For so, so many reasons, our collective sense of consumer responsibility has sharpened – particularly over the course of the last few years. The moral question we run up against with our usual buying habits – the difference between the corporations and practices our money supports, and the ones it should support if we want to make the world a better place.
In other words, most of us want to be positive shoppers. We want to know that the things we bring into our houses – whether coffee, chocolate, electronics, clothing or, of course, that life altering engagement ring that’s going to sit on your partner’s finger for the rest of your lives – have not been made at the expense of the people or environment involved along the way.
When it comes to the diamond industry in particular, most of us are aware – to some extent – of the fact that these gemstones, and their artisanal miners, are easily exploited unless the industry works tirelessly to protect them.
These topics are pretty unfamiliar to shoppers just starting out in the world of fine jewelry, but making sure you understand the issues – and how to avoid supporting them with your money – is just as important as knowing how to pick a beautiful ring.
Here’s everything you need to know.
A ring made from materials that have been sourced from a suppliers and producers who actively work to ensure the safety and fair treatment of their staff, and the environment.
We’ll get into the specifics of each of these precious resources below but, right now, it’s no doubt clear to you already that mining for gold, diamond or platinum represents a major undertaking. These resources develop deep within the earth’s subterranean layers, buried within rock and, a lot of the time, very difficult to extract even with specialist machinery.
A lot of the work still needs to be completed by trained and experienced artisanal miners – sometimes by hand – and, without the right regulations in place, it can be incredibly dangerous for many different reasons.
As you can imagine, the impact on the environment can also be extreme. The natural life that exists in prospective mining areas can be destroyed alarmingly quickly, unless those in charge make a concerted effort to work with the natural landscape, rather than against it.
The precious elements used in fine jewelry and engagement rings represent some of the most impressive materials found in nature. We share a sentimental attachment to them, and what they have come to represent, but making sure that the positive value they hold for you isn’t overshadowed by the negative value they hold for the rest of the world is a fundamental part of your experience as a shopper.
Research is key. You’ll want to research into (and understand) the issues you need to avoid lending your support to, and research into sellers whom you can trust to offer full transparency about their sourcing practices.
Thankfully, you’re in the right place. It’s absolutely possible for you to invest into an engagement ring that doesn’t feature an unethical diamond, or gold that was produced as a result of human and environmental exploitation, so don’t go down a hole of thinking that traditional diamond engagement rings are no longer an option for those of us with the drive to ‘do better’ as consumers.
Unfortunately, it’s also a distinct possibility that, without the right awareness or preparation, you could wind up buying an engagement ring under the mistaken belief that it’s ethical. Sure, you may never find out – not in a million years – that the person who sold you the ring lied about its origins, but that’s far from the point.
We’re not saying that, by choosing to go the traditional route with a real diamond engagement ring, you’re entering into a labyrinth of ‘wrong choices’, but that, as of 2021, the industry is not yet perfect. You need to have the right resources, and the right experts, at your disposal if you’re going to be able to put 100% confidence into the ring you finally bring home with you.
Diamond is a fascinating natural mineral, formed entirely of carbon and over the course of billions of years. It’s a finite resource – one that is in continuously high demand from buyers based all over the world. It’s extracted via two key methods – alluvial mining and pipe mining.
What is alluvial diamond mining? This refers to the common and ancient process of mining above ground, from streams and riverbeds, where diamond deposits can be common. These diamonds will have been ‘pushed’ to the earth’s surface over the course of many, many lifetimes and deposited by the rivers and streams in the area. Alluvial mining can be done by hand, by artisanal miners, or with a more organized approach. For various reasons we’ll look at below, this process can be exceedingly dangerous if it is not organized properly.
How about pipe mining? As you might expect, this is the process of mining underground, and extracting the rough diamond from primary deposits. The process requires much more refined machinery, and much greater manpower. Like alluvial mining, this process can be very dangerous without the right safeguarding measures in place.
The main disadvantages all step back to the same key issue: informality, and an extreme lack of regulation or due diligence.
The key thing to remember about alluvial mining is that the process of searching and sifting through riverbed deposits can be done by hand. The trouble is that this makes it possible for informal mining areas to be established, where artisanal miners are tasked with sifting for rough diamond for hours upon hours, under intense heat, and in stagnant water that represents a breeding ground for bacteria and insects.
Remember that, in many instances, diamonds are mined in pretty remote locations. Without the right regulations and checks in place, there will always be the risk (and reality) of exploitation.
And, unfortunately, the exploitation of artisanal miners over the past few decades represents a truly shocking breach of human rights. Children barely old enough to go to school have been forced to spend their days working in these dangerous and exhausting conditions, all too often without access to basic amenities like drinkable water and medical care.
There are other dangers, too. The informal nature of alluvial mining has made it a target for insurgent groups looking to raise the funds necessary for armed conflict, and to spur on civil war. This is a key theme presented in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond – the devastating violence that raged on in Sierra Leone with the country’s diamond resources at the very center.
For this reason, choosing conflict free diamonds is the only moral choice for shoppers – but it doesn’t represent the full spectrum of human suffering that can occur where the potential for high diamond production is present.
Another key disadvantage to informal alluvial mining is the toll it takes on the environment – and, as a result, the people trying to live and work within it…
While regulated mining efforts are working to work with the environment, rather than against it, informal diamond mining can cause significant water pollution, as well as a number of serious and long-term issues for the viability of farmland in the surrounding area.
Of course, polluted water has devastating consequences not only for the people living and working in the area, but also for wildlife – including aquatic life – and the health of the soil, too.
This is, once again, an issue caused by such an informal approach to diamond mining. It has had a marked effect on ecosystems around the world, and particularly in areas where poor and vulnerable communities have very few options for relocating or repairing the damage caused.
The impact doesn’t have to be negative, however. The past two decades have proven that it is more than possible for mining efforts not only to be led in a way that minimizes the impact on the surrounding environment, but also for continued efforts to be made to invest into the repatriation of the area even after mining has ceased.
These two scenarios are polar opposites – an either/or situation – but that is the way it has to be. There are no half-measures when it comes to protecting areas that need to fulfill more than one single purpose. They need to offer a safe and healthy home to those who live there – and, in so doing, and a balanced ecosystem for animals and plant life.
By formalizing and regulating mining operations around the world – something that has already had a significant impact on the state of the global diamond industry.
The most sustainable diamond is one that has been grown in a lab, since we can continue to produce those gemstones over and over again, without depleting their numbers within the ‘natural world’. But, for so many people, the choice between a diamond grown in a lab and one that has been created over the course of billions of years within nature is clear – and, at the same time, the potential for the global diamond industry to invest back into the environment is incredibly high.
Diamonds Do Good, a non-profit organization dedicated to the task of ensuring that the production of diamonds around the world brings positive impacts, is one example of this positive new line of opportunity for producers, exporters, importers, jewelers, and shoppers.
For instance, De Beers, one of the oldest and most renowned jewelers in the world, are in the process of collaborating on an initiative to rewild and rebirth an entire ecosystem by translocating entire herds of elephants into Mozambique’s Zinave National Park. This is a major undertaking – and only one example of the work being done to positively impact entire countries, many of which are in Africa, that have been mistreated in the past for the sake of upping diamond production.
Of course, most jewelers are operating on a much smaller scale, and can’t work to the same scale as a jeweler like De Beers. But, for them, the philosophy remains the same: offering that invaluable line of support not just by using suppliers who are confirmed to treat their workers and the environment safely, but also by ‘giving back’ to the Fifth C of the diamond world: Community.
It is possible, but it requires diligence and awareness at all stages – from the mines themselves to the jewelry store down the street from you.
In the US, the importation and sale of blood diamonds is restricted by a number of key laws, meaning that, provided your local jeweler is working according to legislation – and, if they’re reputable, they will be – you won’t go home with a conflict diamond. But it’s not enough to rely on the country’s existing legal framework to ensure the ethicality of the diamonds. This requires more effort on your part.
Sadly, artisanal miners are still treated poorly in some parts of the world. Abuses of power are ongoing, and some producers, exporters and even importers are fueled by greed, rather than a sense of responsibility.
Thanks to a number of regulatory bodies, schemes, and the spreading of awareness both within and outside of the diamond world, the demand for truly ethical diamonds continues to grow. More and more people are learning to ask the right questions, and to recognize when the answers just aren’t stacking up.
The GIA grades diamonds sent into them from all over the world, and only requires that rough diamonds are accompanied by a Kimberley Process certificate confirming they are conflict free.
For any new shopper, the knowledge that a GIA report (or, failing that, an AGS certificate) is essential for any diamond they consider investing into winds up being a cornerstone for their search. It is, after all, the strongest confirmation any of us can have of the quality of the diamond in question, and its distinguishing characteristics. We can, with the right knowledge, use them to determine a rough ballpark figure for what the diamond should cost, so that we don’t wind up overpaying on low quality.
On its own, a GIA report will tell you a lot of the things you need to know, but it can’t quite tell you everything. It can’t tell you how the workers were treated, or how the land was protected. Sure, their Origin Reports can tell you more about where they came from – information that can be used to piece together some of the puzzle when it comes to conflict and ethics – but it can’t tell you everything.
The GIA is dedicated to ensuring ethical practices on the consumer side – making sure that jewelers and other vendors offer transparency around the diamond itself, to ensure consumers are protected. This has been its mission since it was created way back in the 1930s.
These days, however, it is using its own weight within the global industry to ensure better practices are adhered to. Just recently, for instance, the GIA began to offer the GIA Gem guide for artisanal miners, with the intent of offering artisanal miners education on the value of their wares, and of the ways they are used after they leave the miners’ hands. With further education, they can aspire to developing their own livelihoods, and to recovering greater profit from their work.
As a shopper, your key to tracing the history of any diamond you encounter lies in asking your jeweler.
But what if they don’t know the answer? Part of the responsibility that comes with operating a jewelry store is understanding the pipeline that exists between your establishment, and the places from which your diamonds (and other materials) originate, as well as the treatment received by everyone who exists along it.
In other words, they should know the answer – and they should be willing to offer full transparency when giving it to you.
In fact, you shouldn’t have to ask. Most jewelers who actively invest into ensuring an ethical supply chain will feature all the necessary information on their website, since the demand for ethical diamonds is so high these days. Plenty of shoppers will simply move on if they can’t find the guarantee they’re looking for straight off the bat.
Vague answers, a lack of knowledge, or a reluctance to offer any concrete information are the red flags we would always urge our readers to avoid, whether you’re asking about the diamonds or the precious metals…
Gold is a fascinating metal, both from a geological standpoint and when you look solely at its impact on human culture. Mined for thousands and thousands of years, and cropping up in almost every archaeological example of human civilization between then and now, its impact on the world is unlike any other metal – or any other natural substance.
These days, it’s famous for being highly valuable, but what a lot of shoppers don’t realize is that modern gold production also has its dark sides – both for the people mining it, and for the environment it is being taken from.
As with diamond, there are various methods including panning alluvial deposits, dredging, and hard rock mining.
First off, you need to know where we find gold – and, for that, you need to understand where it comes from.
Unlike diamond, gold is not a substance that forms in nature. It’s not the product of heat, pressure, or any chemical reaction (something the alchemists weren’t too happy to learn), but, instead, a deposit from the meteorites that once bombarded earth billions of years ago. That gold wound up deep underground and, over many years, much of it was pushed back up towards the surface.
Some gold is found in ore, while some is found in ‘veins’ that run through other rock, and the rest is found naturally in ‘nuggets’ – often in alluvial deposits similar to those that bring diamonds to the earth’s surface.
Those alluvial deposits are what came to symbolize the ‘gold rush’ era, when workers would pan for gold – a process that required them to sift through deposits in the riverbed for nuggets of gold – although this practice stems back at least as far as Ancient Rome.
Unfortunately, as with diamonds, illegal gold mining operations still represent a lucrative opportunity to those who are willing to exploit other human beings. In the case of so many illegal, small-scale operations, child labor remains a tragic fact of life, alongside a major lack of safety precautions for workers and criminally low wages. Once again, the remote location of these illegal operations makes it difficult for countries to quash them completely and, given the high market value of gold, difficult for some of the most vulnerable communities to be protected.
Much of the world’s gold is mined on a larger scale, however, using advanced techniques like dredging and hard rock mining.
It can be, if work isn’t done to support the surrounding area, rather than abuse it.
In spite of its dangers, mercury is still used within smaller scale mining operations to extract gold from its ore. The use of this chemical element, along with a number of other dangerous elements like arsenic, for instance, can easily contaminate the local water table, soil, animals, and those living in the area.
It can create uninhabitable conditions – and yet those who live and work in these areas face very few options for relocating somewhere safer.
In short, poorly managed mines can cause environmental disasters – environmental disasters that take a toll on vulnerable communities more than anyone, or anything, else.
Gold that has been mined legally and safely, by a workforce who are properly trained and fairly paid for their work, using methods that show due care and attention to supporting and preserving the surrounding environment.
Mining gold is not, and never will be, a sustainable practice, simply because it is not a resource that nature is able to grow and replace over time. It’s a finite resource, and one that will eventually run out completely.
Gold can, of course, be recycled – over and over again. It can be worn, melted down, recast, or reused without deteriorating over the years. This is one option for ethical gold, and something that an increasing number of jewelers are learning to work with. One of the largest jewelry chains, Pandora, has promised to begin using recycled gold and silver in all of its pieces, for instance.
Recycled gold isn’t the only option, however, and it’s important to remember that, as with secondhand diamonds, investing into secondhand gold does not support artisanal operations that are legal, regulated, and ethical.
Both Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold certification both offer a strong reassurance to shoppers that their jeweler uses gold that has been sourced from mines that are not subject to conflict, exploitation, or the use of environmentally destructive chemicals like mercury and cyanide.
This is down to the individual jeweler, and something that you will want to inquire about if you’re keen to ensure every component of the ring is ethical.
In some ways, it’s easier to track down an ethical diamond than it is to track down ethical gold. This is because consumers are now very aware of the importance of staying away from the distressing side of the diamond industry – a side that continues to shrink down to represent only a small percentage of the entire global production – thanks to a number of movies, news reports and documentaries over the years, but less so about the gold mining industry.
For this reason, some shoppers choose to invest only into a new diamond, and reuse metal from an existing family ring instead of investing into newly mined gold.
This isn’t an option for everyone, however, and, if so, your strongest resource will be your jeweler. After inquiring about the ethicality of the diamond, inquire about the gold – ask them if it’s Fairtrade, Fairmined or secondhand – if they know where it’s been mined from. Some local sellers will choose to use only local gold – a great extra detail if you and your partner both grew up in your state, or plan to spend your lives there together.
Asking isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it’s incredibly important if you’re unwilling to lend your financial support to some of the most destructive and exploitative operations in the world.
Platinum is incredibly rare. It’s so rare that, legend has it, all the platinum in the world wouldn’t be able to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool anywhere near halfway.
It’s also a beautiful choice for an engagement ring, and one of the most coveted of the precious metals. Consider the high status attached to ‘platinum membership,’ which holds a higher status than gold in practically any club you could join. It’s a bright metal – brighter than sterling silver or white gold – and highly durable, too.
The trouble? Like most precious and highly sought-after commodities, platinum has become entangled with some damaging and upsetting practices.
South Africa represents the most significant source of platinum, although it is also found in parts of Russia and North and South America.
In fact, scientists believe that a major meteorite hit Africa thousands of years ago, containing a considerable amount of platinum – the reason why such large deposits are found in such a specific region of the continent.
Much like gold and diamond, most platinum is found deep underground, in ore. Its availability to miners is so low that yearly production remains significantly lower than it does for gold, despite its incredibly high demand.
After all, platinum is not only a highly popular choice for jewelry, but also for a wide range of other industries, too. It’s considered highly valuable, and will remain subject to an incredibly high level of demand for many years to come. Just under a third of all platinum mined is estimated to be used within jewelry.
Yes, primarily because of how rare it is in nature.
Platinum is primarily found within copper and nickel ore, rather than in nuggets of pure platinum. This means that platinum, in spite of the high level of demand for it, is generally produced as a by-product of mining for these two less valuable metals. Some platinum mining operations exist, particularly in areas that produce high levels of it but, for the most part, there’s no real benefit to be gained from mining exclusively for platinum.
Since most of these operations take place deep underground, they require a great deal of effort – heavy machinery, plenty of manpower and considerable energy use are required to produce even the relatively small amount of platinum the world sees enter onto the market each year.
Extracting the platinum adds more steps into the process of extracting the copper and nickel contained along with it, meaning that it’s not just a ‘happy accident’ in the production of these metals.
The biggest issue associated with platinum production is its impact on the environment, since extracting it requires significantly more resources than those copper and nickel mines would have otherwise needed to consume.
It requires a tremendous amount of power and effort to produce even a relatively small amount of platinum. The trouble is, the increasing demand consumers are placing on platinum jewelry – both for its strength and durability, and for its beauty.
Its value for other industries, including the world of medical and scientific research, means that demand will continue to grow – and, with the jewelry industry accounting for round about 30% of all platinum used each year, there is an incredibly high level of demand for miners to find and produce more and more of it.
Yes, but in nowhere near the same levels as Fairtrade Gold.
While platinum is most commonly created as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, it can also be produced (though in small, unreliable quantities) as a byproduct of gold mining. This means that relatively small quantities of platinum are mined from Fairtrade Certified gold mines, and, as a result, have been mined according to that framework for ethical treatment of workers, and the environment.
It’s not easy to come to a decision – or to feel like there’s any way of doing the right thing – but there are plenty of ways to ensure that your engagement ring has been ethically created, and that you can feel proud of the final piece that winds up on your partner’s finger. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions shoppers have, answered.
Metals cannot be considered sustainable, since they are finite resources that cannot be regrown or replaced in nature. But, it is possible for some metals to be more ethically sourced than others…
Out of the two most popular, attractive, and durable precious metals gold and platinum, however, a Fairtrade, Fairmined or recycled gold represents the most reliable option when it comes to ethicality. Yes, the world of gold production continues to be haunted by illegal and unethical mining operations, but it is possible for the modern consumer to steer their money toward pipelines that seek to support the people and environments most impacted by the practices.
Platinum is in such, such short supply, and one of the ethical quandaries that comes with that fact is that platinum’s value for the medical world – for instance, in defibrillators – should be valued over and above its beauty in fine jewelry.
Not purchasing new platinum or gold will not halt their production, since they both hold incredibly high value elsewhere, too. Even if the world turned its back on gold jewelry tomorrow, and no one ever bought another piece, the mines would continue to operate. Gold has an innate value outside of the jeweler’s display case, and the best thing the industry can do is continue to invest money into Fairtrade and Fairmined production.
Whichever choice you make, there may be a few uncomfortable questions to ask – and, of course, you’ll want to feel as though you can place full trust in your jeweler to give you a clear and honest answer about the source of the metal they use.
Unless your bride is interested in the less traditional alternatives to diamond and gold, the most ethical engagement ring will be one that features an ethically sourced, conflict free diamond, set within Fairtrade or Fairmined gold.
Sure, if you’re lucky enough to hit upon Fairtrade platinum, then this will be much the better – but keep in mind the excessively high demand for platinum, and the fact that this fascinating precious metal holds some pretty significant applications in other industries, including the worlds of medicine and science. Your decision to go for platinum is not going to have any noticeable impact on the supply chains for these industries, but you’ll have to ask yourself whether or not you want to stand in support of its high demand within the world of fine jewelry.
From a sustainability standpoint, yes, since their purchase does not necessitate any additional mining, cutting, or transportation.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is the fact that purchasing an ethically sourced diamond – one that your jeweler can confirm has been produced by miners who are treated and paid fairly, and in an environment that is being protected from the destruction mining areas can – and have – been subjected to – means supporting a much more positive industry.
Just as purchasing a blood diamond means sending money down a corrupt pipeline, purchasing an ethical diamond means sending your money down a pipeline that has been established with the intent of improving life for those whose work is essential to the diamond industry.
Countless people and communities make a living from diamond production and, thanks to the combined efforts of participants of the Kimberley Process, and World Diamond Council, ongoing charitable action on behalf of communities and the environment, and a growing awareness among consumers, it is possible to find ethical diamonds, and to support a better present and future in this industry.
Only by speaking to the person who sourced the materials – your jeweler – can you know whether or not your jewelry is ethical.
This feeds into one of the biggest problems facing the global diamond industry, as well as the worlds of precious metals: nothing about their appearance, even under the microscope, will tell you whether they come from a place of war and exploitation, or a place of community, safety, and preservation.
Blood diamonds aren’t marked by the horrors that see them brought to the surface, just as ethically mined and cut diamonds don’t sparkle brighter, or feature fewer blemishes. Things would, of course, be so much easier if they did. Unethical or conflict diamonds could be seen, recognized, and destroyed before they brought their producers any profit.
It is for this reason alone why shoppers need to be able to put a very high level of trust in their jeweler. Research and awareness can take you so far but, when it comes down to it, there are certain things you’ll have to take your jeweler’s word for.
There are many, many reputable jewelers out there, so don’t hang your head thinking that the only way to avoid inadvertently supporting an unethical trade is to track down a one in a million business.
Remember that the right jeweler will be transparent about their sources. They won’t get by on the hope that consumers don’t realize the major injustices that can take place when it comes to mining diamond, gold, and platinum.
What does this mean for you? That the information should be easy to find; that, when asked, your jeweler will be able to tell you, in detail, about their practices for sourcing materials, rather than fumbling through an answer with no real substance.
It’s about trust, but you’ll find it a lot easier to find that trust if you know what’s going on, and what an ethical jeweler would and should do.
Yes, it’s absolutely possible for shoppers to track down engagement rings that have been made using ethically sourced or recycled materials.
There’s no single, right way of achieving this goal, however. Whereas some shoppers might choose to keep their financial support a million miles from the industry by asking their jeweler to breathe new life into a vintage engagement ring – most likely a family heirloom, many, many shoppers will choose instead to put some extra legwork into tracking down a jeweler who is as committed to the ethicality of the industry as they are.
Maybe they’re looking for someone who can source and work with recycled metal, or Fairtrade gold. However they choose to approach it, their jeweler will be their primary port of call.
When you read about the horrors that arise within the darker side of this industry, it can be easy to feel as though the entire pipeline suffers from that same level of greed and corruption, but this is certainly not the case. An incredible amount of work has been done by some of the largest (and smallest) businesses working within this arena to turn it around, to give back to the most vulnerable – and vital – communities, and to create a pipeline that will prove its own longevity.
Chances are, you can’t travel to these mining areas and witness the circumstances firsthand – and, after that, escort your diamond all the way to the jeweler’s workbench. You need to be able to trust in what your jeweler is telling you – and, of course, to believe that an ethical side to this industry exists.
At WillYou.Net, we pride ourselves on our high standards for the jewelers we recommend to our readers – all of which we have done business with in the past, and value for their commitment to ensuring quality and transparency on every topic modern engagement ring shoppers are concerned about. You can use our Jewelry Store Locator to track down a worthwhile establishment in your area, and to book a consultation to talk through any worries or concerns you might have before pressing ‘Go’ on your own engagement ring.