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Pippa Small Talks Jewelry

English jeweler Pippa Small has always found treasures wherever her wanderlust takes her. As a child, she collected buttons, beads and sea glass, and by the time she was a teenager, her arms, ears and fingers were covered in jangling trinkets. Studying anthropology sparked a fascination with the world’s cultures, and about a decade ago, Small merged her two interests by working with local craftspeople in indigenous communities in places such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, India and Kenya. In Kabul, for example, Small works with Turquoise Mountain Charity (, an organization that trains young people in jewelry-making, as part of the charity’s broader efforts to battle unemployment and heroin addiction.

Indagare caught up with Small, whose designs have attracted fashion world luminaries like Tom Ford and Nicole Farhi, along with dedicated fans who venture to her shop in London and at the Brentwood Country Mart in Los Angeles, to purchase her latest, exquisite creations.

Can you tell us about your first trip to Afghanistan?

I had been working with the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a very special organization in Afghanistan, and was asked to visit in 2007 to design a collection and do some teaching at their newly opened jewelry school. I instantly said yes, as it had always been a dream of mine to see Afghanistan. I was a little nervous, traveling as a woman and a British citizen. The first time I walked through the bazaar, I hurriedly kept my covered head down. The next day, I had more courage and looked up and met some people’s eyes. The third day, I started smiling at some people and suddenly all the turbaned and bearded faces opened and beamed back. From that day on I felt very comfortable. The men and women in the workshop have become friends, and I love talking with them about our lives. There has been quite a bit of violence while I’ve been there; twice the workshop was destroyed by a bomb and had to move. It has been a humbling experience to be in a place where women fight for basic rights, the young work toward democracy and the country is begging for freedom.

Where do you think does your sense for adventure come from?

When my father died when I was 8, my mother—who loved to travel—decided to discover the world with her kids as companions. We went all over: North Africa, East Africa, Turkey, Mexico and India. It was an incredible experience for a young person to get glimpses into other parts of the world, see the realities of life and learn history and culture first-hand.

Of course, travel can also bring lonely or frightening moments, and I know I sacrificed a conventional marriage by being on the road so much. But I gave birth to twins, Mac and Madu, when I was 43, and I have a huge excitement about showing my children the world. I can’t wait to introduce them to all the people and beautiful places I have been so lucky to know.

How did you combine your interest in jewelry, travel and helping others?

I have always loved stones, beginning with pebbles from beaches, rivers and gardens. After working for some years with human rights organizations I started to sell some of the jewelry I was making as a hobby, and before I knew it my pieces were creating a demand. The first time I went to Paris Fashion Week to sell my pieces, I had just returned from Thailand where I had been working with Burmese refugees. After hearing their stories, I found Paris and the whole fashion world completely shocking. I could not digest these two stark realities. Over time I have become used to living in two worlds, and having an understanding that we all have our concerns and fears and that all are valid.

What was your first project abroad?

Consulting for Gucci during Tom Ford’s reign was an incredible opportunity for me to learn about design and to create different kinds of pieces. It also allowed me to earn the money to start my first project in Botswana. We designed and made bags with imaginative beadwork, jewelry, embroideries and paintings, which I then brought back to London and showed at Rebecca Hossack Gallery. Along with the bags, we displayed photos and a short film of the creators. It was important that visitors could see the faces and hands of the people and the landscapes of where this work came from. The pieces were very popular; it was just at the time when the consumer was becoming interested in where things were produced and how. I realized that the tide was changing and there was a new openness to high-quality pieces created by skilled craftspeople around the world.

What are some of your favorite stories behind specific creations?

I am fascinated with traditional beliefs from places like ancient Greece or Tibet regarding the protective powers of gems and the belief that certain stones can bring luck or keep evil away. The gold from Bolivia is important to me, as I have walked to the gold mine, which is deep down at the bottom of a beautiful valley. The artisanal mine is a cooperative located in the Yungas in the Andes. I saw first-hand how important the Fair Trade certification is: it means that mercury is no longer tipped into the lovely river but carefully recycled.

All the Afghan jewelry is meaningful, as we have employed eight women to make the jewelry along with the men. This is a huge success and means the women can contribute financially to their family’s income, plus they get out of the house, work in a team and are using their creativity. Although it is still dangerous for women to work, it is a milestone in Asia to have female stonecutters and silversmiths. I have a beautiful bracelet of uncut topaz that Kabul craftsmen gave me.

How did you start working with the Kuna?

The gold jewelry from the Kuna [an indigenous people in Panama and Colombia] is full of myths and legends. One night we all sat around while they told the younger people the stories of the symbols in the jewelry. I was very lucky to travel to Panama, for a human rights meeting, with a friend from the UN six years ago. During that stay I met many Kuna, and when I saw they were all wearing beautiful gold jewelry, I had to come back and work with them. The Kuna had always interested me as they are an example of a successful indigenous community: they have their own language and a very traditional culture, but they have members in Parliament and active lawyers. They have always seemed to me very much in charge of their destinies.

On Kunayala island, I asked the chief whether I could stay and work with the goldsmiths there. He swung in a hammock listening to me making a case for why a collaboration might be beneficial to the community (they wanted to build a school). Finally he agreed, saying that a percentage of profits from my sales would go towards this construction. I love working with the young Kuna goldsmiths as their elders became involved.

Where in the world do you love to travel most?

My second home would have to be India, a country I’ve been visiting since I was seventeen. Rajasthan is a wild and beautiful landscape, especially the Thar Desert that stretches to Pakistan. Tribes living off the land and Maharajas still living in their palaces coexist. My favorite thing to do is to go horseback riding in the countryside, past nomads with their herds, farmers working the land, camels and herds of bluebuck.

Where are you traveling next?

On my next trip to India, I will be working on a new collection with the craftspeople I have been collaborating with for more than a decade. I am taking my children there and they will get to meet all the people I’ve grown so close to over the years. This year I am also planning to go to Chile to do a project with the Mapuche Indians. These people make beautiful traditional jewelry with silver in very stylized forms. It would be amazing to have the chance to work with them.

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