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Visions of a jewellery industry that bears no human or environmental toll

Among the most talked about topics today in the gemstone and jewellery industry are ethics and sustainability. BARBARA WHEAT discusses some of the challenges involved in improving the level of responsible practice within such a diverse trade.

“The only constant in life is change,” mused Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus around 500 BC.

These words are just as true today as they were in his time and yet, we might also add that the fear of change is also a constant.

It is human nature for people to do things the way they have always been done and to maintain a routine in their practices - even when change becomes necessary.

With that said, in our lives change is happening, even if only in small steps.

The jewellery and gemstone industry is no exception to this and fortunately enthusiasm for improved standards is beginning to increase. This evolution can be seen in examples from the past few decades.

For instance, the intention of the Kimberley Process in 2003 was to bring positive change to the diamond industry, however; today, some producer nations are now demanding that rough gemstones be cut in-country to further help local populations.

Other initiatives are being undertaken with varying degrees of success and acceptance such as the bid to eliminate mercury in gold mining. Others are aimed at creating sustainable supply chains, including responsible sourcing and production practices for gems and jewellery around the world.

Bumps in the road

There is no doubt that ‘ethical practices’ are heavily discussed today; however, not everyone agrees when it comes to what it means to be ‘responsible’.

“It is human nature for people to do things the way they have always been done and to maintain a routine in their practices - even when change becomes necessary.”

There are similar disagreements on ideas such as the sourcing of materials and the importance of supply-chain partners holding a shared vision when it comes to ethics.

While the hearts of some consumers are in the right place, when it comes to purchasing responsibly-sourced gold, for example, the price tag can be off-putting.

The same can often be said for colour gemstones and diamonds. I recently spoke with Kyle Abraham Bi, general manager of US-based Reflective Jewelry, who told me that the an important issue holding the industry back when it comes to improved practices is a ‘laser-focus’ on the bottom line.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding like-minded partners who are willing to play ball,” he told me.

He explained that most refiners and suppliers are not willing to work with Fairtrade Gold because of the additional tracking it entails. Other supply houses and refiners that are willing to work with this material mark it up considerably.

Certified gold from small-scale sources should cost a bit more, but there are questions about who profits from markups. On the other hand, he stresses, businesses can and should be used as an unrivalled force for good.

Trial and error

Saskia Shutt is a designer from Belgium and works with Ethical Metalsmiths as a mentor. She recently made an observation that I found disconcerting.

Shutt said that it’s common for many of the jewellers she works with to suggest that widespread positive changes within the sector are simply not possible.

“Many jewellers are disconnected from the raw material side of the industry. They just purchase precious metals, gemstones, and diamonds from wholesalers and don’t ask questions,” she explained.

However having said that she has noticed that over the past 10 years, an increasing number of people are inclined to support bespoke, locally, responsibly, and sustainably made products.

I would say that this suggests the naysayers are wrong to disparage the concept of widespread trade – perhaps it’s just going to be a longer process than they are anticipating.

I spoke with another Ethical Metalsmiths member, Christine Fail of Fail Jewelry, and asked her what the biggest challenges she encounters when attempting to trade ‘responsibly.’

She said it was a matter of ‘trial and error’ and that any business that is passionate about pursuing sustainable and ethical practices would need to deal with a few headaches. For example, finding suppliers working with Fairmined Gold is a challenge in the US – even for simple things such as spring clasps and earring posts.

“So, as is often the case in changes that occur in any industry, it comes down to educating the consumer. ”

When it comes to gemstones, it can be difficult to find businesses willing to document their processes. They might be selling gemstones mined in the US; however, if the gemstones are sent to China or India for cutting and polishing, there may be no background information on those facilities made available.

Importance of education

During our conversation, Shutt also cited an example of a jeweller who was with her on a Fairmined Gold trip to Peru. She was so impressed with the ethical sourcing that she began using only Fairmined Gold in her creations.

Unfortunately, she also saw a drop in sales as she had to charge more for the gold. At the end of the day, her customers were not willing to bear the cost.

So, as is often the case in changes that occur in any industry, it comes down to educating the consumer.

In the jewellery sector, it is important to showcase the journey of a gemstone through the supply and production chain, and wherever possible to amplify the voices in the local mining and cutting communities to benefit everyone.

There are going to be a few hurdles along the way; however, we all must work towards a more sustainable future for our industry – in whatever way we can, large or small.

Name: Barbara Wheat
BusinessEthical Metalsmiths
Position: Executive Director
LocationFlorida, US
Years in the industry: 29

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