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Designer interview

Sarah Müllertz

With an uncompromising approach to sustainability, Kinraden is a contemporary jewellery brand in both style and philosophy

As Sarah Müllertz of Kinraden became a pioneering figure within sustainability in jewellery-making and sourcing of materials specifically, she knew that she would have to be uncompromising to make it work. It cost her many sleepless nights, but today, she’s finally arrived in a good place, with people beginning to understand her use of unconventional materials like Mpingo wood. Her creations echo her background in architecture; taking inspiration from Bauhaus, while her sensibilities are much more romantic, pointing to Emily Dickinson as an influence.

Finematter: Where does the name Kinraden come from?

Sarah Müllertz: Kinraden is the old 13th century English form of the word “kindred” or “next of kin” and it means kinship in blood, or just kinship. In 2014, when I founded Kinraden, sustainability was extremely important to me; the idea that our choices are connected, which was inherent in the name, and then it’s a very beautiful word. I like that you can pronounce it in more than one way. It is reminiscent of something English, but it also connects with the Scandinavian tradition. In 2014, people found it very nerdy with all these thoughts of kinship and the idea that we are all connected through our choices. But today, and especially in these times of the pandemic, everything we do, and every choice that we make, what we buy and what we surround ourselves with, it has an impact on our society 5, 10, 20 years from now. 

FM: And talking about kinship, often jewellery is something that you pass on.

S: In every way, it makes sense. My universe and the way that I work are not bound up on seasons. I want to make something timeless; something you want to wear for the rest of your life and that you pass on. One of my rings, named Kindred, is created as a paraphrase of the signet ring, so you buy a family ring, and you become part of the Kinraden family.

FM: You come from a background in architecture, how did you end up making jewellery?

S: From a young age, I’ve worked with jewellery. The construction, the method you use as an architect, is a triangulation. You work in a trinity; the place, the material and the function. It’s exactly the same with jewellery. You have the material, the person who is going to wear it, and the function of the piece. The composition, the method and the elements are very alike. It is a smaller scale, but it is much the same. I am very preoccupied with how we can find new materials and refine them, and how we can work with and expand the materials we already work with; the silver and the gold. Its potential; how far can I take it? I do not use alloying, I do not use any added chemicals, my thoughts on circularity means that to consume something, we need to keep it as clean as possible, so that next time we use it, it takes little or nothing to recycle it. 

FM: Coming from a different background, does that equip you with a different approach?

S: That’s correct. In construction and in architecture, we have worked with ideas of sustainability for the past 25 years. It has become a norm, and part of the theory on “de-assembling”, which is about taking buildings apart and utilizing the materials, when we cannot find the use for the house anymore. And working with unconventional materials, introducing seashells to use in isolation instead of leca. My approach to architecture and this craft is the same. And it’s been some tough years, because basically, we have enough of everything in the world already. We do not need more stuff. To justify doing what I love; to design and create new things, I have to defend sending it into this world. And to justify it, whether in construction, furniture-making, or jewellery, in my opinion, we need to look at the use of materials and the impact we have.

FM: And how did you find Mpingo? What’s the story?
S: I was working on a different project with the ambition to use this type of wood, but the project was discarded because it was too difficult to source the wood. You can purchase Mpingo on the black market, it is a tropical type of wood. The Mpingo, I use, is harvested in a forest in Tanzania, which is protected by WWF and an NGO from London called Sound & Fair. The forested wood is only used for one thing; classical instruments. You make oboes and clarinets from Mpingo. It has such a high density that it makes it perfect for this type of instrument. When I discovered this project I was so excited, because they let me buy the leftovers from the production of instruments, so it’s upcycled; a step further than recycling. And when I figured out a way to cut it like diamonds, my ideas of fabulations on classic jewellery started taking form; utilizing modern materials in classic structures and forms. To me, it was like finding a diamond mine above ground. Because wood turns into charcoal turns into stone, which eventually becomes a diamond when you discover it and cut it, over a timespan of millions of years.

FM: You’ve touched upon it quite a bit already, and as far as I’ve understood, the fundamental idea with Kinraden, is sustainability.
S: The idea was basically to be able to create designs, which were so beautiful, that people couldn’t help but want to buy it, which at the same time was created from a circular platform. Meaning that the materials are circular in the way that I utilize them and the way that I treat them. The production is circular in the way that every one in my supply chain is paid a fair wage. And the business model is circular. One of my biggest dreams is to create a return system, where people can return their jewellery, get a voucher and buy a new piece of jewellery. But that’s way in the future, when we have a much bigger production. It’s still very theoretical, in the future sometime. But I have built the case on the idea of circularity, through-and-through.

FM: It must have been a bit of a risk in the beginning, because you had no idea if it would work?
S: It was a huge risk, and it somewhat still is, but it’s become easier. In 2014, people found the wood to be weird and didn’t understand why I would use an unconventional material. No one asks me that now. People love the idea. Something happened in the last five years. People are more open to the sustainable model. There’s a greater focus on sustainability in general, which makes it easier to tell my story today.

FM: To drive that change, we need pioneers. In this way, you’ve been part of driving that change.
S: That is true. I’ve spent many nights wide awake questioning why I had to be so particular about it. And honestly, I feel very strongly about starting businesses today, we need to make a difference. We can build a strategy with ambitious goals for the future. Rather than having to change it later on, it is much easier to think sustainably from the beginning when you’re a young company. I have a hard time understanding new companies that seem to not care about it at all. It’s a bit shocking. And even if it’s tough, and it’s difficult, if we have to put more stuff into this world, we have to care.

FM: Everything you do in regard to sustainability is available online; this transparency is a huge part of it.
S: Indeed. At the same time, I believe that the more you give, the more you gain. That’s an important value to me, personally.

FM: We can apply that idea to the relationship between man and nature. If we have respect for nature, we receive so much more. You would never have found Mpingo had you not had these thoughts about circularity.
S: There’s so many materials that are currently being refined and utilized in industries, where they haven’t been used before (plastic from the ocean in Adidas-sneakers for example) and transformed to a new kind of product and sold again. We need these ways of thinking. According to scientists we will have no more gold or silver to extract from the earth in 2030 already. And we know there’s enough above ground already. So let’s keep some in the earth for posterity, and let’s figure out a way to use the resources we already have. We have to be smarter about it. We are running out of raw materials in construction, and it’s happening faster than we thought.

"And honestly, I feel very strongly about starting businesses today, we need to make a difference. We can build a strategy with ambitious goals for the future."

FM: For an independent jewellery designer, it can be difficult however to understand how much recycled gold and silver is actually available, and how to source it.
S: It’s a very conservative industry. Very traditional. It has to be these specific stones and pearls, it has to be gold and silver, which has been mined. People ask me about the chemical processes related to recycling silver and gold, and how I can defend that. But if you keep it clean, then the next time you recycle it, there’s no chemical process. We have to look ahead. Today, it takes one ton of ore to create one gram of silver. Think about the footprint of that. To me it’s about providing an alternative. I too love diamonds and stones, and that’s why the ideas on a return system are interesting. The diamonds in old jewellery, there’s nothing wrong with using them for new pieces of jewellery. 

FM: Just to change the subject completely, I find your relationship with Emily Dickinson and the inspiration that you take from her, very interesting. 
S: She was an American poet, who defied her family to follow her dreams of writing poetry. It was atypical for a woman at the time. I am very fascinated by women who do something despite all odds being against them. And then she was just a brilliant writer, Dickinson. The poem called I died for beauty, which was the inspiration for my first collection, is about two people in their graves, next to each other, whispering through the wall between them. It’s such a beautiful poem because it’s not only about becoming one with nature and yourself, but also about how to resurrect through love, and it goes so well with the thoughts on sustainability, and how we are connected through love and through the earth. Many of her poems are raw, honest, almost too honest in her longing for love and her broken relationships.

FM: Back to what we discussed earlier; sometimes you have to go against the flow, even though it might not be popular, because with time it can become invaluable.
S: Many of the women from that period in time, and through the 20th century, their lives are a long battle for success, and many of them only achieve it after they die. We have Jane Austen, who is more populist and successful in her time, but Emily Dickinson only achieved success after she passed away, when she was widely published and was recognized as one of the most important lyricists of her time. So it was tough. This idea of defying all odds is such a big part of them, that they can’t help but do it, it’s beautiful. It’s their passion.

FM: It’s the same sort of passion you live by. Not saying that it’s about the same thing.
S: I definitely feel an affinity with these women in doing something outside the norms. I’ve felt like the new girl in school. Having this very nerdy project with a completely new material and a different aesthetic. My style is very simple, because it’s what I find beautiful. Looking at the theory of Ornament & Crime, with Adolf Lose and Bauhaus, a traditional school in architecture, working with clean lines and the golden ratio. You cannot hide anything, because the more simple, the more effortless it feels, which is almost the most difficult to achieve. To remove all ornamentation to reach the essence, is what I’ve tried to achieve as an architect and a jewellery designer. 

FM: Which gives space to this new material that gets to shine in its own right.