By Chere Di Boscio
Many of us today question whether our clothing is made of organic cotton, or has been produced by child labour or in sweatshops. Ethical clothing brands, from Valentino’s transparently sourced couture textiles to H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ are aimed at increasing numbers of eco-conscious shoppers, so it stands to reason that ethical jewellery is rising in popularity, too.
But what exactly is meant by that term? The truth is, as with clothing, ethical jewellery is pretty much synonymous with sustainability – goods must not only be assembled from fairly paid labour, but must also be derived from eco-friendly sources – and despite what many industries argue, this generally excludes newly mined metals and gems.
Dirty Diamonds and a Scarred Earth
The film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo Di Caprio endeavoured to make people aware that the origins of certain diamonds may be connected to human rights abuses, militia funding and even genocide. A new system, known as the Kimberley Process, was enacted in the 1990s to help consumers feel more confident that their diamond purchases were ‘clean’.
However, despite the fact that diamonds from conflict now only account for 1% of such gems in the world, (down from 15% in 1990) few today deny that the Process is far from a watertight solution, and despite increased awareness of how diamonds fuel conflict, the companies that were implicated in ‘dirty trading’ during the wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo and the tycoons that head them are still thriving.
But blood diamonds are just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad ethical issues with the creation of jewellery, and most of them start at the most basic level: at the primary stage of industry, mining. There can be little doubt that ripping layers of the Earth open for this industry (and often clearing paths through pristine forests to do so) is highly polluting to say the least. And diamonds and gold are especially ‘dirty’. Even if they are conflict free, arsenic and mercury are needed in the mining process, and all forms of mining can cause long term water and soil contamination that affects not only the plant and animal life around a mine, but the surrounding communities too.
So What Is Ethical Jewellery?
So here is where ‘ethical jewellery’ comes in. Because of these issues, an increasing number of jewellers, such as Yilin Choo, have decided that it would be more ethical and ecologically friendly to create jewellery made in her own studio by her own hand, using recycled silver and gold or pre-existing pieces as a base. Ethical jewelers like Choo also refuses to use:
- endangered animal products, such as ivory
- shark’s teeth
- mammoth ivory (which can encourage people to think any form of ivory is ok)
- ebony and other rare woods
She has even created an Alternative to Coral project that aims to raise awareness of coral conservation. ‘We wanted to communicate that while coral was beautiful, it needn’t be worn in order to appreciate it,’ she says. Instead, she offers consumers ‘pieces based (on the shapes of) actual coral species, embellished with precious gemstones.’
Ah, but there’s the rub. Choo admits that though she tries to source all her gems from ‘small, artisanal mines,’ knowing the origins of all stones is not always possible unless sourced through a large (but expensive) company that follows the production history of all stones, such as Gemfields, whose partnership with Faberge hit the headlines last year.
There is also the Jeweltree Foundation, which works in cooperation with IPIS (the International Peace Information Services)–a Kimberley Process auditor, to ensure gem manufacturing standards follow the objectives set out by the Fair Trade Jewellery Manufacturing Principles, but not many consumers are aware of this body, and so not many jewellers use it yet.
However, tracing the origins of metals is much easier, as jewellery designer April Doubleday knows. Rather than using recycled metals, Doubleday decided that she ‘could not morally work with metals or semi precious stones without knowing the source and story behind them,’ so chose to gain her eco-kudos by using Fairtrade and Fairmined gold in her classically designed wedding collections.
Born out of the 2004 Oro Verde movement in Colombia, she proudly explains that this ‘green gold’ is mined in accordance with the standards set by Fairtrade International and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). These groups monitor that the gold they certify is derived from mines that provide a transparent and traceable supply chain, employ fair and safe labour standards, prioritise community development, and pay a stable minimum commodity price.
While jewellers like Doubleday pride themselves on only buying ARM certified metals, even others go further, using only upcycled and recycled materials to create new pieces of jewellery. Given the fact that there’s already a huge supply of existing materials to make jewellery from, to me, this makes perfect sense, and it can result in some wonderful work – just look at the creations of AnaKaterina or Ludmila Navarro, for example.
Big Jewellers Clean Up
What started as a grassroots movement has slowly spread into the corporate realm, and that is not a bad thing, considering the scale of trade by large jewellers who now claim to source their materials ethically, such as Cartier, Chopard and TAG Heure.
Today, even large jewellers like Faberge promise more ethical jewellery–in their case, by partnering with ethical gem miner Gemfields. Whilst De Beers has somewhat cleaned up its act and now prides itself as being the world’s number one supplier of conflict free diamonds, it doesn’t mean their diamonds are ‘clean’–heavy, polluting chemicals are still needed to extract them, and their diamonds are all processed and polished in Israel – a fact that many concerned with human rights will find problematic. The same problems of pollution in processing are true for most gold, even if it comes from artisanal mines, and let’s face it- if clothing companies like &OtherStories or H&M can offer incentives for consumers to recycle their old clothes, then surely large jewellers can encourage people to sell off old diamonds for upcycling, too.
So what is ethical jewellery then? Basically, any jewellery house that uses recycled or upcycled metals, gems and other components to create new pieces of jewellery; refuses to use parts of endangered animals or plants, and ensures fair pay throughout the supply chain. There’s really no excuse for larger houses not to at least attempt to refashion old pieces into new; heavens knows there are enough existing materials now to fulfill at least part of their demand. It’s well worth their time to encourage jewellery buy-back schemes for this purpose.
Ultimately, whether chosen from an internationally known jeweller, vintage retailer or an artisanal creator, one thing is certain: our choices in jewellery are usually emotionally driven, and buying pieces that are as clean and clear as your conscious surely makes them all the more beautiful.