By Jennifer Heebner
Onetime philosophy instructor Yvonne Raley traded the teaching of ethics to living them in the fine-jewelry world.
The New Jersey-based jewelry maker, colored gemstone dealer, and founder of Cecile Raley Designs recalls the moment when her academic interests detoured into design: it was 2007 and she fell for a glass beaded necklace at a museum in Montreal. She didn’t buy it but returned home and couldn’t stop thinking about it until she made her own inspired version. That move sent her down a rabbit hole of bead buying to gemstone purchases and figuring out a way to recoup all the money she was spending on colorful objects. The answer lay in direct-to-consumer sales of gemstone jewelry and loose gemstones.
By 2008, her side hustle business was born, and she continued to study and learn from other makers, gemstone dealers, and stone setters. Among her mentors were Jaimeen Shah of Prima Gems, Dudley Blauwet of the eponymous firm, and her bench-setter aunt, Brigitte Banach. Jewelry design inspiration came from antiques, most evident in her petal- and kite-inspired cluster pieces, including halo styles. Raley sketches out designs for CAD designers and casters to bring to life in New York City in 14K and 18K gold and platinum.
Early on, she spent a day a week on 47th Street with jewelers and setters who doubled as friends, trying her own hand at the bench on weekends, realizing it was better to leave production to others and appreciate their talents.
“I have never gotten very good at the ‘motoric’ aspect of making stuff,” she says. “I am good with colors, layouts, and geometry. Top-quality pieces will be made by many people working together, not by one individual doing all the work. My jewelry is the result of teamwork, and each team member is mentioned in my shop, including the setters by name.”
Melding Education & Jewelry
By 2014, the philosophy department at her university closed, so she abandoned grading papers in epistemology, applied ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy in literature and philosophy of women in favor of working with gemstones and jewelry. As opposite as the paths may appear, her areas of study from her Ph.D. and M.A. in philosophy with a specialty in applied ethics transferred over to business ethics.
“The two fields combine well because solving ethical dilemmas or understanding how to make good moral decisions involves both a foundation in knowledge and moral reasoning,” she says. “I firmly believe that ‘business ethics’ is not an oxymoron—not a contradiction in terms—but that if you do your homework well, you can run a business ethically from the ground up as well as make money doing so.”
Interestingly, another commonality between her days as an educator and fine jewelry was the lack of consumer education and transparency—“A lack of ability to translate what it might mean to run an ethical business and to translate this rather nebulous term into a series of executable steps,” she explains. This belief was the driving force behind all the transparent moves she implemented in her jewelry business.
Transparency Is Tops
Today, Raley’s business is an open book. She reveals where pieces are made, where the gemstones are sourced—to the extent that information is available—disclosure of treatments (of course), and who cut her gemstones and made her jewelry. She discloses much of this on her blog, which she started 10 years ago to both continue educating individuals and properly detail the origins of her wares.
“It makes buyers more comfortable to be able to see where we get our stuff,” she says. “We disclose our casting company so our clients can look at the metals and the sourcing. We disclose the names of our setters and jewelers and engraver. (Most of them are so busy they do not take outside clients anymore, so we are not exactly worried about anyone doing an end run around us).
“You cannot ever be afraid to be transparent, she continues. “This is my big thing. That is what I learned from ethics. Hiding information is the fastest way to becoming unethical. If you think that any of your behavior is potentially public, then you will view what you do in an entirely different way. You treat all information as potentially public and then you make it presentable to your target audience, so it is filtered but also honest. Writing about it makes you think about it, editing makes you think more, it is a good way for me to process and share information.”
A super-popular YouTube channel is another way to bare all, including trips to source countries. She’s been to five thus far, with two more on the horizon “Not all people read—many don’t, so it’s crucial to tell your story both in words and in a visual medium,” she says.
And when sourcing, it’s possible to get good information on mining regions—“In almost all cases,” she insists—but what’s not possible is to verify 100% from which mine a gem originates and which individuals mined it. “You can do it sometimes,” she maintains. “But 99% of the time it does not get more specific unless you have ownership in a mine.”
Raley recognizes the complexity of the business and the shortcomings of practices in place to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the pipeline—from the Kimberley Process to chemicals in manufacturing and more. Still, she urges peers to stay the course.
“You must pick your battles but try to fight more than one. No greenwashing, no hyperbole or sweeping claims, just be precise, investigate, learn, understand, and share.”
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