Getting to Know Melanie Grant, Executive Director, Responsible Jewellery Council

The newly appointed executive shares her learnings from a multi-hyphenate and multi-faceted career

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Andrew Werner Photography

Life comes in chapters, and few have written the expansive tome that is Melanie Grant’s career. A multi-hyphenate, her work has spanned the role of a stylist, art director, and writer. Before joining The Economist and covering watches and jewelry, Ms. Grant owned and ran her own creative agency. She penned Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry as an author and has curated blockbuster exhibitions such as Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance with Sotheby’s auction house. Ms. Grant next curates the contemporary jewelry section of “Crown to Couture” at Kensington Palace. And now she is the newly appointed Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council, which sets global sustainability standards for the jewelry and watch industry. Ms. Grant opened up to Only Natural Diamonds about the hallmarks of a storied career and what’s next.

Only Natural Diamonds: What was the first story that sparked your love for this industry?

Melanie Grant: Once I started writing about jewelry I experimented with blogs, features, and news and I even had a luxury column online. Then the Books and Arts editor at The Economist, Fiammetta Rocco, commissioned me to write a profile in 2014 on the sculptor and jeweler Wallace Chan and I think that story changed me. He flew to London with his team and bought some of his seminal pieces, including a large jade and diamond cicada and a long carved rock crystal and gem set necklace. As he talked about the journey of his life—going from abject poverty in China to celebrated master jeweler in Hong Kong and the wider world, I was struck by the power of jewelry as a method of transformation.

Courtesy of Wallace Chan
Courtesy of Wallace Chan

OND: What are you most excited about in your new role?

MG: All of this is about people, and I feel like I’m entering a whole new universe, which is fascinating. I’m excited by the chance to do good and to collaborate with others to encourage progress. To meet and to bring the full breadth of the industry together—the entire supply chain—to discuss the challenges and the opportunities that exist in a productive and positive way. It’s a big job, but the support I’ve experienced has been phenomenal. I’ve had messages from trade associations in Angola to DMs on Instagram from miners in Canada. I’ve been taken aback by the sheer scale of it.

OND: Why is it important for the RJC to exist?

MG: Consumer confidence in the standards set out by the RJC is critical for the industry because RJC standards and certification allow member companies to demonstrate their commitment to responsible business and sustainability. Modern consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable for their global impact, actively engaging with them to understand transparency. In order to tackle greenwashing, industry-wide standards are vital as well as our ability to have conversations about what isn’t working. The public needs and deserves this from us and we must work hard to instill that confidence, but it must be a supply chain and industry-wide endeavor.

OND: Why are standards and accountability so important?

MG: In the last two decades, the world has woken up to the importance of sustainability and the idea of responsible jewelry has gone from a nice thing to think about to a major driving force for change. The RJC began in 2005 as an industry-wide initiative to create standards that enable companies, from mining to retail, to integrate responsible business practices into their management systems and daily operations. Gen Z sees ethical practice as a necessity, so accountability is now vital at the sales counter.

We have two standards available to our members:

  • RJC Code of Practices Standard (COP): providing a common and mandatory standard for all our commercial members for ethical, social, human rights and environmental practices. The COP is a manual for a sustainable and responsible jewelry supply chain, covering all aspects including mining, refining, cutting, polishing, manufacturing, and retail. It details management practices to ensure responsible business including labor and human rights due diligence, health and safety, gender equality, non-discrimination and product integrity and disclosure. The 2019 COP is also aligned with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains for Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • RJC Chain of Custody Standard (COC): This standard defines an approach for companies to handle and trade gold, silver, and platinum group metals in a way that is traceable and responsibly sourced. COC certification is voluntary and complements certification against our mandatory COP.

Sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement and RJC standards are updated every five years through open public and industry consultation. Aside from standards, we produce reports, research and educational toolkits to enable the practical application of our standards and to help everyone understand how ethical practice can work in reality.

OND: How do you see the role of the RJC evolving?

MG: We provide a foundation giving practical support, education and guidance to those who want to do better. We aren’t a police force and we don’t have the power to make companies act, but as more and more consumers and collectors ask for traceability we will continue to evolve and adapt with the market. For example, we opened public consultation last year as a first step to creating standards for lab-grown diamonds. It’s important that everyone in our industry abides by a unified standard and that consumers are confident about that.

OND: What do you see as the greatest challenge for the RJC?

MG: I think the scale of its remit is challenging because we provide certification for the whole supply chain which is an ongoing process, and we have members in 71 countries. I think our greatest challenge as an industry is to actively create a more positive dialogue around the way we talk about ethical practices for watches and jewelry. There is a lot of anxiety around greenwashing, and we face serious issues in terms of human rights abuses but there are also people doing great things and I think we should highlight them too in powerful ways. If we are to encourage people to be better inside and outside the industry, we need to invest emotionally and financially in green technologies and wholeheartedly tackle climate change. Everyone needs to do something on a macro and micro level, and I see this role as being part of my contribution.

OND: How can a consumer know they are shopping with an RJC member and why is that important?

MG: Shoppers are now savvier than they’ve ever been. They research and connect with brands online long before they buy and they are increasingly aware of ethical standards, seeking out RJC members. The pandemic gave people the time and incentive to focus on understanding sustainability issues to a greater depth, whether it was repurposing luxury manufacturing to create PPE equipment, or jewelry and watch retailers committing to saving jobs on the high street. Responsible businesses raised the expectations of shoppers and ushered us into a new era. To stay relevant, if brands of all sizes—from global juggernauts to the one-woman bands at their kitchen tables—start thinking about their responsible business strategy, I’d be a happy woman and of course, I would love them to include the RJC.