Retail jewelers who can document where their colored stones inventory was mined and how it was fashioned will have an advantage over those who don’t, as consumers become more particular about how their gems came to market.
As a first step, retailers can focus on U.S. and Canadian gemstones, where environmental policies, workers’ rights, and mine-to-market transparency are standard practice.
A second step is sourcing gems that follow fair-trade protocols. Eric Braunwart, president of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Wash., has been the leader of the Fair Trade Gems movement since he created it 10 years ago, and he’s finally seeing his efforts start to pay off. “It appears that we are just now beginning to understand the true meaning of what this all means, and what it might take for this to actually work,” he says.
Braunwart believes it will take many individual efforts to show the rest of the industry the benefits of change. It’s still an uphill battle. Recently, someone made a comment to him about artisanal miners being better off than the unemployed because they’re not starving as fast. “But just because he’s starving more slowly, does that mean I am absolved from a moral responsibility to at least see if there might not be some small way I can help that might give him and his family some hope?” Braunwart asks.
“As I have said many times, no one buys jewelry because it will keep the rain off, cure a sore throat, or fuel their car,” he says. “They buy it and deal in it for love, hope, and/or beauty. These are all beautiful emotions in one way or another, so what are we selling? Emotions! So does a positive story of love, hope, and beauty all along the supply chain make our products more beautiful, more hopeful, more full of love? I think, unequivocally, yes.”
Braunwart believes the jewelry industry has its best chance in 25 years to turn jewelry into a luxury product with no equal—and, at the same time, seize the moral high ground. “We can regain part of our market lost to iPods, flat-screen TVs, and fancy cruises by providing more than just jewelry,” he says. “With the jewelry, we can provide love, hope, and beauty all along the supply chain and engage the consumer in this. We can give them a vehicle that will help them contribute just that little bit extra and still enjoy beautiful jewelry. We can make them heroes with beautiful jewelry, and I don’t know how a flat-screen TV is going to do that.”
CORAL AND CONCH
Consumers love the look and feel of coral—coral beads, coral inlay, coral branches. Two locations account for virtually all of the white, red, orange, pink, and angel-skin corals: the East China Sea, from Taipei, Taiwan, to Tosa Shimizu, Japan, and the Mediterranean Sea, from Italy to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
Over the next several months, however, retail jewelers should expect consumers to question their support of an industry that may be destroying the ocean floor and causing extinction of living organisms.
Currently, only a few select Hawaiian jewelry corals are on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, aka the Washington Convention), but there’s a movement afoot to protect all jewelry corals. The aim of CITES “is to ensure that the survival of wild animals and plants is not threatened by international trade,” says Maggie C. Pedersen, author, organic gem materials expert, and publisher of the online Organic Gems magazine.
Just because it’s not on the list, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected. “Coral is not a plant,” Pedersen explains. “It’s a colony of minute animals called polyps.” Coral branches are the animals’ exoskeleton, and they grow very slowly. “In some areas of the world it has been fished out,” Pedersen says. “In other areas the stocks are fine and trade is permitted.”
It’s important to note that CITES applies only to international trade. For example, blue coral, used in fish tanks and household decor, is listed in the CITES appendix, but it’s still available for purchase in many countries. The same is true of black corals—some are protected, some are not.
SeaWeb.org is a communications-based nonprofit organization that uses social marketing techniques to advance ocean conservation. “Corals are among the most important animals in the sea,” notes its Web site. “They provide marine life with food, safe havens from predators, and areas for reproduction.”
“SeaWeb invites jewelers to help protect corals in a way that fits within their business goals,” says Dawn Martin, president of SeaWeb.org. “We encourage them to think creatively about how sustainable practices can benefit both their business and the ocean.”
Martin says jewelers can help protect the ocean by designing and selling coral-inspired products, rather than items made from the real thing. “Beautiful alternatives exist, such as jewelry inspired by nature but made from silver, gold, resin, wood, or even glass—all of which celebrate the beauty of the ocean without harming it,” Martin says.
“Other companies can join us by making a pledge to completely stop selling coral, like Tiffany & Co. did,” says Martin. “To have an even greater impact they can educate their customers about the reasons behind their sustainable business practices.
“Now is the time to raise awareness,” says Linda Buckley, Tiffany’s vice president for public relations. “Tiffany believes that jewelers have an obligation to act to protect coral reefs through eliminating the use of coral in jewelry.”
Tiffany has not sold coral since 2003. “At the time, we were not comfortable with the idea that coral harvesting was sustainable, and so we adopted a cautionary principle to stop selling it,” Buckley says. “We were virtually alone among retail jewelers in not using this precious material in our collections.”
The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, formed in 2000, has supported coral reef conservation and research programs. “The Tiffany & Co. Foundation is now supporting SeaWeb and their ‘Too Precious to Wear’ campaign to bring greater awareness to this important issue, while there is still time to act to save corals,” says Buckley.
Michael Aram is a sculptor and designer in Manhattan who creates coral-inspired objects using cast recycled aluminum and enamels. “I think of coral reefs as the rain forest of the sea,” Aram says. “We see rain forests, and we understand their beauty, their hidden secrets. We have the same thing in coral reefs—the animals that inhabit the reefs, the corals themselves. There’s so much architecture, so much life, so much color. The ocean is a habitat that we just don’t see. It’s out of sight, out of mind for most of us. We’re sadly insensitive to it.
“We know that the coral jewel used in a piece of jewelry is a very small amount of coral. But the amount you have to harvest and destroy to get that small piece is very significant,” he adds. “The cost to our environment is too much.”
Some in the coral business have a different perspective. “The coral industry is a highly regulated industry,” says Jason Lu, of the New York office of Lucoral, part of Taiwan-based Lucoral/Lupearl, one of the largest suppliers of Japanese/Taiwanese and Mediterranean corals. “It’s heavily controlled by the U.S. government and Model United Nations regulations. They do control which areas you are allowed to fish. All coral imports and exports are controlled, and only licensed coral distributors can import coral into the United States,” says Lu.
Roben Hagobian, owner of R.H. & Co., agrees with Lu. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Hagobian says, referring to SeaWeb. “There is enough coral for everyone in the world.” Hagobian says SeaWeb tried to ban coral in Europe but was unsuccessful.
“There are all kinds of corals,” Hagobian explains. “Jewelry corals are deep-sea corals, and not included in the Washington Convention.” Coral from coral reefs—i.e., shallow corals—aren’t used in jewelry, says Hagobian.
The Queen Conch, which yields white cameo material with a dark brownish background, is also on the CITES list. Maggie Pedersen explains why: “Some animals may seem plentiful to the tourist, like the Queen Conch in Florida and the Caribbean, but, in fact, they are now becoming threatened.”
On rare occasion, the Queen Conch gives up a pink non-nacreous pearl, but Pedersen notes that it isn’t threatened by the jewelry industry—it’s endangered by the food industry. “Always a local delicacy, it has now become a must-have in some of the Far Eastern countries,” she explains.” The Queen Conch is now listed under CITES Appendix II, and fishing for conch is forbidden in some areas, but they are still being caught and eaten.”