The popularity of sapphires has never been greater, perhaps due in part to Prince William’s decision to propose to Kate Middleton with the sapphire engagement ring of his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. In addition to superstar celebrity and royal endorsement, the young and increasingly economically powerful millennial generation (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) are also becoming more influenced by the ethical provenance of their purchases. The sapphire supply chain lends itself well to a more ethical perception of this stone versus many of its rivals. It is clear that no gemstone has been branded more successfully than the diamond by De Beer’s sound-bite advertising, including a “girl’s best friend” and a “diamond is forever.” Recent research commissioned by the Reign Sapphire Corporation showed that most women actually prefer sapphires to diamonds but the effectiveness with which the latter has been marketed to them over the years has led to many simply going with the flow. Yossi Segelman, CEO of Reign Sapphire, has asserted that the tide is turning in the gemstone market towards coloured gems, stating “we’re definitely seeing an increase in inquiries and an uptick in demand, and I believe what’s driving that is millennials wanting something different, more personal. It’s more that individualist approach versus doing things because that’s what everyone else has done.”
(Coloured gems, including sapphires, are experiencing a renaissance in popularity)
The Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) has attributed this trend towards coloured diamonds and away from diamonds to two principal factors. Firstly there is now greater access to gems from remote areas of the world and secondly increased promotion of coloured stones has raised awareness of them. This has been aided by the growth of large multinationals, such as Gemfields PLC, who have started to make their mark on this segment. More recently a number of small, rapidly growing, challenger brands have also entered the space, such as Mustang Resources in the ruby producing regions of East Africa. This change is having a profound effect further ‘downstream,’ where the increased availability of sapphires and coloured gems is encouraging more and more designers and jewellery makers to work with them. The GIA have also suggested that there is a causal effect in the increase in demand driven by the “industry’s attempts to improve the lives of the miners and cutters who are the very foundation of the trade.” All of the coloured gem industry players of any international significance are now fully committed to an ethical ‘mine-to-market’ approach, in which a fair-trade policy has been adopted from the day the stone is won from the earth, right through it being placed on a woman’s finger. However, as Segelman put it “marketers are not miners and miners are not marketers” so it is only the very largest and most sophisticated participants that have fully grasped the importance of demonstrable ‘mine-to-market’ ethics.
(Sapphires are found in a dazzling array of colours and hues)
Australia has followed the example set by Canada in which they use their national provenance as a demonstration of the ethical credentials of the stones they produce. Just as Canadian diamonds can enjoy a premium earned from the fact they are mined, cut, polished and set in a democratic country with strong labour and environmental legislation, so too can Australian sapphires, opal and other coloured stones. Sapphires and other coloured gems have also been fortunate in that they have not been associated with the some troubled past as diamonds, which have earned the somewhat unwanted reputation as the currency of choice for corrupt regimes, warring militias and international criminal organisations, as so called ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds. It is very hard to guarantee the true origin of a diamond and many noble attempts to do so, such as the Kimberley Process, have been largely frustrated and ineffectual. In fact Michael Arnstein, head of The Natural Sapphire Company, an organisation that has sourced sapphires for almost 80 years, went as far as to say “there have been so many attempts to regulate the industry, and it’s all been a bit of a circus with no real credibility. The Kimberley’s Process is a bit of a sham idea at this point and the industry insiders mostly agree it’s just a failed marketing attempt at polishing the diamond sourcing image.” Cynics argue that the major diamond producers probably ‘leaned’ on small developing world governments to overplay the credibility of Kimberley to maintain demand.
(The much hailed Kimberley Process has actually done little to improve the true image of diamonds)
For the most part, high quality sapphires are sourced from countries where mining conditions are considered to be safe. These include Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. However, despite the reasonable working conditions in many of the places where sapphires are mine, there is still work to be done in terms of creating a fully transparent and verifiable supply chain model. Although much progress has been achieved in this area in recent years, the GIA (amongst others) are calling for greater regulation along the lines of the Dodd-Frank Act, which applied traceability and tracking systems for ‘conflict minerals.’ This is becoming increasingly important as the coloured gem industry continues to grow, a point emphasised by the fact that some estimates of total global coloured gemstone retail sales crossed the $20 billion USD mark in 2016. In the words of the GIA, “jewellery has always been an emotional purchase, and customers care about the ‘story’ behind their pieces,” emphasising the unique nature of the jewellery and gem business and how it is dramatically affected by the provenance and back story of a piece. This is especially true when it comes to the “millenials, who have grown up knowledgeable about fair-trade products and sustainability,” and “expect that issues pertaining to human rights, environment impact, and social consciousness are addressed in the supply chain for the products they wish to purchase.”
(Van Cleef & Arpels have utilised the vivid colour of sapphire in many of their pieces)
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