Wilder Friends - Pippa Small

Wilder Friends - Pippa Small

Posted by Charlie Landon on

Introducing Pippa Small - ethical jeweller and ambassador of the human rights organisation Survival International .

Pippa holds an MA in Medical Anthropology which cultivated her interest in human rights amongst minorities, indigenous peoples and tribal groups through collaborations with grass roots organisations in Borneo , Thailand, and India amongst others ... she has always been an inspiration to me since I first met her many years ago, a truly gentle unique being, creating magical pieces that are more than jewels .. they hold the energy and stories of many different cultures and journeys. I'm lucky enough to have a few pieces and they are talismans that I never take off.

  • Please share a little about you, your background, where you grew up, and where you live now?

 I was born in Montreal and grew up between rural Quebec and Spain and later my parents moved to deepest greenest Wiltshire.  I was very fortunate to grow up in the countryside befriended by ponies, chickens, parrots, orphaned crows, recovering cuckoos and doves, and a very soft chinchilla.

My mother’s side of the family were heavily involved the arts, painters, sculptures and musicians, travelers and my father’s family has emigrated and lived all over the world.

Rainy Sunday afternoons were spent painting together in front of the fire, or my sister and I painting the walls of rooms with murals of fantastical places and animals.  My father was a lot older than my mother and he passed away when I was quite young, my mother felt after 2 husbands, 6 children and  2 step children it was now a time for her to explore the world and do what she dreamt of doing, and that was to travel, we children were eager companions and I found a childhood spent visiting places like the middle east, Indonesia, east Africa and India were hugely informative. Even at a cellular level as a small child I think one absorbs the sounds, scents, and landscapes and the world becomes home.

I was always fascinated when traveling among more traditional communities to understand how people saw the world, their relationship to their environment.  Jewellery too was so interesting, the materials and the meanings held within the stones and designs and how this area of material culture related to heritage and tradition which all reinforced an important sense of collective identity .

Now I live in north Kensington with my 12 year old twins and a small loving dog. I spend nearly half the year traveling to the various countries where we are working.


What inspired you to become a jewellery designer?

 My first love was rocks;  stones and pebbles gathered from walks in the woods, along the banks of streams and beaches. Stones held an almost primal fascination for me, like holding a tiny drop of the earth. To have them close and touching the body is a grounding, shielding and protective feeling for me.  They also held a memory of a place, a moment, or a person associated with the stone. This is, I think, the essence of jewellery,  emotion, connection, memory and attachment.

I bought a dentist drill and diamond tip drill bits and instead of filling my pockets with stones, I learnt to drill holes so I could wear them on a string around my neck and know they were with me always.

 Later I was fortunate to be able to study anthropology and went on to do a master’s in medical anthropology at SOAS.  These studies further fuelled my interest in people, culture and human rights.

For my thesis I went to research the effects of land loss and mental illness among indigenous communities in Sarawak. This research led me to work for some years with local grass roots indigenous human rights group in Borneo and later all over the world. It was during this time as I kept experimenting with my stones and different ways of carrying rocks as simple jewellery that I found the conversation with the women in communities often went back to jewellery and the meanings and symbolism of the stones and materials used, they asked me about my pieces, and I asked about theirs.

Jewellery was such a powerful and emotive signifier of identity or resistance, for example later I would work with the Kuna and Mapuche Indians of south America and I began to see that this powerful art form was a potential way of telling a story, of resilience, of giving a voice and allowing communities of artisans to have a livelihood that let them work from their communities and instill pride in their work – I began to collaborate on materials, designs and found a way to bring these skilled and talented artisans to the market which was in the west.

Over the years I worked with larger brands like Tom Ford’s Gucci, and the extraordinary Dosa, which taught me so much about putting together a collection and how the fashion business works.


 Is there a method you have when you start a design?

 Every season, which is twice a year , I design a new collection with craftsman in India, Myanmar, Afghanistan and now Colombia and the West Bank. I begin with a great deal of research in each region, looking at museum collections at ancient bronze age artifacts, tiles, textiles, carpets ceramics and of course the aesthetic history of the jewellery, the cultural influences from trade routes and religious and cultural iconographies.  Sometimes I can start with a word, like ‘harmony’ or a poem like the Sufi ‘conference of the birds’ or a gem like the natural alluvial emeralds of Colombia and fan out from that to create a collection, as long as it holds meaning to me beyond the decorative.

  • You are an incredible ambassador for fair-trade, ethical mining, supporting the people’s community and environment. Where did you start your first collaboration / project and how smooth was this journey?

 My first collaboration with a community was with the San Bushman of Botswana in the Kalahari desert.

It was a life changing experience spending time with a community who had been hunter gathers not so very long before and had a remarkable relationship and knowledge of their unique environment.  I learnt about laughter and resilience in the face of hardship, about the impacts of colonialism and of large scale mining on indigenous lands.   

Since then I have been on a journey to see how we can find ways to support the alternatives of cleaner small scale mining practices of both gems and gold. I worked with the first gold mine, a small cooperative called Coptopata that eventually was certified as the first fair trade gold mine in the world. I have visited gold mines with the fair trade foundation in Uganda that were piloting toward cleaner practice and those that were not, visiting households where women heated mercury in cooking pots over the kitchen fire, where mercury was tipped into the rivers where the village washed and gathered drinking water, I saw the effects of mercury poisoning on children.  It has been disturbing to see the ups and downs of gold mining and how larger geopolitics can impact the attempts to focus on improvement on health and safety around the mines and better environmental practices. Conflict in Myanmar have meant mines that were moving toward cleaner techniques have lost support, Afghanistan has had to focus on more urgent humanitarian needs, Colombia where clean eco gold panned in the rivers are being pressured by narco traffickers who are shifting their attention to illegal gold due to falling cocaine prices and raising gold prices.

But despite many challenges the push for cleaner practices and lighter environmental impacts continues to grow and this is very exciting for the jewellery industry and the more we can talk about it and the more our clients are informed and make choices based on knowing the provenance of the jewellery the more we can keep the pressure on to demand better practice.  

  • Working to support artisans allows for craftsmanship and traditions to continue for generations to come. I personally love your Turquoise Mountain Afghanistan collection and wear a bangle from this collection that is never off my arm. How has life for your artisans changed there since 2021?


I am so happy to hear that! I first went to Afghanistan in 2008 and lost a part of my heart in this country. The decades of war had left people with a remarkable resilience and working with King Charles charity Turquoise Mountain was an incredible experience – sometimes after discussing jewellery designs and looking at stones I would sit with the artisans drinking green tea and discuss their lives and fears and hopes. I often felt part of my role was to listen and hold their stories safely. Over the years as covid hit and political circumstance changed in the country my partner there called one day and said we needed to start training women and to teach them to make jewellery, so Zindagi Now (a new life) was started . So far we have raised funds to allow over 160 women to work in goldsmithing, setting, gem cutting, design, English, computer skills and literacy if needed.  

It’s a beautiful project giving voice and hope, a creative language and a new livelihood and impendence to so many.  As the women grow into designers and makers in their own right, we have given them a platform on our website called “Next Generation” to show case and sell their work.

I have visited Afghanistan a few times since the change of government and though the situation for women is very challenging the fact there is security means a great deal.  


How often do you have to travel in a year and where has been your most favorite destination?

I travel every month somewhere where we are working, or to sell the pieces and tell the stories of the artisans.  I have no favorites and find everyplace I go an inspiration and an opportunity to learn.


  • What are your ‘must have’ travel essentials.


Books and more books. I have a fear of getting stuck somewhere without enough to read. So I always have a mini library in my bag.

Please share a book or books that have been an inspiration or a recommended ‘must read’?

 I loved the other side of Eden by anthropologist Hugh Brody for a new way of seeing our world, I love Satish Kumar for a reminder on how to tread lightly and at the moment I am obsessed with women writers from the turn of the last century D E Stevenson and Elisabeth Goudge who wrote delightful stories, often set in rural Scotland and that are an antidote to the horror of the daily news today. They are stories of a softer ,gentler time that I yearn for.  


Do have any favourite herbs that you cook with or use preventively or medicinally?

I love to make salads filled with herbs that my partner Julian grows on our balcony, marjoram, thyme, mint, parsley  and coriander and lots of seeds. Also after working in Jordan and the West Bank I love to finish dinner with fresh thyme or sage tea which I feel ends the day with a perfect aroma and aids digestion.


Has your life’s journey inspired your children to carry on your craft and philanthropy?


My twins are nearly 12 years old and have been traveling with me since they were about 4 months old. Before having the twins my dream was to be able to share the beauty and wonder of the world with my children, to be able to take them to places and to introduce them to other ways of being in the world .  I wanted them to understand that we are all the same, everywhere we go people have the same concerns for love, family and security, we really are one family. As much as I feel guilty for traveling and flying with them it is also important that the next generation understand that there are no differences, that we can only survive if we work together and help each other. I have no idea what they will do when they grow older but I hope they will have big open hearts.


A question that I love to ask as its full of exciting possibilities is: how do you see the next 5 years, do you have a plan ?


Despite working in jewellery and with artisans all over the world for nearly 30 years, I still love what I do, I recently went to Romania to start planting the seeds of a collaboration in rural Transylvania, to work with Kaldash Roma gypsy metalsmiths to create a sumptuous collection in gold inspired by the Roma journey and their stories to be able to show a different side of a too often misunderstood community. To be able to show different perspectives, to give voice, to shift perceptions in any way is a good thing and if jewellery can be a vehicle for that hurrah!

My  dream is to keep working in areas of vulnerability through conflict, with women, to preserve cultural heritage, to find cleaner alternatives whenever possible and to make beautiful things, what a  privilege

pippasmall.com @pippasmalljewellery


← Older Post Newer Post →