How Icelandic Jewelry Brand Aurum Became a Leader in Sustainability with Guðbjörg Kristín Ingvarsdóttir, Award Winning Goldsmith
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- How Guðbjörg has made sustainability part of every aspect of her business, from jewelry materials to packaging
- Why Guðbjörg is inspired by Iceland’s natural landscape, and why she encourages tourists to visit more remote parts of the country
- Why creating the best design often means stepping away from it
- Why people who want to start their own jewelry brands must constantly push themselves to come up with new ideas
About Guðbjörg Kristín Ingvarsdóttir
Guðbjörg Kristín Ingvarsdóttir is a goldsmith, jewelry designer and co-founder of the award-winning sustainable jewelry brand Aurum, Iceland’s leading jewelry brand.
Guðbjörg studied goldsmithing at Copenhagen Technical College, completing the journeyman’s examination in 1993. She then completed the master craftsman examination in goldsmithing at Reykjavík Technical College in 1994, subsequently returning to Copenhagen to study jewelry design at the Institute for Precious Metals. She ran the jewelry workshop Au-Art in Copenhagen from 1996 to 1999 in collaboration with others.
In 1999, Guðbjörg returned to Iceland and founded the design and jewelry brand Aurum. Her designs have attracted much attention worldwide and she has taken part in many international design exhibitions, both as a solo designer and as part of a group. She was awarded first prize in the jewelry competition “Spirit of the North” in St. Petersburg in 2000; received the DV Cultural Award in Reykjavík for art design in 2002; and received the Icelandic Visual Arts Award for design in 2008. In 2011, Aurum received the Njarðarskjöldur award for Best Tourist Shop of the Year and in 2015 the Grapevine Shop of the Year award. Aurum has been recommended by several international publications such as Timeout, Conde Nast Traveler, Elle, GQ and Lonely Planet.
Erika 5: We launched the Erika collection to commemorate our 20th anniversary, Erika encapsulates the spirit of Aurum’s origins.
“Picture a picnic in the Icelandic countryside. A young girl fascinated by the delicate flowers, collecting them for her mother. And writing a fairy tale in her diary about her hopes and dreams. 20 years later, Guðbjörg has drawn on these indelible memories for inspiration in creating the very special Erika Collection.”
Swan 455 and Swan 456: Aurum by Guðbjörg’s range of luxurious 14kt gold plated and 925 silver cufflinks and wedding bands in 14kt or solid 18kt gold, are perfect for a wedding day, civil partnership or to mark an anniversary or engagement.
Landscape – LAX collection: Quoted from Gudbjörg: “I love living in
Iceland; all my family lives here, and my design work is continually
inspired by the natural environment of the country.”
Pakkningar: We have resolved to introduce eco-friendly thinking into every aspect of the AURUM brand. For example, we only use recycled precious metals. Our jewellery is made here in our workshop in Iceland, and we make our gift boxes to look like the stones found on the beaches of the Western Fjords, using paper from mulberry trees, which has little to no effect on the ecosystem because the trees are not cut down – the paper is made from the leaves.
Coming from Iceland, a country known for its pristine environment, it’s no surprise that Guðbjörg Kristín Ingvarsdóttir founded her jewelry brand on the principle of sustainability. Growing up in the remote countryside, she still turns to nature for inspiration when designing award-winning pieces for her global brand Aurum. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what it was like growing up in Iceland; why Aurum uses only lab-grown diamonds and recycled metal; and what her advice is for young jewelers who want to start their own brands. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Guðbjörg, one of the most well-known jewelry designers in Iceland. She’s the founder and head of the jewelry enterprise Aurum. Her flagship store is in Reykjavík, but it sells in retail outlets throughout the world. Her firm is known and respected for its commitment to sustainability. We’ll hear more about her jewelry journey today. Guðbjörg, welcome to the program.
Guðbjörg: Thank you.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your journey. It looks like a pretty impressive operation that you’re running. How did you come to that?
Guðbjörg: I completed my German examination at Copenhagen Polytechnic in 1993. After that, I further studied jewelry design at Copenhagen Institute for Hermitage for precious materials in Copenhagen. After my study in plastics and doing some jewelry work in Copenhagen, together with four of my colleagues, I started to develop my jewelry further. The time I spent there, it gave me time to work on pieces for exhibitions. That start in Denmark gave me a lot of influence. It’s learning with precious metals as well as starting an account. The craft tradition is very strong and the design scene is very strong in Denmark, and they encouraged me to develop my ideas further, because I received a grant when I was over there. I got the time to develop the jewelry. In 1999, I returned to Iceland. The same year, I opened my design company where I could further develop my jewelry. My first collection started when I came back to Iceland.
Sharon: When did you decide this is what you wanted to do, that you wanted to do jewelry? Were you doing it when you were a teenager? Were you making jewelry as a child?
Guðbjörg: That’s kind of an interesting story, because I did not grow up in a typical artistic environment. I grew up in a lively house with two generations living together. My grandmother made a lot of things by hand, beautiful clothing with her sewing machine, and my mother owned her own clothing store, so I was always involved with fashion at the time. I enjoyed sewing, and I got my first sewing machine which I was 13 years old. When I was 17 or 18, I went on an exchange to the U.S., and I spent a year on Bainbridge Island in Washington. I took all the art classes I could take because I didn’t have any at home. I lived in a small town, so we didn’t have any art classes. I decided to take everything I could at the high school on Bainbridge Island. One of the classes was a jewelry class with a great teacher. After that, I found my passion, so I couldn’t think about anything else to do. When I came back to Iceland in 1998, I just wanted to be a goldsmith. That was the story to it.
Sharon: Wow! First of all, what does Aurum mean? How did you come up with the name for your business?
Guðbjörg: It’s a beautiful name. Aurum means gold in Latin. It’s also the most precious metal, so that was something I thought would work for my business. Aurum, for me, means ambition, understanding, responsibility, unity and mindfulness; that is what I think of when I run my business. It’s an equal opportunity company; everybody has worth in the company.
Sharon: Wow! For those listening, I’d like to spell it. It’s A-u-r-u-m.
Guðbjörg: Yes, it is.
Sharon: You’ve won several design awards, and your business has appeared on the list of top jewelry places in Iceland. How did that come about? Did you enter a contest? How did they get to know you?
Guðbjörg: It was my first prize I got. It was a competition in South Petersburg. The name of it was Spirit of the North, and it was in the year 2000 when I was just starting off my business. That was a great honor for me, to get that award as a young jeweler starting off her own brand.
Sharon: Yes, I’m sure it is.
Guðbjörg: It helped a lot to get recognized in Iceland. Then I received a design award in Iceland in 2008 for five of my collections. Aurum itself has gotten some awards, for the best jewelry brand in 2000 and ethical brand of the year from the Eluxe awards in 2021. Through the years, we have got some nominations and awards.
Sharon: How did you decide to start your emphasis on sustainability in everything you do with the jewelry? Can you tell us about that and how you came to it?
Guðbjörg: First, having grown up in Iceland, it’s this sustainable country. From the start, I have only used recycled, refined precious metals. Recently, I thought I would go into lab-grown diamonds because I want to have responsibility in every step of the company.
Sharon: So you use lab-grown diamonds?
Guðbjörg: Yeah. Also, if you think about Iceland, our production is entirely based on Iceland. Iceland generates 100 percent of its energy from its resources, so there’s no place in Iceland to do that, to pick up things like the packaging. I’ve been using the same packaging from the start. It is a special packaging made from mulberry paper. This is the best paper from the mulberry tree because it does not interfere with the ecosystem, as not a single tree has to be cut down. All the leaves are used while the tree continues to grow. From the start, I wanted to use that. They are making it especially for me. I went to the company in Iceland and found the stone it was made after. The box is modeled after the stone. I picked it myself.
Sharon: You have beautiful boxes. They look like rocks.
Guðbjörg: Yeah, they look like rocks.
Sharon: You can tell, yes.
Guðbjörg: Yeah. They are made after the stone I picked myself.
Sharon: Oh, wow. Tell us about your clients. Are they all from Iceland? You sell online, so I assume they’re all over the world.
Guðbjörg: Yes, I’m selling all over the world. I’ve been lucky through the years; I have these great Icelandic customers that come again and again into the store. It’s an honor to be selling to the U.S. A lot of customers come from the U.S., from Australia. I’m getting more and more from Canada and Europe. We have clients all over the world, also from Asia. I think it’s because people connect with the story I want to tell. Usually when I start to develop my collection, I already have the story behind it, and then I develop the jewelry from there. People connect with it. When they come to us, when they see us and when they come into my store, they can feel it; the atmosphere is just there.
Sharon: It seems like all of your jewelry is inspired by the Icelandic environment or things you see.
Guðbjörg: Yes, it is. I have been inspired very much by Icelandic nature. You can really see it when you look at my jewelry. My most favorite part is the area where I grew up. I grew up where there is this very tall mountain. I spent my time on the mountain skiing when I was a child, and in the summertime, I spent my time in the countryside. I go there every summer and I get this peace. It’s a small house I’m staying at, with no energy, nothing. It’s just the sea and the mountain and we have a place there. There I get the peace to develop my ideas, and the energy there provides me with creative ideas and space. It’s also the space. It feels like you are alone there. For me, there’s nothing better than losing myself in this wilderness, sensing the beauty and experiencing the forms while lying there. It takes these fantastic shapes, and then I turn them into little treasures. This is mostly where I get my ideas. Of course, I have worked with some museums in Iceland and worked with some artists such as a sculptor. I have made jewelry after her glass sculptures. I have also worked on other ideas, but nature is the most inspiring for me.
Sharon: It sounds like your head must be full of ideas because you’re surrounded by such beauty there. I can see how it would be an endless source of inspiration waking up in the countryside. I was just in Iceland and besides your store, I visited the place you mentioned. I will never be able to pronounce it. To somebody like me in Los Angeles, it’s beautiful, but it’s also in the middle of nowhere.
Guðbjörg: Yeah, it’s all this nature. Later I noticed, when I started my studies, how influenced I was by my growing up in this place. It was quite isolated when I was living there; not so much now, but at that time it was.
Sharon: It still seems fairly remote. That must have been a shock—when you came to Bainbridge Island to study, how was that coming from Iceland?
Guðbjörg: That was special because I had gone once after Iceland. I didn’t speak much English, so it was a challenge, but I stayed with a wonderful family that helped me get in world with everything there. It’s a beautiful island so I was lucky. They were really artistic. He was an architect, and they were involved with acting. I went to a Shakespeare play and all that; I saw my first ballet in Seattle. I was excited with the new creative things over there. It was very special coming from such a small town.
Sharon: How do you think people who visit, especially from the states, what’s their stereotype of Iceland? People have said to me, “Was there ice all over the ground?” How do people see Iceland? Are they surprised when they talk to you about Iceland when they’re visiting?
Guðbjörg: When I went in 1988, 1989 to the U.S., people didn’t know anything about Iceland, but now people have the internet, so they know a lot. I think people know a lot today when they come into the store. Maybe they get surprised when they go out in the countryside to smaller towns and so on, but Reykjavík is very close to our city.
Sharon: Yeah, it is.
Guðbjörg: With fashion and all, we are really up to date with everything, I would say.
Sharon: Iceland’s become the place to visit.
Guðbjörg: Yes, it’s a beautiful country. I understand because I want to be in Iceland during the summertime. There’s almost nowhere else I would like to spend my summer because it’s such a beauty. We go fishing and hiking. We do a lot of things here.
Sharon: It’s gorgeous. When I looked at it on the map, it was so small. What would your advice be to young jewelers, young designers? To me, it takes a lot of guts to come back to Iceland and say, “I’m going to start my jewelry company.” What would your advice be to people starting out?
Guðbjörg: It’s a challenge to do, but when I came back from Denmark, I wanted to show new ideas because I have a lot of jewelry business in Iceland. It’s to believe in yourself. What I have been doing, I always push myself further and develop new ideas. I never stop, actually. I’m always working because I love what I’m doing. I think that’s a big part of it, to like what you are doing. It’s always exciting to my mind, developing a new collection. It takes time. It sometimes takes a year, sometimes two years. Sometimes it has to be sitting on my desk for more than two years, then I get the idea how to work on it further. Sometimes it’s just a short time. It has always been important for me to push myself, to not be stuck in older ideas, to work on new ideas. That’s always exciting.
Sharon: I’m always impressed when I meet somebody who has a belief in themselves and the confidence to say, “O.K., I’m going to do this. I realize that are challenges and there are roadblocks, but this is what I want to do,” and push through it.
Guðbjörg: Yeah, I enjoy this journey. It has to be amazing, I think, because I wouldn’t be doing anything else other than this. Knowing that when you are 80 years old, that’s special. I think today because people have so many choices, it’s difficult to find what you want. I have three daughters: one is 24, one is 18 and one is eight, and everything is changing. It’s difficult for people to find their passion. I think it’s most difficult to find your passion and work on it. It takes time. Just give it time.
Sharon: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
Guðbjörg: You, too.
Sharon: I hope our paths will cross again soon.
Guðbjörg: You’re always welcome.
Sharon: Thank you so much.
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