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Ethical and Fair Trade Gemstones – an overview

Ethical and Fairtrade Gemstones.

A quick overview.

In the time that I have worked in the trade attempting to secure ethical products, perhaps the most problematic and vexing has been the question of gemstones.

The reasons for this are varied, but the fact that gemstones are of less financial value than diamonds, are more readily accessible for the artisanal and small scale miner and are dominated by thousands of individual traders and dealers makes understanding the gemstone space from an ethical supply chain point of view very challenging.

The broader moves in the jewellery trade towards more transparent and traceable supply sources, has had its own impact on the gemstone industry, with a number of commercially driven ethical initiatives that have emerged to begin to meet this growing demand for an ethical jewellery product.

The Issues.

These initiatives are badly needed when you begin to get an view on the myriad of human rights and environmental issues that the gemstone industry faces such as; child and bonded labour in the mines and the cutting and polishing shops, endemic smuggling by traders and indigenous land rights issues such as the Greenland Ruby saga that has led local Inuit people to label the product ‘The Apartheid Ruby’. Yet perhaps the most in-famous gemstone bad news story is the Burmese ruby, whose exploitation by the brutal military regime led to the current international ban. This ban is controversial with the dealers and traders broadly being against it (to be expected) and the retailers and consumer facing brands broadly positive (again to be expected). However as I have witnessed personally both at Tuscon Gem show and on the ground near the Burma/Thailand border, getting your hands on Burmese blood stones is easy, just buy them in Bangkok and label them Thailand Ruby.

The 2 T’s

Transparency and Traceability are the bedrock of all ethical claims. Without them no serious intelligent delivery of any ethical claim can be substantiated. So when we are coming to buy gemstones, the key things in my experience to be aware of are as follows;

1               Verify the claims. An example of this would be regarding the use of the language of Fair Trade in the gem business. Currently there is no fair trade gemstone on the market. In order to claim fair trade status certain verifiable benchmarks need to be in place that I summarise as follows.

a.     A public standard that is not owned by any one particular company (is not proprietary).

b.     An independent 1/3rd party audit against that public standard

c.      An audited chain of custody from mine to retail for that product

d.     A consumer label denoting it in the market place

e.     The poor and the marginalised are the primary beneficiaries of the process.

Naturally an authenticate fair trade process is more detailed in its delivery than I am able to summarise here, but the above points are good indicators when assessing claims, especially point a.

2               Is it legal? Ironically it is a very simple question that is often overlooked. The gemstone industry is full of illegality and informality that often masquerades as friendliness.

3               Traceable & Transparent. As already mentioned the 2 T’s are foundational in regards to any form of ethical claims given and this is never truer than in the world of gemstones. If a dealer can give you guarantees on export permits or licenses and ‘transparency to source’ then it is a good sign they are reputable.

In conclusion the world of gemstones is a wonderful world, rich in colour and also romantic locations. It is true that each stone tells its own unique story and depending which question you ask the stone, will determine what story it tells you.

Four companies I recommend


An excellent little UK & Tanzanian partnership that is working in the ruby and sapphire sector.

Columbia Gemhouse.

A USA based company founded by Eric Braunwart. They have excellent community partnerships in a number of countries delivering quality stones to the market. Although they apply the language of fair trade to their process, which is not strictly correct, they are in every way one of the leading ethical gemhouses in the world.

Natures Geometry

Brian Cook is a gemmologist and works with a community in Brazil to deliver some of the finest Golden Rutile Quartz around.


A medium sized mining operation in Zambia, they mine and sell high quality emeralds to the market. There work in the social and environmental issues is also very good.

Greg Valerio

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  • Reply
    Peggy Jo Donahue
    November 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Greg – this was an excellent summary.

  • Reply
    November 18, 2010 at 1:10 am

    thanks for the good summary. easy to grasp the key points within an extremely diverse, and colourful, subject. If we all keep highlighting the good actions wherever they are in our industry, it will help drive attention to those doing the work. I will be back from Brasil Nov 30

  • Reply
    plastic necklace
    December 3, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Hi Greg, Great post. It’s an issue that I think doesn’t get anywhere near enough press. I’d like to see more comapines taking the social responsability approach to their stones.
    Thanks for the information!

  • Reply
    November 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Thanks Greg – this is very helpful to begin understanding the issues around ethics / gems.

  • Reply
    January 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks so much for this article. I’m trying to source an ethical gemstone engagement ring and never realised quite how difficult it would be. This article is really insightful. Thanks again.

  • Reply
    Silver Sky
    November 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    This is very interesting. We have been dealing with gemstones for a long time and we’ve never heard this issue come up.

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    August 11, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I would question the general use of the words “fair trade”. I imagine FairTrade is a trademarked term, and means something specific to the FairTrade organisation, but I am not sure why this should preclude companies, who are trying to engage, to the extent possible at this time, in an ethical manner, from using the words (lowercase) “fair trade”…

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    September 30, 2015 at 7:21 am

    HI Greg, This is really Amazing article. Thanks for Sharing this.

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    January 8, 2016 at 6:11 am

    Much obliged Greg – this is extremely useful to start understanding the issues around morals/pearl

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    May 30, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    And perhaps not surprisingly, few subsequently inform their well
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