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  • 18-karat hoops by Toby Pomeroy. He created the“Mercury Free Mining Challenge”offering US$1 million for the discovery of an affordable, environmentally-friendly means to separate gold from its ore-body. (Photo: Toby Pomeroy)
  • Some groups are providing help to artisanal miners, such as this retort that allows mercury to be safely recycled during the separation process. (Photo: Marc Choyt, Reflective Images)
  • Wedding rings in Fair Trade gold, sapphire and diamonds by Reflective Images. (Photo: Marc Choyt)
  • One of the non-mine activities that Fura Gems started in Colombia is a locally-run bakery. (Photo: Fura Gems)

The evolution of ethics in the jewellery industry

By Cynthia Unninayar

As journalists attending Baselworld, we receive many invitations to press events and conferences highlighting the latest watch or newest jewellery collection by any number of brands. Some 16-17 years ago, one invitation particularly attracted my attention. It wasn’t the usual cocktail or meet-and-greet from one of Baselworld’s many prestigious exhibitors. It was from a Swiss NGO telling the stories of three individuals they brought over from China and India who were dying of silicosis because they worked in the gem-cutting industry. 

The conference was in a small room near the fair. With such a serious topic, I arrived early to be sure to have a seat. After all, something of this importance would surely attract many of the 3,000 journalists who covered Baselworld.

Well, that wasn’t the case. Surprisingly, only three came — or maybe not so surprisingly. In those days, few people talked about the non-glamorous — you might even call it the dark side of the jewellery industry. As you might imagine, the presentation was not pleasant, with the dramatic stories of each of the two men and a woman (whose husband, a worker in the same factory, had died earlier of silicosis). They described the unsafe, deplorable conditions for cutting gems that would later be used in beautiful jewels.

The moderator even named the companies who employed these individuals, and one exhibited at Baselworld! [On a personal note, I tried talking to the company during Baselworld and later at the JCK show, but once I introduced myself as a journalist, they turned away.]

One of the three journalists who attended the NGO conference said she would write up something for the fair’s Daily News. Good, I thought. Perhaps attention would start a discussion, especially since Baselworld had a “requirement” that exhibitors abide by certain basic human rights, and this exhibitor was in clear violation. Another surprise—or not—was that the Daily News allowed her only a mention that the conference had taken place, but no specific details. Apparently, the dark side would remain dark awhile longer.

A couple years later, at a jewellery show in the United States, I passed the booth of a small company from Oregon, proclaiming “no dirty gold” in their jewels. Owner Toby Pomeroy explained his efforts to make fine jewellery with as little impact on the miners and the environment as possible. At that time, however, he and a few other designers were small voices in a vast wilderness. 

What a difference a decade makes

The voices of Pomeroy and other designers, along with more press coverage, began moving the topic of “dirty gold” out of the wilderness. Increasingly, designers, retailers and consumers were becoming aware of the plight of artisanal gold miners and their exposure to the poisonous effects of mercury, cyanide and other chemicals during the extraction of gold. 

Concerned about miners and the environment, organisations such as Fair Trade Gold and Silver were formed that provide an avenue of distribution for artisanal small-scale miners (ASM) by connecting them to ethically minded designers. These miners guarantee traceability in the value chain, as well as standards on working conditions, health, safety and more. In return, they are given a certain market price plus a premium to invest in their businesses and communities.

Jewellers also starting turning to one of the largest refiners in the United States, Hoover & Strong, which began offering “Harmony Metals,” a category of recycled gold and silver, now one of its most popular divisions. Next came “Harmony Artisanal Metals,” which supports ASM communities in Congo, Colombia and Peru, with its socially responsible Fairmined and Fairtrade gold. Its “eco” divisions also include “Harmony Recycled Diamonds.”

Diamonds were the first jewellery sector to attract worldwide attention in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of human rights organisations. Diamonds used to finance brutal civil wars in central Africa were dubbed “blood diamonds,” which stained the entire industry.

Consequently, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was established in 2003. With 81 countries participating, the KPCS imposes requirements on its members to certify shipments of rough diamonds as “conflict-free.” The 2006 movie Blood Diamond catapulted the term into the general consciousness and jewellers began promoting conflict-free Canadian and Australian diamonds. While the successes and failures of the KPCS continue to be hotly debated, it does not address the overall notion of “ethics.”

  An estimated 15 percent of diamonds are mined from alluvial sources by artisanal miners, sometimes in unsafe working conditions with severe environmental degradation.

Complementary to the KPCS, the non-profit Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) was established in 2005, following discussions by governments, NGOs and the diamond industry to address the social and economic issues faced by millions of impoverished artisanal diamond diggers in Africa and South America.

Also created in 2005 by 14 members of the gold and diamond value chain was the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). Its goal is to build a responsible supply chain that promotes trust in the global jewellery and watch industry. Currently, RJC has some 1,100 members.

While ASM accounts for some 15 percent of diamond mining, artisanal miners produce about 80 percent of coloured gemstones. This year, the RJC launched a new Code of Practices that expands its scope to include some coloured gems (rubies, emeralds and sapphires) and silver.

Despite its assertions, the RJC is not without detractors. Human Rights Watch (HRW), among others, contends that its standards allow companies to be certified even if they fail to support basic human rights or provide adequate transparency.

To illustrate, the HRW conducted a survey in 2018 of 13 major jewellery companies and their efforts at responsible sourcing. Its report states that five — Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora, Signet and Tiffany — have made public their code of conduct for suppliers. Yet, none can trace all of their gold and diamonds to their mines of origin. Tiffany has, however, full chain of custody for gold from the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah in the United States. The four others have a chain of custody for part of their gold supply. Pandora and Christ use mostly recycled gold.

For responsible sourcing, the HRW survey ranked the 13 companies as follows: Excellent: None; Strong: Tiffany & Co; Moderate: Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora, Signet; Weak: Boodles, Chopard, Christ, Harry Winston; Very Weak: Tanishq. Three —Kalyan, Rolex and TBZ — provided no information, so were not rated. 

Doing well by doing good

The intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued recommendations for responsible sourcing laid out in its OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. “Demonstrating responsible sourcing can lead to increasing a company’s consumer base,” says Luca Maiotti, Policy Analyst, OECD. “A recent survey of OECD millennial consumers found that 70 percent are willing to pay more for goods that are responsibly sourced.”

Eric Braunwart, founder of US-based Columbia Gem House (CGH), affirms that most consumers like the idea of “ethical” jewellery. “One of our customers did a “Fair Trade” promotion where they gave a discount on purchases, but offered buyers the opportunity to use that discount to help build a school and clinic in Malawi,” he says, adding that most buyers donated the discount to the Malawi project. He noted, too, that when offered two identical stones, customers would generally pay extra for the one that helps local mining communities.

What are companies doing to source gemstones responsibly? Quite a bit, it turns out. To give three examples, UK-based industrial miner Gemfields has major operations in Zambia (emeralds) and Mozambique (rubies), where it controls the supply chain from mine to market — or auction, in this case — to provide full transparency to buyers. Similarly, Dubai-based Fura Gems, with operations in Colombia (emeralds) and Mozambique (rubies), as well as MTC Muzo (Colombia) have full control over the value chain. All three also invest in non-mine community activities as well as paying taxes, providing additional revenue to the governments.

Aside from industrial miners, some smaller dealers/miners make responsible sourcing — and social outreach — a major part of their operations. CGH is one example. When Braunwart partnered with a ruby mine in Malawi 20 years ago, he earmarked some of the profits for improving the local community. “NGOs and various grants can start programs, but when the money runs out, it’s over,” he says. “Making community services financially reliant on the success or failure of the mine creates a shared responsibility and vested interest for everyone.” He also created a community group to include everyone in the decision-making process. CGH now has exclusive agreements with many mines, and was the first to adopt the Fair Trade Gems® protocol, i.e. complete chain-of-custody documentation on every gemstone. 

Beyond the mine

Beginning with raw materials, the challenges continue throughout the supply chain. When gems are faceted, fine dust is created. If adequate ventilation and safety gear aren’t available, cutters breathe in this dust, ultimately damaging their lungs, often resulting in silicosis.

A recent effort to combat silicosis is a collaborative project by the American Gem Traders Association (AGTA), Workplace Health and Safety without Borders (WHSB), the University of Delaware and the University of Queensland. It is part of the work of the Gemstones and Sustainable Development Hub, funded by the Tiffany & Co Foundation. Representatives visited workshops in Jaipur—one of the world’s largest cutting centres—and determined that dust and noise were the main risks facing stonecutters. They then produced educational resources and ways to minimize these risks.

While these solutions came too late to save the cutters we met in Baselworld nearly two decades ago, they will surely help save the lives of stonecutters in the future.

Jewellery is more than just beautiful adornment. It’s also a feel-good purchase because it can make a positive difference in the lives of those along the entire value chain. Starting as a grassroots movement, socially responsible supply chains are now mainstream, demanded by jewellers and consumers alike. Yet, although much progress has been made, the evolution of ethics in the jewellery industry continues.

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