Zeroing in on the concept of sustainability through heirlooms, the 11th New York Fashion and Design Conference presented a case for eco-consciousness in fashion through inheritance and recycled materials. Held Dec. 3 to 5 at The Graduate Center of CUNY, the conference, a program of Initiatives in Art and Culture founded by Lisa Koenigsberg, kicked off with a series of presentations on the role of jewelry — namely pearls and gems, as well as contemporary pieces made in New York — in the ritual of creating and supporting sustainable designs.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Beyond the market value of an older gem, “the ring as an heirloom is a memory of the time it was given,” explained Benjamin Zucker, a gem merchant and novelist whose presentation, “With This Ring: Symbols of Power, Love, and Devotion,” examined the value of inherited and pre-owned jewelry. Zucker said antique jewelry, particularly Art Deco styles (which Zucker said dealers called “Art Drecko” before museums began acquiring such pieces), are increasingly popular, in part because consumers ascribe a greater emotional value to pieces passed down through generations. And sustainability-wise, Zucker noted, jewelry hand-me-downs serve as a repurposed accessory.

Following Zucker, Jack Ogden, the chief executive officer of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, spoke on the similar surge in value and popularity of pearls (“A Lustrous History: Pearls, Possession, Passion”). Citing Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” as well as the extraordinary export of freshwater pearls from China (about 17,000 tons a year), as evidence of the enduring appeal of pearls, Ogden noted industry pricing has shifted dramatically with the advent of cultured pearls. “Natural pearls swept enormous prices until cultured pearls came on the market,” Ogden said, adding while cultured pearls are less valuable, their production is a means of preserving freshwater resources.

Swinging from old-world luxuries to contemporary design, Robin Renzi, the founder of Me&Ro jewelry, offered insight into the challenges of producing in New York City during an economic crisis. “Your business is your morality,” said Renzi, who added she has had to lay off a number of employees in the last year. Still, she remains committed to an eco-friendly business plan: She has begun using recycled gold in her designs, which are all made in New York. She also produces her pouches in India and boxes in South America, and no longer plates metal (“It isn’t good for the environment,” she said). And while she continues to use precious stones in her work, her hunt for natural diamonds and gems that are also fairly sourced is an expensive and time-consuming pursuit. “What I’m looking for is really elusive,” Renzi said.

Representing a much larger organization pursuing sustainable practices with heirloom products was Amy Skozclas Cole, the director of the eBay Green Team at eBay Inc. “We don’t make anything; we don’t manufacture anything,” Skozclas Cole told the audience by way of illustrating the inherent green qualities of the company. “At the core of eBay’s overall operating philosophy is that people are basically good,” she said. The company has built on that ethos by initiating a campaign for more earth-friendly practices, from installing solar panels on the company’s campus buildings in San Jose, Calif., to offering a green section of its Web site educating buyers and sellers on ways to minimize their carbon imprint via shipping, to aligning with Hearst to create green style pages in its portfolio of magazines. Indeed, Skoszclas Cole said the company’s services — selling and reselling goods — offers upfront benefits to the environment: She noted pre-owned leather handbags purchased via eBay over a three-year period had the same environmental effect as planting two million trees.