By Samantha Larson, G.G.
The process of bringing a gemstone to market is quite different from that of a diamond. Have you ever considered these variances? And why differences such as these might be relevant for today’s consumers? If you’re not sure how to answer these questions, not to worry; the subject of gemstone sourcing and the benefits of ‘earth to market’ branding are still relatively new points of conversation within the jewellery industry.
When comparing diamond and gemstone mining, the key differences start at the source. A closer look at gemstone mines reveal they look and operate quite differently from not just their diamond counterparts, but from each other as well. Indeed, gemstone mining is all over the place, both figuratively and literally.
Unlike diamonds, which are largely concentrated in a few key geographic locations, gemstones are mined all over the world. The reason for this is simple: the classification of a ‘gem’ is very broad in range, encompassing as many as 300 minerals. Walter Schumann’s Gemstones of the World not only identifies 200 distinct gemstone varieties, but also demonstrates each one is almost entirely different from the next.
With this in mind, it stands to reason the process of obtaining gemstones also carries extreme variance. Stones grow in a distinct formation and, thus, are mined in different ways. Some are found in riverbeds, while others are hidden in holes, measuring just three feet wide and six feet deep. Some are recovered from cavernous caves, while others come from top-mined plots, similar to the sod farms that dot North America.
Spinel, for example, are common in river panning, as are garnets—just like gold once was. Meanwhile, sapphires tend to be found a little deeper down in earth, so finding them typically requires a bit of shallow digging. Minerals in the beryl family tend to hide in heavy, dense rock areas (e.g. mountainsides), where the terrain tends to be as dangerous as the animals inhabiting it.
Those are just a few of the aforementioned hundreds of gemstones found around the globe. Fortunately, you don’t need to know the growth patterns of each stone to have an informed conversation with your customers; you just need to help them understand each stone represents something different and unique.
As you (and your customers) might imagine, depending on the landscape of where you live, you’re likely to find varying deposits of minerals straight into the earth or otherwise; the tools needed to access them simply depend on how far you’re willing to travel.
Most jewellery professionals understand diamonds are buried deep within the earth—think of these sites as inverted volcanoes, whereby the top of the mine is miles wide and funnels downward one third of a mile.
When mining for gemstones, however, one merely needs to remain aware of their surroundings. This is largely because of the minerals’ veining nature (i.e. spread out rather than straight down) and resilience. As such, the need for heavy equipment, large transport vehicles, and miles-wide holes simply isn’t there. Instead, a hand-woven panning basket, a shovel, and (if you can afford one) a water pump encompass all the necessary pieces of equipment.
For an example, consider the Vietnamese countryside, with its lush landscapes, rolling rice terraces, and prolific water. Local farmers working in small-scale operations do much of the gemstone mining in the area, situating themselves along the banks of streams and rivers. Alluvial deposits of spinel are carried downstream and positioned naturally for easy finding. These individuals, who oversee mining and farming operations concurrently, scoop the gravel, sort through it, and dump what they don’t need back into the river—aiding in dislodging additional deposits for the lucky souls who are waiting further downstream. It’s a process that continues to give; it’s sustainable and, beyond that, ethical, as it doesn’t hurt the earth.
Enter the descriptor ‘earth to market’—stones taken from the earth in a sustainable, ethical way and with a traceable provenance. These gems offer retailers a strong ‘feel good’ story for their consumers, while simultaneously representing the best parts of what the industry is doing to be responsible.
If you’re armed with the knowledge of these differences and have an inventory of loose stones, you should feel confident and ready to answer any questions your customers (i.e. the end customers) may have. What you might not know is the reason they are asking these questions and why you, their local jewellery purveyor, need to be ready to address them.
For centuries, gemstones have been regarded as treasured items—and this notion isn’t expected to change any time soon. One thing that has evolved, however, is the way the world perceives ‘possessions.’ Today’s consumers are not only wise to the ways in which material goods are purchased (hello, online shopping!), but also what these items mean and how their origin can play into their personal brand.
To that end, the stories of what you offer your customers must match the perception of what they want. The phrase ‘earth to market’ serves as a great example of how to change these ideals by spinning positive vibes of Mother Nature rather than using the potentially earth-destroying ‘mining’ terminology.
The food industry has had great success by introducing the term ‘farm to table’ as both a process and a marketing concept. As such, public perception of agricultural growers has transformed, shifting from non-existent, indifferent, or judgmental, to largely positive and optimistic. Indeed, it’s the idea there are less hands involved, creating a straighter, cleaner path to what we eat. A similar argument can be made for the jewellery industry with ‘earth to market.’
Are your customers asking for something unique and creative—something that will identify them as a tastemaker of the new and unusual? Are they asking for pieces made with sustainable materials because they heard Greta Thunberg speak and her words moved them to ask the ‘hard’ questions about how we, as an industry, are doing our part to prevent the collective world from burning? Did they come in to your shop, asking how you are 100 per cent certain the diamonds you sell are blood- and conflict-free (even though there have been processes in place to ensure this for many, many years)?
Fear not: gemstones (perhaps not all, but many) carry with them this information!
Now more than ever, consumers want to feel good about what they’re buying—with jewellery, they want to know a piece’s materials and design mean something more than meets the eye.
We, as a gemstone-loving industry, can offer our clients unique colours and creations to help them stand out from the crowd; we can educate on the process of mining and explain the ways in which its reality differ from what most people imagine; we can offer ‘earth to market’ stones, complete with feel-good stories that let individuals take pride in their purchases; and we can offer stones that feed small communities because their purchase was done ethically and with complete transparency—a stark change from the historic secrecy of closed-door transactions!
The future of earth to market
There are many gemstones in our world. While this realization may seem intimidating, don’t let it overwhelm you.
If your customer asks you a question you can’t answer, admit it. Let them know the many processes and methods used to acquire gemstones have only recently begun to emerge as transparent, and that you are on the cutting edge of this information. Tell them you’re eager to further the global conversation by taking their question back to the industry’s collective group and finding the answer—after all, we’re here for each other. Once you feel you can satisfy the inquiry, follow up with your customer and make the sale, effectively adding your store as a valued aspect of the item’s story.
Being open to change and willing to learn are the first steps to making an impact. Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Let looking at gemstones, in all their beautiful-range-of-spectacular-hues glory, change the way you understand and look at our industry.
Samantha Larson, G.G. (GIA) travels the world finding extraordinary gems and bringing them to market. Diamonds, gemstones, estate jewelry, and manufacturing have been the focus of her two decades in this industry. Larson is currently the director of gemstones with Stuller, Inc. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.