Ethical Gemstones: Over seventy percent of gemstones are from small-scale miners. Often, these miners live in exploited, impoverished conditions. With the right support from jewelers, small-scale mining communities truly benefit from an emerging ethical gemstone movement.
The foundation of ethical gemstones is that ethical sourcing must focus on bringing benefit to small-scale producers, The People.
First, the people of the land must fully control and benefit from the resources of their land. Ethical jewelry must support small-scale mining models that uphold the cultural integrity and sustainability of The People.
Second, there must be standards around labor, human rights, and the environment. Ideally, these standards need to be verifiable. To be most valid, particularly in relation to scalability, these audits need to be performed by a third party that has no financial interest in the product being audited.
Third, products must be transparently traceable to source. You know the conditions at the source mine, and that the mineral is traceable all the way to the piece of jewelry.
These days, ethical jewelry has become a hot trend in North America and beyond. Large-scale mining interests and their large retail collaborators are all branding themselves as ethical.
However, these companies function primarily to drive profits to shareholders rather than support local communities. Claims of ethics based upon traceability and transparency are essentially meaningless, because by their nature, these large companies already have control of these sources.
Therefore, these companies are no more ethical now than they were twenty years ago. They have merely rebranded themselves.
Ideal Ethical Gem Sourcing
In an ideal world, we could source our gems from a cooperative mining community that follows fair trade principles and standards, and is third party certified…
Ethical gemstone sourcing hinges around four primary questions: To what degree is their traceability and transparency back to mine? What are the conditions at the mine and cutting facility? What do we know about the ethics of the supplier?
The polishing of a gem from that mine would be based in the actual mining community, creating more downstream economy. Plus, there would be a premium generated from the sale of the gem, which would benefit the broader community development, as there is with fairtrade gold. Yet, only a few gemstone traders among the tens of thousands satisfy even a few aspects of the "ideal world" scenario; and these traders focus on a only a few high range gems.
The "semi-precious" range of gems, such as garnet and amethyst, are not available from what we would call transparent suppliers. We do not know about the sourcing of these types of gemstones. In the vast majority of cases, dealers purchase rough (unpolished gemstone still in its matrix) and sell it to others who may export it for polishing. This may then be sold to a wholesaler who presents the gem at a show. By the time a gemstone like this finds its way to market, it becomes impossible to trace it back to its original source.
We choose not to limit our entire purchasing based upon only the traceable-to-mine gemstones are available in the market. Gemstones do not finance wars, and their mining is not as toxic as precious metal mining. Plus, it's likely that between seventy and ninety percent of gemstones are supplied by small-scale mining operations. So, in the mining there are direct benefits to local economies.
We do, however, source as many of our gemstones as we can from people and organizations that adhere to some ethical principles. In this context, there are three different models for the emergence of fair trade market: cooperatives, companies, and collaborators.