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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 jewelry is pretty much synonymous with sustainability – goods must not only be derived from sustainable production sources, but also assembled from fairly paid labour – and despite what many industries argue, it’s pretty much impossible to source newly mined metals and gems that could be considered ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’.
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 the diamond industry insists that stones that come from areas 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. Despite increased awareness of how diamonds fuel conflict, the huge 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.
In fact, some claim that it’s virtually impossible to know the origins of any diamond. The video below explains how even certified Canadian diamonds are often a scam, due to the difficulty in tracing where any diamond has come from. Even ‘green’ jeweller Brilliant Earth has been discovered to have been selling what are potentially conflict diamonds. Conclusion? There is no such thing as an ethical diamond. No wonder sales are falling!
Even Bigger Issues for the Planet
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.
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 Jewelry?
So here is where ‘ethical jewelry’ comes in. Because of these issues, an increasing number of jewelers, such as Saskia Dietz (first two images) and Melissa Joy Manning (shown above and below) have decided that it would be more ethical and ecologically friendly to create jewellery made in their own studios with their own hands, using recycled silver and gold or pre-existing pieces as a base. As a rule, ethical jewelers should also refuse 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
Dietz admits that though she tries to source all her gemstones from ‘small, artisanal mines,’ knowing the origins of all stones is not always possible unless sourced through a large (but expensive) company that follows their production history, 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 jewelers use it yet.
However, tracing the origins of metals is much easier, as jewelry 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 it’s great that jewelers like Doubleday pride themselves on only buying ARM certified metals, we prefer it when others (like Melissa Joy Manning) go even 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.
Can 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.
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 does not 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 jewelry then?
Basically, it defines any jewelry house that:
- uses recycled or upcycled metals, gems and other components to create new pieces of jewelry
- refuses to use parts of endangered animals or plants
- ensures fair pay throughout the supply chain
Ultimately, whether chosen from an internationally known jeweler, vintage retailer or an artisanal creator, one thing is certain: our choices in jewelry are usually emotionally driven, and buying pieces that are as clean and clear as your conscious surely makes them all the more beautiful.
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