Ethically Sourced Gemstones and Artisanal Mining: A Contradiction?

Ethically Sourced Gemstones and Artisanal Mining: A Contradiction?

Etsy recently implemented a sustainability feature that allows sellers to click on an attribute that marks an item as ‘recycled’ or ‘organic’, or ‘ethically sourced.’ Not all our listings have the attribute as a clickable option on our back end, so we assume it is still in testing mode (we often get selected to test new features). The Etsy seller Handbook has an article on what items the attribute can be applied to. Here’s what it says about gems:

Ethical Gemstones: Ethical gemstones, including diamonds, require high standards for social and environmental responsibility that go beyond being Conflict Free™. Note that ethical gemstones don't typically include vintage gemstones due to lack of supply chain transparency. All gemstones, including diamonds, in or on the item must be ethical in order to claim this attribute. Sellers should qualify claims for “ethical” so that consumers understand what this label represents in their listing description.

As you may know, ‘ethics’ is totally up my alley as I am an ethicist by training. My Ph.D. is in philosophy, one of my two specializations is applied ethics (the other is epistemology, or theory of knowledge). I am also published in this field. I won’t bore you with further details, but I will link to my Ethics text here:

I don’t normally bring up my academic background because it’s (a) not relevant and (b) I don’t want it to be misconstrued as tooting my own horn about my being such a wonderfully ethical being. I’m the same as everyone else, just with a research degree in the relevant field. I do know a lot about the term ‘ethical,’ how it is used and I am very familiar with the problems posed by determining what territory it covers and how. And that’s why I want to weigh in on how problematic it is to try to make a gemstone be ‘ethical’ – and note, on the side, that no object can be ethical any more than it can be courageous or trustworthy. This requires agency, and agency requires an agent, someone who can choose between actions. But let’s set that aside, maybe I’m just being nitpicky.

Let’s look closely at that quote and figure out what’s being claimed. Start with “conflict free.” According to IGS (International Gem Society), a Conflict Free diamond is defined as a diamond that has “not financed civil wars.” But that applies to diamonds. Colored stones are not used to finance civil wars or much of anything else. They cannot be used as currency in the way diamonds are because their values are hard to determine, the pricing varies too much and as a result, they are not easily converted for cash on the open market. (Colored stones can and are used in money laundering schemes but I will have to leave that topic for another blog.)

You can of course say that a colored stone is conflict free but it would not say much, certainly it would not be a term of distinction, just like the word ‘natural’ when applied to most food stuffs, like ‘all natural’ doesn’t add much by way of information on a can of beans or a bottle of water. So if that were the only criterion for ‘ethical,’ all colored stones would be ethical stones.

It is also false to imply – as Etsy does above - that non-vintage gems have a transparent supply chain. They do not. And to know if a gem is ethically sourced you need to know about the supply chain, of course. Unfortunately, most gems go through too many hands for anyone at the end of the supply chain to know much about their history. Only a small subset of gems on the market are ‘block-chained’, meaning that their travels are fully documented. A portion of Dudley Blauwet’s gems are now block-chained. Nomads Gems will additionally make the distinction between gems bought on the open market and gems bought from trusted sources. Most small vendors however make no claims about their sources one way or the other, because they can’t.

Assuming, for the moment, that the supply chain was transparent, however, this still does not answer what makes a gemstone ethical. Again, let’s resort to what has been said about diamonds to get us started with a hypothesis. IGS offers this definition of ethical:

Conflict-free refers to diamonds which have not financed civil wars. Ethical diamonds go further, ensuring fair pay, safe working conditions, environmentally sound practices, and no human rights abuses.

But this claim makes another hidden assumption that cannot be verified: that an employer-employee relationship exists that can both implement and oversee mining practices and a pay structure (and the claim that the practices need to be environmentally sound goes even further than that, to facts about local government and infrastructure).

Now, diamond mining is expensive, in part because most diamonds are far beneath the ground. The tunnels can be a mile deep, and setting up such mining operations therefore requires big funding. As a result, diamond mining is done by larger companies, and these in turn have an infrastructure that can be the basis of fair pay and working conditions. Only 15% of diamonds are mined artisanally, meaning they are mined by small groups working claims on their own or mining without a license (local governments don’t usually run much interference in this process). In colored gems, estimates for artisanal mining or ASM, are up to 80%, with over 20 million people involved in mining worldwide, according to Guebelin:

For example, in the town of Muzo, Colombia, large groups and families from the Muzo and Muisca tribes literally wash the bed of Rio Minero for emeralds (this is called surface mining, or alluvial mining), and sell them to Bogota through their known middle men or on the gem market in their towns or on the square in front of Casa Esmeralda in Bogota. Their pay is what they get for the gems they find, they do not have any employers in the official sense of the term, and they work with whatever equipment they can afford. (Here’s a quick but well referenced Wikipedia overview on Artisanal mining, though the references are mostly to gold:,on%20ASM%20for%20their%20livelihood.)

Obviously, neither fair pay nor safe working conditions are relevant in this context. In many of the less wealthy countries in the world people have to be entrepreneurial to find a way to get paid. They don’t have employers in the way we ordinarily use the term.

In many African countries, the number of officially employed people is far smaller than the number of unemployed or self-employed people because so few have a chance of getting any pay at all, never mind if it is fair or not fair in terms of wages – since they don’t get wages. My guess is that it is mostly the government, schools and hospitals that offer jobs in the traditional sense. Real statistics are hard to come by because not all births or deaths are officially recorded. I did look up some statistics here, and so can you, but knowing what I know about data collecting in Africa, especially in remote locations, I suggest you take whatever you find with a grain of salt.

In regions where the ground is rich with minerals such as the Mozambique belt and Madagascar, locals mine gems because that is their best option, they sell to brokers or on the open market where their finds will simply fetch the going price. How they mine and what kind of danger they subject themselves to is essentially up to them – certainly it is not regulated. There is no infrastructure, no external control, and in many cases, no law that protects anyone other than the local clans or tribes rules and regulations (there could be many such rules but those are largely tangential to what we might call the ‘labor market’). Larger mining corporations do exist for colored gems; mostly they are run by people from other countries because foreigners usually supply the financing and very often also the oversight; but as I said above, these do not cover nearly as much of the trade as is the case in the diamond world.

I suspect, therefore, that few to no Etsy sellers are either mine or claim owners or work with any artisanal groups directly. As a result, I fail to see how a high standard for social responsibility could be implemented, overseen or enforced. What Etsy is hoping for is an impossibility when it comes to colored gems.

This doesn’t mean that any claims about ethical gemstones are all B.S. It’s just that the foundation of what makes a trade ethical has to be grounded elsewhere.

My view? It has to be grounded in TRUST. If you can trust someone, then you can trust them to do what they can to keep their relationships above board and do what they can. Note, by the way, that I am therefore in disagreement with Klemens Link, who says that “Without trackability and transparency, there is no trust” (as quoted by Everledger): Trust is what you need in the absence of trackability and transparency. Once those are in place, trust is no longer needed. I would agree however, that trust is built on a foundation that began with trackability and transparency. For me to trust my sources in Madagascar, I had to meet them in person and see how they operated. And for a more indirect approach: I can trust someone by proxy, when I trust their intermediary.

This is an important point. As a small business, it is impossible for us to own or run any kind of mining operations, let alone travel to the source countries and have an informed opinion on an ongoing basis. When we do travel and buy overseas, we do our best to be informed, and additionally we pay above market because I want the seller to have the best advantage of working with us that we can provide. We also help finance the families that are involved in trading with us once we feel we have a close bond.

It is true that because we want to offer a wider variety of gems, then we cannot have the transparency we would like with everything we source. But we do provide transparency where we can (i.e. you can read the blogs about all my travels), and we also work only with vendors who we trust. Some of them have ‘families’ they support, meaning they are well integrated into local clans in the industry and the relationships they have are lifelong and strong. And this, more than anything else, ensures a solid backflow of our wealth to those for whom our most basic expectations of life (food, clothing, shelter, transportation) are only a dream to have on a consistent basis.

For those of you who want to refrain from purchasing anything that has an ‘iffy’ supply chain, my recommendation is that you contact us and ask us directly, as there’s only so much information we can make available on Etsy. We do work with Greenland Ruby (as they are 100% located in the ‘Western World’ so it’s of course super easy to be ‘ethical’ in all of the above defined ways). Many of the gems we source from Dudley Blauwet are block-chained, and for our Madagascar gems, Colombian emeralds and even some of our Paraibas we have fairly solid information on their life before they came to CRD.