Are Gemstones Ethically Sourced?

Even though I don’t get this question a lot, since I teach ethics, it stands to reason that the ethical sourcing of gems would be a concern of mine. And it is. But if we consider the question carefully, it is obvious that even if we could all agree on what “ethical sourcing” meant in this context, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that the demand to only use ethically sourced gems is nearly impossible. The quick and dirty reason why is this: we don’t have enough information to really know.

First let’s break down our gems into two very rough categories: old mine and new mine gems. Old mine gems might be 20, 30, or even 70 years old (old mine diamonds are even older).

My Burma rubies for instance are old mine. That means they were mined and brought to the U.S. before the trade embargo. However, all that means is that we know that now laws were broken in bringing the stones into this country. And that is very little. The longer ago a stone was mined, the more hands it might have gone through. Maybe that was 10 different hands, maybe 100. So anyone who buys an old miner has little to no guarantee about any behavior anyone might have engaged in who once owned the stone. We know little to nothing about how or even exactly where the stone was mined, we don’t how much minors was paid, how well they were treated, what kind of environmental damage the mining caused, what payment the cutter received. We know nothing about any of the other possible owners, such as gemstone dealers, setters if the stone was previously set, private owners, or polishers who might have re-cut the stone, etc. Or how many countries the stone has travelled before it got here. It's just too much data to acquire, and I seriously doubt anyone has it. By contrast, we know a lot more about where our foods come from, if they were fair trade, organic, etc. For one, there are considerably stricter regulations about food.

And secondly, even canned foods are rarely more than a few months old. Take emeralds mined in Colombia. Yes, it might be true that no Colombian laws were broken in producing emeralds. Let’s assume that for the sake of the argument. But does that mean the miners, cutters, and dealers were paid fairly, that they were treated well? It means no such thing because Colombian laws do not guarantees this. Or take Brazil, a country that buys much of the toxic waste produced in the U.S. because it is too expensive to store it here (and our laws are too strict). Do you think that a country that buys our garbage for income, and stores it sometimes near populated areas, can afford to meet our ethical demands when it comes to the mining of aquamarine? (And aren’t we hypocrites if we make such demands when we also pay Brazil to store our toxic waste?)

Tie Bar with Old Mine Ruby Cabochons

Now let's take new mine stones, more recently mined material that is. At least in these cases we know that the chain of information is shorter, laws are more recent, and political situations better assessable. But we also know that the fair trade label, which is widely used for foods, does not apply to gemstone mining and sourcing. So there are no regulations to appeal to. The Kimberly laws are only for diamonds, and they're not that great either. Even regarding the U.S., we know that many of the environmental practices we had a while back are now considered unethical, and many are now illegal as well. We have gotten much stricter and much better (we hope, but let's assume we did). Very little of this applies outside of the U.S., the E.U., Canada or Australia. So even if we have some information about a particular gem, it is at best incomplete, and at worst we already know that the ethical demands we might have about its sourcing are not likely to have been met, or are ever likely to be met in the developing world.

1.6 Carat Old Mine Diamond
Let’s look at one more category, the only one that might hold some promise when it comes to ethical sourcing of gems. Consider cases where we buy recently mined materials nearly directly from the source, meaning from a dealer who came from, i.e. Tanzania, or who acquired the materials him(her)self and had them cut in his (her) own company. When it comes to my Tanzanian goods, my suppliers fall into that category. And they are nice people who I know pay better than the competition and who treat their workers well.

But now consider this. A German geologist recently told me that even though he personally supports families in Tanzania, he can only pay miners and cutters what an E.U. or U.S. consumer is willing to pay, in other words what the market bears, plus his own markup (he’s not rich, so his markup, let’s say, is just what’s necessary to live your average travelling salesman’s life). Is his pay fair? That same geologist told me that he was once offered a piece of tanzanite from a local who demanded $250. He offered $5 instead because he felt that’s what the market would allow. Was that ethical or not? The local had enough to feed his family for a few days, and then he would have to try to find a new piece of tanzanite. Long term planning for such an individual is not possible, nor is it what anyone else can manage.

Tanzanite Slice Necklace
I am personally very strict with myself when it comes to the foods I eat (they must be ethical) and a large portion of my other purchases, but with gems I have learned the hard way that there is no way for me to do this and at the same time offer a large variety of gems or jewelry. I also know if I don't buy goods, people don't get paid at all, so that's not necessarily an ethical alternative. It's what you call being between a rock and hard place, but at least it’s the honest answer.