Playing Fair

Eric Braunwart believes gem-mining operations shouldn’t exploit children or pollute the environment and should pay miners a decent living wage. He also thinks retailers and consumers should be able to have confidence that a gemstone’s origin and its route from mine to market are legitimate.

Braunwart isn’t a pie-in-the-sky dreamer. He’s the chief executive officer of Columbia Gem House and jewelry division Trigem Designs in Vancouver, Wash., and he has a plan and a program to back up his vision. It’s called Fair Trade Gems, and it’s modeled on the more-familiar Fair Trade Coffee, a program that assures coffee farmers a decent living wage. In addition, most Fair Trade coffee, tea, and chocolate in the U.S. market is certified organic and shade grown, meaning the products maintain bio- diversity, provide shelter for migratory birds, and help reduce global warming.


Any discussion of Fair Trade Gems raises an obvious question: How will it affect prices?

Braunwart has an answer: He believes that with proper promotion and education—especially about the many exotic locales from which gems originate—the value of Fair Trade Gems to consumers will rise, eliminating price as an issue.

“We can talk about the relative rarity, but also the culture, people, and land that produced these precious colored gemstones,” he says. “Most of the people in the world will never be able to actually travel to these exotic, beautiful places, nor meet the people or experience the culture and environment from which they come. We can give them the opportunity to vicariously see and experience these places and people through the purchase of a small piece from nature, their own precious colored gemstone.”

Braunwart also believes that growing concern about environmental protection will encourage consumers to want to buy Fair Trade Gems. “This issue is becoming important to every person on earth,” he says. “We need to talk about the beauty of the location where the precious gem came from and explain our desires to maintain this natural beauty.”

Braunwart adds, “Price isn’t everything. You’re selling emotion—support for other people.” He says retailers need to find ways to inspire consumers to look at these emotional benefits of the product and not just the price.


Braunwart is a successful businessman who has managed to incorporate his vision of a better world into his business plan.

“In building my company’s marketing and branding plan, we looked at the mines we worked with, the people involved, the beauty and history of the products, the culture and clothing of the people who cut the stones, and, just as important, the needs and desires of the consumers who will buy them,” he says. “We wrote it down; we worked with our alliance partners to help them understand the reasons for doing this plan, to build desire and instill confidence in the consumer, and then added in a natural human desire to help others.”

Part of that effort was to incorporate consumer education and treatment transparency into a set of supply-chain goals. Braunwart calls the result the Fair Trade Gems Protocols:

1.Consumer education and fair value. Columbia Gem House provides retailers with information cards to distribute to their customers and gives them a fair price that still provides for Fair Trade assistance.

2.Full information and disclosure for consumers. Braunwart says his company does more than just disclose enhancements. “We discuss the impact these treatments have on rarity, durability, and beauty,” he says, noting that it requires full knowledge about every step taken along the supply chain.

3.Product integrity. “If we are not clear as to what our product is and what treatments it has undergone, how can the consumer be clear?” Braunwart asks.

4.Fair labor conditions. “Explain to the consumers how their decision to purchase one of nature’s most beautiful gifts helps support others down the line,” Braunwart says. “This meets the consumer’s desire to help others.” The important corollary is to work to make sure the people producing gemstones are fairly treated.

5.Cultural diversity and appreciation. This transcends the consumer’s desire to own a rare piece of beauty by associating it with the beauty and uniqueness of the landscape and people that produced it.

6.Environmental protection. “The foot- print of gemstone mining is usually small, but we can all try to improve and restore this footprint,” Braunwart says. He also points out that there are chemicals and supplies used in gemstone cutting and jewelry manufacturing that need to be addressed.

Just before the end of 2005, the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2) and WWF International released a set of principles, improved standards, and best practices they say could lead to more responsible mining of hard-rock minerals. If key elements of the Framework for Responsible Mining are adopted, many of the worst affects of mining will be eliminated.

7.Supply-chain transparency. “Without this transparency, the consumer is not able to know where a stone is from or how a treatment is done,” says Braunwart. He suggests that abiding by the PATRIOT Act provides a way to make a virtue of necessity: “Turn it to your advantage and make it a travelogue of beautiful precious colored gemstones and not just a record proving our industry did not support terrorism or illegal trade.”


Brian Leber, of Leber Jeweler, a third-generation retail jeweler from Western Springs, Ill., is involved in Fair Trade Gems. “Our industry tends to be very complacent, behind the times,” Leber says. “What Eric is doing is very important. Adding 25 cents a carat to a stone that supports Fair Trade is really not a difficult cost.”

So far, Leber’s customers have been receptive. “I think with jewelry it’s not something they’ve thought about, but there’s interest in it,” he says. “Now they’re thinking about Fair Trade clothes, with names like Nike and Levi’s. The general public, given the clear choice, will choose something that has been ethically produced.”

Earl Allen and Debra Savage of 1700 Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif., want to put “emotion, art, heart, and soul back into the industry,” and Fair Trade Gems is part of their vision.

“I remember talking with Eric in his office when we first started talking Fair Trade,” Allen says. “We didn’t know if or how many people would want to participate but decided even if it was just us, we would start it and try and get the word out to the consumer, who in turn would drive it to the retailer.”

Allen says Fair Trade is a big part of his and Savage’s business. “We’re currently making two engagement rings for couples, both of whom came to our store strictly because we are a Fair Trade Gem supporter,” he says. “We’ve sold Fair Trade Gems to clients from Japan, Australia, and Canada, as well as people from all over the United States.

Allen says that as he and Savage build their brands and expand to other locations, all their trade and consumer advertising will feature the Fair Trade logo and all their locations will prominently feature Fair Trade Gems. “We don’t do it because we have to,” he says “We do it because we love this industry and we want to.”

For more information about Fair Trade Gems, Columbia Gem House, and retailers who sell Fair Trade Gems, visit or call (360) 514-0569. Information about 1700 Ocean can be found at