The fairest of them all: ethically sourced gemstones

Words by
Jo Foley

21st March 2015

Raising awareness of the jewellery industry’s efforts to source gemstones ethically is adding lustre to the leading brands

Myths, fables and legends surround the world of gemstones—those fabulous pieces of carbon and corundum that have entranced and enhanced all who encountered them. They have also attracted lies, scams, scandals and crimes and been the cause of wars and mayhem.

And yet neither time nor scars have withered their appeal and desirability. What seems like a charmless chunk of rock can, with graft and delicacy, be turned into the most dazzling showpiece of beauty, wealth and power. In bygone days, simple possession of such glittering prizes was sufficient. Even half a century ago, when Richard Burton began his acquisitions for Elizabeth Taylor, there was little concern about how the pieces had arrived in emerald and ruby profusion to decorate the luxuriant bosom of La Taylor.

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Zambian emeralds, ethically sourced by Gemfields, feature in Fabergé’s La Esmeralda necklace and Oeuf Impératrice Pompon pendant

Zambian emeralds, ethically sourced by Gemfields, feature in Fabergé’s La Esmeralda necklace and Oeuf Impératrice Pompon pendant

Gradually, however, our perceptions changed as we continued to witness the earth being plundered and countries raped, and more information came our way showing that nothing this beautiful comes easily. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2006 film Blood Diamond helped to highlight the issue of conflict diamonds and we were beginning to learn about the ways these accessories had arrived in our jewellery cases—ways that took little account of the impact on people, communities and the environment.

And thanks to the efforts of the fair and ethical trade movement, encouraging the desire for sustainability and transparency, our attitudes have changed regarding everything from the sourcing of cotton and gold to our choice of coffee and the wearing of emeralds. Coloured gemstones, because of their rarity, have always had a fragmented history. And because so many of them have inclusions (flaws in lay terms), they have always had a loucher side, with many dealers—most small or single traders—not knowing, or indeed caring, where the stones originated. As a consequence of these inclusions, the gems were quite easy to fake because no emerald or ruby is completely flawless.

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Grading Gemfields emeralds from Zambia

Grading Gemfields emeralds from Zambia

However, help arrived in 2005 with the formation of the London-based Gemfields, the largest producer of ethically sourced and mined coloured gemstones. The modus operandi of the company, whose stones include emeralds and amethysts from Zambia and rubies from Mozambique, is total transparency from mine to market as well as a commitment to sustainability and the economic and educational development of local communities from which the gems originate.

Working closely with dealers and manufacturers, the company tracks and monitors the story and the journey of each stone. To this end, they also work in close collaboration with some of the world’s top jewellers, including Fabergé, Van Cleef & Arpels and Chaumet, all of whom have added their support to the Gemfields campaign. For the launch of its 2013 initiative to highlight the ethical production of gems, 36 of these stars of the jewellery world produced startlingly beautiful pieces.

Fabergé’s La Esmeralda necklace from its Les Danses Fantasques collection, for instance, featured some 200 carats of emerald beads, while Jaipur’s iconic Gem Palace produced a glorious emerald pendant. Other individual designers, such as Stephen Webster and Solange Azagury-Partridge, also gave their support with earrings, rings and pendants.

Azagury-Partridge, renowned for her dedication to unusual stones, is sterling in her support for ethical stones. “We do our best to be ethical in all our gem buying.

La-Esmeralda-Necklace1
Zambian emeralds, ethically sourced by Gemfields, feature in Fabergé’s La Esmeralda necklace and Oeuf Impératrice Pompon pendant

Zambian emeralds, ethically sourced by Gemfields, feature in Fabergé’s La Esmeralda necklace and Oeuf Impératrice Pompon pendant

The trade is improving in that “cowboys” are not tolerated any longer. There are still some out there but we do our best to avoid them. A vast majority of our emeralds and rubies are now sourced from Africa through Gemfields,” she says. “We purchase some of our rubies through Rubyfair, a UK-based company working with artisan miners in Tanzania and supporting communities through educational and agricultural development. One of our longest-standing suppliers is a gem merchant who buys rough material direct from the artisan miners in the Sri Lankan mines, and also cuts locally, enabling both the development of skills and the local economy.”

All of Gemfields’ collaborators are adamant about their support for an ethical approach. “We have a policy of only sourcing gemstones that have been acquired through legitimate sources and that are not involved in funding conflict and are in compliance with United Nations Resolutions,” says Elizabeth Galton, Brand Director at Mappin & Webb. All the company’s suppliers must comply with the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme set up to prevent the trade in blood diamonds.

“We will not knowingly purchase or sell any products that originate from a group or a country that supports or engages in illegal, inhumane or terrorist activities,” continues Galton. “We believe we should go beyond the basics of ethical business practice and embrace our responsibility to society and the environment, which is why we are delighted to collaborate with Gemfields, who follow their supply all the way from mine to market.”

While support for ethical sourcing is growing in the industry, it’s still not an immediate concern for the average consumer. However, in a recent Forbes magazine interview, Tiffany & Co.’s CEO and Chairman, Michael J Kowalski, expressed the view that consumer trust in the brand was underlined by the belief that Tiffany & Co. jewellery is mined and produced in an ethical, sustainable fashion.

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Fabergé’s La Esmeralda ring

Fabergé’s La Esmeralda ring

“For many of our customers, those promises may be implicit, but it makes them no less real. And should we fail to deliver on those promises, the damage to our brand will most certainly be real,” said Kowalski, whose sustainable philosophy extends to the jeweller’s little blue boxes, which use Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper. He went on to state that customers are beginning to demand to know more about the sourcing of the jewellery, and while their numbers may still be quite small, they are on the increase.

Awareness continues to grow as more work is done by designers, manufacturers and Gemfields to highlight and showcase ethical gems. This is where the gorgeous Mila Kunis comes in as the company’s new brand ambassador. While the Hollywood star has been seen promoting some of the more opulent designs, it was her appearance at the recent Golden Globes, wearing Zambian emerald ear studs, that brought a more accessible dimension to coloured gems, while underlining the importance of ethical sourcing.

 Those stones may have come a long way, but they have a lot further to go to make more of us aware of their story. It is reassuring to know that there are supporters and suppliers in the jewellery industry dedicated to making sure we do.