New York, USA – This week, we speak to Rus Jewelry, a New York based brand that creates jewelry out of recycled silver. Rus Jewelry creates unique hand-made pieces with a beauty and delicacy that reflects the sensibility of its designer, Mai Saito.
Mai is the designer and artistic director for the brand. Before Launching Rus Jewelry, she worked in the fashion industry for about four years. Ever since her first internship at a fashion magazine, she has been questioning the fact that as a society we are constantly and endlessly consuming. At the time, there was little awareness about the environmental and human cost of fast fashion. “We are against fast fashion, against the idea of buying very trendy and cheap stuff. We wanted to make something very special and make people feel better about the way they consume fashion by making them contribute to environmental conservation.”
Rus Jewelry is one of the few brands tackling an underrated issue in the fashion and luxury industry: the environmental impact of extracting mineral resources. While water and air pollution related to pesticide-intensive crops and toxic dyes is often discussed both in ethical and traditional media, the environmental impact of mining silver, gold and even non-precious metals is still scarcely discussed.
The good news however is that because silver is widely used in industrial processes, it is one of the easier metals to recycle
Metals, like plastics, are widely used in the fashion industry throughout the entire production chain and life cycle of a garment: from pins and needles to zippers, buttons and hangers, and of course jewelry. However, while unlike plastics, metals can by nature be endlessly recycled, according to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report 34 out of 60 metals studied have a recycling rate lower than 1%, and only a third have recycling rates exceeding 50%. In addition to the waste cycle inherent to overconsumption, the environmental impact of mining new metals include water, soil and air caused when the erosion of mineralized waste rock leak into stream water or because of sulfur dioxide emissions around extraction sites. Of course, both pose a health risk for human and wild life alike.
In the case of silver, mercury amalgamation has caused irreparable damage to the environment and to the health of those exposed to it. In North and South America alone, it is estimated that 60 to 65 percent of the mercury used to extract silver has percolated into the earth and air, as it is often discarded into nearby waterways after the precious metal has been separated from the ore. While mercury in its “quicksilver” form is inert and relatively harmless, as it “travels up the food chain, from algae to plankton to small fish to big fish, becoming progressively more concentrated” it turns into its dangerous form: methyl mercury. When ingested by humans, methyl mercury can cause long term damage ranging from neurologic defects to autoimmune disorders.
The good news however is that because silver is widely used in industrial processes, it is one of the easier metals to recycle, and indeed the end-of-life recycling rate of silver is 30 to 50 percent, much higher than gold (only 15 to 20 percent).
Everything is handcrafted, we polish the castings ourselves.
For Rus Jewelry, using recycled metals had to be the core-concept of the brand. “We didn’t want to compromise on this at all. We didn’t want to buy cheap metals, we didn’t want to buy knock off metals.”
Besides their commitment to ethical jewelry making, Mai and Asami talked to QC about their creative process, how their Japanese roots and their love for NYC inspire them everyday and some of the challenges that come up on the entrepreneurial journey.
Qualms & Conundrums: Tell us how you created Rus Jewelry!
Rus Jewelry: Mai stayed in Japan a year ago and she was trying to find a casting company she could work with. It’s in Tokyo that she found a supplier who only uses recycled precious metals. Finding the supplier was quite a journey. There are a lot of companies that specialize in recycling metals. Most of the time though, it’s people’s old jewelry, you know, grandma’s ring. But all of our silver comes from industrial waste: leftover silver from X-ray films, dental implants, computer parts, etc.
We also wanted to do jewelry and not clothing because when you do clothing you can design the style, the silhouette but making the garment requires a pattern maker, a textile designer, tailors and seamstresses. There are many intermediaries in the process. Whereas with jewelry we can work on our own.
QC: Why did you start in New York?
RJ: We are both from Japan and Mai was working in the fashion industry in NYC for a while and she noticed that in New York it was easier for her to express herself and that her ideas were more valued. At the same time, since we are Japanese, we know that the Japanese market appreciates new products, but especially so when it comes from abroad. So we wanted to start in New York and have our product “validated” here before we launched on the Japanese market.
QC: What is your inspiration?
RJ: We wanted our jewelry to be very unique. We only do abstract designs, but they’re inspired by the world around us and what it’s made of. Mai is more inspired by things she sees in New York and by her experience in fashion in the US. She finds inspiration from a scratch on the wall, a leaf falling on her jeans, and in nature: rocks, flowing water, falling leaves… . And New York is old and new at the same time. Classic and modern. It’s easier to find these patterns in every day life and be inspired from them.
QC: What are some challenges you’ve had so far?
RJ: We just started. Right now we don’t have many challenges but they’ll be coming. One thing we’re struggling with is pricing. Everything is handcrafted, we polish the castings ourselves, so it takes a lot of time to create just one ring. And since the raw material comes from Japan, shipping fees are quite expensive. So figuring out a price point where we cover our costs and still make people want to invest in our Jewelry has been a challenge. At the same time, it’s a matter of making people aware of the true cost of using traditional metals, and making them want to pay more for conscious recycled metals.
As we’re building the brand, the concept behind the jewelry is the most important part. People want to know where it came from and how it was made. People want to identify with the story behind the jewelry and not just the object itself.
QC: What are your plans for the future?
RJ: We have to work on our online shop. That’s the first goal. After a pop-up shop in New York we are going to look at boutiques and pop up shows in the east coast and in Japan. Of course expanding the jewelry line is the most importantly thing but contributing to society is our next mission as well. We want to have a deeper social impact.