Walking down the main shopping street in Reykjavík, it is hard to miss the abundance of lava jewellery for sale. Perhaps this isn’t so strange given that the entire surface of Iceland is covered in volcanic rock. But, what if that special piece of Iceland that you brought home was not as Icelandic as you thought it was?
After hearing a rumour that the lava stones used to make many of these earrings, bracelets and necklaces are actually imported, The Grapevine decided to investigate.
We popped into Islandia, a tourist shop whose stated ambition is “to provide anything Icelandic the tourist might desire.” Like in many other stores, the lava jewellery there is labelled “Icelandic Design” and “Made in Iceland.” This doesn’t technically say anything about the lava rocks, but the salespeople assured us that the lava comes from volcanoes all over the island.
But could that really be true? Were they lying to us? Were they ill informed? Isn’t the porous Icelandic lava simply too fragile to be turned into beads?
At Iceland Gift Store, a salesclerk told us more. “The Icelandic lava cannot be polished,” she said, pointing to a shiny lava stone on a silver necklace, not unlike the ones you see in shop windows all around town. This fact was corroborated by a salesclerk at another tourist shop. “But please don’t tell my boss that I told you,” he said.
If there’s an authority selling Icelandic design, it’s Kraum, self-described as “a design store, which concentrates on selling only the best of Icelandic design” representing over 200 designers, carrying clothes, jewellery, applied art, and furniture among other things. There the salesclerk said: “Icelandic lava is too soft to be treated.” Thus, shiny, polished rocks with holes drilled through them are simply not Icelandic.
Jewellery designer Andrea Ellen, who crafts jewellery “inspired by the uniquely powerful colors, textures and materials of Iceland,” explained that it is difficult to work with Icelandic lava. “I try to use stones that I or others have found in Iceland,” she said, “but cutting Icelandic lava is only possible on a small scale and is very time consuming.” This explains why Icelandic lava is almost always mounted in a silver frame, which protects the fragile rock.
If the lava isn’t from Iceland then, where is it coming from? It seems there’s no one answer or single supplier. We heard that the polished rocks came from Germany and Norway to China and Japan. And even the non-polished ones with a more Icelandic look and feel to them are not guaranteed to be from Iceland. As Andrea explained, Indonesian lava is a good alternative to Icelandic lava because it has a matte look, but is less porous, which makes it more malleable.
So, is that lava stone necklace—the one you wear everyday as a constant reminder of your trip to this volcanic island—actually “Found in Iceland”? Well, it’s certainly unlikely, even if it was “Made in Iceland” by an Icelandic designer.