By stocking gems and jewels that are sustainably and ethically sourced, you are boosting your potential for sales, attracting millennial buyers, and doing right by the trade
The federal government’s proposed regulations for the seafood industry, which would require the trade to trace its products from harvest or production to the point where they enter into U.S. commerce, make gemstone dealer Eric Braunwart nervous. If fishermen are admonished for underreporting catches and casting lines where they shouldn’t, the global jewelry trade, and its host of Pandora’s box issues—from environmental damage at mines to working conditions at jewelry factories—is bound to draw the attention of regulators.
“It’s a lot harder to trace the origin of shrimp than it is to trace gemstones,” says Braunwart, president and CEO of Columbia Gem House Inc., a longtime seller of ethically acquired gems.
Rough ruby from the Aappaluttoq Deposit
That being said, the only way to ensure your business is in good standing with the government—not to mention with socially responsible consumers—is to promote ethically and sustainably sourced materials and a transparent supply chain. Some efforts to help you do that are already in place: The Kimberley Process ensures that diamonds do not come from conflict sources, while section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires public companies to disclose whether minerals like gold and titanium are extracted from conflict regions.
Colored stones, however, have long been the jewelry industry’s Achilles’ heel.
Aside from the 2008 Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act, which prohibits imports of ruby and jade from Burma/Myanmar, colored stones aren’t subject to the jurisdiction of any group and, as a result, have largely fallen through the regulation cracks. But there are signs things are changing. Last year, a State Department expert on conflict diamonds was named special adviser, conflict minerals and precious stones, proving the government is showing interest in the gem sector.
Dawes Design Mineral collection 18k gold necklace with 9 ct. opaque emerald, 0.23 ct. t.w. green-apple diamond halo, and 8 ct. emerald crystal; $10,575
The timing is right. In recent years, the movement to promote ethical sourcing has gained momentum, as millennial buyers—widely believed to be more concerned than previous generations about where products originate and how they have come to market—have become more influential at the retail counter. Indeed, 75 percent of consumers ages 18 to 35 say corporate philanthropy is important, according to a survey released in January by online publication Elite Daily and consulting firm Millennial Branding.
“If we’re trying to get a new narrative for our products to compete with iPhones, let’s make it that we are producing gemstones in a manner that benefits a lot of people, and we can show you who and how we’re helping,” Braunwart says. “This will add emotional value to gems in a way that electronics cannot.”
To start, the trade will soon see its first Jewelry Industry Summit dedicated to responsible sourcing issues. Organized by Braunwart, Jewelers Vigilance Committee president and CEO Cecilia Gardner, and Ben Bridge Jeweler vice president of education Lisa Bridge, the event is scheduled for early 2016 (visit jewelryindustrysummit.com for information).
“Consumers want to support businesses and causes they believe in, and want to know the companies they are buying from and what they stand for,” Bridge says. “Millennials are driving this.… We are fortunate we have stories to tell.”
By placing these causes front and center, organizers hope to create a voluntary set of guidelines for a more transparent and better-supported supply chain, and to support ethical sourcing proponents—such as Forevermark diamonds, Fairmined gold, and the providers of recycled metals—who already have measures in place to guarantee the origin of their products.
Tracking from the ground up
Mineral collection 18k gold hammered band with 5.91 ct. raw-edge blue tourmaline and 38 white diamonds; $11,000; Dawes Design, Santa Rosa, Calif.; 888-802-0880; dawes-design.com
Tracing the path colored stones take to market is far more complicated than tracking diamonds and gold. About 80 percent of global diamond sales come from four producers—De Beers, Alrosa, Rio Tinto, and Dominion. “Color is more like 95 percent small producers,” Braunwart says. “A lot of the color people are on the ground.”
And because gemstone producers are so fragmented, there’s little data to help make sense of the market. “There’s no knowing what comes out of the ground unless you get export numbers from various governments,” says Hayley Henning, vice president of marketing and development for True North Gems, a Canadian company mining rubies in Greenland. True North is implementing its own “Ruby Track” system to make its goods traceable using bar-coded security seals on packages and built-in biometric identification. But most colored stones pass through far less sophisticated channels on their trip to the retail counter.
The biggest hurdle to progress is education—at both the trade and consumer levels. Terms like sustainability mean different things to different people. Mining, for example, is inherently unsustainable, but the economies that surround mining towns can be supported. “Villages spring up because mines are there to sustain them,” says Deborah Spencer, co-owner, designer, and goldsmith at Trios Studio in Lake Oswego, Ore. She cites Braunwart’s ruby mine in Malawi; a school, wells, and teacher housing were added to the existing small town to benefit miners and their families.
Progress at the retail level
As more retailers begin taking responsibility for their sourcing decisions, they are challenging the long-held notion that vendors are the ones who bear the onus of accountability. “The products our industry sells come from some of the most difficult and dangerous places on the planet, and we have an obligation to prove that what we sell doesn’t cause harm to others,” says Brian Leber of Leber Jeweler Inc. in Chicago, a pioneering promoter of social responsibility in the jewelry trade.
Leber puts his money where his mouth is. Not only does he sell the Earthwise jewelry collection of conflict-free diamonds, responsibly sourced gemstones from community-based mining projects worldwide, and environmentally conscious precious metals, but he has also lobbied in Washington, D.C., in favor of the Burma ruby sanctions, sometimes drawing criticism from his peers. “I’m troubled that so many important concepts and ideas get bundled as buzzwords,” he says. “If it can’t be sourced responsibly, then we don’t sell it; I’d rather lose sales than lose sleep.”
But ethical questions don’t begin and end at the source. The whole jewelry supply chain needs to be accountable. Are stonecutters dying of silicosis? How is mercury being transported to mines? Are jewelry factories employing underage workers? When Lita Asscher, president of Royal Asscher of America Inc., debuted her Stars of Africa line, she had the samples made in a Chinese factory—until her team paid the factory a visit. “We found out it was a sweatshop,” she says. “The good news is that we found a manufacturer in the U.S. with great working conditions.”
There’s also the delicate matter of positioning. Calling one product responsible suggests that the other pieces in a retailer’s inventory are not, vexing merchants who fear that consumers will be confused or turned off from making other purchases.
Bario Neal ring in 18k Fairmined gold with zultanite (ethically sourced from Turkey); $630
“Our jewelry has to benefit everyone in the supply chain,” says Anna Bario, co-designer of Bario Neal, which wholesales and has a storefront in Philadelphia. She suggests the best way to earn consumers’ trust is by being honest. “Tell customers that there isn’t a perfect solution yet, but you’re invested in helping to find a solution,” Bario says.
For like-minded retailers, it’s important to research suppliers, ask them to verify where they source their goods, and then advertise the ones with whom you choose to work. “Like Fair Trade coffee and chocolate, you have to market it,” says Mary Wong, a co-owner, designer, and goldsmith at Trios Studio.
The biggest mistake you can make is neglecting responsible sourcing. “Millennials demand it, and they will be your customer soon,” Braunwart says.