Pippa Small is known for her beautiful, ethically made jewelry that celebrates local artisans and communities. She was one of the first jewelry designers to make sustainability a pillar of her company, and she truly walks the walk, visiting her artisans and suppliers around the world. She has worked with the Kuna Indians of Panama, the Batwa of Rwanda, the San Bushmen of Botswana, slum dwellers in Kenya, Afghan artisans, and Aymara goldsmiths in Bolivia. Her new Together Forever Colombia collection highlights a nearly forgotten way of finding gold and gemstones. She speaks to us about the new collection and why it is so meaningful to her.
Why did you choose to highlight Colombia in this collection?
Colombia has a very long history of the most extraordinary, sophisticated, and exquisite gold work dating back to 400BC. The famous gold museum of Bogota is incredibly inspiring, with thousands of pieces that have survived over a thousand years and remain intact and beautiful pieces of art.
Despite this incredible gold history, it was not this that drew me to Colombia. It was the story of truly clean gold that was being hand panned by the women of the Afro-Colombian communities who live along the rivers of Choco and the Pacific regions. The remarkable fact is that the present-day river panning methods are exactly the same as the pre-Colombian techniques. The large push of illegal gold mining in the area has left great swaths of the forest bare with mercury poisoning and pollution. Large-scale mining has a huge impact on the environment.
The women panners collect the gold as and when they need money that may subsidize their other economic activities for spending on their families. They have a very indigenous attitude toward this precious resource, they don’t want the gold to be collected by a large mine. They want to continue to take small amounts to cover their needs but this means there will still be gold in the rivers for their children and grandchildren to benefit from. They are a very politicized group who are very aware of the impacts of mine pollution and where any benefits go. They know that their panning does not destroy the environment and allows the land around to be used for farming, hunting, or wild plant gathering too.
Colombia also has the most beautiful emeralds in the world, and we were keen to find a cleaner source of these beautiful stones. We traveled to Boyacá in the mountains around Muzo and Chivor to meet the emerald panners. This is mostly men’s work and involves walking the river banks and shoveling the gravel of the river bed to find alluvial emerald crystals that have been swept out and down the mountains by the riverways. Without the disruption of deep mining, small pieces of this glorious glowing green gem can be found in the river bed.
How did you connect with Ana Maria Sierra, an advocate for these panners and your partner in this project?
I was very lucky to meet Ana Maria Sierra initially during the dark days of Covid. We met through the Colombian-based Alliance For Responsible Mining, an NGO that works with artisanal and small-scale mines to help them clean and improve their work conditions and environmental impacts.
We spoke over Zoom many times as we formed the project to work together to create a collection that was both environmentally clean but also celebrating the story of the heritage and rich history of the Afro-Colombian traditional goldsmiths.
I was so excited and started researching and designing as I plotted a trip to be made the moment the red ban was lifted.
Were you familiar with hand-panned river emeralds and gold before?
I was familiar, as panning does go on in many countries, but the hand-panned gold of Colombia was made famous years ago as the first certified eco gold mines of Chocó’s ‘Oro Verde’. Sadly, this organization fell apart some years ago, but the methods were still practiced, and the women still relied on this livelihood. The emerald story was new to me. Ana helped us access all the groups we needed to meet and understand the methods and importance of the support they needed.
Can you describe the process?
The method is very simple: The river gravel on the edges of the water is shoveled through, and small handfuls are put in the shallow wooded trays where a technique of swirling the tray (harder than it looks) naturally separates the gold, which is heavier than the river rocks and pebbles. Sometimes small nuggets are found, and sometimes just gold dust – this is collected and sent to the refiner, who cleans the gold from residues and other metals and purifies it by heating.
How does it benefit the community and environment?
There is very little impact on the environment through panning, the women often go with their children in tow, who practice panning whilst playing on the river banks. The gold collected offers the women an independent income which (as women always do) they invest in their children’s education and health.
When a large mine or illegal mining happens near their communities, all of the gold is extracted, leaving nothing for them. The land is left poisoned by mercury or churned over, and it takes a long time for the land to be usable again. No mercury, arsenic, or cyanide is used in their processes, so there is no chemical pollution or large use of water that larger mines need.
It also allows the community to stay together and not be forced to immigrate to earn livelihoods.
How do you describe the collection’s aesthetic and its historical roots?
The collection works to celebrate the ancient techniques that the goldsmiths of the tropical Pacific region have developed so well. Some of the roots and techniques have come from West Africa with the ancestors of the goldsmiths who were brought as enslaved people from the 16th century to work in the goldmines of the region.
After abolition, the communities stayed on the land and continued to have gold as a central source of their livelihoods. Through panning and becoming skilled goldsmiths, gold was their security, their investment for their futures. A small nugget of gold was placed in the belly button of a newborn baby. Every important ritual in their lives was celebrated with pieces of gold or jewelry providing a source of money for the receiver. It was also seen as a blessing, for it was said that only those with a clean heart would the gold come to in the rivers.
I asked the goldsmiths for stories and used them to create some of the filigree pieces. For the mermaid piece, the goldsmith David told us a story of a mermaid that used to be seen in a particular spot on the river, where she was seen washing herself by their ancestors. The part of the river was named after her, so we created a mermaid necklace with a seahorse and fish charm dancing beside her on the chain. We created filigree leaves inspired by the forests and an intricate peacock charm for beauty, as well as the traditional St Francis amulet. St Francis is the patron saint for the community, the protector of the poor, as well as the environment and offerings of gold, are made to him in the churches.
We made the hero piece, a traditional chain called ‘Together Forever’, named locally for the way that each handmade link is woven together forever to create a strong and flexible chain.
Are there any new design elements being introduced?
We have created a more contemporary feel for the traditional filigree work, creating large gold disk pendants, earrings, and rings with intricate and abstract ‘filling’ like spider webs of gold ribbon.
It was fascinating to watch the process of filigree, the thin strips of gold coiled and woven like silk to create patterns and shapes. We also hammered cocoa pods which we filled with brass beads to create the sound of seeds inside (a crop found in the region providing an important livelihood), and tamarind seeds with Eber.
You went to Colombia to meet with the artisans. What did you discover while you were there? What were the most moving experiences?
I loved spending time with the goldsmiths and the gold panners. To see and feel the particular landscapes and the role of the community within it, how they live within the resources and work to not deplete them. The communities are all very aware of the detrimental effects of illegal mining, the violence, and the destruction that it brings, and are pushing to have panning recognized as a part of their national cultural heritage.
We asked one woman what gold meant to her, and she said, ‘Gold is Life.’ The weaving of gold through their lives was very interesting as the gold economy drives everything and has a true value to them. It can bring education, health, and safety. Eber told us a story of a single gold chain that he used to bring up all his children. When he needed to pay for school, he lent his chain to the pawn shop, got the needed cash to pay, and then collected it when times were better. Again, when there was a health issue, he took it back to the pawn shop for cash to pay the doctors. Throughout his whole life, this single chain had helped him when needed. He still wears this life-giving chain.
We met young women who are learning how to become goldsmiths who told us clearly that making the jewelry was an act of love and creativity but also a vital cultural heritage and pride for them and an important symbol of their identity.
The jewelry is all about storytelling, a beautiful landscape, and people who have been through so much. They are resilient, strong, full of humor and joy of life despite so many challenges from local militias, narco-traffickers, mafia, guerrillas, and years of civil war. These communities are so proud of their hand work and how they continue to create and innovate designs that are beautiful and tell of their life’s journey.
Why did you partner with Net-A-Porter for this launch?
Net-a-Porter has been a wonderful supportive partner for us for so many years, and I am so proud of their Net Sustain platform, which really gives visibility and tells the story to shoppers about why it is important to give space to cleaner alternatives in fashion and jewelry.
This interview has been edited for clarity.