What responsible jewelry makers should be asking their suppliers

Hi, fellow jewelry designers and makers! Ready to change the jewelry industry for the better?! I am too. I’d love to share what I’ve learned about making more responsible and ethical decisions throughout my supply chain. This is by no means an all-encompassing guide, but I hope my experiences can serve as a starting point for those of you starting the responsible sourcing journey. And I always welcome your insights and feedback — I’m constantly learning and improving my practices. I’ll be going into this assuming a surface level knowledge of some of the issues in the industry, so if you’re brand new in this realm, check out my previous post: “What every jewelry consumer needs to know before purchasing their next piece of jewelry”. Although it is addressed to the general public, we as jewelers should be aware of the issues I mention in that piece…and then some. As direct actors in the industry, we hold the responsibility of understanding the issues fully and taking concrete actions to make changes for the better.

Our customers generally don’t have the bandwidth to fully learn about and navigate such a deeply problematic industry. This is understandable. Even while working within the industry, it took me years to get to where I am today and I know I have plenty left to learn. On top of that, jewelry customers are often shopping in celebration or commemoration of joyous, important events in their lives. Asking them to hold all of that emotion while considering human rights abuses and environmental degradation in the same space…well, it’s not ideal. If we are able to fully take in the deeper and more nuanced issues, decide what solution has the greatest impact (as we see it within our own ethical framework), tell stories of the positive impacts, and answer whatever questions are pertinent to our customers, we can make progress without overwhelming the consumer.

In my follow up piece for consumers, I suggest starting the journey by establishing one’s own moral priorities and guiding principles. I believe that establishing these guidelines as jewelers is even more important — there are a lot of decisions to be made while running a business, so if you make a really thoughtful decision and commitment now, you won’t have to make all the same considerations every step of the way. As I mentioned in my first post, the solutions for the issues regarding our materials mostly fall into one of two categories:
1) Responsible artisanal mining (plus work to increase traceability)
2) Recycled or vintage materials
Take into consideration how the choices you make can not only reduce harm to people and planet, but also do some good. Then draw some clear guidelines for yourself.

  • Will you commit to using only artisanal small scale mined gold?
  • Are there any instances where you would make an exception for recycled gold instead?
  • How will you source gemstones? Post-consumer/vintage? Responsibly mined?
  • What assurances will you accept from your suppliers for all materials? Third party certification? Word of mouth recommendations from colleagues and other proving methods that you choose to trust? Both?

The decisions you make here will narrow down your supplier options and dictate the kinds of questions you should ask of your suppliers. While some suppliers are not forthcoming, some have been very open in answering questions. I continue to have conversations and build relationships with those that are communicative.

The greenwashing language that is prominent in consumer marketing, can present itself with suppliers as well. A mining company makes a blanket claim that they are “ethical”. A gem dealer buys from them, maybe without questioning their claims at all. The gem dealer continues to claim “ethical sourcing” themselves. If I, as a jeweler, simply take their claim at face value, the greenwashing perpetuates. Asking more pointed questions can help break that chain.

I received a cold email from a gemstone dealer recently. They offered emeralds, alexandrites, rubies, and sapphires and as I favor colored gemstones over diamonds (a topic for another piece) I thought I may consider buying from them. I asked:

“What can you tell me about where your stones are mined? Under what kind of conditions? Where are they cut, by whom, and under what kind of conditions?”

Some rather general questions to begin with, sent off quickly to gauge their willingness to communicate. If they are open and communicative, I can continue by asking further relevant questions. For example:

  • How far in the supply chain can each gem be traced?
  • What proof (ie: certifications or photos & word of the miner) do they have of their origin and/or each step the gemstone took from mine to cutter to their hands?
  • When were they mined? (We can consider conflicts that occurred in certain countries at certain times and the likelihood of the minerals being involved)

Depending on how detailed the response to questions such as the above is, you can get even more detailed in your information gathering. The response I received to my initial questions would probably have convinced and assured me a couple of years ago, though now I understand it to be surface level marketing language. The sales representative wrote:

“Our stones are ethically sourced as we only bid on roughs auctioned by Gemfields.”

(Gemfields is a majority owner and operator of the Kagem emerald mine, which is the largest producer of emeralds in the world, and the Montepuez ruby mine, which is believed to be the largest area with ruby deposits in the world. They also own the better known brand, Fabergé.)

The sales rep linked to the mining company’s website for me, suggesting that what I needed to know to trust the gemstones to be “ethically sourced” was what the mining company had to say on their website. The word “sustainability” appears on their homepage a few times, along with mentions of responsible sourcing and transparency — all great and positive claims. Claims such as these should be able to withstand scrutiny.

Gemfields’ Montepuez ruby mine spans approximately 33,600 hectares in northeastern Mozambique. (That is equivalent to 129.73 square miles, just about the size of Kansas City, Kansas). In a suit filed by law firm Leigh Day in 2018, Gemfields was accused of human rights abuses of over 270 local Mozabican villagers. It was settled out of court in 2019, with Gemfields putting in place a grievance mechanism and paying $7.6 million to claimants and for legal costs, but not admitting liability. Aljazeera’s Africa Investigates has also released an investigative video about this.

I have only recently learned to try to get beyond those surface level claims. I’m a trusting person by nature but in an industry with highly valued materials and corporations often acting in remote parts of the world, I have learned to add a dose of healthy skepticism to the claims I come across. I’ve learned to continue to dig deeper until I have enough information to make the most ethical decision I can make. In this case, I chose not to purchase anything from that gem dealer.

As a bench jeweler, you’re likely purchasing your metal materials from a wholesaler manufacturer and/or refiner. Whether you are choosing to prioritize artisanal small scale mined (Fairmined or Fairtrade, for example) or recycled metals, there are questions to ask to make sure you have all the information you need to make an ethical choice. (By the way, if you are a designer who sends your designs to a casting house rather than fabricating in house, your caster should be able to tell you the same information or ask the refiner they purchase from.)

If sourcing certified artisanal small scale mined gold or silver, you have a few options for certification schemes. The Alliance for Responsible Mining is behind Fairmined gold. Fairtrade International certifies Fairtrade Gold. Their standards for responsible mining, including workers’ rights and environmental protections, are similar and I believe both are making a positive impact. I do want to highlight that Fairmined provides the option for Ecological gold which meets all the same standards and also does not use toxic chemicals in the extraction process. There are other projects in the works to bring ASM gold to market, too. While these schemes have some fees and requirements for jewelers to fulfill to become a licensee, you can still purchase the metals even if you are not a licensee. Suppliers like Hoover & Strong, for example, can make these materials accessible even to individual bench jewelers purchasing a very small volume of gold. The only “catch” is that only licensees can use the certification names in advertising their products, though you can still say that your materials are from certified artisanal small scale sources. Supporting these ASM certification schemes helps support artisanal miners in communities where people depend on mining for their livelihoods.

Recycled materials are defined differently by different entities. So keep in mind that we really cannot make assumptions with this claim. You can find some different definitions for “recycled” from: The Jewelry Glossary Project, the FTC guide for environmental marketing claims, London Bullion Market Association, or SCS Global Services, for example.

If purchasing recycled metals, ask the supplier:

  • What is their process for keeping track of where material comes from? (Refineries are a point in the supply chain where it can be easy to disguise and hide illicit gold, given that it is melted down — its previous form erased)
  • Do they have third-party certification?
  • For manufacturers of chains, findings, and mill products — does that include all of their products or only things made in-house or certain pieces?

It can feel tedious to ask for details about each item you order from a wholesale manufacturer, but this is another place where we mustn’t assume anything. They may be SCS certified for recycled metal and make all of the settings and mountings in house but outsource the production of their chains, for example. If you double check, you can be more certain you are passing on truthful claims to your clients.

As a good amount of the information we are seeking from suppliers is asking for proof of their claims, certifications are often a part of the conversation. I do want to note, however, that certifications are at times imperfect and are not an end all be all solution either. Though it is an oversimplification, we can compare it to organic farming certification. When it comes to organic farming, you or a friend may know the farmer who lives nearby. You might be familiar with their practices and have very good reason to trust them, but they can’t afford the costly certification. You might choose to purchase their food products despite them not having an official certification and make this choice based on trust that is gained from open and transparent communication, claims that you judge to be honest and true given all of the information you have.

For small scale artisanal miners, certifications can be costly or inaccessible as well. If you build a strong and communicative relationship with your gemstone dealer, for instance, you may choose to purchase a gemstone that doesn’t have an official certification but has other means of assurance that it was mined, sold, and cut responsibly. Although it requires more work than trusting a certification, this can be a positive in supporting artisan miners. Just remember that due diligence always needs to be exercised. Keeping these conversations going and building relationships with your suppliers will allow you to bring more transparency and truthful claims to your business, your customers, and the industry as a whole. We must all keep learning, keep assessing our practices, and keep improving.

Bay Area jeweler practicing ethical & responsible sourcing and radical transparency