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jewelry-making with jiminy cricket
an ethical conundrum
by juli mccarthy

Many years ago, I got into a disagreement on a public newsgroup. I will now admit that the argument began mainly because I was feeling contrary and the guy's attitude just rubbed me the wrong way, but as the argument went on (and on and on and ON, as things with me are wont to do) I became genuinely committed to my position. In brief: he owned a factory in rural China that produced millefiore polymer clay beads. I also make millefiore polymer clay beads. He employed 60 former farmers who produced canes that measured several feet in diameter and were upwards of eight feet long. Literally tens of thousands of beads in a single cane, and 20 to 40 canes PER DAY. For comparison's sake, the largest cane I have ever made was the size of a can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale, and resulted in nearly two hundred beads. This factory owner wanted to be recognized for his contribution to the polymer clay artists' community. I made an offhand comment that I was familiar with the work that came out of his factory and I found it interesting that he considered directed, unskilled assembly work to be "art." He replied that perhaps my work just wasn't good enough to compete with "his"... and I reminded him that a rep from his company had tried to purchase my designs for production. Instead of backing down (as anyone who argues with me should KNOW is the only correct response) he started talking about what a fantastic contribution he was making to the economy of China with his factory and that I didn't understand how much the people of China appreciated him. At which point I learned an awful lot about the working conditions in factories in rural China in general and his in specific and made that information very public.

While he was nowhere NEAR the level of horror that is all-too-common in rural Asia, and in fact provided a comparatively decent wage and working conditions that, while not optimum, were at least tolerable for his employees, he WAS (and still is) taking advantage of the ignorance, poverty and lack of other work that is prevalent there, and raking in a huge profit... which he spent HERE in the good ol' US of A. The argument continued apace, and eventually it ended with his top US importer telling him (in public) that he was fighting outside his weight class and he needed to stop before I REALLY made him look stupid. We agreed to disagree, made a grudging truce and after a few days, the topic was buried.

I did escalate the argument out of sheer orneriness, but having educated myself just a little about the situation, I became increasingly uneasy about the knowledge that what I do, my art, is essentially frivolous and that my ability to do it depends in varying degrees on the labor of those who do not have the option to refuse. Many of the raw materials I use for my art are produced in China, India, Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia. Some are mined, some are created, but almost none of them would be available to me without the labor of unskilled and desperately poverty-stricken people - sometimes young children. Certainly these things would not be affordable for me were they produced under better working conditions.

So this came up this evening because I was looking through my Fire Mountain Gems catalogue, and considering an investment in silver beads and findings. On one page, the company extolled the virtues of their collection of Hill Tribes Silver components. They told how the Hill Tribes of rural Asia make the beads, by hand, in keeping with their artistic culture, and how bringing these beads to the US allows said culture to live on and be shared. They told of their original buying trip to Thailand, and how the workers were so very grateful to have this huge order and promises of more orders. And there was a photo, cheerfully captioned, showing a woman and several small kids with big woven baskets (presumably full of beads) sitting, shoeless, on a floor. I looked at the prices and thought, that's not that high considering the cost of the raw materials and the labor and the transportation and the - good grief. These people cannot be making more than pennies a day. I have made a bead out of metal - it's fuckin' WORK. This isn't pick-and-pack, this is LABOR. I'm sure it's cheaper to live there, in a rural backwater with limited plumbing, than it is to live here with central air and cable TV, but still.

There is an industry-wide boycott of Burmese rubies (that is often gotten around in the US because Burmese rubies usually stop somewhere else before they get here and their origin can be blurred a bit.) There are organizations such as "Ethical Metalsmiths" that actively work to reduce the need for newly-mined gold and silver (80% of all precious metal mined is used for jewelry.) Movies like Blood Diamond get produced so people at least get a glimpse of what's at stake where body-adornment is concerned. I think we are starting to understand that we industrialized nations have it pretty good.

And me. I want to use real silver in my handmade jewelry. It's less reactive, it's more valuable, it's more durable, it's just plain PRETTIER than plated materials (which aren't produced under any better conditions anyway.) But I am struggling with this decision. I worry that if I DO buy this stuff, I'm supporting these horrifying conditions and unconscionable governments, and yet I think back to that long ago argument and wonder, if we DON'T support these companies, how will those people survive?

Having a conscience is OK. Getting poked in the eye repeatedly by said conscience is less fun than you might imagine. Though I certainly loom large in my own little world, I am smaller than small potatoes in the real world and I very selfishly want to continue to make my art and get paid well for it. Thus, I do believe I will spend much of this year struggling to strike a balance I can live with. We have a responsibility to our global community... but how much? Can one person (that would be me) make a difference, and if the answer is "not really, no" then why is my conscience poking me?


A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy


meeting or exceeding
educational advancement for all!
by juli mccarthy
topic: news
published: 9.29.03


tracey kelley
1.2.08 @ 9:59a

This is a terrific topic, Juli. The point you make with conscience really has an impact not only on your art and livilihood, but many other things we buy.

Unfortunately, as American consumers, we're quite imperialistic when it comes goods and services.

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