Why is it so hard to be ethical in the coloured gemstone industry?

Sometimes it takes stepping back from a situation to really get a handle on where you are with things. Hence why I’m staring out of a tiny plane window, looking at the blindingly white clouds and writing the first blog article for The Rock Hound.

It seems like over the last 6 months or so we have been trying to distill our core principles with help from various leaders within the ethical world. We have heard so many sides to this complex topic and have had many debates with friends within and outside of the industry. The one thing that is undoubtedly obvious, is that things need to change. How would you feel if you knew that the gemstone in your ring, given as a token of love, had been mined by a 14 year old boy who had to work a 24 hour shift, 500m underground, by the light of his head-torch and who may not have even been paid because they hadn’t hit the seam yet? If it were me, I wouldn’t want to wear it.

Descending into a moonstone mine - Meetiyagoda, Sri Lanka

One of the first topics I learnt about when I started studying Gemmology was the virtues of gemstones, which have elevated them to the standing they have today - beauty, rarity and durability. Ultimately they are just rocks, but because they can withstand the cutting techniques we’ve learnt and we are able to fashion them in such a way as to harness their innate light reflecting properties, they are now coveted all around the world. But the fact that they are so rare and so hard to get to, turns this into a pull-supply chain, with the demand encouraging people to go to further lengths and take further risks to satisfy the supply.  

But why is it only now that people are starting to take an interest and ask where they come from? Everyday in the supermarket we check labels, think about food miles and try to buy local. It’s only with our new consumer power that organic, locally grown food is now elbowing out everything else and gaining more shelf space. So why, when we are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on a gemstone, do people feel they shouldn’t use that same duty of care with their purchase? Perhaps it is because it is not directly affecting their lives, nor that of their neighbour – well this is the crux of the issue, because the mining of these gemstones has a great affect on many people’s lives, whether good or bad.

Diamond mining is almost always a large-scale mining operation with big names involved such as De Beers or Rio Tinto. The gemstone pipeline (from source to consumer) in such an industry is complex and has its own inherited problems. These arose from diamonds being used as hard currency to fund conflict, civil wars and human rights abuses in certain African countries; but has been resolved with many countries now having strict export license procedures. This, combined with a system of warranties, provides a voluntary system of industry self-regulation whereby members of certain organisations promise to adhere to certain buying and selling principles declaring

“The diamonds herein invoiced have been purchased from legitimate sources not involved in funding conflict and in compliance with United Nations resolutions. The seller hereby guarantees that these diamonds are conflict free, based on personal knowledge and/or written guarantees provided by the supplier of these diamonds.”

Miners heading out for the afternoon dig - Umba, Tanzania 

However, the coloured gemstone supply chain is an entirely different structure with artisanal and small-scale mining operations producing approximately 80% of the coloured gemstones worldwide spread over around 50 countries. Since many deposits are alluvial, mining for coloured gemstones can be as simple as one or two miners with a shovel, pick axe and shifter. They might be working under the license of a mine owner who owns the rights to mine that area or they can be unlicensed and often migratory. Since this is such a vast and scattered method of mining it is hard to verify the numbers involved but according to the Communities and Small-Scale mining program, when estimating across all mining industries “at least 20 million people in some 50 countries around the world engage in artisanal and small-scale mining, and a further 100 million people depend on it for their livelihood”.

The rough gems then get passed between brokers, traders, dealer and many middlemen before they go on to be cut and polished. It is this nature of the industry, together with the mining-methods, that makes traceability and transparency much harder as gems might change hands many times before they are even exported out of the country of source. On top of this each country has its own nuances with regards to the accepted way of doing things, even a certain etiquette which may be how things have been done for many generations between established and trustworthy trading connections, often with no paper-trail.

This is why the term Responsible Sourcing is used as a starting point; these supply chains are so complicated and vary depending on the stone type, country of origin and method of mining. By being “responsible” we can ask for assurances at whichever stage of the process we buy the stones. If buying directly at the source, from say the mine owner, it is easier to verify the working conditions and safety standards as well as their environmental practises. Even a couple of steps down the line, from say a broker in Arusha, you should be able to get a level of assurance through asking the right questions and giving them support. If however you’re buying the stone after it has changed hands eight to ten times, this is practically impossible.

Ratnapura Gem Market - Ratnapura, Sri Lanka

A common practise now is the reverse locality certification, whereby a dealer has bought a gemstone many stages down the line. However through the testing and observation of the internal characteristics and inclusions of the stone they are able to pinpoint the origin. This can make a sapphire far more valuable if, for example you have a cert to verify it’s from Sri Lanka. This can be deceptive for traceability because the stone may have easily have been bought by the dealer in Thailand.

If you’re not buying the rough gemstones as we do, the next stage of cutting and polishing can happen within the country of source or they can be sent off to a global cutting centre. The former is preferential since the uplift in price made when the stone is cut is then kept in the source country’s economy but the later is the general route with the main factories being Thailand, India or China with additional operations in Sri Lanka and well as high end lapidary work being carried out in Idar-Oberstein or the USA. From there, gems traverse the globe through wholesalers and dealers to be bought by jewellers and manufacturers to transform them into wearable jewellery.

Gemstone dealer - Tanzania

This is why it is up to consumers and jewellers alike to use due diligence when buying coloured gemstones. Through these responsible purchasing activities, we can create leverage to be able to open up supply chains through which we can monitor our suppliers and influence change if need be. When starting down this path I had many people ask if this was going to be possible. Often suppliers are secretive with their source information; understandably protecting who or where their suppliers are since they will have built up these relationships over many years and wouldn’t want anyone to come in and supersede them. But just like the rest of the gemstone and jewellery industry, these supply chains need to be built on trust so that people are working together from mine to market to bring about these crucial changes.