Last November at, COP26, more than 130 heads of state and government and thousands of diplomats spent two weeks trying to tackle the greatest threat to humanity: climate change. The fashion industry is, of course, not exempt from this conversation, producing more harmful carbon emissions than the aviation and shipping industries combined.
Up until recently, however, sustainability and style have rarely gone hand in hand, the former conjuring up images of hemp clothing not haute couture. But a new generation of designers is changing this, one that includes rising jeweller
Born in Brighton but now living in London, Burnham started creating jewellery himself when an ex-girlfriend taught him how to make a ring using the traditional wax-carving method. He was instantly hooked. “I enjoyed the process but it was nothing in comparison to the joy I felt when I saw the final ring,” he recalls. “I remember that moment so clearly: we were outside Sadler’s Wells theatre in London one summer evening, and I looked in amazement at what was previously a piece of wax and was now a glistening, radiant piece of jewellery.”
From there, Burnham spent several years practising and honing his craft, making rings mostly for his friends. By April 2018, having spent some time working as head of sustainability at
Direction is certainly what he had. In spades. Spanning rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces, Burnham’s pieces have, from the start, been bold, beautiful and instantly recognisable, yet simultaneously modern, timeless, naturalistic and meticulously crafted. His most popular design, the Rose Garden Signet, is a ring set with six gems in varying precious stones (the metal also varies, with 9kt gold and recycled silver available) and a rectangular face that mimics the texture of leaves. Other pieces emulate the texture of oak bark or the form of flower bouquets, picture frames and pastries.
“I would describe our aesthetic as visually sensuous, as we have a strong focus on colour and texture,” Burnham says of his approach. “There are unstructured elements to the jewellery but, in their entirety, pieces develop into a more structured form. A bit like a tree or a flower; if you look at its individual parts you will see unique and random attributes, but [taken as a whole] it always has a sense of cohesion and beauty.”
I often wonder what it must feel like as a designer to see people wearing your creations, as Burnham must often do now. “It feels amazing,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to be able to create jewellery and bring it into people’s lives.”
But back to sustainability. When it comes to the environment, Burnham doesn’t just talk the talk. He lays out an impressive sustainability commitment on his website, which reflects the designer’s desire to be a part of the environmental solution, instead of the problem.
“Our approach to environmental sustainability can be broken down into two main arms: internal and external,” he explains. “Internal being the focus on our business activity and external being looking at how we can improve the position of humankind as a whole. This stems from the need for environmental sustainability to be dramatically improved on a global level. Of course, focusing on our own business and how we operate and what our footprint is, is very important, but to me this is only half of the picture as we are only a small piece of the puzzle.”
“We need to look at this with a wider lens to see where we can use our position, resources and finances to try and stimulate other more impactful changes. Our external efforts are now being channelled into our own charity, the Natural Community Trust [which launched in February 2022]. Traditionally we have partnered with other organisations on activities such as carbon reduction schemes and diverse tree planting, but we now want to take this into our own hands and focus our efforts towards inspiring a connection to the natural world and creating solutions to the climate crisis.”
Sustainability even informs the materiality of Burnham’s designs. All handmade in London, they are exclusively created from hand-modelled wax casts, using 9k gold, recycled silver and lab-grown stones. Made from solid, not plated, metals, they are designed to last a lifetime. Or several lifetimes, actually, as he intends them to be passed down from generation to generation. Much like the pieces in his nan’s jewellery box.
His nan’s house was the inspiration behind his most recent and upcoming collections, Grandma’s House and Grandma’s House Part II, which also reflect the designer’s devotion to the planet. “A lot of our cues from nature are abstracted or viewed through their connection to human culture so this naturally creates a wider scope. [The collections are] about the beauty of a grandparent’s home, which might not at first glance link to the natural world. But this was actually heavily linked to the appreciation and knowledge of the natural world that is often present in a grandparent’s home.”
So what advice would Burnham give to other fashion brands? “Decentralise production, [make] low [to] zero use of chemicals,” he says. “There is always an environmentally progressive solution. Slow down and position environmental health and support in the same light as economic growth.”
“There is no greater pleasure or source of a healthy mind than a love for the natural world and all it has to offer,” he concludes. “Whatever your belief system is, the natural world is the closest physical touchpoint to that belief system and, as a result, is the closest connection to the meaning of life.”
It’s too soon to say whether COP26 will make a difference in the fight against climate change, or if it’s naive to be optimistic about it, but with people like Burnham around, it’s hard not to feel hopeful.
Photography by Jenny Brough. Taken from Issue 55 of 10 Men – FUTURE, BALANCE, HEALING – out NOW. Order your copy