Diamonds are forever, as they say. So is the plastic refuse Baylee Zwart ’10 spots bobbing in the waves she surfs. Based in Los Angeles, she designs fine jewelry with a conscience. She has drawn celebrity fans; Zoë Kravitz and Rihanna rock her Azlee Jewelry brand.
It was riding a Craigslist-bought surfboard that Zwart first braved Southern California’s shoreline breaks. “The ocean holds such a special place in my heart,” she says. She comes by that honestly; she grew up in California and Colorado. The ocean inspires the jewelry that Zwart creates, and her company partners with ocean-related causes.
“We are involved with Surfrider,” she says. “We do a lot of beach cleanups, and awareness.” For the brand’s debut line of minimalist earrings and chokers several years ago, Azlee donated 10 pounds of food to Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center with each piece sold.
But here’s the rub. The average American daily disposes 5 pounds of waste—dumped in landfills, beaches, and oceans. And the retail industry is part of the problem. Zwart looks for solutions—schooled in part by a couple years she spent working on the sustainability initiative for philanthropic footwear company Toms Shoes.
“As consumers become more aware and ask good questions, it really does push big companies to rethink what they are doing,” Zwart says. “But it is hard when our entire world is based on fast fashion, disposable items that are all made out of materials that are going to last forever.”
Retail firms require balancing profits and conscience. And Zwart credits her time at Santa Clara for helping her wrap her arms around the role of philanthropy and social justice in society. Now Zwart tries to navigate the currents of business and ethics. “Sustainability is complicated and there are so many approaches,” she says. “You need to opt in and choose what makes sense for your consumer and supply chain.”
Her conscientiousness about the mass production of soft goods—products made to be discarded within six months—led Zwart to ditch a lower-end jewelry line to focus on creating work of more lasting value. Fundamentally, she says, jewelry should be something that endures. “Engagement jewelry is the pinnacle of that. It is such a special thing; it is something that people will have for a lifetime and beyond.”
One area that Azlee has staked out is reinventing clients’ own jewelry. Is it thrilling to see A-list trendsetters draped in Azlee originals? Of course. But Zwart is also happy reworking the bracelet of a customer’s great-grandmother: “We are taking it all apart, using all the diamonds, using all the metal to create a whole new piece.”
Does she worry about this offering cannibalizing her business model? No, she says, because the Azlee brand shines through: “I never feel like I am selling a piece that is not ours,” she says.
Today, running a small and thriving business, she hand-selects her jewels and shows designs during New York and Paris fashion seasons. As for her original inspiration, go back to the first stone she worked with. While completing a major in communication and a minor in retail management at Santa Clara, Zwart also spent time abroad in Morocco. There she found a beautiful stone she wanted to put in the right hands. After graduating from college, she worked for a nonprofit goods producer in Guatemala that tapped local artisans. She met a metalworker who turned the tables when she asked him to fashion a ring from her stone. He suggested Zwart try crafting the metal herself. From there, she “fell madly in love with metalworking.”
As she told The New York Times, that time in Guatemala—and boat rides to and from work, with the sun playing on the water—later inspired a collection. She named it Light.