Iris Van der Veken has worked tirelessly for sustainability and gender equality since taking up her position as Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). She tells Jewellery Outlook Editor David Brough about how her childhood memories of jewellery and early work experiences powered her passion for the industry she serves today.
Iris Van der Veken says her early memories of handling jewellery, and the emotional bonds she shared with her mother and grandmother to beautiful handcrafted pieces, have inspired her passion for the industry she serves today as Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC.)
“I was raised by two very strong and independent women – my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother (who was a widow at the age of 39 with three small children including my mom) was a very powerful and positive influence on me, and along with my mother, shaped who I am as a woman,” Iris says.
“My grandmother was the first woman to drive a car in her town. And she loved jewellery as much as my mother did. You could say that the love for jewellery runs in the family!”
Iris Van der Veken
Jewellery has constantly reflected the love and bonds of her family.
“As I looked at and up to my mother and grandmother, I would realise that jewellery and fashion were such an integral part of their identity. And a relationship to beauty, be it through jewellery or an appreciation for the arts, was a dearly held value in my family. This has helped me navigate my way through a career where so much else stands in the service of beauty, a passion for excellence and sustainability,” Iris said.
“Growing up, I remember that my father would give diamonds to my mother for every major celebration. They have been married 54 years now, and he still does that! I remember and cherish those little moments – my father opening the box and the sparkle in my mother’s eye. And now I am grateful to wear some of her pieces.
“I also remember receiving my first diamond ring at the age of 21. It was a Piaget and has been a dearly held possession for me.”
The intricate and dedicated craftsmanship with which jewellery is made, also made a strong impression upon Iris early in her career, and this sensibility has remained with her. “A distinct memory that stands out for me from years ago is encountering the famous necklace from Moulin Rouge in my first project at Rosy Blue, where I started my career. Stefano Canturi designed the necklace. It was named ‘Satine’ after Nicole Kidman’s gentle, romantic character for whom it was designed. It did help that I was also a fan of Kidman, and the necklace was practically a co-star in the film!” Iris said.
“The actual making of the jewel was a couture process. Kidman’s neck and décolletage were measured to create a wire model. Three months of regular fittings followed. It was handcrafted in 18K white gold using traditional techniques. The necklace weighed 426 grams with a total 1,308 diamonds, which Rosy Blue provided. The necklace has been featured in exhibitions across the world celebrating the movie. I also love the amazing remix of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ in that movie.
“I remember being thoroughly enchanted by the sheer beauty, grandeur and creativity behind the making of this necklace. As my career progressed, I have come to associate jewellery and the process behind it with passion, both my own and that of the often very talented people I have had the privilege to work with.”
Iris started in the jewellery industry two decades ago, after a meeting with Dilip Mehta, CEO at Rosy Blue.
“It was an entirely new environment at Rosy Blue for me, since I was coming from a stock market technology company. This was a family-owned business, and it gave me the kind of head start that was essential and immensely empowering at that stage of my career,” Iris said.
“Based in Antwerp, I got the chance to visit operational sites in countries as diverse as South Africa and India, all while raising a young son pretty much on my own.
“The industry was clearly changing at an accelerated pace. This was the time when the Kimberley Process had just come into effect and companies like De Beers were beginning to make a concerted push towards best practices.
“Since then, I have had the privilege to work in many different countries and working environments and with a diverse and talented group of people – which has shaped my personal and work ethic further.”
Iris now reflects on her goals in her jewellery career, and the opportunities she has to eventually leave the industry in better shape than when she came in as head of the RJC.
“Ultimately, I aspire to leave behind a positive and meaningful legacy. Paramount to me at this time are the two goals of driving sustainability in the industry and making gender equality a core focus for the businesses I work with.
“We are currently in the UN Decade of Action. So much of what we will do right now will have an impact on generations to come. This is especially true for climate action and our work on sustainability.
“A lot of that potential has been realised in the past years, but we still have a long way to go.
“Our recent launch of the Roadmap 2030 and the SDG Taskforce chaired by De Beers Group (Feriel Zerouki) and Richemont ( Matthew Kilgarriff) will support companies in reporting on progress.
“To know is to show and we know Millennials and Gen Z consumers care so we need to tell the story of our members with credible reliable data.
“As for gender equality, it has been close to my heart for a long time. I also strongly believe that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential milestones on our road to sustainable development and solving some of the big problems facing our civilization today, including climate change.
“I am proud to work with my Chair David Bouffard and the Board who truly inspire me to focus and accelerate strategic actions, and my team – a diverse set of dedicated people with immense potential. I consider it one of my goals to uplift the team and our 1,400 committed members to contribute to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the 2030 agenda.”
Like a lot of women who are trying to juggle a personal life and a career, maintaining a good work-life balance has always been a challenge.
“I feel that as I have progressed in life and in my career, I tend to value and respect my time more and have become more adept at directing my focus and energies towards what truly matter. Prioritising the important over the merely urgent, as they say!
“Also, I would be amiss if I did not mention that being ambitious and career-driven as a woman has, at times, been challenging. Times have definitely changed since when I started but we still have a long way to go to achieve full gender equality.
“On this note, we at RJC in partnership with CIBJO-World Jewellery Confederation, the WJA-Women’s Jewelry Association, the World Diamond Council and many stakeholders, have recently launched the Generation Equality initiative and I would urge everyone interested to go here for more info: https://www.responsiblejewellery.com/action/partnerships/rjc-on-gender-equality/
“The time is now, we have a moral obligation to leave no one behind.”