A necklace that started life as a holiday trinket has morphed into a jewellery business with its heart set on shark conservation. Meet Etoile – diver by day, entrepreneur by night, and activist putting her heart and soul into the ocean.
We’ve all done it – returned from a beach holiday with a new trinket around our neck to remind us of our travels. For Etoile Smulders, however, a fossilised shark tooth necklace sparked a business idea – and one with plenty of heart. A freediver and passionate advocate for everything to do with the sea, she saw an opportunity in her souvenir that could help her connect consumers to ocean conservation. The result was her Found at Sea Collective, a jewellery brand that fashions pieces out of fossilised shark teeth and sells them with a clear message. “I honestly never saw myself starting a jewellery company. I don’t typically wear jewellery and I’m not particularly interested in fashion,” she told us. “But to me, it’s more than an accessory, it’s a statement and I found this resonated with others in the ocean community.”
Living the millennial dream as a digital nomad today, Etoile was born and raised as a “water baby” in Hong Kong. From the age of four, she accompanied her grandpa in Thailand on fishing trips before learning how to dive at the age of ten. “There was no defining moment that I fell in love with the ocean, it’s just always been a part of me,” she says plainly.
Five years ago, she found a fossilised shark tooth in South Africa. “I made a little piece of handmade jewellery out of it, it was very ugly actually,” she jokingly admits. “But it was a constant reminder of what I respected most in the ocean and who it truly belongs to. I didn’t want to feel disconnected to the apex predator in the ocean because it was my whole life, so it’s really a symbol of that.” In the following years, she started making pieces for her fellow divers and surfers until she finally launched Found at Sea Collective in 2017.
In the past year, Etoile has learnt how to run a business from scratch. Spending more time ashore, she personally designs bespoke rings, necklaces and bracelets out of fossilised shark teeth – never using the regular shark teeth you see in other pieces, which, she tells us, are actually sourced from unsustainable fisheries. With friends from Florida to Belgium on the lookout for materials for her to use, and a silversmith in Bali crafting her pieces together with opals, she brings together several elements for the finished item. “It’s boutique,” she says. “Each piece is one of a kind because there’s only one of each fossilised shark tooth and it’s the same with the opals. We’re still pretty small, but I like that. I feel like every time someone buys a piece of my jewellery they are joining my small ocean community.”
At the brand’s core is its message – and it’s one she sees as needing significant effort to impart. “I’m focused on sharks because there is a gap in that conservation effort. Growing up in Hong Kong, there were shark fins everywhere – drying on the street, or in my friends’ shark fin soup. And Indonesia may be one of the top diving places in the world, but it’s also home to one of biggest shark fisheries. It’s just so challenging because people aren’t connected to sharks, they see them as monsters. But the amount of times people go into the water and there’s no harm just shows they’re not mindless, man-eating machines. If you go on safari in Africa, you wouldn’t jump out of your car to hang out with a pride of lions, but people swim with sharks everyday. Because they’re not cute like lions and turtles, it can be really hard to convince people.”
Donating 10 to 20 percent of profits to grassroots shark conservation in Indonesia, with hopes of increasing this in the future, Etoile tells us her hopes for Found at Sea. “I want my website to not only be a jewellery shop. I want it to be a source of information, where people can come and learn about shark conservation projects and profiles on inspiring people doing stuff for the ocean. I love it when fellow ocean conservation women or badass surfers wear my jewellery. I want it to be a platform where people can just share the love of the ocean.”