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The Challenge And Opportunity In Supplying Fair Trade Gemstones

Jun 3, 2008
As an activist and manufacturer in the jewelry sector, I am often asked about gemstone sourcing. Currently there's a working committee on colored stones that has been formed from the cross sector Madison Dialog meeting which took place in Washington DC in Oct, 2007.

The issues are complex and difficult to sort out. But it is my hope, and the hope of many others, that some day there will be the framework that will allow for certification. Of course, this would involve basic principals of fair label and environmental responsibility.

I am not part of that committee, but I am involved in these issues as a manufacturer and retailer. I would like to explain what how I consider these issues in terms of my own company.

What I will outline here are three different scenarios that offer possibilities for more transparent, ethical sourcing of fair trade gemstones from artisan miners.

Three Scenarios For Ethically Sourced Gemstones

The first scenario in the development of fair trade gemstones involves cooperatives and third party organizations that work with the artisanal miners to develop standards. The Association of Responsible Mining (ARM) is an excellent example of this type of organization.

ARM has developed standards for fair trade precious metal which have been widely recognized as exemplary. Within the next two years, ARM is also hoping to develop supply chains for fair trade gemstones as well, in some cases working with existing cooperatives, such as the Women's Mining Cooperative of Tanzania.

TransfairUSA's (the American fair labeling organization known for "fair trade"
coffee and bananas) study of diamonds, if it amounts to certification, might also be considered as part of this category.

However, they not working with ARM, which seems counter intuitive, except when you consider how difficult it is to work with small scale miners.

It would be relatively easy for any fair trade labeling organization to develop standards and just put a fair trade tax on diamonds and on one of DeBeer's or Rio Tinto's well run mines.

If TransfairUSA takes this course, their action will not change anything in the sector but it has the potential make them and a few other people rich.

It will also help absolve the sins of the diamond sector. No one has been held responsible for the death of 3.7 million miners in Africa in the blood diamond wars.

A second example involves pioneers such as Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gems who has developed the resources to contract with governments and mines to create a fair trade based system with a select group of stones.

Eric has told me that he does his cutting in China in his own factory. Many suppliers and retailers in the mainstream jewelry sector now heavily depend upon Eric's selection of gemstones.

A third example includes working with individuals who contact the miners and develop relationships based upon a fair trade ethos. I work with one individual who has painstakingly developed a direct relationship with miners in Zambia and Sri Lanka.

One particular village where my contact now sources excellent emeralds had actually closed their emerald mine for years because they were no longer willing to deal with unscrupulous dealers.

His commerce now supports schools and AIDS drugs for the village as a whole. This person takes his stones to a particular clean cutting factory in Thailand in which people are well paid.

There are certainly other gemstone dealers who work carefully to assure that their supply chain, from mine to trade, is clean and ethical.

We need to find each other to support the development of a solid supply of ethically sourced, fair trade gemstones. Part of the purpose of my blog is to accumulate resources for the trade and post them.

Is Third Party Verification The Only Way?

One could argue that third party assurance is necessary in order for these efforts to be credible, but I am no longer sure of this.

At some point, radical transparency and the blog sphere may ultimately trump third party transparency. Quoting from an article written by Clive Thompson and published in Wired Magazine in April, 2007:

"Secrecy is dying. It's probably already dead.

In a world where Eli Lilly's internal drug-development memos, Paris Hilton's phonecam images, Enron's emails, and even the governor of California's private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit, or trying to hide anything, really is a gamble.

So many blog rely on scoops to drive their traffic that muckraking has become a sort of mass global hobby."

I argue we cannot wait for third party assurances for fair trade gemstones. We need to move now with radical transparency.

If someone in my network lets me know where his supply chain is sourced and cut so I can see this for myself, then obviously this person has nothing to hide.

Radical transparency supports the growth of pioneers who work within a limited network. This limited supply chain will help nurture the emerging market.

The Key Element: Trust

Each of these scenarios involves, more than anything else, trust. The people who are in my current fair trade gemstone supply network feel as strongly about ethics as I do.

Right now, they represent a valid option for moving forward without any fair trade labeling organization's stamp of approval.

Developing these contacts is the work I have to do for my customers in order to connect their money to an economic set of relationships that is fair down to its source.

With our spotty supply chain and so few people doing this type of pioneering work, it is like trying to build circles out of triangles.

Yet there are huge opportunities right now for someone work in the lower end scale. In my company, I use semi-precious in my production line even though I have had reports of terribly conditions for cutters in India.

If I had the resources and time, I would consider doing something in India with garnets, amethyst, peridot. The basic "semi-precious" gems represent a huge market.

Those of us in the jewelry trade need to consider how we can bring in as many different types of scenarios that have higher ethical standards as possible. Just focusing on a few with "fair trade" third party certification will not sufficient.

Yet the most effective means to drive this whole fair trade gemstone movement forward lies with the consumer.

When there is a grass roots demand at the brick and mortar jewelry stores for more ethically sourced gemstones, the supply chain will respond.
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, an ethical jewelry company,
www.celticjewelry.com that selling fair trade gemstones online at www.artisanweddingrings.com. His company produces eco-friendly, conflict free diamond jewelry. Marc also authors www.fairjewelry.org supporting green, fair trade, socially responsible jewelry practices.
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