On Ethical Gems
Ethics is such a tricky subject when the conversation is gems. I often see the term used as a marketing gimmick or hashtag with little understanding (or definition) of what “ethics" means and how they are applied to gems. Many people think of blood diamonds and they imagine slave labor and guns - the Hollywood version. Perhaps they have concern that mining profits are being funneled to nefarious cartels. Or they think there is an ethical mine and an unethical mine, and they want to be sure they are buying from the ethical one. While all of these scenarios could technically be true, as with most things, the reality is much murkier.
Almost all our gems come from artisan miners - guys and gals with a shovel, screen, bucket and dream. On occasion, we source from mines where there is one person who owns the mine and the miners have some agreement (unbeknownst to me) of how profits will be split. So, in a sense, we’re artisanal rough dealers. We’re usually buying our stones directly at the source and many times know the miner or broker and their families. While I’m aware of large-scale mining operations, Mozambique ruby comes to mind, we simply aren’t a large enough company to be buying at those scales. Those transactions can be in the millions of dollars and they are usually sold to overseas cutting factories for commercially cut stones and jewelry.
Prices paid are never in a vacuum - the market decides prices paid and there are always multiple buyers and multiple markets available to the miners to sell their finds. I say “miners,” but in truth, there is usually an industrious village middleman who the miners use to sell their stones.
The mines I have visited around the world range from shallow holes in the ground to miles deep tunnels. I would say hardly any of them would pass an OSHA mining inspection – and a few are dangerous places. Miners work without proper footwear, eye protection or even gloves. And yet they are happy for the work because all too often it is their best chance to feed, clothe and educate themselves and their families.
I often see folks who market their gems as "ethical" when I know they are getting their goods from the same locations and often the same people that we get some of ours from. Are they ethically sourced? Is that even the right question? In the West, we might define an ethically run mine as one with "safe working conditions, proper protection for workers, sick leave, medical care, etc" But the brutal truth is those are terms that are seldom used in the areas of the world where gems are sourced and are sadly not part of most miners’ lexicon. Do we refuse to do business with them until they pass the western standards of ‘ethics?’ And let’s not forget to mention the known fact of corrupt governments’ collecting export fees. How do we, as a company, square these things?
Our solution to this question is to be an ethical company. Our history of supporting miners and giving back has been well documented on social media and website blog posts. It is standard practice for us to support our suppliers through both good and hard times. I just recently paid school fees for a supplier because he did not have the funds when the government announced unexpectedly that schools were opening again and children were required to be there. We supported a supplier when his child died and he could not work during the grieving process. We have held weeklong auctions to raise money for the survivors of the 2020 jade mining disaster in Myanmar. Covid restrictions have obviously had a devastating effect on many of the suppliers and miners we work with. We want to be certain they are okay and will be there as things open back up and gems begin to flow again. It is a very symbiotic relationship. Using Covid as an example, when the pandemic hit, we experienced a huge groundswell in sales from our customers who wanted to support us. For that we will be eternally grateful.
These are just a few of the things that happen in the background and help to shape how we define ethical gems. I believe firmly that we meet people and cultures where we find them. I don't think it is our role to make them more like us but rather to treat them with dignity and respect as we work to make all of our lives better.