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Monique Pean '99: Analyst, Artist, Activist

Career-Changer Monique Péan Is Changing the Luxury Jewelry Industry

After transforming herself from Wall Street broker working at Goldman Sachs to jewelry designer in 2006, Monique Péan set about transforming the luxury jewelry industry. Her striking, nature-inspired designs and her use of sustainable, unusual materials (e.g., fossilized woolly mammoth and dinosaur bone) have garnered press attention most designers only dream of. Monique and her designs have been featured in, among others, Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and she was named one of Oprah Magazine’s “Ten Women on the Rise” and “One to Watch” in Fortune Magazine’s “40 Under 40” in 2010. More importantly, her success has proven that high-end doesn’t have to mean high-impact. Monique and her collections are inspiring fashion conscious designers and icons (First Lady Michelle Obama wears her designs) to reduce their environmental footprint, one fossilized walrus tusk bracelet at a time.

THE POTOMAC TERM: Tell us about your decision to change careers not long after your sister, Vanessa ‘07, tragically passed away. How does her memory influence your work today?

MONIQUE PÉAN: By the age of 16, my sister, Vanessa Péan, a Potomac high school student, had visited Haiti and, recognizing the need for improved conditions for children, set up a foundation to fund scholarships at a high school there. She had such a passion for helping others, and I wanted to become more involved in philanthropic activities. I have always been passionate about art and design, so starting my own sustainable jewelry line was a natural way to express my creative side while also having a positive social impact.

What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in growing your business from a start-up to a very successful brand?

When I began designing jewelry, there were very few sustainable fashion lines. Sustainability wasn’t closely associated with luxury. Since then, the green movement has definitely made strides in the fashion world, and eco-friendly and sustainable options are becoming more readily accessible.

How significant is the environmental impact of high-end jewelry?

Gold mining is an environmentally destructive process that releases cyanide, lead and mercury into local water sources. Mining enough gold for one wedding band can produce over 20 tons of waste, and there is already enough gold available to last the jewelry industry for the next 50 years.

In an effort to limit the significant ecological damage and human toll caused by gold mining procedures and reduce the demand for the mining process, I use only 18-carat recycled gold and recycled platinum in my pieces. The recycled gold and platinum are identical in quality to their newly mined equivalents and come from a number of different sources, including existing jewelry.

Additionally, I utilize fair trade and conflict- and devastation-free stones to promote fair business practices and sustainability. What makes fair trade stones covet-worthy is that they are closely tracked from the mines to the market to ensure that every stone has been handled according to strict protocols. These protocols include environmental protection of the mining sites, fair labor practices at the stone-cutting factories, and protection of the surrounding area where the stones are mined to reduce the impact on wildlife, streams, watersheds and groundwater.

You’ve used fossilized woolly mammoth and fossilized walrus ivory in your collections. How are they harvested and what do you like about them?

Seven years ago, I packed my warmest clothing and [flew] from Gnome to Shishmaref, just south of the Arctic Circle, where I traveled by dog sled to the local village. I spent time with Alaskan Native subsistence hunters and experienced their environment, including the melting glaciers and the erosion problems that they are facing. Fossilized materials, including fossilized woolly mammoth, are floating to the surface as the ice melts, and the fossils are gathered by the local native artisans. Artisans showed me these amazing fossilized materials that are thousands of years old with vivid color patterns due to the mineralization process.

I am fascinated by the unique qualities of fossilized woolly mammoth and fossilized walrus ivory. The minerals in the earth and in the ocean change the color of the ivory over tens of thousands of years creating one-of-a-kind rare hues. The more color that appears in a fossil, the more rare it is.

Why do you make a point of working with indigenous artists to create your designs?

My father worked in [international] development when I was growing up, and when my family traveled to the regions that he worked in, my parents always made sure that we learned about and were exposed to local indigenous cultures. I have always been inspired by native art and culture. Learning about Alaskan art, I was inspired to visit the Arctic Circle and work directly with the artists. I wanted to experience their environment firsthand and incorporate their culture into my designs. After working with Alaskan Natives, I saw opportunities to work with other indigenous groups around the world, and these relationships have become an instrumental aspect of my business. I now work with artisans in over 10 countries including Guatemala, Peru, French Polynesia, Colombia, Brazil and the Philippines.

How do you choose which charities to support with proceeds from your jewelry?

When I first learned that almost 1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water and that diseases related to dirty water and lack of sanitation kill more people annually than all forms of violence, I felt compelled to help address the water crisis. “Charity: Water” is an inspiring organization that works to provide clean drinking water to impoverished communities around the world, and they have been my main philanthropic partner. While my philanthropic work tends to focus on the water crisis and international development, there are so many great causes, and I am constantly on the lookout for organizations to support.

How did Potomac prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

Potomac provided me with a great educational foundation in an intellectually stimulating environment that was crucial to my development. Most importantly, Potomac instilled in me a desire to learn, which has never gone away and continues to drive me forward from a personal and professional standpoint.

Tell us about your latest collection.

My latest collection, K’ATUN, was inspired by my most recent visit to Mayan archaeological sites throughout Guatemala. While I was there, I saw the Mayan pyramids of Tikal, which were monumental. The collection’s name, K’ATUN, denotes a unit of time in the Mayan calendar and references my interest in the life cycles of nature. When I examined the system of the Mayan calendar, the theme of repeating symbols and shapes also emerged. I approached the design process from an architectural perspective, exploring compounding shapes and structures. I am also very excited about this collection as it is my first in which I have incorporated fossilized dinosaur bone and Guatemalan jade.

Besides minimizing your environmental footprint and hopefully influencing other designers to do the same, you seem to be changing the definition of what is precious and beautiful. Is that one of your goals?

Absolutely. I would love for people to view my pieces as art, history, nature, luxury and fashion all in one. I aim to create pieces of wearable art that can be passed down for generations.

Potomac provided me with a great educational foundation in an intellectually stimulating environment that was crucial to my development. Most importantly, Potomac instilled in me a desire to learn, which has never gone away and continues to drive me forward from a personal and professional standpoint.

Monique Péan '99, jewelry designer