Kirsten Muenster Jewelry: Ethically Precious

Goodlifer: Kirsten Muenster Jewelry: Ethically Precious

We wear jewelry because it is beautiful and makes a statement about who we are. But did you ever think about where that silver ring on your finger came from, who made it and whether the materials used are sustainable or put a strain on the world’s already exhausted supplies? I caught up with Kirsten Muenster, a California-based jewelry designer who makes beautiful pieces that often incorporate ethically sourced, recycled and vintage objects, to talk about how jewelry can be made sustainably.

When did you decide to take up jewelry design as a profession and what kind of education/training do you have?
My mother was an antiques dealer and I started collecting vintage jewelry at a very early age. I was intrigued by the history of the pieces as well as the tools, skills and techniques that shaped them into precious objects. The mystery, beauty and craftsmanship of these old pieces inspired me to learn how to make jewelry myself. With a little help from my father, I started making rings in the garage when I was about thirteen.

Kirsten Muenster in her studio.

Kirsten Muenster in her studio.

When I was 14 and 15 I took a few adult jewelry classes (my parents said I was 18 on the enrollment form). One teacher knew I wasn’t old enough to be in the class, but seeing the passion I had for it, introduced me to another (legal) option. I interviewed with a retired jeweler who opened up his extensive private studio to a small group of other retired jewelers where they would meet, work and keep their craft and creativity alive. They welcomed me into the group, shared their tools, techniques and life experiences. I worked in this studio after school a few times a week for over a year. That experience was incredibly valuable. I understood how rewarding a profession like jewelry making could be; I wanted to be in that community. I went on to art school and continued learning about design and metal. I graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, after studying various craft techniques with a primary focus on jewelry fabrication, casting, welding and metalworking.

A few of Muenster's beautiful necklaces.

A few of Muenster’s beautiful necklaces.

I was taught the art of stone cutting after I moved to California. At a gem show I overheard some women talking about a great adult lapidary class offered at a nearby high school and decided to check it out. The group consisted of mostly older, retired “rock hounds” from the local gem and mineral club. A lot of them had done the actual prospecting, hunting and collecting of stone over the course of fifty or more years. They had stories, tips and slabs of stone I had never seen before and were happy to have an interested “young person” to share them with. That’s when I developed my love of petrified wood, fossilized dinosaur bone, jaspers and agate — materials you’ll see throughout my work.

A few of Muenster's tools.

A few of Muenster’s tools.

I also come from a line of Austrian metalworkers — Grandfather, Great-Grandfather and Great-Great-Grandfather — and I love the notion that somehow it was “in my blood” and that I carry on these ancient techniques and traditions that make up my family’s history. (Read about this in more detail on Kirsten’s blog, where she also shares wonderful old images.)

Kirsten's Great-Grandfather, Rudolph Muenster (standing on the far right), in the coppersmith shop in Newark, NJ 1939.

Kirsten’s Great-Grandfather, Rudolph Muenster (standing on the far right), in the coppersmith shop in Newark, NJ 1939.

Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue this path?
I believe you can pursue jewelry/metalworking at any stage in life. I’ve taught kids basic jewelry making techniques, and educated adults about arc and tig welding. Your age or skill level matters little — if the desire is there your options are many. I suggest first taking some intro courses, summer programs or workshops to really get a sense of the various tools, techniques and directions. You may think you want to be a jeweler, and then find the excitement of welding furniture to be more fulfilling, so definitely be open.

Ask questions, share information, engage with the jewelry/craft/design community, teachers, old rockhounds…

More of Muenster's necklaces.

More of Muenster’s necklaces.

Is it hard to become successful? What was your first big break?
Success involves hard work, everyday, but you get to do what you love! I’m lucky to have found something that makes me so happy. I’m excited and passionate about my materials, the creative process and the physical act of making something with my hands — and I believe this comes through in my work. The key is having a point of view, and communicating it honestly.

The only thing I can think of as my “big break” was when I launched my website in 2005 and started sharing my work and ideas with the world. Having an online presence helped me connect and start a dialog with other like-minded people in the industry who were asking the same questions I was; like how do we make our studios safer and healthier, how do we find more ethical materials and sources, and what does “ethical” actually mean!

My site has helped me connect and build strong relationships with leaders in the craft/art/green/fashion/design community and to me that was a big break.

Inspiration from Muenster's studio.

Inspiration from Muenster’s studio.

Have you always used ethical and sustainable materials? Are they harder to come by than “standard” options? All the precious metals you use are recycled, where do they come from?
Incorporating recycled and vintage objects into my work was always a natural part of my construction process. Having a considerable collection of stones, shells, buttons and vintage pieces to cultivate from early on definitely informed my work.

Muenster collects stones, shells, buttons and vintage pieces that serve as inspiration for her collections.

Muenster collects stones, shells, buttons and vintage pieces that serve as inspiration for her collections.

In 2001 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that raised questions about whether tanzanite sales were aiding/funding the al Qaeda terrorist organization. The claim was later dismissed for lack of evidence linking the money to a direct act — but still, it was definitely a wake up call for me (and the industry). I started doing more research about the gem and gold industries and the link some of the materials have to abetting political corruption, human rights abuses, environmental devastation, child slavery and war. That’s when I made the decision to be more conscious about my material choices — to find out where they come from and learn how they affect the environment, community and individuals associated with them. For me, ethical sourcing involves a transparent supply chain not unlike the slow food movement (which seeks to build consumer awareness and appreciation of food and its connection to community and the environment — creating a visible link from seed to table). The stones that I work with must have a clear and trackable mine to market custody chain. In order to achieve this, I work with stones from small, family owned mines, as well as individual rockhounds that hand collect, cut and polish the materials themselves. I also do a lot of my own stone cutting from rock found in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Rings made from Fordite (recycled car paint!) and recycled sterling silver.

Rings made from Fordite (recycled car paint!) and recycled sterling silver.

It takes time to do the research, find sources and develop relationships with dealers, but it is getting easier because the demand for ethical materials is growing. Positive changes are happening in the jewelry industry and a great example of this is my metal supplier, Hoover & Strong. All precious metals at Hoover & Strong are recycled from the Earth’s existing metal supply. The sources include reclaimed jewelry, silverware, coins, electronics scrap, eyeglass frames, dental scrap, etc. They do not buy metals from mining companies. In 2009, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a globally-recognized independent third-party certifier and sustainability expert, certified the recycled metal content in their HARMONY Metals™ line.

Clam ring and necklace.

Clam ring and necklace.

Most people today are aware of “blood diamonds” and know to avoid them, is there something else about the jewelry industry that consumers should know about?
Consumers have a crucial role to play. When looking to acquire a new piece of jewelry they can start by asking the jeweler one simple question: Can you trace all the components of this piece from mine, through production, to market? Right now there is no universal standard in place for labeling “ethical” gems, so asking questions is critical. Find out if their sources are working within the guidelines of fair trade. Is anything recycled, made locally, sustainable? Ultimately you need to decide if the answers you get are aligned with your personal value system.

Facets and Arcs rings.

Facets and Arcs rings.

Do you take custom orders?
Yes. Perhaps my favorite role as an artist is working with my clients on custom design projects. They can select stones and objects from my diverse collection of materials and we can also consider any special or vintage components they already own but don’t wear. I can turn a treasured but dated heirloom into a new piece with a more modern design. The collaborative process is a unique and rewarding experience that I look forward to sharing with clients.

In top photo: Limpet Ring, Wave Ring & Limpet Necklace.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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  1. These are beautiful. How wonderful that she found her passion so early in life, recognized it and stuck with it.

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