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The relentless drive toward ethically sourced jewellery

KOLKATA, INDIA - NOVEMBER 3, 2014: A general view scene of a craftsman working at a jewelery workshop in Kolkata, India.

(Children are often put to work in workshops at a very young age in many developing countries)

One of the key developments in the jewellery and gemstone industry in recent years has been the drive towards ethically sourced products. In some quarters this desire to buy ‘fair trade’ jewellery and gems has superseded all else and Tiffany & Co seem to have been one of the leading brands to recognise this fact. Tiffany & Co own a subsidiary called Laurelton, headquartered in Antwerp, who manage its diamond supply from offices around the world. Laurelton maintain that 99.96% of the rough they are offered are rejected, which is still an impressive fact despite the high volume of low quality gems flooding the market at present. Tiffany own cutting and polishing facilities in Mauritius, Vietnam, Cambodia and Botswana, countries with somewhat chequered labour welfare and environmental histories but independent observers have visited all of their sites and assessed them to be of the highest ethical standard. François Curiel, jewellery expert at Christie’s auctioneers, is famous for saying that “when assessing a diamond’s value, one ‘P’ is as important as the 4 Cs put together. That is, of course, for provenance.”

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(Up to 20 tonnes of waste are produced in the process of making just one gold wedding ring)

In the past that provenance solely related to the value of the piece in terms of which great ruler, aristocrat or Hollywood star had owned it in the past and how it had come to be in one person’s possession or another’s. The twenty-first century buyer is becoming increasingly concerned about the origin of a stone or piece of jewellery more in terms of where it was produced, by whom and with what regard to its local human and physical environment. Tiffany was among the first of the major industry players to make a serious effort towards guaranteeing the supply side ethical integrity of their product from ‘mine to market,’ both in terms of metals and stones. This is far easier said than done. Rough diamonds are small, very highly mobile and difficult to confidently prove a single point of origin. Gold is even harder to trace, it is produced in more than 60 countries around the world and it is often formed from gold dust derived from several different mines. The footprint of producing a single gold wedding ring consists of at least 20 tonnes of mine waste, which may include toxic chemicals, such as cyanide and mercury, which are used to extract the gold from its host rock.

In the internet age, which has in turn been ‘turbo-charged’ by the social media age, the ethical issues surrounding mining have rapidly climbed the ranks of public awareness. Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), including Human Rights Watch and Earthworks (which started the ‘No Dirty Gold’ campaign with the backing of Tiffany), coupled with trade bodies such as the Responsible Jewellery Council and the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (again supported by Tiffany), have further promoted this cause. The Kimberley process was set up by the United Nations in May 2000 to promote and assure conflict-free diamonds. It has enjoyed some success and has certainly been an important factor in the establishment of good working practices, although it has fallen short of totally transforming the industry. Self regulation has also been clearly apparent within the sector and some players have decided to apply a zero tolerance policy towards diamonds from countries with poor human rights records, including Angola and Zimbabwe. Some of the big brands have gone a stage further and set up philanthropic foundations with the express aim of promoting initiatives for responsible mining and cooperation with indigenous communities.

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(The Kimberley Process has done much to stem the flow of conflict diamonds)

The simple fact that jewellery is a luxury and not a necessity may also increase the propensity for consumers to take a high minded view towards the origins of items they want but certainly don’t need. This, combined with many other factors, is having a profound effect on the estimated volume of diamonds in circulation from conflict sources, down to less than 1% from over 15% twenty-five years ago. De Beers, who are still responsible for 40% of global diamond production, have now declared all of their stones to be conflict-free. This is obviously a positive step but simply because a diamond is not a conflict stone does not mean that all of the other socially responsible boxes have been ‘ticked.’ A number of organisations have sprung up in recent years to try and hold the industry’s ‘feet’ to the fire on this issue, including the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), among others. ARM is a Colombian organisation born out the Oro Verde (Green Gold) movement, which has promoted responsibly sourced and traceable precious gems and metals since 2004. Ethical brands such as Fifi Bijoux have made considerable use of this affiliation.

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(ARM is chief among the NGOs promoting responsible mining practices)

The modern dilemma for the ethical consumer and retailer / manufacturer alike is how to be certain of sourcing conflict free stones that are also untarnished by poor human rights or environmental protection. This can lead to a form of unintentional ethnocentrism in which ethically minded individuals and businesses default to only purchasing Western countries produce to ensure that exploitation has not taken place anywhere in the supply chain. As explored in our earlier article “Canada – The emergence of a gemstone giant,” some national industries have very successfully advertised and marketed themselves based upon this theme. This of course disadvantages the many millions of people in the developing world who rely upon developed world consumerism to make ends meet! One of the more recently successful attempts to grow sustainable and ethical production and mining in the less developed world has been the FairTrade movement. Although FairTrade gold does exist, there is as yet no certified trade in FairTrade diamonds and coloured gemstones. This is no doubt set to change in the foreseeable future, as the principles of workers’ rights, environmental protection and sustainable mining practices permeates through the gemstone and jewellery industry.

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(FairTrade Gold has set the benchmark gemstones are likely to follow)