day slog of starting a business from scratch. The financial crisis and fluctuating exchange rates of 2008 wiped out our entire operating margin in the space of couple of weeks. The price of silver rocketed potentially pricing our products out of an already sensitive market. Then there are the challenges of working with people who live in vulnerable situations, whose lives can be turned upside down overnight. Through everything we have remained determined to carry on, focusing on the women who need work and adapting and adjusting our business in order to keep going.
What are your hopes for the future?
My continuing aim is to expand the business, develop great products, work with fantastic retailers and provide regular, fairly paid work to more people with limited opportunities.
One of the most exciting aspects of working with fair trade projects is to see the real impact that the training and work has on the lives of ordinary people. I want to be part of lots more stories like those of Primi, Lidia, Naty and Madhammal.
Thank you for sharing the story of Just Trade with us Laura. To support The Zoe Project and Flowering Desert, please pop over to the Decorator’s Notebook Shop and choose something special from our jewellery collection, for yourself or a gift. Earrings are £9.95, necklaces £24.95 and bangles £18.50 so you can buy something beautiful and help change lives at the same time. What could be lovelier than that?
[Artisan photographs courtesy of Just Trade. Product photographs by Decorator’s Notebook]