You don’t need to know anything about Lilian von Trapp to see the appeal of her jewellery designs. You certainly don’t need to know that the Berlin-based designer is running her brand sustainably, and supporting an essential environmental and humanitarian campaign in Uganda, more of which later. Von Trapp’s elegant, minimalist pieces in recycled gold are fuss-free classics that speak for themselves – the sort of jewellery you see on smart, interesting, chic women. Emma Watson is among her fans; so is the model Arizona Muse.
“In order to create an ethical brand, you have to think of the pieces you create in a sustainable way, so it’s not only about fashion or being trendy,” says von Trapp. “It’s about creating a piece that a woman would hopefully want to wear for her whole life or even pass on to someone else. That’s why when I create the pieces, I’m thinking ‘What can I design that will become someone’s uniform, that they don’t want to take off, that they can wear from the office to dinner?’ The jewellery just becomes part of you really.”
It was only in January last year that von Trapp officially launched her label, though it had been a long time coming. “I came to jewellery design through, let’s call it destiny,” she says with a laugh. She’d started out studying law and briefly worked in a law firm. “Then my mother passed away and for me that time was really life-changing. I realised that life’s too short to do things you’re not passionate about.”
She left law and found a job in fashion, working as a buyer in a Berlin department store. At home she was sorting through her mother’s things and came across her jewellery. “It was not only hers, but also from two grandmothers and great grandmothers, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to sell it obviously and I didn’t want to keep it in a safe. I thought it was a shame not to wear it, but most of the pieces were not my style – I didn’t have an emotional attachment to most of it.”
It dawned on von Trapp that she could recycle the pieces to make something she would actually wear and she soon found a goldsmith who agreed to melt them down and create new designs that she had sketched. “I think I did five or six styles, and of course I’d wear them at work and in my personal life. People started asking me ‘Where is this from?’ and I realised it was something I could do as a business.”
Her pieces, designed in Berlin and manufactured in Pforzheim (known in Germany as “golden town” because of its formidable goldsmithing industry), use recycled gold. (Von Trapp hopes one day to use vintage diamonds in her main line too, but for now the process is so complex she has to restrict stones to her custom-made pieces.) “When I started the brand, I read up on mining and it became clear to me that I would never want to work with newly mined gold,” she says.
She was shocked by what she read about how gold is sourced – and the often crippling impact on mining communities. “In the gold pits of Uganda, there isn’t only the danger of dying by being crushed,” she says, “the other horrible situation is – and this is why people in Uganda have a low life expectancy – they are handling mercury and cyanide with their bare hands. I’ve seen mothers my own age or even younger burning mercury without any protection while they have babies on their backs. Of course those toxins go into your organs and they destroy everything from within, and they also go into the groundwater, which contaminates the soil.”
It’s these revelations that led von Trapp to add a charitable element to her brand: two percent of her revenue is given to the Earthbeat Foundation, which raises awareness about mining conditions, promotes more ethical methods of mining and develops alternative income sources for workers to give them a route out of the industry. Von Trapp has just come back from a trip to Uganda with the foundation.
“We’ve been planning this project now for a year, focusing on three communities,” she explains. “The people there earn one dollar per day and they work in the mines from 5am to midnight or even later – it’s really modern slavery. We talked to them and asked them, ‘Is there anything else you would rather do instead?’ And they told us they would like to do farming again because before the gold rush in the 1930s all of their ancestors were farmers – but nowadays they can’t farm because the soil is contaminated.”
Earthbeat brought in permaculture experts from Kenya, who have worked with the communities to develop a solution: they plant bamboo and vetiver grass, which suck out the toxins from the soil, and can ultimately be harvested and sold. The farmers can then plant further crops like coffee and peanuts, all chosen because they naturally replenish the soil and nurture one another. “Not only can the communities live off this food themselves, but they can sell it and create a new income, and then naturally they will move away from mining because they don’t depend on it anymore,” says von Trapp.
Back home in Germany, the designer has introduced a limited-edition necklace, “The Bar”, to raise money for the project; 100 percent of the profits from this piece will go to the Earthbeat Foundation’s work in that Ugandan community. More generally, she tries to position her brand as far away as possible from throw-away consumerism. Every design stays in her portfolio and some of them, like her “The Round Ones” hoop earrings, are designed to be attached to other pieces, so that you can update and customise them yourself.
“When I’m designing, I think about myself, the women I’m surrounded by, and my mother and grandmother,” she says. “I’m thinking about what they would like and what I like, and I try to create something that can work for a woman at any age. You can wear it and you know that nobody had to suffer in a mine, that everything’s recycled, that a part of it goes directly back to the foundation and supports people who are still suffering in mining. I mean, of course we don’t need jewellery to live, but it’s something that makes us feel good, makes us shine, allows us to honour ourselves or someone else. And then knowing that this piece of jewellery, beyond that, can do something good – it’s great.”