What every jewelry consumer needs to know before purchasing their next piece of jewelry
My journey from artist to ethical jeweler
I took my first metalworking and jewelry design class ten years ago — an elective while in art school studying photography. I quickly fell in love with the craft that allowed me to mold and shape rigid, raw materials into small, wearable pieces of art. My newfound hobby turned into a business a few years later. As an artist first and a businesswoman second, the things I valued the most about my trade were the craftsmanship and skill that went into fabricating my jewelry pieces and the connections I formed with customers who appreciated the aesthetic decisions I made in my designs.
In the beginning, I did not know to think critically about the environmental and human rights consequences of producing a piece of jewelry. It was just about the art. Similarly, for many consumers, the focus can be on just expressing their style when purchasing a piece of jewelry.
As I began honing and improving my metalworking skills and focusing more on custom, fine jewelry production, I learned more about the process of sourcing precious gemstones and metals. My eyes were slowly opened to the ways that my purchasing decisions were perpetuating long-standing problems in the supply chain. With every new story of human rights abuses and corporate malefaction, it became more apparent to me that my sourcing did not reflect my personal value system. I set out to change that.
So for other jewelers as well as consumers, I want to bring to the forefront the issues in the industry that took me so long to uncover. It will take pressure from both industry professionals and consumers to create change. With a base knowledge of the issues, we can all demand more information and accountability from jewelry companies along the whole supply chain.
The status quo
Unbeknownst to me ten years ago, I had entered into an industry that is really stuck in the past. It is still rife with the colonialist exploitation and human rights abuses that allowed some of the largest and best known jewelry companies founded in the mid-1800s to become widely profitable and successful. Not to mention the environmental impacts that continue to multiply to this day. Many of these industry giants seem immutable, or they haven’t been challenged enough to change their ways, so they carry forward with the status quo.
The deep-seated issues have long been hidden behind a veneer of shiny, bright, beautiful luxury. In 2006, Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio may have torn off a part of that veneer by bringing the movie Blood Diamond to the general public’s attention but there is so much more to the seedy underbelly. After all, diamonds aren’t the only highly valued material with the supply chain spanning across continents that are used in jewelry making.
The bigger picture
The supply chain in the jewelry industry is very vast and complex. Gold and precious gems will pass through many hands in many countries before ending up in a final piece of jewelry. For example, as a jeweler, I purchase gold from a wholesaler manufacturer, which may refine some gold and purchase some from other refiners, who deal with exporters, who may purchase from large mining companies or from traders and dealers, who eventually reach back to an artisan miner. I mostly fabricate jewelry pieces starting from sheet, wire, or grain from the manufacturer, but some jewelry companies may outsource their production to casting houses and other fabricators as well, adding a couple more sets of hands contributing work before the final piece becomes available to the consumer.
Without any knowledge of this vast web of production, it is easy to see a piece of jewelry as completely disconnected from all of the people it took to create it. But that gorgeous ring in the display case didn’t come to exist in a vacuum — every step of the way from raw material in the earth to adornment on your body is tied to a consequence, positive or negative. For the companies operating in that status quo way, keeping that disconnect in place and keeping customers less informed leaves room for exploitation and human rights abuses that lead to increased profits. And the same lack of information and traceability keeps accountability at bay. It’s no wonder that it’s so time-consuming and challenging for the consumer to uncover all of the consequences. So let’s shine a spotlight on some of the big problems beyond conflict diamonds so that we can then begin to demand more information, change, and accountability.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of issues any jewelry consumer should be aware of:
Gold Mining & Refining
- There have been many documented instances of mining companies (and not just gold) exploiting and abusing indigenous communities who live on resource rich lands. A recent documentary film called Maxima tells the story of an indigenous Peruvian woman named Máxima Acuña and her fight against the largest gold producer in the world (Newmont) attempting to steal her family’s land. The fight is ongoing.
- Large open pit mines can turn mountains into giant holes in the ground, producing hundreds of tons of waste. They extract gold from low grade ore by leaching it out with cyanide and waste containment and disposal methods have often failed, releasing toxic waste into the environment.
- Illicit and illegal mining in the Amazon has accounted for a large amount of deforestation there.
- Mercury is often used in smaller scale gold mining — it binds to the gold in the ore so even tiny amounts can be separated out in an amalgam. Then the mercury is burned off to leave only the gold. Many artisanal miners are not aware of the highly dangerous impacts of releasing mercury into the environment around them and/or lack knowledge or equipment to mine using other methods.
- Since mining comes with lots of possible issues, recycled gold may seem like the easy answer. Unfortunately, traceability is a problem here. Refineries sell gold to jewelers, banks, and electronics producers and they aren’t just recycling scrap gold. They also purchase gold from large mining companies or aggregators who have purchased from smaller miners and in this case it is likely that some of that gold has funded illegal activity. Money laundering through gold refineries is a very significant problem and my cursory overview does not do it justice so if you’d like to know more, there is some great investigative reporting that has been done by the Miami Herald: Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.
- Just as with gold mining, there have been many documented instances of indigenous peoples being removed from their land, abused, and even murdered by gemstone mining corporations or those acting on their behalf. This video from Aljazeera’s Africa Investigates is specifically about ruby mining giant Gemfields and their human rights abuses in Mozambique, but it paints a picture of the colonialist exploitation that large gemstone mining companies have been built on.
- Large scale gemstone mines also have environmental degradation impacts of deforestation and water and land pollution.
- Artisanal miners may not always be aware of the value of the gemstones they find, leaving a door wide open for exploitation.
- Gem cutters who work in factories without rigorous safety measures and proper ventilation can suffer from lung diseases like silicosis and various other worker’s rights abuses.
- The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme that is meant to ensure diamonds are “conflict-free” is very limited in scope. The definition of “conflict diamonds” as per KP is: “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. Documented instances of cross-border smuggling have resulted in illegitimate certificates as well.
- Lab grown diamonds are becoming a popular alternative, but it should be questioned what type of energy is used to power their creation. (A one carat lab diamond takes as much energy as the average American household uses in about nine days.) A complete focus on synthetic diamonds also forsakes conversation about artisanal miners who depend on mining for their livelihood.
Now let’s talk solutions!
The good news is that for every one of the issues I mentioned above, there are artisans, jewelers, organizations, and companies working to make changes and implement a variety of solutions. Ethical Metalsmiths is one great example of industry professionals coming together to pool information, resources, and actions. Earthworks has long been fighting for corporate accountability and environmental protections. Ethical Gem Suppliers is a collective of gem dealers practicing responsible sourcing around the world. And there are so many more. What these organizations and companies need now is more widespread public support and this is where we all come in.
The solutions for the issues regarding both gold and gemstones mostly fall into one of two categories:
1) Responsible artisanal mining (plus working to increase traceability)
2) Recycled or vintage materials
Extracting finite resources from the earth is inherently environmentally unsustainable. This leads some to conclude that recycled and vintage materials are THE answer. This is of course a valid choice for someone who prioritizes doing less harm to the earth, but it should be clear by now that such complex problems don’t have simple answers. I believe it is important to take into consideration how we can also do good for communities that have long been exploited. Consider that promoting the use of recycled gold as the singular solution is very unlikely to stop gold from being mined (as it has been extracted from the earth for millenia) but it does detract from the support that artisanal miners need. Recycling gold is not a novel idea — gold has never and will never be wasted or thrown out. But as I mentioned earlier, we can’t always know for certain that “recycled” gold from refiners is in fact recycled and if we make that the only solution, we’re leaving behind millions of people who need to sell a tiny bit of gold they mined to feed their families that day. On the other hand, organizations like Fairmined or Fairtrade are working with artisan miners to also improve their practices and to help them mine more responsibly, so buying certified artisanal small scale mined gold supports miners more directly while supporting work to improve their practices. That being said, while I personally don’t view recycled gold or vintage post-consumer gemstones as my first choice, if that choice fits better within a customer’s ethical framework than newly mined material I do understand and accommodate. I make a choice to prioritize the solutions that I view as doing the most good, but consumers of course have their own choices to make.
You as a consumer get to decide which solutions fit your value system. With that decision making framework in mind, you can ask the questions that help you make sure the jewelry you purchase lines up with your values. Asking questions about ethical decision making affirms the work responsible jewelry companies are doing and it shows less responsible companies that more and more customers are going to demand ethical practices and that they need to meet that demand. Consumer buying power has forced other industries to change — think of the slow fashion movement, the increase in demand for electric vehicles, or the demand for green energy — and I believe it can change the jewelry industry as well.
So what specific questions should you be asking? How exactly do we demand more information and accountability? Follow me here for a second and third part to this series —my next post will discuss the questions the average consumer should be asking their jeweler, followed by one regarding what questions jewelers should be asking their suppliers. You can also find me on Instagram and Twitter, where I’m always happy to discuss all things jewelry!