First published in Gems & Jewellery, March 2015 edition.
I climb into Marc & Helen Choyts car, ankle-deep in snow and as we skid round the corners of Sante Fe’s slushy streets, we set the ‘sat nav‘ to Tucson gem show, some seven hours south into the desert of Arizona. Tucson is one of the biggest gem shows in the world and a Mecca for all lovers of coloured stone. As we drive we talk. The Roman straight desert roads disappear over the horizons of New Mexico and Arizona, and as the Interstate unfolds, it is in someway a fitting metaphor of the ethical jewellery challenges Marc and Helen and the 1000’s of other SME jewellers will face in the USA. Here the corporate business culture of The Responsible Jewellery Council is trying to dominate ethical definitions and dialogue around ethical performance in jewellery, but currently does very little to serve the real rank and file of the industry with its one size fits all philosophy. It is simply to elitist to be contextual and appropriate. Our ethical jewellery destination is always just over the horizon, seemingly always just out of reach, but we take encouragement from the strides that have recently been made in securing Fairtrade gold and the equitable economic settlement for the small miner and the mine to market traceability for the jeweller and their customer. But the endless desert road remains an indication of the distances we must continue to travel to achieve a jewellery story that has genuine integrity in its soul.
Conflict minerals and the politicized nature of so many well-intentioned initiatives for the jewellery sector, colours our road with a pastiche of mute tones and questions. As we talk we continually return to the simple truth that, for ethical change to have any meaning at all it must be rooted in transparency and traceability. Put another way, mine to market provenance must become the foundation on which we build a new consumer narrative, that in turn will cradle the financial value of our industry. If De Beers could manufacture a value associated to diamonds by removing the true story of the negative social impact of how that product came to market, why can we not do this in reverse? Can we create a value chain in coloured gems that puts the dignity, integrity and economic sustainability for the artisanal miner back into the narrative. Please remember the artisanal stone miner dominates the delivery of coloured gemstones to the jewellery trade. Without them we have no colour. They are the original source of our love for gems and on their giant shoulders we all stand.
Arriving in Tucson is both thrilling and sobering. I am thrilled by the creativity companies invest into their stones. The myriad of colour, sizes, cuts and range of non-gem genius excites me. Some of the cutting is more a philosophical interpretation on reality and the human condition, with cuts entitled ‘The Great Sacrifice’, ‘The Mystery of the Universe’ and ‘Touching to the Perfection’ (see Victor Tuzlukov on Facebook). The first morning, armed with only the simple question ‘Where do the stones come from?’ I set about walking the show floor and talking to booth holders. The sobering reality begins to sink in. The ethical question for the overwhelming of the attendee’s is simply not there. The quizzical replies from the owners of the booths ‘what are you talking about, the source?’ unveils the scale of the ground that will need to be covered if the gemstone industry is to arrive in the 21st century world of consumer accountability. I admit gemstones have an advantage in as much ‘country of origin’ still has a premium when it comes to selling the bigger gem quality stones. I talk to a booth owner about his 14ct Burma Ruby. I am shown two certificates that cover the stone, both stating ‘Country of Origin – Burma’. But when I ask the owner of the stone, what is the criteria for determining that this is from Burma, he is unable to refer to anything other than the paperwork says so. He simply cannot tell me what mine it comes from, how the workers are treated, did the miner receive a fair price? Nothing. These questions are important to me, as it was gemstones that turned me from a small silver jeweller in the UK in the early 90’s to a jewellery activist as I witnessed, child labour, 3 generational slave labour, unbearable working conditions, worker exploitation and child labour in cutting factories all on one day’s worth of investigation in Jaipur India.
Over the next few days, I meet miners from Greenland who continue to face systemic prejudice from their government whose implementation of the mineral policy on gemstones is a long way short of impartial, favouring foreign companies over local people. Simply put local Greenlanders and Inuit are now criminalized if they pick up a gemstone and seek to cut, polish and make a living from the gems of their own land. I observe numerous dealers wandering round with pockets full of stones, waxing lyrical about the Afgan Emeralds, Ceylonese Sapphire their colour and luminosity, but never whose hand they come from. It would seem that gemstones, like diamonds and gold has fallen under the spell of the jewellery marketing guru’s number 1 rule of marketing, ‘Don’t talk about source?’
Some might suggest I am being overly negative in my assessment and from a certain point of view I can understand why? The mantra ‘We don’t need change’, is so deeply ingrained in the worldview of the jewellery industry that any form of questioning will naturally be seen as an attack on the industry. But looked at from another angle, there is a whole new generation of jewellers and customers who are asking the source question. It is simply not enough to talk about the technical and scientific data on a stone. To say ‘trust me, I deal direct with the miners’ and seek to distract with the inherent beauty of the stone, is to engage in sleight of hand and the misdirection of the magician. I heard one dealer say, ‘A stone should only be judged by its inherent beauty, and by nothing else’. As Tolstoy says;
It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness
As I return home and reflect, I am encouraged. Why? Because Gem-A recognise the industry must change, must move towards greater transparency and traceability of supply. Because consumers are starting to wake up to the social and environmental issues associated with extraction industries. Because there is a new generation of jewellers and designers, for whom ethical provenance and source are as important as cut, colour, clarity and who will actively spend their money on these kind of stones. Because there are a number of pioneering gemstone mining companies and coops who are willing to work with Gem-A on accrediting sources. But perhaps the most significant of all is that it is simply the right and moral thing to do. Living in the past is reserved for historians and the guru’s of nostalgia. A gemstone industry fit for the 21st century must have a verifiable accreditation process to underpin the overused phrase, ‘You can trust me, I deal direct with the miners’.