Ryan Taylor of Fair Trade Jewellery Co. has not only co-founded a distinctive jewellery enterprise, he is working hard to help the industry evolve in terms of ethics, sustainability and community.
by Sarah B. Hood
Some people discover their careers; others are born with them. For Ryan Taylor, it’s been a little of both. His fascination with the raw materials of jewellery design has led him to not only create a unique business, but to spearhead an ethical supply resource that may benefit jewellery designers across the country.
The co-founder (with Robin Gambhir) of Toronto-based Fair Trade Jewellery Co., Taylor was born into a mining family from Sudbury, Ontario. He grew up with “precious metals in the blood,” he says; however, his career path led him first into the tech industry and then into sculpture. From there, “jewellery seemed like a good lateral step from sculpture,” says Taylor.
After graduating from the Jewellery Arts program at George Brown College, he apprenticed with German Master Goldsmith Karl Vigelius, a step that would prove critical to his career. “Karl, to this day, is one of my best friends and a big part of what I do,” Taylor says. “That time spent with someone much my senior in a master-apprentice relationship is a very special thing that’s unique to this industry.”
His first studio, opened while he was still a student, was located near Yonge and Dundas in Toronto. It was there that he first began to ask questions about the sources of the precious metals and gemstones he was working with. “Thus was born this company,” he says.
Today, Fair Trade Jewellery Co., which is founded on the principle of using ethically-sourced metals and stones, occupies a bright Victorian storefront with exposed brick walls, which, Taylor proudly points out, he remodelled with his team, using as much reclaimed building material as possible. The shop is nestled on a cosy retail strip frequented by artists, journalists and cyclists.
This may not sound like the target demographic for a higher-end custom jewellery shop, but, says Taylor, “They’re very progressive, smart, educated, well read on current affairs, and those are the people who, when they come in here for a ring or custom project, they get it. This neighbourhood has been fantastic for us to grow in.”
Having his studio in the back of the same space allows Taylor to offer clients a tour of his manufacturing quarters, which fits with the collaborative nature of many of his creations. “We had a gentleman fly up from Chicago just to build his ring with us,” Taylor says, “because nobody else would let him take part in the process. That’s what we’re about.”
Besides Taylor, who handles production design, and Gambhir, who is mainly concerned with the business administration, Fair Trade also employs Karl Vigelius, as well as one custom designer, a retail manager and an apprentice. The backbone of the business is the custom work; the selection of other pieces offered in the retail shop are all designed and manufactured in-house. “That’s why it’s so important to have someone like Karl in the house,” Taylor says. “He can look at a sketch and be able to articulate it and also communicate it to those who are doing the work.
DIRECT FROM THE MINES
Taylor says the company aesthetic is “very European.” Among the names that he admires and looks to for inspiration are Graff, Chopard, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier, but Taylor finds his main creative inspiration in the material itself. “We work exclusively with 18 karat palladium (PD) weight gold. We also don’t plate our jewellery,” he says. “Pure palladium can’t be sourced through Fairtrade. We used it as a recycled resource.”
This dedication to ethical sourcing really sets the company apart. “We buy directly from the mines,” he says. “Those parcels are segregated and tracked either through the Fairmined Standard or the Fairtrade Standard. We were the first in North America to use and make with Fairtrade gold, and the second in the world, next to Chopard, to be a licensee and manufacturer offering Fairmined gold.”
These standards resonate strongly in the bridal and engagement category. “It’s still a piece of jewellery with a ton of meaning behind it,” says Taylor. “Shouldn’t it be extra special?” he says. “It is the ultimate symbol of love and lifeline commitment; if the materials betray that message, I think that’s intellectually and spiritually inconsistent.”
Taylor serves as a director with the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), and a co-director of its Standards Committee. He sits as an observer on the Fairmined Standards Committee and is part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Gold Working Group. “I have done presentations and workshops with the U.S. State Department on conflict minerals,” he adds. “Not bad for a kid from Toronto, eh?”
To back up the company’s ethical sourcing claims, Fair Trade is certified through the RJC for both its retail and manufacturing operations and is also certified as a B (“Benefit”) Corporation. “B allows us to do put ourselves up against companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia,” Taylor says. “So we can say that what our website says is backed up by a third-party authority.”
Fair Trade is now launching a new supply resource called Fair Sources to distribute Fairtrade and Fairmined gold and silver in collaboration with a refiner in France. It will offer semi mounts, wedding bands and casting grains, possibly bundled with other services, because “We believe in this ethical sourcing, and the way to get it to scale is to get other people to start using it,” Taylor says.
“I’m looking forward to the next 20 years,” he continues. “The industry’s evolved more in the last 10 years than it has in 1,000 years, in terms of ethics, sustainability and community. We see a lot more jewellers starting to adopt these progressive standards, and there’s a lot of opportunity for small companies to get involved in this discussion.”
When he first became a jeweller, Taylor confesses, he was somewhat fearful of the trade he’d jumped into. Now, however he says, “I’ve come full circle. I can say with some confidence that we’re moving into a good place.” CJ