When PANDORA asked me to come out to Bangkok and take a peek inside their factory, I have to be honest and tell you I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I think there is usually an immediate negative reaction in the western world when a factory in Asia is mentioned. More times than not, I do believe we think of unfit work conditions, mostly because of what has been reported over the years from journalists who have visited factories in Asia, while undercover, and have come back to share horrid tales.
It should be said that Pandora is a brand I have worked with, have immense respect for and have myself worn for years. So I guess the honest truth here is that I did have some hesitation at first. I thought, “do I really want to see this?” Again, I had preconceived notions and I wanted to bury my head in the sand over production, as I do for so many other brands that I wear. I am not what you would call a soldier of the “conscious clothing” brigade. Yes, I can feel the heat coming from you guys now. If I like an accessory or piece of clothing, I buy it without prejudice. But I do realise this is a changing world and more and more people are asking about where their products are made and how the people making these products are treated. So I’m stepping up to the plate, as it were, and taking an active role in changing the way in which I “consume,” starting with PANDORA Jewellery.
So, I packed my bags and headed out to Bangkok, with 8 other journalists, for the factory visit. On the flight out a few of us talked about the brand and our adoration for the company that had been built up over the years. Yet, none of us really knew what to expect at all when it came to the place in which the PANDORA pieces were created. No one mentioned pre-conceived notions, it just remained on a level of, “well, this will be interesting.”
Fast forward 24 hours and we’re leaving central Bangkok for “Gemopolis” – a section of Bangkok where several popular jewellery brands from around the world have factories. As we drive through Bangkok, I try to take everything in. This is my first time in Thailand and I have to say it was a cultural overload. There was everything from extreme poverty to extreme luxury, and everything in between. Again, my mind seemed to spin quickly. What would the PANDORA factory reveal?
We arrived. Dear reader, when I tell you what I discovered, I fear you may not entirely believe what I’m writing. This was like visiting the Google of Thailand – no exaggeration. I guess the easiest thing to do here is trace the day, as I saw it, for the average employee at PANDORA in Bangkok, starting with how they get to work in the morning.
Pandora quickly, in the beginning, realised that not all of its 7,500 employees could afford to live in Bangkok. Their answer was transportation. Over 70 luxury coaches are provided for employees that live outside of Bangkok so that they may easily get into work and home again without hassle. Then, when the employee comes into the office, they head into their area of speciality. We visited four buildings while on site, transported to and from each just as the employees are - by a beautiful open air carriage that looked as if it belonged at Epcot. Each and every space was air conditioned, cleaner than most offices I’ve visited anywhere in the UK, and was full of cheerful and smiling faces that greeted us as we came to their work stations. They have a beautiful canteen where they dine, have regular company excursions to theme parks and beaches, are given the opportunity to learn about finance and are even given a chance to see a future in the company and an opportunity to take on management roles if they desire to do so. This is a company that encourages growth in an individual on every level. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising as their product is also geared towards empowering the individual wearer. The whole PANDORA brand was coming together for me in a great 360 package.
Over the past five years, I’ve visited over half a dozen luxury jewellers and seen the craftsmanship that goes into creating each and every piece. These pieces then reach the sales floor and come with anything from a five to six figure price tag, and above. It’s the personal human touch that makes this luxury, and of course fine materials such as diamonds. However, if we are truly defining luxury by craftsmanship and saying that only jewellery created with the human hand is worthy of that status, regardless of high priced gems, then every single item that comes from PANDORA should be considered “luxury”. The factory floors at PANDORA are full of men and women that are meticulously shaping, detailing, polishing and quality controlling every single item you find in store with the brand.
The PANDORA "machine" is like nothing I have ever seen before and the emphasis is truly placed just as much on the people involved as the product that is developed. Apparently the employees at Pandora knew a good thing before anyone else even clocked on. When the factory first opened in Bangkok, there was a line around the block to be interviewed. Everyone wanted in. Now, if you find yourself lucky enough to call PANDORA your employer, you might as well also call them family. The stories shared about the men and women that work at the PANDORA factory brought tears to my eyes as they were shared with pride over coffee.
In fact, there was one, which I will try to paraphrase, that just has to be shared and I do hope that PANDORA will not mind if I share it outside the factory walls.
We heard the story of one woman that has been at the factory since the beginning, yet almost lost everything some years ago now in her first years with PANDORA. This story starts when she was pregnant with her first child and in hospital for delivery….
Actually, hold on one second. Before we go any further let me just note one quick thing about pregnancies and PANDORA. The average age at the Pandora factory is 27, a 50/50 split between men and women, and the environment here has led to many matches over the years. It also leads to over 300 PANDORA babies being born every year. As we were told, and I do believe, this is a fabulous sign of a real community society where people feel confident enough in their future to start a family at an early stage in life. The pregnant women at PANDORA even designed their own special uniforms to wear to work – a beautiful pale blue frock that expands from the back as their baby bump blossoms. However, I do believe it is the story of this one mother which has truly cemented the community at PANDORA, for all.
In early factory days, this young mother went into hospital to have her first child. As the baby was delivered, there were complications and the husband was told that the mother would not survive due to an extreme loss of blood and no remaining blood resources left in her blood type. The husband and wife had come a long way to work for PANDORA, leaving all family behind. They had no one on the ground to call for help, so they called their employers, who they considered their family even before this miraculous turn of events. The owner of PANDORA immediately spun into action, after receiving the call that one of his employees was in trouble. He went onto the company PA system and asked everyone that was of the young woman’s blood type to come to the head office. He then called one of the company buses to the front gates, called in a favour from the local police, and asked those who were willing to board the bus and go to their colleagues aid, by police escort to hurry things along, and donate blood so that she may survive to mother her child. A life was saved that day because of PANDORA’s actions and this is only one of many such stories that cement PANDORA as a brand with a heart. It seems no coincidence at all that their most popular selling charm is in fact a heart and it’s refreshing to know that said charm is made by people who have some of the biggest hearts, it would seem, in the industry.
While I could just sit here and write story after story like that one, I want to instead talk about the future of the brand and what we were introduced to in the factory. Like I said previously, the brand is focused on keeping the craftsmanship of every piece in check, but they’re also interested in best practices for the future and pay close attention to the resources they are using each and every day. They have actually employed over 200 engineers to work on innovation with the company practices, while maintaining a high emphasis on the expertise needed for craftsmanship. With every product launch, there are also new innovative procedures for production launched alongside. As they so eloquently phrased it, “there’s no point having a successful company in this world if our world ceases to exist.” Fair play, PANDORA.
In short, it was a voyage of discovery at PANDORA that led me to step away and wonder what other brands are doing to compete. Or perhaps more to the point, what other brands will now be doing to try to compete. PANDORA have proven themselves, in my eyes, to be a leader in their field. They can now be found in nearly every country around the globe and decorate the arms, necks and earrings of millions of women around the world. The message I’d like to send to all of those women today is one of beauty and hope. You are wearing a piece of jewellery that not only provides a feeling of beauty for yourself, but also provides an amazing opportunity for so many in Thailand. That’s feel good fashion and I’d certainly like to see more of it out there.
PANDORA, thank you for challenging everything I know about production, luxury, foreign countries and ethical work standards. You’ve taken everything mentioned to a new level that should be admired, studied and replicated the world over (I'd say "awarded" too, but that's already happened).
I’m wearing the PANDORA Essence bracelet now and, rather cheesily, instead of seeing my own empowerment through the beautiful charms presented, all I can see are the amazing men and women I met on that day in the factory.