Apparently, I’m not the first journalist to prepare for a meeting with Laura Lambert by scaring the bejesus out of a partner.
“I haven’t had hate letters from men yet,” she laughs, “but I kind of feel like any day now I’m going to get one. A lot of interviews I do with journalists start like, ‘So you’ve messed up my relationship for the past two weeks. Thanks for that.’ It’s quite fun!”
The reason? Laura Lambert is the founder of Fenton, a company built upon the premise of shaking up the engagement scene, introducing ethics, affordability and equality to the conversation. And it’s a pretty appealing prospect…
“What we want to do is really change and disrupt the way that people talk about marriage and commitment and all those topics,” Lambert smiles. “You always see those kind of standard, slightly cheesy adverts, the blonde woman and the guy with the stubble and the really square jaw where she’s looking at him like, ‘I love sparkly things just as much as you’ and he’s giving off this air of ‘I’m so manly. I provide.’ I don’t know. I was just looking at it all thinking ‘What the hell?’
“There are no non-white people. There are no gay people. There are no people who don’t look like perfect dollies. There are no women who’d rather split the cost of their engagement ring or shop for themselves. This is weird. This is like walking onto the set of The Stepford Wives.
“And then there’s that idea that if you love someone, the way you say it is by spending three months’ salary on the biggest diamond you can get. I hate that so much. I think it sucks.”
On the face of it, Fenton looks like a pretty traditional jewellery company. It sells gemstone rings. Beautiful ones, primarily used for engagements. But behind the façade, the company’s approach to the scene is pretty punky. For a start, diamonds aren’t on the menu. Instead, Fenton specialises in ethically-sourced coloured gemstones, from emeralds and sapphires to aquamarines and garnets. Based purely online, the firm custom-makes the vast majority of the rings it sells to order and it does so at a very fair price point. For Lambert, the aim was to offer consumers a luxury, personalised experience, but to do so in a way that defied convention.
“The diamond thing was an invention by De Beers in the 1940s. This happened within our grandparents’ lifetime, it’s actually a very modern tradition in the history of jewellery. And to me, the idea of spending three months’ salary on a big round diamond conjures up this 1950s, keeping up with the Joneses, show, show, show idea.
“The idea that I would have a matching engagement ring to all my friends, like it’s a uniform, is such a weird thought to me. It feels very impersonal. And I think that what I really liked about kind of remarketing and pushing the gemstone into this category is that it’s so much more personal. Saying to someone, ‘You are an aquamarine to me,’ or ‘You are a yellow sapphire,’ adds in this extra element of uniqueness and emotional connection.
“And let’s not forget, when you’re buying an engagement ring, that is actually the tip of the spending iceberg of the journey of getting married and people just don’t have infinite resources. So, actually being able to get a product that you love and that you feel really proud of, while still being financially responsible – sorry if that sounds boring, but I think that’s really important. Value should not be a dirty word.”
No, it shouldn’t. But in an industry rife with human rights and labour abuses, value in jewellery often comes with a human cost. As such, Fenton’s focus on fair pricing is matched by a forensic approach to ethical sourcing.
“I don’t think people are very aware of the problems in the industry,” Lambert says, thoughtfully. “And why would they be? It’s not very widely reported on. Madagascar, for examples, currently provides between 40 and 60 per cent of the world’s sapphires and there’s huge amounts of deforestation, threatening the habitat of endangered animals. There’s a lot of child labour, some very unregulated, unsafe working conditions. And I don’t think people really know that there’s a 50 per cent chance or higher that their sapphire comes from that market.
“When I started digging into it, I was amazed at how much rubbish people would tell me. People really proudly say, ‘Oh yeah, this is a Burmese ruby,’ and I’d think, ‘Well, there was a trade embargo in Burma for a very long time and, right now, there’s a suspicion that the military are involved in perpetrating a genocide there. Why would I want to wear that?’
“So, I think there’s a lot we can be doing around education and fact sharing, because consumers generally are very conscious. They don’t necessarily want to perpetuate jewellers profiting off that sort of supply chain.”
How, I ponder, can a company taking an ethical approach also provide a lower price point? After all, sustainable consumers are well-used to accepting a higher price for the guarantee that the product they’re buying has been consciously produced.
Being an online business and sourcing directly both contribute, Lambert explains. “Diamonds are very monopolistic still and they’re priced high, straight out from the mine. With gemstones, it’s completely different. A gemstone could go through ten or 15 pairs of hands before it reaches a customer in the UK so, there’s a real significant saving to be made by cutting down those middlemen to two or three people, which is what we’re doing. We have a team on the ground in India. We have someone on the ground in Thailand. We have a whole host of miners that we speak very closely to in Sri Lanka.
“And then, of course, not having a shop is helpful. If you look at some of the bigger jewellery companies, they’ve got ten or 20 shops and they’ve got stock in all of them, and we’ve seen this year how much those overheads can condemn businesses and make them less resilient. So yes, we were trying to have it all. We wanted to provide incredible value, but we wanted to do so in an ethical way.”
The impact of 2020, Lambert says, has been both a blessing and a curse, but the upside has been that customers, even those who previously wouldn’t have made an investment purchase online, now think quite differently.
“A huge question in my mind when we launched was, can we even sell something this emotional and this expensive online? But I think we can conclusively say now after this year that people will buy their engagement ring online and they will buy expensive engagement rings online – our biggest sale this year was £13,000, which is wild.
“But we offer lots of checks and balances to keep it feeling safe for the customer. We have amazing reviews. We give 60 day returns or exchanges, no questions asked. We’re very much there during the purchase process. So yeah, I think it’s really nice to have moved from a place of ‘will people buy stuff online?’ to, ‘okay, this is exciting and it’s growing.’”
Women too, she says, are becoming increasingly involved in the process, whether that’s through collaborating with their partner on the design of a ring, on contributing towards the cost, or on shopping for themselves without the involvement of a partner.
“I think that it’s nice to sort of de-stigmatise this idea that you can only wear a piece of nice jewellery if a man has given it to you and you’ve achieved these kind of weird social milestones,” Lambert smiles. “Why can’t you just have something because you love it and it’s special to you? I really like that.”
That ethos has also introduced a new element to the business, in the form of a book, painstakingly put together over spring’s first lockdown. Notes on Love is dedicated “To all the people who live in fear of expressing their love, with the hope that they may one day do so freely and openly”, and hosts the musings of big-name writers from Pandora Sykes and Candice Brathwaite to Elizabeth Day and Alexandra Shulman.
“The ethos has been a big part of what sits behind the brand, but for me, Notes on Love was really a chance to take those feelings and beliefs and actually develop them and give them a home somewhere,” Lambert muses. “You can say, ‘Yeah, we don’t like the traditional status quo,’ but what are you actually doing about it? Put your money where your mouth is.
“And I was amazed and so happy at the people who said yes. I think it really struck a chord. There were just loads of topics I felt we haven’t talked about that I wanted to get into, from race to portrayals of marriage to culture, and I’m really glad that we said all those things.”
For now though, as we near 2021, Lambert’s key aim is to help promote a more equitable, fair and ethically-sound approach to what she calls modern love.
“I think wherever you’re coming from, if you are investing a significant amount of money in something that is an emotional, celebratory present, you do not want to feel that someone else’s misery went into it, that you’re getting ripped off or that it’s not stunning.
“It’s so wrong that when someone is starting out on their journey as a couple, they’re happy, they’re figuring this out for the first time – and then they’re kind of being preyed on and pressured. And that’s horrible, I think. So, I love the fact that actually I’m able to look customers in the eye and say, ‘We know that we’re undercutting the market when you buy from us.’ That’s definitely my best days talking, but that feels really good.”
For more information on Fenton, to find out more about its jewellery design service, or to buy Notes on Love, visit the website here