The Ultimate Brilliant Earth Review: Bullsh*t? or Ethical?
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The Ultimate Brilliant Earth Review: Bullsh*t, or Ethical Jewelry Leaders?

Author: Marc Choyt | Friday, May 15, 2020

Brilliant Earth claims that using recycled gold helps the environment and reduces mining. The illustration shows how recycled gold is refined dirty gold merely rebranded as eco-friendly. This article explains why this greenwashing undermines global initiatives, such as Fairtrade Gold, that support impoverished and exploited small-scale gold miners which reduces global mercury contamination and greatly decreases impact to ecosystems.

 

Author's note:  I have been a jeweler for 25 years, a pioneer in ethical jewelry sourcing since 2006,  a jewelry social/environmental justice activist, an anti-mining activist, and feature writer for trade  and consumer magazines on ethical jewelry issues.  I'm also the Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US since 2015-- though in the UK there are over 250. This Brilliant Earth Review, originally published in October 2018, will continually be updated. It's one chapter of my 45,000 word Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds.  

 

If you are seeking a wedding a wedding or engagement ring and want to be part of the solution, and NOT support the jewelry industrial complex—which has funded wars that have killed millions of people, and commited countless ecological attrocities—this Brilliant Earth review is for you. 

This Brilliant Earth review is essential because they dominate the internet for any topic related to ethics + wedding rings, engagement rings and/or diamonds. Their website gets over a million visits a month, their social media presence is massive—and, they have even opened up eight retail stores in major markets across the US. 

They have generated endless positive publicity from trade and mainstream press.  Nearly every blogger, reporter, or potential customer looking to learn about or purchase ethical jewelry, diamonds encounters the Brilliant Earth.   

In fact, the ethical jewelry movement in North America is, as they have claimed on their website for years, their movement

 

Brilliant Earth invites us to "Join the Movement"—the "ethical jewelry" movement.

Screenshot taken summer 2018. For years Brilliant Earth has claimed that the ethical jewelry movement is their own, inviting us to "join the movement." 

Anyone looking for an ethically sourced wedding ring will most likely think, I can trust them and move on to the myriad other tasks to get done before my wedding.  

But should their ethical claims around sourcing be trusted? 

This Review vs Other Brilliant Earth Reviews

Unlike other Brilliant Earth reviews, this review is not about customer service, quality of workmanship, or how many five star ratings a $XXX wedding ring with a lab grown diamond gets. You can get that info easily elsewhere.   

This Brilliant Earth review digs deep into their claims around ethics and sourcing. It is an insiders' understanding of the current ethical jewelry zeitgeist not available anywhere else.  

There are five parts to this review: 

Part 1:  My Brilliant Earth Interview from 1997 and  Ethical Jewelry defined. 

Part 2:  The gold supply chain and the recycled gold green wash narrative.  

Part 3:  Fool the ignorant customer: the marketing of the term, "fair trade".

Part 4:  Hide crimes in plain sight: Endorsing the standards adopted by the mainstream jewelry sector.

Part  5:  African black lives don't matter:  Spinning the "Conflict Free diamond" narrative.

Here's the bottom line: 

Each of these sections stand alone, but they also create one coherent argument.   If you are considering a purchase from Brilliant Earth, I urge you to read this review in full.  

A wedding ring is a beautiful symbol of your love and commitment. It's a piece of jewelry you plan to wear for the the rest of your life. 

If you care enough to seek out a company that claims alignment between sourcing and symbolism, spend a few minutes to find out whether those claims are accurate. 

Part 1: The Brilliant Earth's 1997 Interview 

 

Eric Grossberg, co-Founder of Brilliant Earth. Beth Gerstein, not pictured, is the other co-Founder.

Eric Grossberg, co-Founder of Brilliant Earth. Photo (cropped here from the original photo in the interview provided by Grossberg.

 

Back in 2007 I started FairJewelry.org, the very first blog/trade watchdog covering jewelry sourcing issues. It later evolved into Fair Jewelry Action, a human rights and environmental justice platform.

I had met Grossberg at events and had actually consulted with him pro bono on ethical sourcing issues. This led to one of the very first interviews on my blog, where he stated:

 

“Right now is a real opportunity for us to pro-actively redefine our relationship with the communities from which we source the materials in our products. This should extend beyond whitewashing and doing the minimum to satisfy critical NGOs.”  

 

To “redefine our relationship” with producer communities is still the central issue. 

 "Ethical jewelry" in context to sourcing material should first and foremost about people of the land controlling and benefitting from the resources of their land.  There also should be tracability and transparency, and certification based upon fair trade ideals.  For more details, read my article, What Makes Ethical Jewellery Ethical in Canada's top jewelry trade magazine.     

It should not be about some neocolonial mining company rebranding themselves through a system which merely certifies their existing practices as "responsible." 

Here’s why:

Over one hundred million small-scale miners produce about 20% of the world’s gold and diamonds. Their lives are typically characterized by extreme poverty, ecocide, and exploitation. 

These communities need our market support to create regenerative local economy. That's the opportunity real Grossberg is talking about in the quote above!

Putting economic power in the hands of those digging with shovels begins to address structural issues. As MLK said, "True compassion is more than flinging coins to the beggar; it comes to seeing that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."  

In fact, the ethical jewelry movement in the US was birthed because NGOs exposed the plight of the small-scale miner—which certainly resulted in the 2006 release of the film Blood Diamond. Blood diamonds purchased from small-scale diamond miners funded wars in the ‘80s and ‘90s that killed 3.7 million people. 

At that time, in 2007, I was showing our jewelry in the Designer section of JCK in Vegas, North America’s premier wholesale event.  Advocating for fair trade practices back then, buyers looked at me as if I were a lunitic. 

 

[Read how jewelers considered themselves victims of NGOs and Hollywood for exposing these diamond-funded killings in Birth of the Ethical Jewelry Movement.]

 

These days, about thirteen years later, ethical jewelry has become the hot trend in the jewelry marketing.   Every jeweler is, to some degree or another, branding themselves as “responsible” or “ethical” trying to capture socially concerned Mellennials and Z's. 

Let’s now explore how Grossberg, whose company has been central in defining the ethical jewelry market, has, to use his words, taken the, "opportunity for us to pro-actively redefine our relationship with the communities..."   

We start by looking at the foundational material in jewelry: gold. 

 

 

Part 2: The Gold Supply Chain: A Situation Briefing

The first thing you need to know is that newly mined gold comes from two sources: large scale mining or small scale mining.  

Large scale gold mining is one of the most nefarious of all industrial activities.  It supplies about 80% of the world's gold supply chain.   We should oppose it. 

Small scale mining can be equally damaging, but it is about the politics of bread vs. the politics of greed.  

Take a look at this video I shot in Tanzania a few years ago:

 

 

This miner is hand-mixing mercury, gold dust, and water. Small-scale mining is the greatest contributor of global mercury contamination. He will end up with a small nugget looking like this—a gold and mercury amalgam:

ASM (artisanal and small-scale) gold miners mix gold dust and mercury by hand, to form an amalgam like that pictured here.

Gold fused with mercury after the panning shown in the video above. I took this photo.

 

He will take the mercury and gold amalgam and cook it in his frying pan before dinner, poisoning himself and his environment with methyl mercury, one of the most dangerous neurotoxins known to man. 

This process destroys the ecology of entire regions, and the effects will last for hundreds of years. 

He will later sell this gold for about 30% under market value. That’s barely enough to live on, so he remains stuck in a cycle of poverty.

 

[To understand a bit more about the seriousness of these issues, here are two NY Times articles: mercury used in gold mining in Indonesia and the Amazon.]

 

These are the people who supply 20% of the world’s gold supply chain while making up 90% of the world’s gold mining labor. They mine to survive, but they need support and access to international markets to mine gold safely.

The good news is, we can help!

There are now systems in place that would allow us to create a whole new market. In fact, in the UK, Fairtrade Gold was recognized as a major market trend back in 2017.   There are over 250 Fairtrade gold jewelers in the UK alone. 

But here's a critical point I want to emphasize:

The foundation of ethical jewelry practices in the UK and the EU is based on sourcing from the impoverished small-scale communities throughout the world.   

Let’s now, in our Brilliant Earth review, consider the initiative in context to this new opportunity to provide the most transformative and ethical gold in the world: Fairtrade/Fairmined Gold.

 

A Review of Brilliant Earth's Fairmined Gold "Temporary Promotion" And Recycled Gold Story

Fairmined/Fairtrade Gold was introduced to the UK in 2011, though the standards split in 2013. These days we have Fairtrade Gold and Fairmined Gold. 

 

[To learn more about the split, the politics and the history of Fairmined/Fairtrade Gold in the US, read this.]

 

Though Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold are different brands with different politics, what’s critical to understand at this point is that both would help the guy above extract gold safely, removing mercury from the environment while uplifting the miner from desperate poverty.

Also, both Fairtrade Gold and Fairmined Gold have failed to have any significant market impact in the US.  

 

[Full disclosure:  as I mentioned in my author's note at the start of this article, since 2015, there has been only one Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US: me. Learn more about Fairtrade Gold here.]

 

Brilliant Earth, the “leading ethical jewelers,” jumped on the Fairmined Gold initiative in 2013 and endorsed it strongly. 

Note this screenshot from Mining in Latin America: Critical Approaches to the New Extraction, which elaborates on Brilliant Earth’s strong commitment to the Fairmined Gold movement:

 

This excerpt from Mining in Latin America: Critical Approaches to the New Extraction mentions Brilliant Earth and their involvement with Oro Verde and Fairmined Gold.

 

And here, another screenshot of the Fairmined Gold mines Brilliant Earth sources from:

 

Brilliant Earth states that they source their Fairmined Gold from from Sotrami and Aulresa in Peru. Brilliant Earth does not currently offer any Fairmined Gold pieces for sale on its site.

Note above the URL on this page: It isn’t “/Fairmined-gold.” It’s /fair-trade-gold, which is a much stronger keyword even though Brilliant Earth does not sell Fairtrade Gold. Screenshot from summer 2018.

 

This below statement about making a positive difference through Fairmined Gold remains on their website at the time of this updated article, November 2019: 

 

Brilliant Earth advertises Fairmined Gold on their website—yet they do not offer any Fairmined Gold products for sale.

 

The problem is, Brilliant Earth is marketing Fairmined Gold even though they phased it out by 2018. 

This screenshot, taken spring of 2018, shows the full extent of Brilliant Earth’s Fairmined Gold product listings:

 

None of these Fairmined Gold products are still available from Brilliant Earth.

 

By June of 2018, only one of the items pictured above—the ring on the far left—was actually still for sale. As of December 2019, it no longer is.

We inquired to Brilliant Earth about the necklace above and got this email back:

“I spoke to my team about our fair minded (sic) gold collection and it was just a temporary promotion we did…. Our fair-mined collection was for a limited time in limited styles. Both Fairmined and recycled are very ethical supply chains. We like working with recycled metals because then there is no new mining that takes place and then we are not causing any more environmental degradation.”

So…in Brilliant Earth’s own words, their commitment to Fairmined Gold—one of the most transformative powers in uplifting small-scale miners from poverty—was “just a temporary promotion.”

Here’s what’s key:

Once someone lands on one of Brilliant Earth’s Fairmined Gold pages, they are led to recycled gold. A Brilliant Earth customer representative says, “both Fairmined and recycled gold are very ethical supply chains.” 

However, they are far from equal.

Creating a market that has the potential to uplifts millions of small-scale gold miners...is not the same as purchasing recycled gold from one of dozens of refining companies that received its gold originally from a mine which in all likelihood was massively destructive to the environment. 

Here is one of the most important key points in my Brilliant Earth Review: 

I can purchase a gold ring where the gold was originally sourced from the Mt. Polley disaster in Canada, a dagger in the heart of First Nation communties or from Anglo Gold Ashanti (click on either of these links to see the videos and a recent interview of Chief Bev Sellers).     

The fact of the matter is, we do not know the origin of any recycled gold.  Certification only traces it back only to the gold refining company which melts it down.  Then, the gold is sold back to the jewelry manufacturing company where it is rebranded as an “eco-friendly” recycled gold ring.

This illustration below, the same as the one at the start of the article,  shows what's really going on:

 

Recycled Gold is no more than dirty gold that has been greenwashed. Recycled Gold does not benefit the environment or miners.

 

Brilliant Earth stretches incredulity event further with its advocacy for recycled gold as a deterrent to mining, as shown in this screenshot from their website in June 2018: 

 

Brilliant Earth falsely claims here that recycled gold reduces gold mining activity. It does not.

 

Recycled products have a great consumer perception. Recycled paper reduces cutting down trees. Recycled aluminum means less aluminum demand for beer cans. All of this is true. 

Because anything recycled has such a powerful appeal, almost all consumers will believe doing recycled gold helps to save the planet!

But, gold is a currency hedge!

Large-scale mines will continue to destroy the environment with massive industrial holes in the earth as long as they can make money doing so. This is about greed. I oppose large-scale god mining and have led campaigns against it in my community.  

Small-scale mining is different. It will continue as long as the miners need to feed themselves and their families. 

Here's my key point:

There is no evidence anywhere that choosing recycled or vintage gold has any impact on global demand newly mined gold. 

 

[To explore this issue further, read my piece Fairtrade Gold vs. Recycled Gold.]

 

It would be one thing if Brilliant Earth merely advocated for recycled metals and left Fairtrade and Fairmined initiatives alone, but that's not the case.

 

Part 3: Review of Brilliant Earth's Marketing of Fair Trade and Fairmined Gold

As I mentioned earlier, even though Brilliant Earth has not sold Fairmined jewelry for a while, they continue to market it as this screen shot from November 2019 shows:

 

Brilliant Earth engages in clickbait centered around Fairmined Gold, which they do not offer for sale on their site.

 

Though Fairmined Gold has not gotten any market traction in the US, there are still a few small jewelry studios who use it. 

But because of Brilliant Earth’s dominance on Google, those looking for Fairmined Gold will land on highly ranked Brilliant Earth pages. From there, they will be encouraged to buy recycled gold (which a customer service rep explained is essentially equal in ethics to Fairmined gold.) 

This practice not only enhances Brilliant Earth’s business, but it also creates market confusion, undermining smaller studios who have tried to make a real difference for producer communities

But here’s the kicker: what Brilliant Earth does is even worse than using Fairmined clickbait. 

Brilliant Earth’s marketing, its powerful emphasis on recycled metals, also impacts a viable Fairtrade Gold movement. 

 

Review of Brilliant Earth's Fair Trade Gold and Fair Trade Jewelry Claims

Fairtrade Gold is perhaps the most powerful transformative product in the jewelry world today. It is popular in several EU countries.  

Recycled gold as an ethical proposition would never be taken seriously in the UK, where Fairtrade Gold is the market choice.  As I mentioned above, there are over 250 Fairtrade Gold jewelers. 

In the US as well, those looking for exceptional ethical jewelry might well search for the keyword “fair trade + gold."

But before we go further, let’s start by defining fair trade as “a social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions.”

“Fairtrade” and “fair trade” are not the same thing.

In brief: the term “Fairtrade Gold” is trademarked by FLO/Fairtrade International. The Fairtrade logo is one of the most powerful global brands:

 

Fairtrade Gold is a proven system that provides vast benefit to both small-scale miners and the environment.

You’ve probably seen this logo (without the “Gold”) on chocolate, coffee and other agricultural products. As the only Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US since April, 2015, I am the only US jeweler who can use this logo.

 

“Fair trade” is a general term that can be used by anyone, in any context. This makes it a magnet for false claims, akin to the words “all-natural,” which food conglomerates spin.

 

[For more on the differences between “Fairtrade Gold” and “fair trade gold,” click here.]

 

The point is this:

The general consumer in the US looking for a wedding ring does not understand the difference between "Fairtrade" and "fair trade".  

Let’s take a review of how Brilliant Earth markets “fair trade" with this Google screenshot:

 

Brilliant Earth markets itself online as selling "fair trade" gold, which is does not offer.

Screenshot from summer 2018.

 

Another example: the screenshot below implies in its title: "fair trade gold- Brilliant Earth" that they sell fair trade gold.  

 

Brilliant Earth offers neither fair trade gold nor Fairmined Gold on its website.

Screenshot from November 2019.

 

Additionally, these two screenshots below state that “Brilliant Earth promotes the development of a fair trade gold system” as part of “Our Movement.”

The first screen shot is from August 2018, and the second was taken in November 2019.

 

Brilliant Earth claims to support the development of a "fair trade" gold system, but does not offer any fair trade gold or Fairmined Gold for sale on its site.

Brilliant Earth again here mentions that it promotes the development of a "fair trade" gold system—without providing any evidence, or offering any fair trade gold or Fairmined Gold items for sale.

 

Essentially, there is no such thing as this “fair trade gold system.” To make this claim confuses the market narrative and undermines the real Fairtrade Gold initiative.  

As explained by this super inspiring show video I took of Tina Mwasha in Tanzania.  She is Tanzania's first women mineral processing engineer.

 

Take a moment and imagine the power to do good the Brilliant Earth might have achieved if they went with Fairtrade gold instead of recycled gold.  But such a process of truly initiating powerful grassroots change, as I explain here, is costly and painful from a business perspective. 

Regardless, this general confusion among many between the term, "Fairtrade Gold”which a trademarked term audited by FLOCert, and “fair trade gold”—which has no real universally accepted standards and principles, ends up spreading into very authoritative sources. 

For example, this Wikipedia article seen in a November 2019 Google search states that Brilliant Earth has committed itself to using “fair-trade-certified gold”: 

 

Even Wikipedia contains info that states that Brilliant Earth is committed to selling "fair trade" gold—despite Brilliant Earth not offering any fair trade gold or Fairmined Gold for sale.

 

Again, I just want to emphasize that these claims are very, very damaging for the Fairtrade Gold movement—which is trying to help the guy mixing his hands in mercury water.  

I could end my article here, and leave you to judge for your self whether, in consideration of this Brilliant Earth review, this company's practices align with your personal values.  

But we still have not arrived perhaps the most briliant strategy of all.    

 

Part 4: Review of Brilliant Earth's Alignment With The Responsible Jewellery Counsel.

Let us go back to the beginning, when co-Founder Eric Grossberg mentioned in his quote that he wanted to go “beyond whitewashing and doing the minimum to satisfy critical NGOs.” 

Let's take another look at how this plays out. 

A bit of background info first:

The Responsible Jewellery Counsel is a nonprofit founded by fourteen companies in 2004. Among those fourteen are De Beers Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Cartier, Newmont Mining, Signet Group, Tiffany & Co, Zales Corp, and Jewelers of America. Today, the Council has over 1100 members and represent hundreds of billions of dollars of retail and mining interests.

Brilliant Earth wants to align itself with both well-respected NGOs and the Responsible Jewellery Council, even while these very NGOs denouce the Council's standards.

Here's how that works. 

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have acted as key watchdogs for the jewelry sector. From Global Witness’ first exposure of the Blood Diamond wars in 1998, to Earthworks’ important No Dirty Gold Campaign in 2004, to the more recent work of Human Rights Watch’s “Beyond the Bling” in 2018, and many others.

Brilliant Earth has long marketed their relationship with NGOs to boost their credibility—such as in this article referencing Amnesty International.

 

Brilliant Earth aligns itself with NGOs online to boost its credibility as an ethical jewelry proponent—without offering any fair trade or Fairmined products for sale.

These articles are mainly critical of a wide variety of social and ecological justice issues regarding the sourcing from the mainstream jewelry sector. 

 

And, the organization that best represents the “responsible” methods of the mainstream is the Responsible Jewellery Council.   

It is the Council which has created a set of “responsible” standards which are currently being widely adopted across the industry based upon “chain of custody protocols.”

 

[For a more extensive introduction to the Responsible Jewellery Council, read this. Further, here, I show how this “nonprofit”  Council is really a trade association. And, if you really want to dig in, this piece I provide evidence that their standards are weak and ineffective.]

 

As shown in the screenshot below, taken in August, 2018, Brilliant Earth endorses the Council’s protocols:

 

Brilliant Earth endorsed the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), whose standards have been heavily criticized by many of the NGOs Brilliant Earth also aligns with.

 

Now, stay with me.  

Understanding these matters is a little bit like opening Russian dolls. You think you have arrived in the center, but that’s merely on more layer that covers up what is in the actual core.  

So, let me connect some dots as to why this endorsement is significant. 

Earthworks, the NGO that started the No Dirty Gold Campaign back in 2004, published a brutal and substantive critique of the Responsible Jewellery Council’s credibility in their 2013 white paper: More Shine Than Substance 

To quote from the executive summary: 

“The Responsible Jewellery Council system and its components are riddled with flaws and loopholes… rendering it an ineffective tool by which to create an environmentally and socially responsible supply chain in the jewelry industry.”

Yet Brilliant Earth uses the credibility of Earthworks to promote their ethical stance, particularly their commitment to Earthworks’ powerful No Dirty Gold campaign. 

A Google search containing Brilliant Earth and No Dirty Gold will yield numerous articles. Additionally, here is a screenshot from Earthwork’s website, from November 2019:

 

Brilliant Earth boosts its credibility by aligning with Earthworks and their No Dirty Gold campaign. Earthworks has been heavily critical of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), which Brilliant Earth also aligns with.

 

This screenshot below shows Brilliant Earth referencing a Human Rights Watch article. The article on blood diamonds and violence in Africa, based upon information from Human Rights Watch, shows to the average person that Brilliant Earth considers this NGO an important watchdog for the jewelry sector.

 

Brilliant Earth mentions Human Rights Watch in this article, to position themselves as aligned with NGOs that engage with the jewelry sector.

 

Screenshot from November 2019.

 

Yet…in context to the Responsible Jewellery Council’s “responsible” standards, the 2018 Human Rights Watch report, The Hidden Cost of Jewelry, wrote, 

 

“The Responsible Jewellery Council promotes standards that allow companies to be certified even when they fail to support basic human rights… (it) is essentially an industry body. Its decision-making bodies do not include consumer groups, representatives of mining communities (for example, organizations addressing land rights or environmental harms), trade unions or miners’ associations, or human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).”

 

Moreover, Human Rights Watch’s anti-Responsible Jewellery Council call to action was signed by these 29 NGOs: 

 

Amnesty International, Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa, ask! Arbeitsgruppe Schweiz Kolumbien (Swiss Working Group on Colombia), Artisanal Gold Council (Canada), Centre for Natural Resource Governance (Zimbabwe), Child Labor Coalition (US), Coalition de la Société Civile de la Région de Grands Lacs contre l'exploitation illégale des Ressources Naturelles (African Great Lakes Region), Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (Philippines), Enough Project (US), Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Threatened Peoples STP, Switzerland), Global March Against Child Labor, Global Witness,Groupe d'Appui aux Exploitants des Ressources Naturelles (Democratic Republic of Congo), Groupe de Recherche et de Plaidoyer sur les Industries Extractives (Côte d’Ivoire), Human Rights Watch, India Committee of the Netherlands (Netherlands), IMPACT (Canada), IndustriALL Global Union, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, International Labor Rights Forum, MIHOSO International (Ghana), National Consumers League (US), New Light Children Centre Organization (Tanzania), Public Eye (Switzerland), Réseau de Lutte Contre La Faim (Cameroon), Solidarity Organisation Afrikagrupperna (The Africa Groups of Sweden), Stop Child Labour Coalition (Netherlands), Swedwatch (Sweden), Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zimbabwe).

 

Let me give you one more example of Brilliant Earth referencing their concern and support of NGOs—this time, in context to diamonds.  

In 2011, Global Witness, the organization that uncovered the blood diamond atrocities, resigned from the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which ostensibly works to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market.

The issue was over Zimbabwe diamonds. Essentially, blood diamonds from Zimbabwe were being certified by the Kimberley Process as Conflict Free.  

Brilliant Earth references Global Witness numerous times in articles, but here are a few examples spotted in November 2019:

Here, Brilliant Earth cobrands itself with Global Witness—a well respected NGO.

 

Note the text at the bottom: "Brilliant Earth and non-profits like Global Witness in highlighting….” This is a kind of co-branding. We’re led to believe that that Brilliant Earth is strongly aligned with champions of human rights.    

Yet, the Responsible Jewellery Council endorsed blood diamonds coming from Zimbabwe as Kimberley-certified “conflict free" back in 2009.  This was the event that many industry insiders considered fatal to the Kimberley Process.

At that time, Global Witness (that exposed the blood diamond attrocity to the public) dropped out of the Kimberley Process, stating that its decision to accept Zimbabwe diamonds had “turned an international conflict prevention mechanism into a cynical corporate accreditation scheme.”

 

[The Kimberley process is the basis of “conflict free diamonds” claims. To learn more about these issues, read this article from my Exposé on how the Kimberley Process fell apart.]

 

Do you see the contradiction?

Brilliant Earth rejects the validity of the Kimberley Certification Process yet endorse the Council which has unconditionally supported Kimberley.

Here's the bottom line:

People choose Brilliant Earth because of their ethical stance. 

Brilliant Earth reviews that do not consider the implication of that endorsement of the Responsible Jewellery Council's standards are inherently flawed.  

But what I've mentioned in context to Counsel gets even worse.   Just one more brief bit of information and then we can go on the the final section. 

In 2012, the Council published this declaration:

 

This Responsible Jewellery Council Grandfather Clause certifies as "ethical" diamonds and gold that were not obtained under ethical circumstances.

 

The Council essentially bypasses any historical atrocity, whether it be the diamond wars that killed 3.7 million people when De Beer’s controlled almost all the diamond trade, or more recent acts.   

There’s no way of knowing how many of those diamonds from that time still sit in shoe boxes in De Beer’s London offices.

But it isn’t just diamonds that are absolved from past sins. Follow the links to these companies: Anglo Gold, BHP Billiton, Newmont, Rio Tinto; all now producing certified “responsible” gold under the Responsible Jewellery Council’s code.   

Here are the key points, in summary...

Brilliant Earth states on their website, “Our chain of custody protocols were designed to be in alignment with…the Responsible Jewellery Council.”

Any Brilliant Earth review must take into account that they support and endorse a standard allows that large mining and retail interests—the Responsible Jewellery Council—to deny their previous atrocities.  

This standard, according to the NGO’s that Brilliant Earth like to reference in their articles to show how much they care, “fails to support basic human rights” and even supports a system that allows blood diamonds from Zimbabwe to be called “conflict free.”  

This is all part of a brilliant strategy.

Support of the Responsible Jewellery Council means that you gain support of the trade and the trade press. This garners massive positive publicity.  I just want to emphasize that this is a huge issue. 

Initially, back in 2007, the mainstream jewelry trade saw Brilliant Earth as a potential threat.   Now, the recycled gold approach has been fully embraced by the trade. Here's Stuller, the largest jewelry supplier, with it's recycled gold narrative.

Yet Brilliant Earth also can appeal to the ethically-minded consumer aligned with the views of Earthworks, Human Rights Watch and Global WItness.  

This is a perfect razor’s edge to ride: they get a whole spectrum of support: mainstream press, trade press, progressive ethical jewelry/fashion blogger press.  

And when you buy from them, you too can Join the Movement!

 

Part 5:  Diamonds, Brilliant Earth Reviews  and the "Beyond Conflict Free" narrative. 

Any consideration of Brilliant Earth would be incomplete without considering diamonds, which comprise about half of all jewelry sales. 

In 2017, Jacob Worth posted a detailed journalistic exposé on UTube  that traced a diamond sold Brilliant Earth claimed was Canadian back to the vendor who said on tape that that diamond was definitely not Canadian origin.   Brilliant Earth sued and Worth removed the vidio.  In the end, even the diamond vendor retracted his remarks.

Among certain circles, the video created quite a stur, even in the mainstream jewelry trade press

At the time, I thought that Worth's evidence was compelling.  If you want to dig deeper into this incident, read Bryan Clark article in The Next Web or Philip DeFranco’s YouTube video

Though these critics raise important issues around Brilliant Earth's sourcing, my focus in this section of my Brilliant Earth review is the marketing of diamonds through the "Beyond Conflict Free" label.   

To start, let's take note of the coherence in Brilliant Earth's marketing.  In section three, we explored the strong linage to fair trade.  Fair trade, as I described earlier, has a great halo effect.  It shows the progressive concerned comsumer that they are stiving for human rights and environmental justice. 

The screenshot below taken in August 2018 conveys how Brilliant Earth is on the forefront of the fair trade diamonds a reality.   They are among the stakeholders involved in discussions! 

 

Brilliant Earth's claims here—of being involved in developing "fair trade" diamonds—are misleading.

 

Here’s what’s key:

At the time I posted this screen shot, there were no discussions at the time I posted this scree shot. 

Greg Valerio, the father of the Fairtrade Gold movement, who worked for Fairtrade International, confirmed in a 2018 conversation with Fairtrade International that Brilliant Earth is not in any kind of discussion with them over “fair trade” diamonds.  

My understanding is that at this point, diamonds are not even on Fairtrade’s radar.

Yet in Brilliant Earth's marketing, they claim to sell “fair trade diamonds"-- a product that does not exist!

Brilliant Earth's online ads mention "fair trade diamonds"—which do not exist!

Screenshot from spring 2018.

Further: on their website, Brilliant Earth claims that they are “working hard to increase access to diamonds that are mined in alignment with fair trade principles...” 

 

Here again, Brilliant Earth mentions the development of "fair trade" diamonds—without offering any specifics.

Screenshot from spring 2018.

 

Where do these fair trade or fair trade principled diamonds come from?
 

Brilliant Earth sources from Responsible Jewellery Council members, such as Rio Tinto (Canada) and De Beers (Botswana and Namibia), though it's revealing that I couldn't find De Beers referenced as a source. 

First, I'd also like to draw your attention to Brilliant Earth’s sourcing of diamonds from Russia:

 

Brilliant Earth sources its diamonds from multinational corporations, including from the Alrosa mine in Russia.

Screenshot from Brilliant Earth’s website showing diamond sourcing at the Alrosa mine in Russia.

 

The Russian government has a significant share in Alrosa. Alrosa was referenced in this New York Times article in context to corruption allegations and Brexit. The largest buyer of this rough material has been Lev Leviev, notorious for his human rights abuses in Angola

In context to a fair trade diamond, Brilliant Earth does help fund the Diamond Development Initiative.  This Initiative was mentioned in the screen shot just above, where I referenced "discussions." 

The Diamond Develoment Initiative is part of Brilliant Earth's "vision" for a fair trade diamond future, as shown in this screen shot off their website. 

 

Brilliant Earth helps fund the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), which is operated by De Beers—a company with a horrendous track record in Africa.

Screenshot from August, 2018.

 

The Diamond Development Initiative started back in 2008 aspiring to be aligned with Fairtade Intentional.  They have operated since then, funded by large mining and retail jewelry companies.

Since its founding, I followed this Initiaitive's progress.  A fair trade diamond would be transformative to the jewelry industry. 

Now, as of 2020, the Diamond Development Initiative has operated for 12 YEARS!!! without bringing one diamond to market.  Why?  

De Beers.

De Beers is one of the founding members of the Responsible Jewellery Counsel.  De Beer's strategy, as this August 22, 2000 New York Times  article describes, has been to turn the conflict free diamond "controversy" into a virtue.  

De Beer purchases and controls the Diamond Development supply chain.  If you want to dig more deeply into this, read my piece, Death of the Fairtrade Diamond.  

Otherwise, let me give you a simple analogy that, in my opinion, cuts to the chase:   Putting De Beers in charge of a Fair Trade Diamond initiative is, in my view, analogous to making the American Neo-Nazi David Duke  head of the Southern Poverty Law Center

 

Reviewing Brilliant Earth's "Beyond Conflict Free" Diamonds

Because the Kimberley Process, which certifies diamonds as conflict free, is essentially broken, Brilliant Earth and ethical jewelers have to create new narratives in order to show that they are watching out for concerned consumers.  

 

[I outline how jewelers finesse and spin the conflict free diamond narrative in detail here.]

 

Just about every jeweler sells their diamonds as "conflict free."  But the conflict free narrative as been attacked because of the weaknesses in the Kimberley Certification Process. 

Brilliant Earth claims to be “Beyond” notion of “conflict free,” which basically puts forth that they are extraordinarily careful about their diamond sourcing, as described below. 

 

In our opinion, Brilliant Earth's "Beyond Conflict Free" narrative is just as bad as "conflict free"—a racist narrative that says Black African lives don't matter.

Screenshot from summer 2018.

 

I’m not going to detail my personal abhorrence of the "conflict free" narrative.   I have written about it widely.   I am the only jeweler in the world, as far as I know, who argues, Boycott Conflict Free Diamonds

So, I’ll give you the quick version of how a feel, a bit of my editorial opinion:

Kill 3.7 million Africans in the eighties and ninties and then invent a “conflict free” narrative without truth, reconciliation, or restitution, to cover up the crimes.  No one.  NOT ONE JEWELER or DIAMOND DEALER has been held accountable for those killings. 

De Beers controlled about 90% of the diamond supply chain when blood diamond wars were taking place and  De Beers is a major trading partner with Brilliant Earth.  

To me, “conflict free diamonds” = black African lives don’t matter.

I'm reminded of Hannah Arendt term “banality of evil.” “Beyond” conflict free diamonds doubly affirms a narrative that ignore past attrocities and hides crimes in plain sight. 

 

What’s Your Brilliant Earth Review? 

Since my initial involvement in ethical Jewelry sourcing—as a jeweler named “The Best of the Best” in 2019, a writer on these issues for major trade magazines and other conscious consumer publications, I have watched a movement grow from nothing to the most important market trend. 

It would seem, from the popularity of ethical jewelry sourcing that the sourcing of jewelry has changed.  Certainly, you might get that from bloggers, trade press and other Brilliant Earth reviews.

But, instead of creating an ethical jewelry movement in North America that would focus on small-scale producers who most need support to create regenerative local economic models…

Instead of basing participation in such a movement from large multinational mining companies on truth, reconciliation, and restitution to the communities impacted…

What we have are forward facing narratives that hide crimes in plain sight, by companies that want to capture this new market through specious narratives with a supply chain that draws minimally, in context to gold and diamonds, from exploited small scale miners. 

High-profile charity initiatives can easily become a way of masking a new version of an old colonial story:

 

Brilliant Earth, through its "ethical jewelry" image, creates a perception that the jewelry industry is changing for the better. But it's really just a new version of the same old story.

 

 

So, based upon what I’ve written here, how would you review Brilliant Earth now? 

Please do leave a comment.  Just a short one, please!   This helps get the information get out to more people.   

 

Continue on The Center of the Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Jewelry, Neocolonialism, and Strange Fruit

Return to the Seventh Russian Doll: Lies, Damn Lies, and Conflict Free Diamonds

Return to the Ethical Jewelry Exposé Landing Page

 

 

 

This Brilliant Earth Review is part of our Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies, and Conflict Free Diamonds.

 

 

**All writing and images are open source, under Creative Commons 3.0. Any reproduction of this material must back link to the landing page, here. For high resolution images for publication, contact us at expose(AT)reflectivejewelry.com.**



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Comments ( 40)

Posted by: Jamila on Jan 06, 2020
Great research in this article! Very informative - thanks for sharing. Amazing read.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 07, 2020
Thanks for your comment-- it did take a long time to research and write this piece.
Posted by: Deirdre on Jan 06, 2020
Fascinating and complicated topic. I enjoyed becoming enlightened about the real meanings of words like fairtrade, fair trade, and conflict-free in the jewelry world.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 07, 2020
The terms are complicated and almost impossible to figure out unless your on the inside. Thanks for your feedback.
Posted by: Jerry on Jan 07, 2020
It seems clear that colonialism is still alive and well. There needs to be enforced international standards in the jewelry industry. This seems to both a human rights issue and an environmental issue.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 07, 2020
How true: colonialism is alive and well and it takes the form in the mining and retail interests in the North American jewelry sector that proclaim to help producer communities but in fact undermine them with false marketing narratives.
Posted by: Sean on Jan 07, 2020
To hear Brilliant Earth may be working with De Beers and placing them in charge of their "fair trade" diamonds is very concerning. As if De Beers needed any more control over the diamond trade. Thanks for the article!
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 07, 2020
"Very concerning indeed."
Posted by: Alyssa on Jan 11, 2020
Very interesting and IMPORTANT issues! Misleading consumers seems to be the standard for corporate success. It is imperative that we expose the rotten underbelly of companies like this. Thank you for your dedication in researching and spreading awareness around these issues.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 11, 2020
Thanks, Alyssa, for your comment and reading my article. The trouble is that the issues are so complex and multilayered that it's nearly impossible to expose that underbelly. Hopefully, for the sake of a real producer centered ethical jewelry movement in the US, the issues will gain greater attention.
Posted by: Runyu on Jan 13, 2020
Thanks for offering this valuable information and knowledge as an insider. It is so simply abominable when companies make money off of people’s benevolence these days. I wish this topic can be more widely spread, because literally lives of human beings are at stake here.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 13, 2020
If a company of Brilliant Earth's stature and size were to actually commit to supporting regenerative economic models for producer communities-- a model such as Fairtrade Gold, there's no question that many lives could be improved. Thanks for your comment.
Posted by: Ben on Jan 16, 2020
Interesting article. It sounds like Brilliant Earth is very dishonest in their marketing tactics. It's really irritating when big companies mislead the consumer like this. Brilliant Earth should be ashamed of themselves.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 16, 2020
Brilliant Earth could have been the Patagonia of the jewelry sector. Alas...
Posted by: Jay Wilderness on Jan 16, 2020
Very educational article. Brilliant Earth has found all the loopholes to misrepresent their gold products. It seems to me that all they have to do is make jewelry with gold mined by unethical means and then "rebrand" it by melting it down a second time and calling it "recycled". Shame on Brilliant Earth! Thank you Marc and Reflective Jewelry for shining a light on this dark deceptive practice by Brilliant Earth!
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 17, 2020
Thanks for your comment. It's unfortunate that these days recycled gold is marketed as the ethical choice, at the expense of gold from small scale miners who are mining under fair and ethical practices....
Posted by: Luz Bravo on Jan 17, 2020
Commercial humanitarianism would appear to have reached its apex with this kind of promotion. One hopes that some day an autonomous third-world advocacy will emerge from the third world instead of from fat cat merchandisers. Undoubtedly, third world producers have sincere supporters who genuinely would improve the quality of work conditions and the life expectency of other people. Congratulations and gratitude go out to real pioneers like Marc Choyt who have gone against the grain to point out deficiencies in the materialistic Paradise of modern marketing companies.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 18, 2020
There is a real opportunity for large companies to support humanitarian relationships with producer communities-- through programs such as Fairtrade or Fairmined gold. These options are a radical departure, for they provide regenerative economic opportunities. Unfortunately, in the case of Brilliant Earth, as I pointed out in this Brilliant Earth review, that opportunity has been missed.
Posted by: on Jan 18, 2020
Useful review of Brilliant Earth’s claims regarding ethical sourcing. It would be impolite to question the original intentions of Brilliant Earth. One’s presumes that the original intentions of the company’s founder are honest and forthright. However one has to question the way in which his professed humanitarian ideals have been implemented.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 18, 2020
Indeed, as my Brilliant Earth Review shows in numerous examples, the "implementation" element is very disappointing in context to impact to producer communities.
Posted by: Michael Rahn on Jan 19, 2020
Mr. Choyt’s detailed Brilliant Earth Review indicates how Brilliant Earth has failed as an ethical jewelry company. Moreover, this Brilliant Earth Review indicates a systemic failure in the jewelry industry. The appropriation of narratives by the wolf in sheep’s clothing is as old as fairy tales. It is the task of adults to appreciate the power of fairy tales and then to explain why they are powerful , not to believe them naively like their children.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 19, 2020
Thanks for your comment. It's unfortunate that the fairy tale has such dire consequences for those of us who want to truly focus the so called "ethical jewelry" movement on supporting impoverished producer communities.
Posted by: Ofelia on Jan 19, 2020
The popularity of ethical jewelry sourcing has generated a boom in humanitarian claims which might just be entirely disconnected from the realitites of lives of Third World producers. Brilliant Earth paints a patermalistic comercial Utopia where the brothers and sisters of the South are spoken-for by friendly First World businessmen.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 21, 2020
The tactic sector wide among large scale interests is to take small initiatives that have zero market impact and blow them up to appear huge, all the while continuing business as usual. the irony of it would be amusing, if not for the environmental destruction of mercury contamination, if not for the poverty and suffering, if not for the need and desire of concerned consumers who want to make a difference but are continually mislead. We have tremendous unrealized potential for change... if only the energy for change were not subverted.
Posted by: Cresenciano Hernández on Jan 19, 2020
What is the motive behind Brilliant Earth’s idealistic claims of being the good friend of the dark-skinned humble miners of the South? Assertions of empyrian motives auggest that for some reason Brilliant Earth’s management is more moral than most human beings. I have met or known. When I hear someone from the Third World speaking for hi m or herself and/or applauding a rich person for having provided an opportunity, or much-needed help, then, I will have an easier time believing self-serving claims.
Posted by: Christine on Jan 21, 2020
Thank you for this very informative article. I appreciate all of the research and time that clearly went into writing this.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jan 21, 2020
Thank you for your kind complement. Indeed, there's about fifteen years of thinking and diving into issues in the jewelry sector behind the writing of this article.
Posted by: Betsy Bauer on Feb 07, 2020
Yes, the research is the solid thinking and rationale we need in this day and age of dubious facts. Solid thinking, caring and intelligent discourse on ethics are so important
Posted by: Betsy on Feb 07, 2020
I'm glad to have found this outstanding article. Illuminating the accurate meaning of fair trade jewelry has opened my eyes. Thank you for writing and sharing the article.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Feb 09, 2020
Betsy, Glad that the info helped you.
Posted by: BC on Feb 29, 2020
This is the most important Brilliant Earth Review I have ever read. They are such scammers and liars!
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Mar 09, 2020
Yes, it's very unfortunate that they have not lived up to their potential....
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Mar 09, 2020
Thanks, Guy, for your kind words. As one of the foremost gem dealers in the world-- someone has been feature in National Geographic films and who sells the Crown in the UK-- I appreciate your endorsement of my work.
Posted by: Guy Clutterbuck on Mar 09, 2020
Having known Marc Choyt of Reflective Images of some 25 years, I have no hesitation in observing that he is, and has always been, a man of the utmost integrity. As an expert on gemstones and gem mining specifically, I cannot claim to have any knowledge of, or experience in gold mining, but Marc’s reservations about Brilliant Earth’s claims of using only ethically sourced gold, appear well researched and convincing. In my experience, if a vendor makes elaborate claims about a product, ultimately the truth will out, so it’s in the best interests of all involved that correct dealing and honest representation remain pivotal to an operation.” Guy Clutterbuck.March 2020.
Posted by: P.Y. on May 10, 2020
An informative and powerful article dissecting such a complex and important issue. The fact that Brilliant Earth using Fairmined metals as a tool of marketing instead of utilising it to improve the miners’ living is absolutely appalling. This is like fast fashion brands launching ‘sustainable’ lines without improving the labour conditions and supply chain. And its use of the words ‘fair trade’ without truly committed to Fairtrade movement is the worst clickbait ever. I mean, if you don’t want to improve anything (which is already terrible given the outrageous and horrifying conditions the workers, miners, and the environment are trapped in), fine, just remain silent, but using the word to get the benefits brought by a movement which truly tries to improve people’s lives? That’s stealing and it means Brilliant Earth knows the benefits fairtrade gold/movement can bring to the society and it chose not to promote fairtrade movement because all it cares is its profit, as if there’s not enough. The ‘grandfathered material’ narrative by Responsible Jewellery Council is atrocious and simply negates the crimes committed by the greedy corporates, as if there’s an expiry date for people’s suffering and corporate’s crime. Bygones are not bygones unless there’s restitution, true improvement for the people’s living and ecology, and sincere apology. RJC is a huge discouragement to the jewellers who want to be truly ethical. For the ‘conflict free diamond’ narrative, this is an attempt to hide the human rights violation and suffering across different countries due to the related wars crimes in plain sight. These two narratives together create endless horror of the human sufferings, and it is a huge disappointment and moral disgust that Brilliant Earth aligns with RJC.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on May 10, 2020
PY, thanks for your comment. Yes, you get the issues of concern clearly. it is so unfortunate that BE has not lived up to its potential.
Posted by: Jacob Chacko on May 15, 2020
Very important work you’re doing here Mark. Thank you for you passion for this subject. I feel very educated by this article.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on May 15, 2020
Jacob, appreciate your kind words of support for my work. Thanks for your comment!
Posted by: MM on Jun 16, 2020
This was an eye-opening piece to read! I’m very grateful for the time you’ve spent on this, it has been educational and informative for me. I feel much better equipped to make ethical choices when buying precious metals now, and I will make certain to investigate where I can find Fairtrade gold in my country. However, I am now very much in doubt about whether I can buy diamonds in good conscience. I am considering lab-grown diamonds, do you have an opinion on those? Is there anything I should be aware of when considering lab-grown diamonds?
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jun 17, 2020
MM, thanks for your comment. I'm glad that you found the info useful. Regarding lab ground diamonds, there's no perfect choice. I do an comparison of diamond choices in this article. https://reflectivejewelry.com/news/our-ethical-diamond-sources-canadian-mined-recycled-and-lab-grown-diamonds.

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