Fair Trade Jewelry Manufacturing: Collaborative White Paper

Fair Trade Jewelry Manufacturing: Collaborative White Paper

Author: Marc Choyt | Saturday, September 15, 2018

A group of participants in the Madison Dialgogue at the World Bank in Washington, DC; 2007. Martin Rapaport is second from the left.


*This article originally appeared in Modern Jeweler back in 2007. Much has changed in the ethical jewelry world since then—and as a result, much of what is printed below is outdated. Nonetheless, this writing serves as useful insight to the origins of the ethical jewelry market. For more up-to-date info, please refer to the Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies, and Conflict Free Diamonds. To be released soon.


Shamsa Dawani, Executive Director of the Tanzania Women Miners Association, opened up the paper wrapping. She wants to know if I will buy her exquisite garnets.  It is the second day of the Ethical Jewelry Summit at the World Bank in Washington, DC.



The garnets in bins back at my shop were cut in India and mined—who knows where. Even though we "hand pick" these semi-precious gems, they remain a commodity.

Her garnets, mined and cut by the women of Tanzania, alleviate economic hardships, diseases and support the "sheer entrepreneurial drive" of business women in her association. 

I imagine telling her story to my customers in my Santa Fe, NM store. They have added sparkle because they create a connection, allowing the wealth in my community to support families, schools and clinics in towns where her small scale mining takes place.   

What usually comes to mind when thinking about mining are the huge open pits and earthmovers with tires ten feet tall.  Yet, between 13 and 20 million men (with over 100 million being dependent on ASM), women and children from over 50 developing countries work in small scale mines, often in impoverished areas associated with corruption, war, and terrible environmental conditions. According to the World Bank, these "artisanal" miners produce more raw materials and benefit more people than all the large scale multinational operations combined.

The obvious solution would be that I work directly with these artisanal miners. 

Even in cases when I have visited operations in Sri Lanka and Jaipur, I have not been able to determine what is taking place in situ.  I do not know if that garnet really has that extra sparkle. Artisan mining can be a beneficial contributor to economic growth in the developing world only when destructive impact is mitigated. 

If we could create some type of certification scheme that would support artisan miners around the world, everybody wins, and that is the reason why about a hundred people, by invitation, gathered in Washington, DC; October 25th, 26th, 2007.


Who Attended the Ethical Jewelry Summit

"It was the most unusual amalgamation of characters from our industry I ever experienced," said Brain Charles Cook, of Natures Geometry, who presented at the conference. "Did everybody notice how the women ruled? Wow! Sign me up."  

Included at the meeting were representatives from Cartier, The Bell Group, Tiffany, the US State Department, Finesse Diamonds, Leber Jewelers, Columbia Gem House, Toby Pomeroy, Jewelers of America, GIA, and a host of others from other sectors: Oxfam, World Wild Life Fund, the US State Department and the World Bank.  

We listened carefully to the artisan miners from Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Tanzania, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda and considered how we might build a process that, through fair trade,  might bring more of the wealth generated in the jewelry store back to the approximately one hundred million people who depend upon small scale mining to live.   

The sessions focused primarily on the diamond and precious metal sectors. For two days, we brainstormed, in session and out in the hallways munching on sugar snacks, focusing on one question:  How can we create a framework, incorporating fair trade principals, which will allow these artisan miners to bring their product to market?


The Madison Dialogue


In the summer of 2007, Steve D'Esposito, Executive Director of Earthworks, which sponsored the No Dirty Gold Campaign, brought together about a dozen representatives from NGOs, jewelry companies, trade associations, mining companies, foundations and agencies like the World Bank interested in ethical jewelry with the hope that cross-fertilization would create new, unique partnerships across sectors.

"This meeting took place at the offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, on Madison Avenue, in New York (Manhattan).  Rather than calling it the Manhattan Project, we called it the Madison Dialogue,” said D’Esposito.  An organizing committee, web site with issue papers and list serve ( www.madisondialogue.org) were created from these initial efforts.

D’Esposito recognized the need for an agreement of what it meant to be fair or responsible in the sector. “Our proposition was that the miners and the jewelers and the traders and the NGOs all needed to be part of establishing that definition. Then, that definition has meaning in the marketplace.”

Before the summit, there was wide range of social entrepreneurial activity around “fair trade jewelry," but the movement as a whole lacked coordination before their efforts. Martin Rapaport, a catalyst for this movement whose importance is impossible to estimate, held "Fair Trade" meetings at JCK for the past two years.

The Council of Responsible Jewelry Practices (CRJP) [UPDATE: Now the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC)] formed in 2004. Larger jewelers, such as Tiffany, Cartier, DeBeers have been working to promote action throughout the chain of custody. 

Other notable initiatives include the efforts of Ian Smillie spearheading  the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) effort to develop standards in the alluvial sector; and Greg Valerio of Cred Jewellery (UK), whose work for the past ten years in South America to develop third party certification of gold mining resulted in the Association of Responsible Mining (ARM)  www.communitymining.org. Valerio, who currently sells jewelry made with fair trade gold third party certified by an NGO based in Colombia, is looking for distribution in the US.

On the manufacturing side, Ethical Metalsmiths, one of the sponsors of the summit, now has over 900 members.  Hoover and Strong has launched their recycled "Harmony Metal" brand.  Numerous small designers and mid-range designers, from Lori Bonn to Brilliant Earth, have been taking their own initiatives as well.  

Meanwhile, however, the jewelry market's eco efforts grow louder and potentially quite confusing for consumers. Google  "ethical jewelry," "eco friendly jewelry" or "fair trade jewelry" and you'll find niche ethnic products produced in villages around the world. The market is a long way from recognizing socially responsible efforts in the mainstream jewelry.


Fair Trade and Working Groups


Fair trade exists to support poor and marginalized small producers. It is in essence an economic program linked to ecological responsibility and sustainable development. A critical component is third party certification and supply chain audit.

Though there is no such thing as third party certified fair trade jewelry, through the efforts of the ARM, the European based Fair Labeling Organization (FLO), third party "fair trade gold" from indigenous communities in Bolivia and Colombia is available, in limited quantities. In addition, TransFair USA  (the American branch of FLO well known for its third party certification of coffee in the US) is doing a pilot study on diamonds.  However, there is no commitment yet as to the level of its involvement in the jewelry sector.   

Hence, in response to the market, one of the main outcomes of the conference were working groups which will focus on developing principles, standards and third-party assurance systems in artisanal and small-scale metals mining.  Ongoing discussions are currently being held in the following areas: colored gemstones,  diamond mining, recycled metals, metal product chain, and manufacturing.


Trade Reactions to the Ethical Jewelry Summit

Reaction to the conference from some members of the jewelry trade has been cautious.  To start, the “fair trade” supply chain is very limited.  It is easy for an independent jeweler to see this initiative as just one more attempt to take pot shots, particularly around the notion of "ethical" jewelry.   

Steve Gerencser, a custom jeweler and blogger, has always seen himself and the brands he sells at Images Jewelers, in Elkhard Indiana, such as John Hardy and Rolex, as “ethical.”   

"I'm having a real problem wrapping my head around a solution that both promotes the 'ethical' idea yet doesn't put jewelers in a position of marginalizing their current efforts,” said Gerencer.  “How can we say to our customers, look at this ethically created jewelry over here, while having thousands of dollars of product in the case next to it without that label? I don't think that the lines we carry are in any way unethical."  

However, what was clear is that any semantics are really at the service of finding ways to benefit the impoverished small scale miner.  The community declaration initially drafted by Bill Galleger of Lori Bonn emphasized the opportunity, "to make a difference in the lives and communities of artisanal/small-scale miners and other marginalized workers worldwide, by developing and implementing robust standards for the production of ethical and fair trade."  

Though anecdotal evidence points to strong consumer demand for a distinct "fair trade" third party product, those at the conference recognized that it might be some time before we can actually build a solid audited supply chain.  Pending these developments, there was a unanimous call for greater transparency in all sectors of jewelry manufacturing. 


How You Can Get Involved

The answer is simple: jump in. To benefit organizations like the Tanzania Women Miners Association, we need to have a broad spectrum of views represented from across our sector who view these developments as a business opportunity that can be a win for you and for jewelers and miners — especially if you serve the type of customer who also shops at Whole Foods, the Body Shop or Patagonia.

"We must each look at our supply chains and ask the critical question: how can I make my business profitable while bringing more economic opportunity to the people who touch the product directly, from the mine workers to the polishers," said Alex Twersky, President of Finesse Diamonds, a new DTC site holder.

Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gemhouse already supplies fair trade gemstones though his own transparent systems. Other lists of suppliers who are concerned about these issues are being created and will post online, such as on the blog, fairjewelry.org, which covers the subject of "fair trade jewelry."  You can also initiate and promote "green" practices, such as metal recycling, compact fluorescent lighting and carbon.  "We need to engage with processes like CRJP or ARM," said Greg Valerio.  "Not only do we need to work together for change, but we can transform our businesses into a force for the common good of all." 

You can join the Madison Dialogue list serve and read the issues or even get involved in one of the groups that has formed to hammer out certification processes. Contact Lloyd Cotler at lcotler@earthworksaction.org.

Finally, the third annual Fair Trade meeting, sponsored by Rapaport Group, will take place at the JCK Show in Las Vegas in June.



**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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