I just returned from the Jewelers’ Circular Keystone (JCK) Show, the largest, most important jewelry trade event in the US.
Apart from those who sought me out because of my press release, not one jeweler who walked by my booth even raised the issue of my banner which screamed out: FAIR TRADE, ECO FRIENDLY JEWELRY NOW.
Typical, I think, was my conversation with a buyer who was a “major player.” Her company is a house hold name. I asked one if she was interested Fair Trade and Eco friendly jewelry. Her look said, “Have you just arrived from the moon?”
She had not even heard of the concept. She gave me a wooden smile and proceeded on.
I tried to imagine not understanding the deep relationship between my life and the natural environment, or the impact of my purchasing decisions upon people around the world. Without these things to push up against, my work would be just about making money: a truly soulless endeavor.
How far, in the canyon of life, is my perspective from this woman’s, and what would it take to create a bridge we could cross together?
Here’s my confession. For weeks, I dreaded coming to this show, without being quite sure why. Then I realized that something brought back a feeling I had when I was in Haiti, a volunteer, twenty years ago, running an orphanage and working in Mother Theresa’s homes for the dying.
Richard Hartnett, an American professor of Dentistry, trained me to help him run his mobile clinics. We carried two back packs: one filled with tools and another with the antiseptic fluids and water so that we could keep our tools clean between extractions. We went right into the slums surrounding Port au Prince.
Cavities in Haiti by and large were left to rot in people’s mouths. Richard generally did the injections and I did the extractions: sixty people in two hours. After pulling thousands of teeth, I met someone who changed my life forever. It happened while I was gathering people for our clinic in the marketplace. All around, the composting food, the brazen rats and the open sewers were an assault on the senses.
“Blanc… blanc.. vini ici, Come here, foreign man.” The stress of being a white guy amidst a sea of black skin, put me on edge. Always objectified. Always categorized. Never alone. A foreigner… Blanc, Blanc.
A hunched old woman with a walking stick approached. She was dressed in a light cotton dress that was torn on the sleeve- “Kennedy’s” is what they called all those used clothes that arrived from the US in volleys of shipping containers. They were given away as aid that started with JFK’s administration. Her mulatto skin sagged on her face, making deep lines like mysterious canyons. Her eyes, glittering like black diamonds, intense, looked up at me.
“Sac passe, cherie,” I asked… What’s going on?
Her neck craned up. She pointed to her mouth and began to part her thin pale lips.
I bent down and looked.
The right side of the inside of her mouth was gray. Instead of teeth, there was bone, just exposed skull, black, wet and decayed, like a corpse. I have bandaged cancers with worms in them, legs swollen up like tree trunks and seen the ravages of AIDS and TB. Yet on this day, I had to step away, feeling queasy and disoriented.
There was a large tree that allowed some privacy and ducking behind it, I began to shake. Then I broke open. I died in that moment.
In the end, we could do little for this woman other than give her some antibiotics and pain killers.
I knew she was so poor because I was so rich. What was my debt to my existence?
Over the next several weeks, I could not understand how all the extremely rich Haitians and Blancs seemed oblivious to the poverty that surrounded them. I had the same internal feelings coming into the JCK show. Behind the booth and walking around you are seeing just jewelry, not the slag piles. Not the extreme poverty at so many levels of mining and fabrication. Not the child labor, nor the factory conditions of those people in China. The same people who have profited by blood diamonds were at the show, rebranding themselves as ethical jewelers.
I remembered Mother Theresa talking about how the poorest of the poor, in countries such as Haiti, were rich in spirit.. In the developed world, people were rich but lived in spiritual poverty.
A woman walks by, the wife of a celebrity, with a 50 ct diamond ring. She is the jewelers’ dream. All the high end stores have double digit growth from customers such as her. Yet I cannot help but feel she looks absolutely miserable.
About ninety percent of Haitians living in Haiti are malnourished, while we here in America are taking cholesterol pills.
I also am part of this tragedy, paying my $5000 just to sit here and absorb this spectacle. Tragic stories follow certain patterns. What story are we in? Do we need to tear our eyes out in order to see? Perhaps, we are in the third act of King Lear, in the storm of the internet, the falling dollar, the threat of China and India, terrorism…
Then let me be the Shakespearian fool, Sirrah! That is a role I am most comfortable with. Most of my life, I have been stepping off one cliff or another, the wanderings a pathos filled Puer Aeternus, with an ear to the Earth.
Listening, I remembered a dinner with a Native American Sundance Chief. I fed him elk I had stalked and hunted, carried on my back down an 11,000 foot mountain.
Together, eating the elk, we ate the mountain. We ate the sky and the rain and the grasses. The beauty of seasonal flow was in the energy of the meat. We gave thanks to our sister, the elk. It was medicine. Elk is always my first meal when I come back from shows.
We felt humble that our sister had offered her life up for us. When she was down, it was late fall and the temperature hovered near zero. I remember watching the starlight fade from her eyes and feeling my hands, warmed, in her blood as I pulled her heart out.
I asked myself, what is my debt to all existence? How can I be worthy of honoring the elk in the life I live now?
“There are two types of people in the world,” the Chief said to me. “Those whose hearts are open, and those who’s hearts are closed. The job of those whose hearts are open is simple: Help those whose hearts are closed to open their hearts.”
For the elk, for my teachers in Haiti, and my Native mentors, I am committed to being a positive agent for change. I must remember his words and stay connected to the Whole in my heart so I can see from my heart.
My heart wonders if there has been such a gap in our industry for so long between appearance and reality that we can only see jewelry as commodity. Jewelry was once sacred in the ancient world. It was viewed as a talisman, even a signet to the divine, connecting one to the whole. Even now, my Native mentors teach how to work with the energies of gems to create healing and transformation.
Yet the circles have been broken for so long that we do not remember what it was like to live with deep love and reverence for the soul of our world. Plato said that the source of all knowledge was remembrance. We have to remember who we are and what our place is.
We have to remember that jewelry carries energy. It can connect us to the power and beauty of the natural world. Adornment is an essential part of human existence. We need beauty; beauty around us, to survive.
The Navajo have a prayer:
In beauty may I walk;
With beauty before me, may I walk;
With beauty above me, may I walk;
With beauty below me, may I walk;
With beauty all around me, may I walk;
In beauty, may my walk be finished;
In beauty, may my walk be finished.
Right now, those of us who are involved in Fair Trade and Socially Responsible business practice are trying to reconnect the circles that have been broken. We are concerned about green issues, and fair labor practices because our awakeness to the earth, and our connection to humanity demands greater integration into our life.
But for our passion to find its way into places like corporations where money is the bottom line, we must show that there is a market for our ideas. Right now, the “spiritual sparkle” of jewelry is mostly irrelevant to the trade.
Let the course be like pure water flowing down a mountain creek, finding its way through the rocks. The trajectory of Whole Foods, Patagonia or The Body Shop is a significant market. For those who wish to take this initiative, the huge gap between the symbolism of jewelry and the production of jewelry provides an opening. I know people who refuse to buy jewelry right now for ethical reasons and I am planning on making them my customers.
This customer base will grow as global warming and a host of other problems become flash points that drive consumers to shop their values. What was most wonderful for me at the show were not the prospects I got to help increase my business, though that was great.
Under the surface, the infrastructure to support this movement is growing. I spoke with many leaders, from Martin Rapaport, Allen Bell, Abe Sherman, Torry Hoover, Eric Braunwart, Toby Pomeroy, Eric Grossberg, Vicky Cunningham, Amanda Stark, Wade O. Watson, Sharee Coffee, Earl Allen, Demos Takoulas, Tom Cushman, Lourens Mare, -all of whom want to move these issues forward.
We’re working to take responsibility. We want the lives lost through bloodshed and war, the ecosystems ravaged by runoff and poisoned water supplies, the workers unable to subsist, to have meaning and a voice. We want to help others in the industry, who are yet to view these issues as important, see the market and spiritual opportunity in this movement.
Let us all celebrate each others’ work through support. We all need each other. We are all one circle. Let the tide raise all boats.