Q&A: Vivien Johnston

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Vivien Johnston is the original ethical jewellery pioneer.

Trained at Glasgow School of Art, she had quickly developed a career as a commercial Jewellery Designer, reaching the position of Head Designer in the early noughties where she was placed in charge of sourcing. This led to Johnston founding the first British ethical jewellery brand, Fifi Bijoux, in 2006.

Since then she has established herself as a leading light in the field of responsible sourcing of precious metals, diamonds and gemstones – an Ethical Supply Chain Specialist, who has consulted on a national and international basis for a variety of jewellery brands, junior mining companies, international brand agencies, NGO's and natural resource governance advisors. She was named one of the Future 50 Young Social Entrepreneurs in 2013.

Johnston was responsible for establishing the British Ethical Jewellery Association and was the inaugural Chair of the Jewellery Ethics Committee UK & Ireland for the British Jewellers Association, the National Association of Goldsmiths and Gem-A.

Today, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Executive Partner and Project Manager at The Dragonfly Initiative, Ethics Manager at Gem-A, whilst still heading up ethical jewellery brand Fifi Bijoux. Vivien Johnston is the leading ethical jewellery industry commentator promoting traceability in supply chain management and she answers the Benchpeg Q&A...

What’s your name, and what do you for a living?

VJ: Vivien Johnston. I have a few hats - all sparkly! I’m a Sustainability and Responsible Practices Consultant to the jewellery industry with The Dragonfly Initiative. I’m also Ethics Manager for Gem-A. I’m founder of Fifi Bijoux, one of the first purposefully ‘ethical’ jewellery brands, started in 2006. 

How did you come to work in the jewellery industry?

VJ: I completed a BA (Hons) at Glasgow School of Art in 1999, specialising in Silversmithing and Jewellery. From there, I had a design job in a commercial jewellery company and worked up to Head of Design. In 2006 I launched my own ethical brand “Fifi Bijoux” and from there, I was asked to consult by another brand, NGO’s and junior mining companies. I met Dr. Assheton Carter in 2011 and we decided to pool our skills. We started working together on The Dragonfly Initiative about 5 years ago and I thoroughly enjoy it. 

How would you describe your work to someone who doesn’t know it?

VJ: Fascinating, rewarding and challenging. 

What is your creative process?

VJ: Getting out of my comfort zone - travelling or trying something new usually sparks a new perspective or train of thought.

Where do you love to shop?

VJ: Fortnum and Mason. I only enjoy shopping for gifts. I haven’t found any clothes shopping to be pleasurable, maybe because so often Petite clothes are strangely proportioned. Or perhaps I am!

What is your inspiration?

VJ: I’ve never defined one source; people, places, experiences all inspire me.

What piece of jewellery do you most treasure?

VJ: My engagement ring, which my poor husband (whilst living in Asia) went to considerable lengths to commission from me – his friend forgot to forward one of the emails in time and we ended up in a very romantic hut on a Indonesian island where he’d planned to propose - with no ring as it was still at Customs. 

What piece of jewellery do you most desire?

VJ: Most of Andrew Grima’s work.

If you could only be remembered for one thing in your working life, what would it be?

VJ: Probably my “elephant parade’ ring I designed when I painted a life-size baby elephant for the Singapore Elephant Parade in 2011. The ring is 18ct white gold and two little elephants, set with aquamarine holding up a large oval peridot. I visited an Elephant Sanctuary in Sri Lanka and they are just the most majestic animals.

What would be your advice to someone starting out in the industry?

VJ: Build relationships and expect to keep learning. Things change, and if you are open to learning you can expect to have a long, fulfilling career and meet some truly inspirational people.

The Benchpeg Proust Q&A

  1. What’s your favourite work of art?

    VJ: At the Fountain by Aubert. 

  2. Who from past or present would you invite to a dinner party for the evening?
    VJ: Bruno Tonioli cracks me up.

  3. Do you have any pets, if yes, what is their name?
    VJ: A dog, Ruby.

  4. What is your most treasured possession?
    VJ: I don’t really have one. Honestly, I don’t get very attached to things. My memory is the only thing I really dread losing.

  5. What would you consider a perfect day?

    VJ: A lie in til 7.30am, following an whole night's sleep (parent of a toddler!) and then a whole day of dance lessons, followed by champagne and fish and chips on the beach with my family. 

  6. Is there a favourite journey, trip or voyage you hold dear?
    VJ: I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of the world (with plenty more I’d like to still see). Most of my tales are of mis-adventure… I seem to have a knack of boarding the wrong plane and also meeting really rather extraordinary people on my travels. Never dull. 

  7. What is your greatest achievement?
    VJ: I’ve not achieved it yet, so I’m not going to say!

  8. What advice would tell your younger self?
    VJ: Actually, sometimes I’d like my younger self to tell my older self stuff. I used to be a wee bit of an adrenaline junky. I think its better to listen to your younger, naïve, fearless voice as you get older, save from ever thinking you ever really know it all or that learning is ever over. And to keep being brave. 

  9. Can you sum yourself up in one word?
    VJ: Pragmatic. I sometimes uncover uncomfortable truths and am forced to examine quite disturbing facts about issues our industry faces. These can range from human rights abuses, environmental disasters or kleptocracy. However, I find most people are moved by the problems - it's not that they don't care - but often people can become paralysed by empathy. They can become overwhelmed by the magnitude of issues, feeling powerless to change things. This is when they sink their heads in the sand. I find being able to construct a framework for making positive change and handing businesses the right tools to do so brings a real sense of empowerment to them. My compassion never fades; but my determination to tackle problems strategically and from a multitude of angles intensifies.

  10. What motto do you live by?
    VJ: “If your legs are sore, be glad that you have legs” - My Russian ballet teacher. 


Rebecca van Rooijen


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