The New Standard In Sparkle: What Are Ethical Gemstones?
Gemstones have long been associated with beauty, glamour, and exclusivity. But behind the glitz lies a darker side of the gemstone industry, including human rights abuses, environmental damage, and unethical practices. In this guide to ethical gemstones, we’ll delve into the world of responsible gemstone sourcing, exploring the latest trends and innovations in ‘sustainable luxury’. This phrase, which in recent years is coming into common usage, reflects a broader shift towards more responsible consumption.
What are ethical gemstones?
At their core, ethical gemstones are gems that have been sourced and/or produced in a way that reduces harm to communities and the environment as much as possible. There are various ways that gem suppliers can be more ethical, which all stem from being aware of the impact on the surrounding world.
Gemstone mining and processing can have a range of bleak impacts on the environment and people, including deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and health risks to workers and local communities. Most detrimentally, the trade of certain gemstones (most notably, diamonds) has been linked to human rights abuses, including forced and child labour.
So, what are the most ethical gemstones? No gemstone is inherently more or less ethical – what defines their conflict level is the way they’ve been obtained and handled.
Types of ethically sourced gemstones
Responsibly mined gemstones
This has to do with environmentally-conscious processes in gem mines, where the focus is on minimising the toxicity of mining. Earth gems require a lot of energy and resources to extract from the ground. Common gemstone mining methods having the following detriments:
- Strip mining: Involves removing the top layer of soil and rock, resulting in soil erosion and vegetation loss.
- Alluvial mining: Involves extracting stones from riverbeds and sedimentary deposits, during which heavy metals attached to sediments get released into the water stream, degrading water quality.
- Pipe mining: Involves drilling, which results in soil erosion and potentially the release of toxic chemicals or gases.
- Marine mining: Involves extracting gems from the ocean floor using dredging, resulting in disturbance or destruction of marine habitats like coral reefs.
Responsible small-scale mining productions, where individuals or small groups use basic tools to extract gems, tend to be gentler on the environment. Larger mining operations can be considered to produce ethical gems, which largely depends on how traceable and transparent they are. Other practices used by ethical mining organisations are:
- Leave-no-trace principles, which can include practising on-site environmental rehabilitation;
- Decarbonisation efforts, striving to be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative.
Fair trade gemstones
Another type of ethically sourced gemstone is those from companies that adhere to fair trade principles. Put simply, this has to do with the people involved in the process of preparing gemstones before they enter the market. Fair trade is an umbrella term for organisations producing cruelty-free gemstones that ensure fair wages for labourers, safe working conditions for both miners and workers in cutting facilities, and avoid forced labour. It can also mean nurturing workers to thrive in the long-term through education.
The third type of responsibly sourced gemstone are those that are conflict-free, or blood-free. Blood diamonds are diamonds sold to finance armed conflict against governments, often leading to human rights abuses by continuing a cycle of war. While conflict diamonds are the most talked-about category of unethical gems, there are also conflict-ridden coloured gemstones.
When looking for conflict-free gemstones, it’s important to analyse where the revenue generated from the gems goes. Does it go towards funding terrorist organizations, or does it go towards benefiting the community or some other initiative (such as reforestation, to ensure environmental circularity)?
Next, lab-grown gemstones are a steadily growing category of ethical gemstones. Most significantly, gems created in a laboratory environment which imitates real-world conditions completely avoid the element of exploitative labour.
In general, created gems require fewer natural resources to produce and don’t create water pollution or affect animal habitats. It’s important to note that not all lab stones are made equal. Some producers use fossil fuels to power their operations, but there are those who opt for clean energy sources.
Finally, repurposed, heirloom, or thrifted gems are also options for more ethical precious stones. The original stone may not have been obtained in a conflict-free way, but the major draw of second-hand gemstones for eco-conscious consumers is that you’re not further contributing to demand for irresponsibly sourced gemstones.
How to verify ethically sourced gemstones
So how can you choose the right gemstones for your needs while minimizing your impact on people and the planet?
First, look out for ethical or environmentally-friendly gemstone certifications like ones from the Kimberley Process or American Gemological Society. Another good sign is if the stone provider shows source-tracking systems on their website. Thirdly, if you’re purchasing earth-grown gems, look for specific details about where the gem was mined. The source country can be a helpful starting point for gleaning information, since different countries have different environmental regulations and labour laws governing mining activities.
In general, you should be able to see evidence of transparency about the effects the company’s mining/shipping has on the environment, as well as sustainability actions they’re taking to counterbalance the effects of their supply chain.
Consumers have a lot of power to influence the direction of the market. It will take obvious interest from shoppers that they want ethically sourced stones in order for suppliers and jewellers to prioritise offering them – see your purchases as signals of what you would like to see more of.
Inter-Pacific produces and sources beautiful, ethical lab-created gemstones under the BIRON® brand. Besides offering cruelty-free gemstones of various sizes and colours, we also provide cutting and consultation services to help eco-conscious jewellery businesses bring their visions to life. Get in touch with us to learn more.