Fair Trade Diamonds Are Coming! (Not Really) (But Sort Of)

Perhaps because the problems surrounding the diamond industry have been so well-publicized, fair trade diamonds have long been considered the holy grail of the ethical jewelry business.

Yet, years after the concept was introduced, actual fair trade diamonds still haven’t arrived on jewelers’ shelves. This month, however, we saw a potentially historic development: The Diamond Development Initiative’s artisanal diamond standards have yielded their first gems. 

You can read about the DDI’s standards for diamond fields here. Informal mines produce 10 to 15 percent of our industry’s product, and provide some income for an estimated one million people. But they are notorious for their low wages, unhealthy conditions, and child labor. 

The DDI’s standards insure that whatever’s produced in these areas is done responsibly, with concern and fair wages for workers and respect for the environment. The fields’ compliance with these benchmarks is being monitored by local NGOs, which is the project’s biggest extra cost. Due to all the issues developing the standards, finding suitable mining regions, and even recruiting NGO monitors (some of whom were reluctant to get involved in the industry), it took years to get to this preliminary point.  

The first DDI-certified gems will emanate from four fields in Sierra Leone, and will be auctioned later this year (as polished) by the Netherlands-based company Open Source Minerals and related Jeweltree Foundation

Now, one could certainly call these ethical diamonds. But can you call them fair trade? DDI executive director Dorothee Gizenga notes that most fair trade labeling groups require there be organized cooperatives, which don’t exist in the diamond sector. Forming them “would too much of a burden for us,” she says.   

But Jeweltree’s founder Mike Angenent says, “This is just semantics. These are obviously fair trade stones.”

Yet semantics matter, particularly in marketing. For now, these stones will be sold as “development diamonds,” with documentation by DDI (if wanted). That obviously puts the stones at something of a disadvantage, since the term “fair trade” is widely known by consumers, but “development diamonds” is not. Still, one question this pilot project is attempting to answer is whether consumers really will pay a premium for an ethical diamond, even without the fair trade imprimatur. And if so, how much?

“We have people who swear to us that the customer wants this, that they have built a market for ethical diamonds,” says DDI manager of international projects Ngomesia Mayer-Kechom. “But we frankly have to wait and see.”

In the meantime, the DDI folks warn that people shouldn’t get their hopes up just yet, given how many attempts to do this have fizzled. Still, this is an exciting moment and it will be fascinating to watch it all play out.

Those interested can get in touch with Jeweltree and Open Source Minerals.

JCK News Director