The growing attention was exciting, and Susan Wheeler attended several different events, and volunteered to serve on several committees. But she also wanted to do more. She wanted to create an experience that was more immediately actionable. She wanted to bring together voices from across the globe - voices that would directly represent the communities most affected by jewelry industry demands.
So, with no outside funding (and a very supportive husband), Susan decided to host a conference. In the most grass-roots of organizing behavior, she contacted Columbia College Chicago, arranged for a venue and a student population to work with, and started calling friends and acquaintances in the jewelry industry to ask them to jump on board.
The jewelry industry doesn't have a stellar record of getting out in front of social criticism. So in 2016, when several industry organizations started putting together meetings, industry discussions, and panels to discuss responsibility in jewelry sourcing and production, it was exciting.
Already, there were pioneers in the responsibility space; people like Christina Miller, who founded Ethical Metalsmiths; Christine Dhein, who was an early experimenter in replacing "dirty" jewelry production processes with clean ones; and jewelry designers like Susan Wheeler, Jennifer Dawes, and Susan Crow, who were all using responsible approaches in the making and marketing of their lines. But the jewelry industry needed to bring even more players from all places in the supply chain to the table, if it was going to actually change things.
To engage everyone in the jewelry industry; miners, makers, professionals, educators, and students. To address all the ways that individuals and companies can be involved in the responsible jewelry movement. To make a difference by making things happen.
Early seed support from companies like Richline and Hoover & Strong helped get the conference off the ground.
Ethical Metalsmiths, the non-profit association for jewelry makers interested in responsible behaviors, embraced the conference from the beginning, assisting with lining up speakers and promoting the event.
The US State Department, organizations like PACT, IMPACT, Fairmined, and Amazon Aid, and educators like University of Delaware and GIA have participated generously.
Each year, the Chicago Conference has also reached out to the public, through screenings of important documentaries that address issues related to the jewelry industry and responsible supply chains.
In 2017, the conference presented Sharing the Rough, a documentary that explored acquiring rough gemstone materials from Kenya and Tanzania. In 2018, we hosted the first US screening of River of Gold, which explores the impact of illegal gold mining on the Amazon rain forest.
The local community was invited to both screenings. Why? Because it's not enough for us to prepare ourselves for social criticism. We must also play a role in being critics and being publicly accountable for our industry.