Ethical Gemstones 101

Ethical Gemstones 101
Inuit miners in Nuuk, Greenland sort through gemstones they have gathered on ancestral land.
At a Glance
  • Colored gemstones, unlike diamonds and gold, rarely finance regional conflicts. Also, the mining of gems is not as toxic as that of precious metals.
  • Ethical Gemstones: Over seventy percent of gemstones are from small-scale miners and suppliers are very secretive. The critical issue for ethical gemstones is traceability and transparency.

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.

Current State

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.

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?

Co-ops or associations of small-scale miners would ideally be selling gems mined and polished through some kind of cooperative model that pool resources. One example of an organized group, which is working on this, is the Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA). Another example is our source from Sri Lanka, where we obtain our stunning sapphires. A small group of diggers work in their own particular mine in a cooperative association. The profits gathered from gemstones are shared among the group.
These are companies developing a fair trade process by owning the mine itself. Columbia Gems has pioneered this process at a ruby deposit in Malawi with their cutting of gems tightly supervised in China. A second example of this type of company is Ruby Fair, which sources out of a remote village in Tanzania. Both of these companies have published principals and standards around their practices, and base their long-standing reputations upon follow through.
These are individuals who contact the artisanal miners directly and develop strong and fair business relationships. The main supplier of many of our sapphires, aquamarines and emeralds personally finances exploration and then pays top dollar for the material from small-scale miners he has known for decades. He then legally exports the gems and takes them to cutting facilities that treat their employees ethically. He also helps his partners with medical and other life related issues as matters come up. This type of trust and relationship in the gem world is extremely rare.
Indigenous Miners
There are particular groups of people that do not fall into the above categories that we also consider part of our ethical classification. Greenland Inuits have been struggling to maintain their own small-scale mining rights on ancestral lands. They have been gathering rubies from small deposits in Greenland for hundreds of years. Through Fair Jewelry Action we launched a campaign on their behalf several years ago. As of late 2018, they have permission to trade rubies internationally and we can upon request source their rubies.

Only Fairtrade Gold Jeweler in the USA 
since 2015

Santa Fe, NM Green Business of the Year

Catalyzing the Ethical Jewelry Movement

Winner of MJSA Responsibly Sourced Design Challenge

Founder of First-Ever Ethical Jewelry Blog

Collaborators of USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project