We all want it, and we may even think we know how to define it. But what is ethical jewelry, exactly?
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 ethical jewelry? What’s meant by that term? How is it defined?
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 corporations might argue, it’s pretty much impossible to source newly mined metals and gems that could be considered ‘sustainable’. And if something’s not sustainable, can it be ethical, then?
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 conflict areas now only account for 1% of such gems in the world, (down from 15% in 1990), few today deny that this Process is far from a watertight solution. Although there’s definitely increased consumer 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 truly know the origins of any diamond, and that’s especially true given the fact that ethical ‘certification’ can be very easily faked. Even well-known ‘green’ jewelers have been discovered to have been selling what are potentially conflict diamonds. Conclusion? There is no such thing as an ethical diamond – unless it’s a synthetic diamond, made in a lab. If you’re looking for a stone that you know for sure is conflict free, that’s your best bet.
But blood diamonds are just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad ethical issues with the creation of jewelry, 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.
After diamonds, gold is especially ‘dirty’. Arsenic and mercury are often used 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.
For those reasons, an increasing number of jewelers, such as Saskia Dietz and Melissa Joy Manning, have decided that it would be more ethical and ecologically friendly to create jewelry made in their own studios with their own hands, using recycled silver and gold or pre-existing pieces as a base.
While recycled metals seem like a good idea, the truth is that these materials don’t always come from old pieces, or ethical sources. Conscious consumers take note.
Additionally, 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. If you’re looking for ethically sourced coloured stones and crystals, you should ensure they come from a certified, traceable source. Otherwise, you can assume they’re not in any way sustainable or ethical.
Which Gold Is Most Brilliant?
Luckily, tracing the origins of metals is much easier than it is for gems, 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, Doubleday proudly explains that her ‘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.
Meri Geraldine, founder of Gardens of the Sun, also sources precious metals and gemstones directly from indigenous miners in the country she works in. Local miners have mined for generations using traditional low impact panning methods. They would walk down to the river every morning to collect alluvial sand and then pan it to separate the gold from the dirt.
“We’ve connected with a group of indigenous women and asked them to replace toxic mercury and cyanide with cleaner techniques,” says Meri Geraldine. Mercury and cyanide are cheap chemicals used to help separate gold faster. In exchange for ditching those toxic chemicals, Gardens of the Sun offers premium prices for the miners, hands-on training, and scholarships to their children.
Meri believes using responsibly sourced gold is more ethical than using recycled gold, since its origins are known, and it’s more transformative to the people working along the supply chain. Stuart Pool, a gemologist and co-founder of the ethical gemstone company Nineteen48 Ltd, agrees. He says, “Gemstone mining and cutting can offer livelihoods to people in places where employment options are sometimes quite limited.”
While some may argue that recycled metals are an important part of the circular economy and may reduce demand for new metals, others maintain that this is nonsense.
Jeweler Marc Choyt, for example, states that because gold is a currency hedge, and is approaching $2000 an ounce in price, large-scale mines will continue to destroy the environment with massive industrial holes in the earth as long as they can make money doing so.
He also confirms that small-scale mining is different. It will continue as long as the miners need to feed themselves and their families. It too will massively expand as the price of gold rises with global instability due to COVID-19.
So, What IS Ethical Jewelry?
So, how can we define ethical jewelry then?
Clearly, no mined metal or gemstone is without its issues. The most ethical jewelry is vintage jewelry; existing pieces that still hold beauty. After that, having old jewelry upcycled into new pieces is also highly sustainable.
But ultimately it goes back to you and your values. For us, ‘ethical jewelry’ defines any brand that:
- refuses to use parts of endangered animals or plants, such as shark’s teeth, ivory (even mammoth ivory), coral, ebony or leather
- ensures fair pay throughout the supply chain
- is FairTrade or Fairmined certified
- seeks to understand the origin of the stone or metals and actively visits mining sites to ensure they’re engaging in eco-friendly and ethical processes
- makes their diamonds in a lab
But that’s just us. Other experts have differing perspectives. For example, Dr. Martina Olbert, Founder & CEO of Meaning.Global and a world leading luxury expert, says:
“When you look at the differentiating aspects of ethical jewelry, three dimensions come to mind.
- First, is respect for customers and their health. Is your jewelry made of pure materials that are non-toxic and don’t cause allergies on the skin?
- Secondly, is the notion of longevity and durability of your jewelry, If it’s truly ethical and sustainable, it should be made to last.
- Lastly is the idea of timelessness. As with fashion you want to make sure that your pieces are not disposable.”
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.
All images courtesy VANLELES.