Natsuko Shiraki, a jewelry designer and CEO of Tokyo-based jeweler Hasuna Co., vividly remembers the shocking experience in southern India that changed her life.
It was in the summer of 2003 that she, then a student at King’s College London, visited a village of “untouchables” between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh states.
There, she found an entire community of children and elderly people unlucky enough to be born out of India’s discriminatory four-caste social system breaking their backs to extract marble, mica and other precious stones from deposits deep underground.
The working conditions in the mines were severe, and the owners treated the untouchables like slaves.
Despite the arduous and dangerous work, they toiled without even the basic protection of helmets and masks. Banned from the nearby well, the outcastes also had to walk three hours just to get water.
That experience opened her eyes to the plight of the poorest people on Earth and eventually drove her to set up Hasuna in April 2009.
Since then, she has been making and selling “ethical jewelry” by sourcing gems, seashells and other materials directly from their producers in Pakistan, Rwanda and other developing nations.
“When we buy jewelry, we usually pay a lot of money, but that money does not reach the local people,” Shiraki said in an interview, adding that brokers and dealers claim most of the profits.
Shiraki, 32, took great pleasure in making her own clothes and beaded accessories as a child. But she noted that “by wearing beautiful jewelry, we may be putting certain people under hardships. That’s so scary.”
Hasuna’s products are dubbed ethical jewelry because the company does not rely on exploitation. Instead, it procures its gems directly from the mines to ensure the laborers receive their fair share of the wealth and get proper training.
This emphasis on local economy and society in jewelry-making areas makes Hasuna the first company of its kind in Japan.
Hasuna now trades with mines and workshops in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Belize, Canada, Micronesia, Pakistan, Botswana and Rwanda.
For Shiraki, it has been a long journey. After graduating in London, she worked at the United Nations Population Fund as an intern, and later at the Asian Development Bank Institute as a researcher. But India kept tugging at her conscience.
“My experience in India left a strong impression, and I thought the root of the problem was the lack of proper business schemes,” said Shiraki, who was born in Kagoshima but grew up in Aichi Prefecture.
Because there is no way for companies that import gems to verify where they come from, brokers buy them cheaply from mines and sell them at high prices, she said.
“Instead of giving money to these mine workers, I thought that the existing business structure had to change. I wanted to create a business structure where money will flow from the haves to the have-nots,” she said.
To learn about business, she joined a real estate investment fund in 2006 then quit in 2008 to set up Hasuna.
People in the jewelry industry initially told Shiraki that fair trade in jewels was impossible because the dealers’ network is so strong that outsiders have a hard time procuring quality stones — particularly diamonds.
But Shiraki researched mine owners and jewelry artisans around the world, asking her former U.N. friends for help and chasing up leads from others in developing countries. She also tapped social networking services and sent out hundreds of email messages to get as much knowledge as she could.
The first product she sold was an engagement ring made with Canadian diamonds. In Canada, all diamonds are certified by the government. It also has laws aimed at preserving the environment, such as by requiring mining companies to fill in the pits and restore them to their original state once they are closed.
Shiraki later encountered Wilkes — seashells that exist only in and around Belize — through a Japanese woman living there. She visited Belize in 2008 and met a skilled craftsman who was polishing the shells.
“This pattern is very rare,” Shiraki said, displaying markings on the seashells resembling those of a snow leopard. “People in Belize sell them as souvenirs. I thought it could become fashionable jewelry.”
At the time, the craftsmen in Belize were poorly paid for their souvenirs. But once Hasuna began using Wilkes in her jewelry, their income rose. The company was also able to send them a new polishing machine to help educate the next generation of craftsmen, Shiraki said.
In 2011, she traveled to a mine in the Hunza area of Pakistan to look for colored stones, such as ruby and aquamarine, after hearing about a mine run by an ethnic minority group that also had a polishing workshop where the local women work.
“Chartering a driver and a guide in Islamabad, it took more than two days to reach the area,” she said.
Since the minority group did not have direct access to the market, some 90 percent of the gems their mine produced used to be smuggled to neighboring countries for sale, she said.
To solve this problem, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization set up a polishing workshop for local women and started buying gems from them at appropriate prices. Hasuna now imports quartz via the NGO.
In the beginning, Hasuna had a difficult time selling its jewelry. Shiraki approached department stores and other retail outlets, but few showed interest because the 2008 global financial crisis had just erupted.
“With no prospect for selling our products, I couldn’t even pay my salary at that time,” she said, recalling that it was only the advice of professional buyers that allowed her to improve her products and find her first buyers in September 2009.
The company logged just ¥13.6 million in sales in its first year and ¥42 million in its second. By 2013, however, sales had jumped to about ¥130 million per year, she said.
Hasuna opened its first shop in Tokyo’s posh Aoyama district in March 2011. It now has stores in the trendy Omotesando district, the Shinjuku Isetan department store and farther afield in Nagoya.
The social entrepreneur was also selected in 2012 by the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community — a network of young, highly motivated individuals with the potential for playing future leadership roles in society.
She recently published the book “Jibun no tameni ikiru” (“Living for Myself”). The Japanese book is about her life and includes advice for young people.
“The business world is still a man’s world. I want young women to choose their future by thinking about themselves, their career and what they want to do in 10 years’ time,” the author said.
While Shiraki is pleased that Hasuna has become known as an ethical brand, she says she aspires to make it the world’s top jewelry brand. To achieve that, she says, the company must work more on improving design, quality and service.
“I would like to work on these improvements this year and hope to nurture our company into one that will be loved by people around the world,” she said.
Shiraki got her start by studying under a jewelry artist in hopes of improving herself as a designer. She also plans to visit Italy this year to study local jewelry techniques.
“I am asking myself what is beauty, what is my design and what is my jewelry to develop my own style of jewelry,” she said.
“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com.
Significant events in Shiraki’s life
2002 — Enters King’s College London.
2003 — Visits an outcaste village in southern India.
2005 — Internship at UNFPA.
2006 — Joins an investment fund.
2009 — Establishes Hasuna Co.
2011 — Opens first shop in Aoyama, Tokyo.
2013 — Opens third shop in Isetan Shinjuku.