Fine jewelry almost always has a global origin story. Precious metals and gemstones are found all over the world, and the work of taking these materials from the earth and the act of trading them are ancient professions which have driven global trade for all of recorded history. We value these materials so highly that our monetary systems are tied to them. Although our lives are built around currency exchanges tied to “the gold standard” most of us spend little to no time thinking about the actual gold trade.
How can we know whether or not our jewelry contains gold mined using mercury, a toxic element dangerous to people and the environment? How do we know the miners are paid a living wage? How do we know whether our gemstones are funding despotic leaders engaged in genocide? How do we know if the people faceting our gems have the safety equipment to prevent them from developing lung diseases?
These questions point to some very grim scenarios at play around the world. These are not the images we want to equate with jewelry, particularly fine jewelry. Many in the jewelry industry are extremely invested in keeping information on sourcing very opaque for this reason.
However, there is a growing movement within the industry committed to shining a light on sourcing - asking these hard questions and encouraging consumers to ask them too. We need transparency around how materials are being taken out of the earth and processed, and accessible systems that track who is doing that work and how they are being compensated. A major factor in making this change is building a demand for products that are being mined sustainably and then kept within a traceable supply chain. Jewelers need to demand this for consumers, and consumers need to demand this of jewelers.
How can a consumer learn the answers to these questions? Ask. Just start asking questions. Look for information on websites. If there is no information, no statement about where materials come from, how they were sourced or where items were made, this may very well mean that these are unknowns. Understand that the jewelry industry is changing. There are ethical sources and systems of accountability in place that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.
Many of the options for implementing ethical sourcing are still extremely limited. For example, some sources of gold may guarantee stable income and safety for miners, but there is no guarantee that mercury isn’t being used in the process or that land is being remediated afterwards. Overly broad claims and “greenwashing” labels may be an indication that the jeweler hasn’t delved very deeply into these questions. However, this isn’t a reason to dismiss their efforts out of hand as they may still be learning about these complex issues.
Many jewelry companies are currently in the process of transitioning to more transparent practices.Each year that we have been in business we have implemented new practices as we understand more and weigh the choices. Most of the options that are out there only solve one piece of an extremely intricate puzzle. Look for companies that are willing to have a conversation with you. Even better, look for companies that have already started investigating these questions and implementing changes.
Whichever jeweler you are shopping with, let them know that these values are a key component of your purchasing decisions. Support businesses that are moving the bar forward. Consumer demand is the greatest changemaker and you can be a part of the solution.