Brilliant Earth claims recycled gold helps the environment and reduces mining. This illustration shows how recycled gold is just rebranded dirty gold.
About the Author: I am a jeweler, social/environmental justice activist, and feature writer for trade and consumer magazines. This piece was originally published as a chapter in my Ethical Jewelry Exposé in Oct. 2018. Updated 12/7/20.
If you are in the market for a wedding or engagement ring, and want to use your $$$ to support real social and ecological justice on the ground, this Brilliant Earth review is for you.
Brilliant Earth dominates the internet for any topic related to ethics + wedding rings, engagement rings, and/or diamonds. They have generated endless positive publicity from trade and consumer press. Their website gets over a million visits a month and they have nine showrooms in major markets.
In fact, the ethical jewelry movement in North America is, to a large degree, as they have claimed on their website for years, their 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."
But to what degree can this company's claims of ethical/responsible sourcing be trusted?
This Review vs Other Brilliant Earth Reviews
This Brilliant Earth review isn't about customer service, workmanship, or starred ratings — but rather ethical sourcing/marketing veracity.
It's an insider, almost whistle-blower's account. As a jeweler I pioneered the ethical jewelry movement, and am a feature writer on ethical jewelry issues for Canada’s top trade magazine. I've been following ethical sourcing issues for twenty-five years and am the author of The Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies, and Conflict Free Diamonds.
This account of Brilliant Earth reviews how Brilliant Earth’s supply chain is embedded in the same companies and certification systems that have created massive environmental and social justice atrocities.
Right here, a quick example from Part 5 of how this is happening:
Brilliant Earth is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council,an organization with over 1200 members founded in 2005 by De Beers, Tiffany, Signet, Rio Tinto and other mega corporations to create new "responsible" certification standards.
This 9/11/2020 New York Times article documents Rio Tinto’s ongoing cultural genocide. Yet Tinto produces certified "Responsible Gold" under the Council’s standard. Brilliant Earth endorses this "responsible" standard — a standard broadly denounced by human rights/environmental/labor NGOs.
But it gets worse: The Council created The Grandfather Clause.
All minerals gathered by its members before 2012 were grandfathered into the current "responsible" standard. Some diamonds obtained by funding wars that killed 3.7 million Black Africans might be still sitting in shoe boxes in De Beers’ London offices.Y ou might receive one from Brilliant Earth, a "responsible" symbol of your loving engagement — because De Beers is one of their main trading partners.
The lack of accountability in the jewelry trade over diamond sourcing make diamonds a modern version of a “Strange Fruit.”
In his seminal 2014 article, “The Case For Reparations,” which was published in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of a “…strange and powerful belief that if you stab a Black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.” There is this sense that if we ignore the issue, and don’t look, it will go away.
Now, here’s my key point:
Those who support the Responsible Jewellery Council standards also support a narrative that essentially hides countless human rights and environmental crimes in plain sight.
Alternatively, YOU have the opportunity to use your jewelry purchase to uplift millions from poverty and reduce global mercury contamination.
But the first step is to educate yourself.
There are six parts to this Brillaint Earth review:
Part 1: My Brilliant Earth Interview from 2007, and Ethical Jewelry defined.
Part 2: The gold supply chain and the recycled gold greenwashing narrative.
Part 3: Why “Certification” of recycled metals functions as a kind of coverup.
Part 4: Why Brilliant Earth's marketing term "fair trade gold" is deceptive and undermines the broader Fairtrade Gold movement.
Part 5: Hiding crimes in plain sight: Endorsing the standards adopted by the mainstream jewelry sector.
Part 6: Where Black African lives don't matter to jewelers: Spinning the "Conflict Free diamond" narrative.
Here's the bottom line:
Each of these sections stands alone, but they also create one coherent argument. If you are considering a purchase of ethical/responsible jewelry, I urge you to read this Brilliant Earth review in full as part of your due diligence before spending a few thousand dollars.
The truth of the matter is this: these days, every jeweler is now "ethical" and "responsible." This article will enable you to cut through the spin. It will give you knowledge you need to be part of the solution.
At the end, I give you valuable links for additional reading, including alternative jewelers and links to a few articles selected from thousands of hours of research.
Part 1: The Brilliant Earth's 2007 Interview
Eric Grossberg, co-Founder of Brilliant Earth. Photo (cropped here from the original photo in the interview provided by Grossberg.
Back in 2007, one of the first interviews on my Fair Jewelry Action website was with Eric Grossberg.
I had met Grossberg at events and had actually consulted with him pro bono on ethical sourcing issues. In the interview, 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.”
Thirteen years later, to “redefine our relationship” with producer communities is still the central issue.
"Ethical jewelry" in context to sourcing material should first and foremost be about people of the land controlling and benefitting from the resources of their land. There also should be traceability and transparency, and certification based upon fair trade ideals, as I outline in my feature article, What Makes EthicalJewellery Ethical in Canada's top jewelry trade magazine.
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 lunatic.
These days, 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 Millennials and Z's.
Let’s now explore how Grossberg, whose company has been central in defining the ethical jewelry market narrative, 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, and much of that gold ends up in bank vaults. 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:
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.
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.
This process destroys the ecology of entire regions, and the effects will last for hundreds of years.
These are the people who supply who make up 90% of the world’s gold mining labor. They mine to survive.
The good news is, we, through the Fairtrade Gold initiative, can transform this nefarious situation into a local economic development that eliminates mercury contamination and environmental destruction while uplifting people out of poverty.
In fact, in the UK, Fairtrade Gold was recognized as a major market trend back in 2017 and even grew 30% in 2019. There are over 250 Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the UK alone. Full disclosure here: I started making jewelry from Fairtrade Gold in 2011, and have been the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US since April 2015.
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 Brilliant Earth's interface with the opportunity to support arguably the most transformative ethical sourcing initiative available for jewelers: 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.
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.
Brilliant Earth, the “leading ethical jewelers,” jumped on the Fairmined Gold initiative in 2013 and endorsed it strongly.
Note this screenshot, taken in the summer of 2018, from Mining in Latin America: Critical Approaches to the New Extraction, which elaborates on Brilliant Earth’s strong commitment to the Fairmined Gold movement:
And here, another screenshot taken around the same time off Brilliant Earth's website of the Fairmined Gold mines Brilliant Earth sources from:
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.
This statement below about making a positive difference through Fairmined Gold remains on their website as of September 2020:
The problem is, Brilliant Earth is marketing Fairmined Gold even though they phased it out by 2018.
This screenshot, taken spring of 2018 (and still up in September 2020), shows the full extent of Brilliant Earth’s Fairmined Gold product listings:
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 was.
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.” So temporary and inconsequential, apparently, that their own team member spelled "Fairmined" fair minded.
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.
Here is one of the most important key points in my Brilliant Earth Review:
Any gold, including recycled gold which we cannot trace back to source, should be considered dirty gold.
The fact of the matter is, we do not know the origin of any recycled gold. Certification 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:
Incredulity is stretched from even further with the advocacy for recycled gold as a deterrent to mining, as shown in this screenshot from their website in June 2018:
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 buying recycled gold helps to save the planet!
But, obviously, gold is a currency hedge!
With gold prices approaching $2000 an ounce, 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 gold 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. It too will massively expand as the price of gold rises with global instability due to COVID-19.
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.
Part 3: Brilliant Earth Review of "Certified" Recycled Metal
Brilliant Earth uses a third-party organization, Scientific Certification Systems (SGS) Global Services, to certify their recycled precious metal, as explained in this article from 2017.
Below is a screen shot of SGS’s website taken in 2018:
What exactly does “certified recycled gold” mean? It means certification is about tracing metal back to a refiner. Not back to the mine
Buying gold from refiners is easy. A “gold refiners” Google search reveals dozens of potential sources.
But here’s what you need to know:
There’s no way of knowing whether or not the CERTIFIED “eco-friendly” RECYCLED gold you are choosing to wear on your finger to represent your marriage was originally taken from the teeth of Holocaust victims or the Mt. Polley mine, a dagger in the heart of First Nation communities — a topic I explored in a conversation Chief Bev Sellers of the Soda Creek Band in this recent interview.
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 “eco-friendly."
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.
They play to dominate in a Winners Take All paradigm.
Part 4: Review of Brilliant Earth's Marketing of Fair Trade and Fairmined Gold
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:
People click on this link bait and find themselves on the Brilliant Earth website.
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
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 the UK and 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 UK.
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:
You’ve probably seen this logo (without the “Gold”) on chocolate or coffee. I am the only jeweler in the US who can use it.
“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 love to spin.
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 exploits this situation, marketing the search term “fair trade." This Google screenshot is from the summer of 2018:
Another example: the screenshot from November, 2019, implies in its title: "fair trade gold - Brilliant Earth" that Brilliant Earth sells fair trade gold.
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.
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.
If you want to understand why, check out this video I took of Tina Mwasha when I was visiting mines attempting to get Fairtade certification in Tanzania. She is Tanzania's first woman mineral processing engineer:
Take a moment and imagine the power to do good that Brilliant Earth might have achieved if they went with Fairtrade gold instead of recycled gold. The process is really difficult, as I explain here. But Brilliant Earth could have done it.
Regardless, this general confusion among many between the terms "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”:
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 yourself 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 brilliant strategy of all...
Part 5: Review of Brilliant Earth's Alignment With The Responsible Jewellery Council
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 Council 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 1200 members and represent hundreds of billions of dollars of retail and mining interests.
Brilliant Earth is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council, yet the very NGOs that Brilliant Earth endorses as a way to tell you how much they are concerned about human rights and environmental atrocities denounce 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.
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.”
As shown in the screenshot below, Brilliant Earth is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council:
Screenshot taken September 2020.
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 one 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:
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.
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:
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 (who 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.”
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:
Brilliant Earth reviews that do not consider the implication of that endorsement of the Responsible Jewellery Council's standards are inherently flawed, because people choose Brilliant Earth over a company like Blue Nile because of their ethical stance.
But what I've mentioned in context to the Council 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:
The Council essentially bypasses any historical atrocity, whether it be the diamond wars that killed 3.7 million people when De Beers controlled almost all the diamond trade, or more recent acts.
This is a systemic issue among Council members. 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...
Any Brilliant Earth review must take into account that they support and endorse a Responsible Jewellery Council which allows its members to deny previous atrocities.
This standard, according to the NGOs that Brilliant Earth like to reference in their articles to show how much they care, “fails to support basic human rights” as Human Rights Watch states. The Council 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 and access to resoruces. I just want to emphasize that this is a huge PR benefit.
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 its 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 6: 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.
Before I get into the the heart of this issue, the New York Times writes here that diamonds can cost 12% TO 20% on Briliant Earth than smaller retailers and then there's tale of a Brilliant Earth scam from the pricescope community.
Also, in 2017, Jacob Worth posted a detailed journalistic exposé on YouTube that traced a diamond Brilliant Earth claimed was Canadian back to the vendor. That vendor said on tape the diamonds were not Canadian origin. The video created quite a stur, even in the mainstream jewelry trade press. Brilliant Earth sued and Worth removed the video.
Worth's compelling argument is still online, documented in Bryan Clark article in The Next Web and Philip DeFranco’s YouTube video.
Though these critics raise important issues around Brilliant Earth's sourcing, the 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 consumer 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 making fair trade diamonds a reality. They are among the stakeholders involved in discussions!
Here’s what’s key:
There were no discussions at the time I posted this screenshot.
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.
And yet, in Reuters article explains that the founders of Brillinat Earth, who were interviewed, are, "collaboring on an initiativeto create the world's first Fairtrade diamonds in Sierra Leone." (Italics mine.) Note again, Fairtrade = FLO Cert. FLO Cert has NOT been involved with the DDI.
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! Note: "Fair trade" as two words. Legal to use, but essentially as meaningless as the word, "natural" in the term, "natural chicken."
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...”
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 specifically referenced as a source.
Brilliant Earth’s sourcing of diamonds also includes Russia:
Screenshot from Brilliant Earth’s website showing diamond sourcing at the Alrosa mine in Russia.
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. The Russian government (Putin) also has a significant share in Alrosa.
In context to a fair trade diamond, Brilliant Earth does help fund the Diamond Development Initiative. This Initiative was mentioned in the screenshot 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 screenshot off their website:
Screenshot from August, 2018.
The Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) 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've followed the DDI'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?
It's true that civil society institutions are weak. The miners have to be convinced that there is something in it for them. Also, Lebanese mafia control much of Sierra Leone's diamond purchasing.
Yet diamonds from this project have been exported and sold. If powerful diamond interests wanted a fair trade diamond, there would be one by now.
Also, at present, De Beers is the only distributor of DDI diamonds. De Beers is one of the founding members of the Responsible Jewellery Council. De Beers' strategy, as this August 22, 2000 New York Times article describes, has been to turn the conflict free diamond "controversy" into a virtue.
Otherwise, let me give you a simple analogy that, in my opinion, cuts to the chase: having De Beers involved in a fair trade diamond supply chain is, in my view, analogous to making the American neo-Nazi and former KKK leader 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.
every jeweler sells their diamonds as "conflict free." But the conflict free narrative has been attacked because of the weaknesses in the Kimberley Certification Process.
Brilliant Earth claims to be “Beyond” the notion of “conflict free,” which basically conveys that they are extraordinarily careful (i.e. mines only partially owned by Putin's govenment) about their diamond sourcing, as described below:
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 we should 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 85% of the diamond supply chain when blood diamond wars were taking place. De Beers is a major trading partner with Brilliant Earth.
To me, “conflict free diamonds” = black African lives don’t matter.
“Beyond” conflict free diamonds doubly affirms a narrative that ignore past attrocities and hides crimes in plain sight.
Kind of reminds me of the Hannah Arendt term “banality of evil.”
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:
So, based upon what I’ve written here, how would you review Brilliant Earth now?
At the start of this article I asked a simple question: can they be trusted?
My opinion: not only should we not trust them, we should create a consumer boycott of this company until they change.
Please do leave a comment — even a short one helps get this info to more people. The comment section is after the reference sections below.
Suggested Companies Where You Can Find Fairtrade/Fairmined jewelry and gemstones.
There are numerous Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the UK that are reputable and which you find on Google.
In the US, my company, Reflective Jewelry, which hosts this article, is a custom designer studio of five people. We are the only Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the US and can make wedding/engagement ring design in Fairtrade Gold.
I also recommend Toby Pomeroy. They have tried harder to create a Fairmined Gold market than any other US jeweler.
Stay away from any jeweler that cannot offer Fairtrade/Fairmined and instead only pitches eco-friendly responsible recycled metals.
For gemstones, I highly recommend Columbia Gem House. They have pioneered fair trade gems. Your jeweler can purchase the stone of your choice directly from them. Also, there’s Moyo Gems and RubyFair.
For natural diamonds, if you are trying to sort out what kind of diamond to purchase, I wrote this article which covers the pros and cons of natural vs. lab grown diamonds, and what's available in the market.
In sum, I would recommend Canadian sourced, which your jeweler should be able to provide for you. For lab grown, I recommend our source, which is the Diamond Foundry. They are certified carbon neutral.
Links for Additional Reading and Research:
On Dec 3rd, 2020, we published in Canada's top trade magazine perhaps the most important article on ethical jewelry sourcing you'll read anywhere: Where Black Lives Don't Matter to Jewelers
Additional features published in that same magazine will give you a broad understanding of what’s going on right now. The first is What Makes Ethical Jewelry Ethical? The second is A Dream Deferred, Ethical Gold in North America. The third, The Sustainability Trap. The Responsible Jewellery Council's big narrative is around "sustainability." My last piece outlines how "sustainability" in the jewelry world is destroying our future.
I gave a to this piece above, but here it is again. An astonishing, must-read "smoking gun" article in the NY Times from Aug. 22, 2000, Controvsy Over Blood Diamonds Made Into A Virtue, describes how the death of millions via blood diamonds was a marketing opportunity. De Beers controlled nearly all of the African supply chain during much of the blood diamond wars.
Millions were killed in blood diamond wars, but did you know that the real victums were not those who were killed and the families left behind, but jewelers? Read about it in Birth of the Ethical Jewelry Movement.
Two more NY Times articles: mercury used in gold mining in Indonesia and the Amazon.
Sometimes I'm asked, how come you are the only Fairtrade jeweler in the US? It makes no sense! To learn more about the politics and the history of Fairmined/Fairtrade Gold in the US, read this.
Read about our Fairtrade Gold initiative here and information on Fairtrade Gold vs. Recycled Gold. The differences between “Fairtrade Gold” and “fair trade gold” are outlined in this piece.
I've done considerable research and writing on the Responsible Jewellery Council. Read this to start. Further, here, the CEO of the “nonprofit” Council admits that the organization is really a trade association! A trade association determining its own standards and acting as a self-certification agency...no conflict of interest there, eh? And, if you really want to dig in, in this piece I provide evidence that their standards are weak and ineffective.
The Kimberley Process is the basis of “conflict free diamonds” claims. To learn more about these issues, read my article on how the Kimberley Process fell apart.
To dig more deeply into De Beers and the Diamond Development Initiative, read Death of the Fairtrade Diamond. Perhaps equally interesting is this piece I wrote in detail here on how jewelers finesse and spin the conflict free diamond narrative.
For the deepest dive into these issues, return to the Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds landing page and start at the beginning!
If you have questions you can contact me via my email: Marc (at) Reflectivejewelry.com.
**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.**
Marc Choyt is president of Reflective Jewelry, a designer jewelry company founded in 1995. He pioneered the ethical sourcing movement in North America and is also the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States. Choyt’s company was named Santa Fe New Mexico’s Green Business of the Year in 2019, and he has been honored with several awards for his efforts to support ethical jewelry. His ebook, Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds, is available online. Choyt can be reached on Twitter at @Circlemanifesto or by email at marc(at)reflectivejewelry.com.