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From rough to market: Ethical sourcing from the (under)ground up

By Sonja Sanders

Moonstone mining in Sri Lanka.
Moonstone mining in Sri Lanka.
Photo ©

It is a well-known fact: jewellery buyers have ethical concerns about where and how we source materials. While this certainly puts pressure on our trade, it is also a good (and understandable) awareness. Demand for gemstone transparency has grown in recent years. As Canadian jewellery retailers, we are quite familiar with certificates of origin for diamonds and the fears concerning unethical practices.

What does “ethical sourcing” mean, though? One goal of this principle is to be kind to our earth. Indeed, clients want to know the jewellery they purchase is set with gems which have been mined with an eco-responsible consciousness. The sad reality is some areas of the world utilize unsafe and unsustainable practices that are not government-regulated. In cases of strip mining, for example, soil and rock on top of a mineral surface are removed continuously until gem and mineral deposits have been harvested. Without environmental laws or agreements in place, these pits are not filled, nor topped with soil and re-planted with trees. In these instances, ecosystems and the surrounding natural environments—including wildlife—suffer. Fortunately, many countries (Canada included) have realized the importance of enforcing laws to save and protect the environment.

Human labour is another extremely important ethical matter impacting our trade. We live in a world where child labour is exploited, individuals work long hours with little pay, and general working conditions are dangerous. While some miners work with simple hand tools, other sites have introduced modern technology, which helps make mining safer and quicker, and provides a better working environment.

Nonetheless, once gemstones are removed from this earth, the possibility remains that they are not conflict free and, in fact, mined to fund terrorism. Much like how we do not want to buy or have any link to “blood diamonds,” the same can be said for other gemstones.

Pressure builds

Since minerals take so long to form in our earth, they are, generally, not considered sustainable; however, organic gems, such as pearls, may be seen as such, as they can be produced on cultured pearl farms in a reasonable amount of time. The approach of the pearl farming industry is ethical in several ways and does not involve harming the land or digging out the earth.

Generally, though, ensuring a supply of ethically sourced gemstones requires costly mining. Companies that specialize in this practice operate at higher costs, as they must prioritize eco-responsible processing and wages.

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Today, though, the pressure is on. Consumers are demanding transparency. This requirement, however, is often worth a high added cost. In North America, companies specializing in quality gemstones (and those that want the integrity of their brand to appeal to the consumers’ purchasing conscience) are finding ways to promote their involvement in transparency and “ethical” sourcing. These companies are creating a reliable supply chain with agreements and promises.

While this is certainly a more costly way to do business, the principle of sustainability brings with it added trust. This typically leads to an increase in sales. After all, a reputation for ethics supports the business model of these companies—and being “green” is a strong sales point.

From the ground up

What are ethically conscious companies looking for in their gemstone supply chain, though?

First and foremost, these groups consider a mine’s business practices. It is important to ensure harmful chemicals are not being used in processing and that previously mined areas are not being laid to waste. Environmental recovery is a priority, which means adding soil and planting.

Additionally, cutting firms should be safe areas to work. Labourers must be supplied with suitable protective gear, and the oils they work with should be free of harmful chemicals. Sri Lanka, Australia, Canada, and the United States have government-enforced labour and environmental laws in this regard. While gemstones are mined throughout the world and rough is transported from country to country for processing, some networks operate close to home with recovering rough, cutting stones, and, finally, marketing. Globalization, however, has helped the greater network of the gem trade to mine in one country, cut in another, and then trade along supply paths, which reach international markets.

Consumer consciousness

The jewellery business is influenced by the ethics of consumers. This concern, in turn, impacts the way these groups make their gemstone purchases. Indeed, more and more, we are seeing independent designers and big brands alike changing the ways in which they do business.

Namely, as mentioned, since consumers are willing to pay more in support of ethics, we are seeing an influx of jewellery companies chasing the notion of transparency. These groups are keen to secure the ethical path—this, in turn, leads to the creation of new or enhanced opportunities within our industry.

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One such positive part of the journey for gemstones is an increase in the service and demand of lapidary artists. Gemstone cutters are receiving more rough from companies with either specific orders or requesting designer cuts for their lines—and this business is growing in North America!

Positivity in the supply chain

While still a rare practice, there are large suppliers of gems in the trade who are also collaborators that have direct contact with mines. Increasingly, these groups are developing business relationships to build trust and continuity, with the offer of fair prices for the gems, along with support in the supervision of labour to ensure ongoing ethical treatment of employees.

Some larger companies have developed fair trade practices regarding the support of ethical mining and promote their reputation on such transparency and involvement. Notably, this is being seen in Tanzania and Columbia.

There are also co-operatives being established, though these do not all survive. Indeed, this is a growing process, involving the establishment of associations or organized groups of miners, and quite a bit of support is needed to help smaller regions in its development. Generally, these miners want to be involved with the recovery and selling of gemstones, and this could potentially help generate profits which can be shared and go back to the co-operatives.

One such group is the Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA), which formed in 1997 to protect the interests of children and women in mining and their communities. Specifically, TAWOMA is committed to ceasing exploitation, protecting labour rights, fighting against long hours women and children are forced to work, and ending unhealthy working conditions. This group operates under the assumption there is a large amount of ignorance among people to understand their rights because of poor education. As such, it is also determined to educate women and children in the region.

Additionally, in 2017, Raphael Gubelin launched the Provenance Proof Initiative. This group stands for the transparency of a gemstone’s journey from initial mining, all the way to the offering of it as a finished product. Members of the Provenance Proof Blockchain have their transactions digitally recorded. Work like this makes transparency of a gemstone’s journey possible. Among this group’s most interesting launches is the “emerald paternity test,” which allows the origin of emeralds to be encoded into gems right at the mine, providing physical tracers within the stones.

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A group effort

It is very difficult to trace the journeys of gemstones. Consider, if you will, gems which are more common around the world and relatively inexpensive to purchase—does one think extra money will be invested to trace stones and minerals such as these?

Rough garnet and quartz, for example, is mined in so many different locales, then shipped to areas that provide inexpensive and fast cutting before being distributed to wholesalers throughout the world. How would such diverse networks be monitored? Blatantly speaking, the thought of providing proof of transparency for ethical sourcing throughout the mining trade sounds like a nightmare. As such, many areas of mining and cutting will not get attention moving forward in our ethical search.

Nonetheless, now more than ever, it is essential to demonstrate we are a responsible trade and, importantly, we care about the treatment of people and our environment around the world. It takes a lot of trust and money to provide our industry and its consumers with the transparency they desire. We are fortunate, in North America, to have a relatively high standard of living. It is our duty to extend this right to miners and their families living outside of this continent. Our concern for their welfare is vital; our trade must be active in supporting the ethical sourcing of gemstones.

It’s been a long road; however, slowly, our industry will follow the journey of more gemstones from rough to market.

Sonja Sanders grew up in a jewellery industry family and learned goldsmithing and gem appreciation as a teenager. She now operates her family’s jewellery business with her husband, Joe, and two of their children—the store’s third generation. She is a master goldsmith, Graduate Gemmologist with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and teaches appraisal courses in Toronto. Sanders is the author of the Professional Jewellery Appraisal course (PJA). She enjoyed many years with the Canadian Jewellers Association (CJA) board and on its Accredited Appraiser committee. She is a lover of antiques and estate jewellery and can be contacted at or

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