Ethics and the Gemstone Trade.
Semi-precious gemstones have always been highly prized and sought after. In recent decades, though, the demand for gemstones has grown and grown. In the past, we might have expected to own a few pieces of jewellery containing such gems, but now we want our jewellery boxes to hold much greater choice than was available to our Grandmothers. As the demand for gemstones has grown, and the operations to mine them have expanded, so has our awareness of the many ethical issues which arise from the production of gemstones.
In the past we might have remained blissfully unaware of many of these ethical issues, but as responsible consumers and, hopefully, decent human beings, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that our desire for jewellery does not lead to human suffering or environmental disaster.
Vague recording systems within the gemstone trade, along with very complex supply chains in the industry, can make it difficult for us to know for sure, how ethically sound our gemstone purchases are, but it helps for us to understand some of these issues.
In this post we will briefly look at some of these ethical issues and what we can do, as consumers, to minimise them.
Many of the gemstones we use come from poorer countries, some of which have lax laws regarding employment and safety. In such countries, working conditions can be dangerous and poorly regulated. For example, stone cutters in India can develop silicosis as a result of working and cutting agate without appropriate respiratory protection.
Those working in the gemstone industry might have little choice other than to work for the local gemstone producer and so might have to work for very low wages without the ability to demand better pay. There is also the risk, in some countries, that child labour could be used to mine our gemstones. Even though there are regulations to prevent this, these cannot always be enforced.
The supply chains in the gemstone industry are often very long and complex. This means that profit is made at every link of the chain with those at the first stage of the process, who actually extract the gemstones, getting paid the least for their efforts.
Many of the semi-precious gemstones we love are produced as a by-product of larger mining operations for other minerals. These operations can involve the forced displacement of people or indigenous peoples from their traditional lands. Poor people who are forced of their lands rarely have the power or financial resources required to stand up to big businesses.
The impact that large mining operations can have on the environment can be devastating to the environment and to fragile ecosystems. Runoff from mines can find its way to rivers and underground water tables, polluting them and harming the living things which depend on them.
Some mining operations can lead to serious deforestation, harming those species which rely on these forests and eventually impacting the entire ecosystem.
It is not only mining which raises ethical problems. Once the gemstones have been bought and sold over and over, and are eventually made into jewellery ready for the final consumer, there are still ways damage can be done to the environment.
Poor packaging choices is one of the ways damage can be done to the environment. Increasingly, plastic is being used to make small boxes for jewellery. The inner lining of these boxes is often plastic based too. The plastic boxes are then often wrapped in plastic bubble wrap. Finally the jewellery is put into a jiffy envelope, which is mostly made of plastic before being sent off to the customer.
Plastic can take centuries to break down and individual molecules of plastic can last indefinitely. Recently, when an intrepid explorer dived down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, over seven miles deep, he found a plastic bag and some sweet wrappers! Plastic is now everywhere and we need to reduce and end its routine use as soon as possible.
What we can do.
Combatting the issues highlighted above is not an easy task and the problems cannot be solved overnight - it is a process of slow and steady improvement, but there are many things which we, as consumers, can do.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the gemstones you are buying. If you ask the seller where the gemstones were sourced, the seller will understand that their customers care about ethical issues, leading them to understand the importance of using suppliers which have a sound ethical policy.
When buying jewellery, make sure you only buy from jewellers who are mindful in the packaging they use. For instance, I keep plastic use to a minimum. I package my jewellery in sturdy cardboard boxes lined, not with plastic, but with bio-degradable cotton. I don’t use jiffy bags which are mostly made of plastic and non-recyclable. Instead, I simply use a firm brown paper envelope. They are just as effective as the jiffy envelope, but without the environmental impact.
You can learn more about the packaging I use here.
Many gemstone suppliers have a fair-trade policy and will only buy gems from producers who are able to clearly demonstrate that they pay their workers a fair living wage and maintain good working conditions. And only buy from jewellers who get their supplies from ethically sound suppliers.
Jewellery should be a celebration of life and the natural World…….. it shouldn’t cost the Earth!
Fortunaearrings is a handmade jewellery store featuring a wide range of unique earrings made of gemstones and sterling silver. As well as gemstone earrings which will appeal to the gemstone collector, you will also find a range of earrings made of Venetian glass lampworked at my Devon workshop. See my full handmade jewellery portfolio by clicking the shop link at the top of this page.