We often get asked about the ethical side of gemstone mining, and whether our stones are ethically sourced. This is a complex question, with no simple answers. Ethical considerations cover political, environmental, fair trade and labour issues. The most publicized and publically recognizable issues are likely to be those related to conflict diamonds. This came to light in the 1990s, as a result of wars where rebel groups overran diamond producing areas and began selling the diamonds to finance these often very bloody and brutal wars. The Kimberly process was set up to deal with this; years in the making it is a rigorous and tightly controlled system that, most importantly of all, has to have the buy-in and sign-up of governments, not just individual organisations, to make sure that all diamonds are tracked across borders, from mine to customer. By and large, it appears to be working. Plus the cessation of hostilities in the parts of the world that first gave rise to the problem means that buying diamonds is less of problem than it has been. In addition, is possible to buy diamonds from Canada, where health and safety standards are guaranteed and make sure that we are not just buying conflict-free diamonds, we can also be assured as to the working conditions of the miners. To be clear, the Kimberly process deals solely with issues around blood diamonds. It does not have a remit to police working conditions or child labour issues.
Coloured stone mining is very different. There is no equivalent process, and in fact unlike diamond mining, which is highly industrialised, coloured stone mining is very small scale. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to gain any kind of detailed knowledge of the supply chain for most gemstones. If you consider that the GIA, in their appraisal reports, will not even commit themselves to country of origin, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the actual mine. Rough is mined, mine lots are mixed up as the rough is sorted in terms of colour and quality, and very quickly the origins of individual pieces of rough are blurred and erased. Coloured stone mining, as stated is often small-scale. This implies a far smaller environmental impact than mechanized mining. However, where the mining is done by small family groups, right there you have a child labour issue. But in desperately poor communities, this may be the only source of income for the family, with few or no viable alternatives. How do we then tell such families that they should not do this?
There has recently been a groundswell of interest in Fairtrade gemstones. It is important to note that there is, at the present time, no such thing as a Fairtrade gemstone. No system of third-party control or enforcement of standards exists for either coloured stones or diamonds. The reasons for this are the small-scale, artisanal nature of much of coloured stone mining, along with the varied types of mining according to type of stone, climate, geography and the traditional methods of the sourcing area. All of this make it hard to apply a single standard to gemstones. Any gemstones you see marketed or labelled as fairtrade will be done so according to the individual dealer’s own standards. These standards may well have been partially or wholly based on those set out by the international certifying agencies, but there is no third-party enforcement of these standards. If this is important to you, it is absolutely key to check with those dealers what their idea of fair-trade is, and how their standards are implemented.