Episode 188 Part 1: How Lisa Koenigsberg Is Pushing the Jewelry Industry Forward, Both Creatively & Ethically

Episode 188

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • What jewelry can tell us about the aesthetics and values of a particular era.
  • Why sustainability in the jewelry industry is essential, and why the definition of “sustainable” is much broader than we might think.
  • Why maintaining purpose is the key to making our world and our creative work better.
  • Why the term “ethical jewelry” is less about materials and more about our choices as consumers and makers.
  • How Lisa decides which topics deserve attention at Initiatives in Art and Culture’s conferences.

About Lisa Koenigsberg

Lisa Koenigsberg is President and Founder, Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC) and an internationally recognized thought-leader in visual culture. Koenigsberg’s work is characterized by commitment to authenticity, artisanry, materials, sustainability, and responsible practice. Over 20 years ago, she established IAC’s multi-disciplinary conference series on visual culture and has since been responsible for launching its web-based webinars and other offerings. She has held leadership positions at NYU where she also served on the faculty, at several major museums, and at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Koenigsberg’s writings have appeared in such books as The Art of Collecting (ed. D. Jensen), Auspicious Vision: Edward Wales Root and American Modernism, Architecture: A Place for Women (eds. E. P. Berkeley and M. McQuaid), The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame (ed. E. Wilner), in journals such as Gems and Jewellery (the publication of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain), American Art Journal, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, and Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, as well as in magazines and in Trendvision’s Trendbook.

A frequent speaker, she has also organized symposia and special sessions at universities, museums, and professional organizations throughout the US and abroad, including at the State Art Collections of Dresden, NYU, City University Graduate Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the Norton Museum of Art, and the United Nations, and has organized and chaired sessions at the American Association of Museums, the Goldsmiths Company (London), the Society of Architectural Historians, Yale University Art Gallery, the Aspen Institute, and the Jewelry Industry Summit and at JCK.

She holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and from Yale University from which she received her PhD. She is president of the Board of the Morris–Jumel Museum, a trustee of Glessner House in Chicago, and is a member of the Advisory Board of Ethical Metalsmiths and of the board of the NY Silver Society.

Additional Resources:


Miners affiliated with Moyo Gems. Photo courtesy of Pact.

Viola Davis at the ‘The First Lady’ premiere wearing Satta Matturi’s Kwe earrings, made with ethically sourced diamonds from Botswana provided by De Beers Group. Photo courtesy of De Beers Group.

Merian Goldmine of Surgold, Newmont Suriname. Photo courtesy of ATV-Networks.

A rubellite extracted from the Cruzeiro mine. Photo by Leo Drummond/Nitro, courtesy of Cruzeiro mine.


What is sustainable jewelry? According to Lisa Koenigsberg, it’s about much more than the materials used. As founder of Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC), Lisa has organized dozens of conferences to encourage people to explore sustainability, stores of value, visual culture and more, all through the lens of jewelry. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what visual culture is and why it’s significant; what it means for makers and jewelry professionals to maintain purpose; and what we can expect from IAC’s upcoming conferences. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week. 

Today, my guest is Lisa Koenigsberg speaking to us from New York and environs back east. She is the founder of Initiatives in Art and Culture, which is focused on a number of issues such as women in western art. There’s also a conference, which I just noticed, on arts and crafts in the art world. She is an internationally recognized authority on material culture. This July, she is chairing an important conference called “Maintaining Purpose” with a focus on how to make something we all love, jewelry. We’ll learn more about her jewelry journey today and hear more about the conference. I didn’t go into all the details of the conference and her background because it would take too long. Lisa, welcome to the program.

Lisa: Thank you. It’s so nice to be here.

Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. Were you a jeweler? Were you educated as a jeweler?

Lisa: No, I am not a jeweler. I am the child of two people who are very object-driven and, of course, a mother with extraordinary taste. But in terms of how you might say I studied jewelry, jewelry was part of what we looked at when thinking about—a term I find not felicitous, but I’ll use it for the moment—decorative arts, so fitting into the range of the useful and the beautiful. Silver, for example. Jewelry certainly had a space there, and that was the earliest point for me that was non-life-driven. 

One of the great blessings that happened to me was that I did my graduate work at Yale. That was when the arts and crafts movement wasn’t codified in the same way it is now. We sat around and talked about it in the back room of the American Arts office. There were objects there, and we had the opportunity to hold, see, explore. At the time, I also used to wash silver and jewelry for an extraordinary dealer who wrote a wonderful book, Rosalie Roberian. One of the things that did was give me a sense of weight, dimension, proportion, of engaging closely with materiality. Although the arts and crafts is one dimension, I think that illustrates well one of the things that has been so important for me, which is looking for the opportunity to hold, the opportunity to talk with makers. For example, every year, The Goldsmiths’ Company in the U.K. does something called the Goldsmiths’ Fair. At the Goldsmiths’ Fair, there is one week with 67 or so makers. During that time, you can go and speak with any of the makers, explore the work in your hand, look closely at it. I think the journey of looking is probably one of the most important things. 

I’ve been interested in jewelry as a manifestation of the aesthetic of any era for a very long time as well. My background and training are cross-disciplinary. I’m an American studies person. For me, one of the things I always look for is what we are seeing as characteristic of an age, for example. I see jewelry as very much a part of the tangible expressions of an era. For example, if you’re talking about a brooch, you can be working on a sculpture for the body, similarly with neckwear. It’s one of the most intriguing forms of expression there is. Making jewelry, the impulse to craft out of whatever the culture sees as precious material, is one of the innate impulses we have, along with the urge to adorn. 

If you step back and think about it, jewelry is intertwined with so many events of state, events of faith, events of heart. The Pope, for example, wears the Fisherman’s Ring, and at the passing of each Pope, that ring is shattered; a new ring is made. We’re all currently fixated on the crown jewels as Charles’ coronation comes up. All of that is actually jewelry. It’s jewelry indicative of state, of lineage, obviously of aesthetics. The band that many of us wear on one left or right ring finger, as simple or as elaborate as it may be, that is jewelry. It’s a signifier. It’s also invested with tremendous emotion. 

Jewelry plays an enormously powerful role in culture. It’s another kind of historical document. So, if we look at jewelry, we can learn things. For example, you can explore the kinds of ornament it was thought only men wore, but by actually going back and looking, as it was done in the exhibition “Golden Kingdoms,” you can see that women also wore certain kinds of major ceremonial ornament. You can learn from the inscriptions. You can learn about stylistic transmission from the aesthetics. 

One of the things we don’t think about so much is what we leave behind. When we go and look at how we have explored previous cultures, past cultures, one of the things we see is that the documents are often what have been termed luxury arts. They are art that are made of objects that are deemed precious within a culture. They demonstrate a certain egis over resources and talent, but they also serve as documents of that culture. They tell us things about religion, about aesthetics, about faith, about ritual. We need to be thinking about that with regard to jewelry in our own age as well. What are we leaving behind?

Sharon: You cover so many things in Initiatives in Art and Culture. You talk about gems and sustainability and art. It’s so many things. How did you start this, and what is the conference about?

Lisa: I founded Initiatives in Art and Culture in 2004. One of the reasons it was started is because I had developed a series of conferences that had, at their core, a concern for visual culture. What does visual culture tell you? Because there is much to be learned about materiality. What’s it made of? How do we get those materials? And that opens the door to discussing sustainability. Then, what’s done with those materials? What are the forms? What are the means of expression, whether it’s three-dimensional, such as a ring, or two-dimensional, except that it really has a third dimension, however subtle it may be. So, within the category of good, better or best, what differentiates an object from another? Then taking it a step further, what does that object mean in terms of the way we use it, in terms of its place in society, in terms of what it says? Beyond that, how is it linked to the time, or does it presage the future in some way? I’m sure I’ve left out some foci related to political and social concerns, but it’s that wholeness that is inherent in visual culture. That is the focus of what IAC does. We have deep commitment to artistry and materials as well as a commitment to responsible practice.

Sharon: Several questions. Were you always interested in all of this, or is it something your professors taught you and you learned as you read? It’s not the way I would look at something. I think it’s really interesting. How did you start looking at this?

Lisa: I was born into a family that was and remains very visually engaged and involved with art, very involved with looking. Well before I had what one might think of as a professor, I had my parents, who in effect included me in their world of looking from moment one. My experience of art, of objects, has been part of my life since the very beginning. For us, a shared experience was very often looking, whether it was going to an exhibition or a trip planned specifically to see certain things. This was very much part of my world, or the world I was lucky enough to be born into. That included the people that were friends of my parents, and that included curators and collectors and people who were very engaged in the world of looking. My mother herself is a very well-recognized either fiber artist or artist who does sculpture using wire to explore grid and void. I say that to avoid the nomenclature wars. 

I was very lucky to have some extraordinary teachers, but one of the best teachers I had was in high school. We reenacted the Ruskin Whistler trial. I was the attorney for Ruskin, so I had to know all about each one of the witnesses, each one of the people who appeared and testified in the trial, and that made art come alive in a way that was exceptional. Another thing was that during those years, there was something called the myth and image school. It’s the idea that an era has emblems that are representative, that are invested with particular meaning. There may be a flip side to that emblem or a parallel that represents its opposite, but this idea, one which is very cross-disciplinary and often ranges through literature and art, was incredibly formative for me. This is the stuff my teachers exposed me to when I was 13, 14. I was reading these books because they had read them in school, in college, and they shared them with us. For me, going to university—I went to Johns Hopkins and did a BA/MA in history—it was, on the one hand, a new chapter and transformative, but on the other hand, it was in some ways a continuation of what I had been doing all the way along. 

Sharon: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like—I’ve watched your conferences for a long time, and it seems that you focus on art and gems and other things. This idea of maintaining purpose and an emphasis on sustainability seems to be in the last few years. Am I incorrect? Do you just put on a conference when you think it’s a really important subject and it’s coming to the fore?

Lisa: Sustainability is a dicey word when it comes to what exactly that means. At root, it is to survive, but in our thinking, sustainability is linked to responsible practice, which can involve how you source materials, how you make an object, what the circumstances and conditions of that making are. We actually have been interested in that since the first project. It was called “Green,” and it was in 2008. The reason that happened was there was an increasing concern with what was then called sustainability, which was often associated with the color green. We had something I definitely want to revive, which is a conference of 20 years of looking at fashion jewels, the zeitgeist of culture, photography, literature, etc. This term sustainability was being used, green was being used, and one of the things I didn’t want to do was a superficial one-off. 

So, we decided that for the 10th year—I think it was the 10th year—of that conference, we would do something called “Green: Sustainability, Significance, and Style.” In that conference we looked at color, of course; we even looked at green diamonds, but we also looked at coral and organic material that’s made into jewelry. The issues pertaining to coral were at peak interest at that point, and we did quite a lot in that conference with gold. 

That was the first time I worked with Toby Pomeroy, with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to be both friends and colleagues since then. At that point, Toby had done something that was then radical, which was to approach the refiner Hoover & Strong to see if it could be demonstrated that the materials, the scrap, that he came in with was the only material that was in the batch that was refined and that it remained segregated from everything else. That was what you might call an exploration in chain of custody, in the sense that he had a sense of origin of these materials and he wanted to ensure that he could attest to their integrity. Hoover & Strong met the challenge. At that point, Toby was making quite a lot of jewelry, and there was a term that was being used called Eco Loops. Toby has since gone on to do remarkable work with regard to mercury elimination, and he will be involved in the conference, “Maintaining Purpose,” that we are doing. 

With “Maintaining Purpose”—and actually with the “Green” conference, we had Mike Kowalski, who was then the chair of Tiffany, involved in the conference. There was a great deal of focus on things like land reclamation and after-mining and that sort of thing. Having said that, one thing I’d like to stress is that one of our speakers, who at that point was the head of Bono’s RED, got up and said, “I know you’re all wondering, ‘What’s a red person doing at a green conference?’” I felt as if I had been hit over the head with pipe, because I had never thought about environmental sustainability or integrity as being isolated from social condition and well-being. Now, when you look at the 17 SDG, you’ll see so many different issues broken out, but one of the things I thought was, “Gosh, we’ve got to do red now,” because this is a split I wasn’t thinking about or perceiving. Green and red basically led to the creation of a conference. 

Our initial thinking was to do a conference that would look at precious substances. We did a coral conference; we did a diamond conference, which we were very privileged to do. We had wonderful support from Sally Morrison for that project. Then I woke up and realized we had never done gold, so effectively what happened is that the conference on precious substances became the Gold Conference. The Gold Conference is now entering its 13th year. We broadened gold to include gold and diamonds because we wanted to draw people’s attention to stores of value, which these materials are, and also comparative approaches to things like mining, whether it’s formalized or otherwise. And also because, of course, metal and stone go together. That’s not to say we do not explore and include focus on other stones. We’re very proud that Cruzeiro Mines, which is a tourmaline and rubellite mine from Brazil that has exemplary practices and absolutely beautiful stones, is participating in this year’s conference. 

But the way the Gold and Diamond Conference evolved was it came to use jewelry as a lens for a 360-degree approach to the life and the issues associated with the material in question. On the one hand, you have great artistry, like Giovanni Corvaja. We were privileged to have Daniel Brush speak, whose loss I feel keenly. Every year we welcome wonderful jewelers. At the same time, we think about the issues related to extracting material or recycling material and what those words mean. What is recycling? We have repurposed since the dawn of time, so what gives something that halo of recycling? Do we have to think about what we’re using? And, of course, jewelry is a created object. What are the environmental ramifications of extracting, creating the jewelry business writ large? Often in our heads, we think about jewelry and we see a craftsperson, a maker. That aspect of things is very dear to our hearts, and we’re keenly interested in artisanry. At the same time, you have other aspects to this jewelry industry, large corporations that produce for particular market segments. You have the luxe maison. 

In some ways, they’re all compatriots in a world, in other ways competitors in a world, and yet bound together by a common concern for ensuring that this world we have continues. Without this world, without this air, without this earth, we are nothing. We can’t make anything. We have effaced ourselves. I think there is a point of critical mass that’s been reached where there is a deep and general concern. One of the things I fear and that I hope I can help with is building community to encourage people to keep going forward despite the fears that we may have about doing something a different way. Last year our conference was “Boldly Building the Future.” How do you boldly build the future? We have many declarations that have been stated about gold, for example. There was a declaration drafted and shepherded through for the gold industry by LBMA and the World Gold Council. They have principles. Principles are not blueprints. How do you get from that vision, the abstract vision, to its implementation? How do you transform?

We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out. 

Sharon Berman