Ute Decker: The Gold Standard
s a political economics journalist turned award-winning jeweller, Ute Decker’s work is more than an exploration of negative space and form. While taking a line for a walk, Ute delves into an often overlooked story of materials, origin, and jewellery politics, bringing light to the shadows of our industry’s most coveted material, gold.
Challenging the status quo, Ute created the largest resource of green studio practices and suppliers, while simultaneously being a founding member of the Fairtrade and Fairmined gold movement. Inspired by her story of collectivity, I sat down with Ute to discover her approach to the existential human condition within the gold supply chain and jewellery industry.
N: What was the pivotal moment which led you to leave your career to pursue jewellery as a full-time artist?
U: I’m a reluctant jeweller…I never wanted to be a jeweller. There is a certain creative urge in me that I’ve always had since my teenage years, and I took courses in many different kinds of art, but it was jewellery, the smallest sculptural art, that I kept going back to workshops for, and privately, I felt comfortable that it didn’t have to make sense.
Long Wave, sculptural pendant and torque, 18-Kt Fairtrade gold.
I made pieces for ten, twenty years, and my friends kept telling me, “you know, you should do something with your jewellery…” but, I refused because it was giving me so much in the way I was doing it privately. But in 2009, there was a small group show that I was invited to…I won a prize, a major collector bought pieces, I received some fantastic press, and I thought that it (the experience) was nice…within several months I had my studio, and the rest is history.
N: How do you build and guide your ethical codes, and how do you encourage other artists to reflect and develop their ethical guidelines?
U: I’ve always been a bit of a green warrior, it’s part of the reason why I studied political economics. As an economist, you’re constantly looking at what you see and what you don’t see…and ideally as a journalist you’re asking the questions that aren’t so obvious or haven’t been answered before. So, it was a given path on how my brain operates.
waves #5, unique arm piece, 100% recycled silver
Rose 2021, sculptural statement ring, 18-Kt Fairtrade gold.
[When] I saw the film, “Blood Diamonds,” I thought, “well I’m not working with diamonds or gemstones,” however, looking into gold I discovered there’s a very similar problem. My work is about making connections, so I needed to ask, “where do my materials come from?” When I wasn’t getting the answers, and kept getting told “everything is wonderful”…I knew I was on the right path. If there are no alternatives available…you can retreat, you can accept it, or you can envision alternative ways of being in this world. [So] every time I went into the jewellery quarter, I would ask the same questions, even if I knew it would be the same answer.
Wild Waters, arm sculpture, 100% recycled sterling silver.
I encourage everyone to keep asking questions…where is this from? Do you have proof? Can I see the documentation? If the business owners don’t see a demand, why [would they] put in the effort when [they] can keep the status quo? It’s also important not to be an armchair complainer…there are so many things wrong with this world it’s easy to say, “what I will do is just a drop in the ocean,” but what I like to say is, “the ocean is nothing but an accumulation of drops, and collectively we can change the stream.”
N: When you began your journey to source Fairtrade gold, many in the industry called it, “impossible.”
How did you overcome this headwind? Do you still face similar challenges today?
U: At the start, there was a lot of hostility when asking about [gold’s] provenance and traceability. What’s interesting now is that whenever you go into any jeweller, independent or huge, they all talk about “ethical.” We launched Fairtrade gold with twenty tiny jewellers like me, we don’t make any difference in the world with the few grams [of gold] that we buy. But, with us twenty jewellers creating Fairtrade gold, which is fully traceable and third-party verified, we created a proof of concept that it is possible. Yes, it took years, but, the big guys could no longer say that it was impossible.
Ocean, neck sculpture, 18-Kt Fairtrade gold.
Now, our biggest problem is green-washing the status quo, which is the most dangerous. [Most] consumers don’t have the knowledge or expertise to tell apart the genuine efforts from the greenwashing. But, because brands feel consumer pressure, they feel the need to address it.
N: Do you feel the price we pay for non-traceable gold is undervalued because the real costs are not accounted for?
U: That is a very complex question.
Why do we mine so much gold when the bank vaults are full? How much jewellery do we really need? How much more gold do we need? Is it worth the devastating effect of gold mining? With the high gold price, are we paying for the externalities? Who is making the money? I think the price of the gold, I don’t know the [exact] figures, is high enough to deal with all the externalities. But, that money is not going into environmental remediation, healthcare or safety…so where is it going?
Man Ray Spirals, sculptural earrings bimetal, 18-kt fused gold with sterling silver, 36% gold content, all recycled.
Buying from…Fairtrade or Fairmined…means you’re supporting a different way of working. You see, a lot of small-scale miners are wreaking absolute havoc in the Amazon. You and I would never choose to go gold-prospecting because it’s too dangerous, those people are going there out of poverty for a dollar-a-day, or at least trying to make a better living. But by saying, “let’s make all the artisanal miners, which are often illegal miners, no longer exist,” it’s actually a poverty-driven issue. So, let’s make sure poverty no longer exists. By buying Fairtrade or Fairmined gold, you are supporting communities who are working more environmentally…and maybe the other communities see that they (the Fairtrade miners) are getting more by being environmentally conscious and selling into the Fairtrade system, as opposed to selling illegal gold to middleman after middleman and getting very little. It’s supporting systemic change rather than topical change.
N: How has Goldsmith's Company supported you and the jewellery community?
U: During the pandemic, Goldsmith’s Company gave out grants to help cover our studio rent, also over the past few years they developed the Goldsmith’s Centre where they run courses, give talks and [host] exhibitions…being part of Goldsmith’s feels like being a part of a wonderful family. It’s also nice to discover new work through Goldsmith’s…because they also support new and emerging makers through bursaries for graduates.
[Additionally] the Goldsmith’s Company has their wonderful Goldsmith’s fair, which happens every autumn, where over 100 different makers will be displaying their work so clients can come and buy directly from the makers. When I first visited the Goldsmith’s fair, they had more classical jewellery. That has changed over the years…now you can find anything from very traditional pearl and diamond jewellery to…more out there jewellers. But, what everyone has in common is that you have the best jewellers in the UK showing there. It is, in terms of skill set, amazing, and it has something for almost everybody.
Untitled, minimalist cuff, bimetal, 18-kt gold fused with sterling silver, 36% gold content, all recycled.
N: How do you measure your own impact on the jewellery industry?
U: I’m rather surprised at the response to my work. The Victoria & Albert Museum has one of my rings, one of the first Fairtrade gold pieces in their collection. This is fantastic, but I think the thing that gives me the most contentment or had the most impact, is being part of that movement to prove a concept, that no matter how tiny, it made a real impact. It gives me a lot of hope and optimism, and also energy, to not despair and continue. If there are certain things that you think are just wrong, and they’re man-made, they can be changed if enough of us say, “enough is enough.”
Gallery photography by Xavier Young. The 2022 Goldsmith’s Fair is the primary destination to discover the finest jewellery and silversmithing in the UK today. Browse and learn about over 130 master craftspeople making extraordinary pieces, available to purchase directly from them. The Goldsmith’s Fair will run from September 27th to October 2, and October 4 to October 9th. Learn more about the fair here. To learn more about the jewellery shown in this editorial, please contact Ute Decker directly. To discover more people like Ute, visit the People page.