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Know Your Jewelry’s “Ingredients”

As consumers, we have every right to know the origins of the jewelry we’re buying.

ethical jewelry Photography by Yuki Saito

Are your eggs organic?

Are those bananas fair trade? Now what about those opals in your earrings?

There was a time when we seldom questioned the origin of what we ate or considered whether the vegetables we consumed were seasonal, locally grown, or helping at-risk communities. Today, we’re vastly more educated about food. But can we say the same about the diamonds on our fingers, the gold on our wrists?

With annual global jewelry sales expected to reach $292 billion by 2020, isn’t it time jewelry came with a breakdown of its “ingredients”? As consumers, we have every right—if not a responsibility—to know the origins of the jewelry we’re buying, but not every- one knows what to ask. Now, an increasing number of jewelry companies are answering those questions for us—putting their ingredients on the label, so to speak.

At the forefront is Chopard. The Swiss jewelry and watch company announced in March that by July of this year it would be using 100-percent ethical gold in all of its jewelry and watches. For Chopard this means “gold acquired from responsible sources, verified as having met international best-practice environmental and social standards,” according to the brand’s website, and includes artisanally mined gold monitored by Fairmined and Fairtrade schemes and gold from refineries certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council.

From Chopard’s Green Carpet Collection: A 34.63-carat Paraiba tourmaline responsibly sourced from a mine in the Mavuco-Chalaua region of Mozambique; necklace with diamonds and earrings set in 18-karat Fairmined gold.  Photography by Yuki Saito

Ethical gold is an incredibly complex issue, monitored by a whole raft of organizations and one that looks not just at the environmental impact of mining, but also at safe and healthy working conditions, fair pay, and supporting vulnerable communities. Chopard is the first big player to make such a major commitment. In addition to Chopard, a number of independent jewelers, such as the New York–based Brazilian designer and sculp- tor Ana Khouri, have committed to using only ethically sourced materials.

 

Today, we’re vastly more educated about food.

But can we say the same about the diamonds on our fingers, the gold on our wrists?

 

“We have been using Fairmined 18-karat gold for approximately five years now,” says Khouri, whose sculptural ear- rings also incorporate traceable gem- stones like lavender-blue tanzanite and emeralds from Zambia. “Working with ethically sourced Fairtrade gold in our jewelry allows us to help and promote responsible mining practices. Being part of the Fairmined Initiative, a global enterprise created by the Alliance for Responsible Mining, is something that I am very proud of, as I feel there is an exchange of ideas; we report our fair-trade purchases and discuss ethics in environmental practices.” The ethically minded, Berlin-based jeweler Lilian von Trapp takes a different tack, using only recycled gold and vintage diamonds in her designs. “There is already enough gold in the world; we don’t have to mine any more of it,” she says. Von Trapp is so passionate about the negative effects of goldmining that she works with the Earthbeat Foundation, which aims to educate mining communities about alter- native sources of income. She recently launched a limited-edition recycled-gold necklace to support a Ugandan goldmining community in decontaminating their land by planting toxin-absorbing vetiver grass—a crop, like fair-trade coffee, that can then be sold.

Fernando Jorge tagua-seed necklace and rings set with diamonds in 18-karat gold.  Photography by Yuki Saito

Pippa Small, who originally trained as a social anthropologist, has been selling her ethically conscious jewelry for more than 20 years. This year marks a decade of the London-based designer’s collaboration with Turquoise Mountain, an organization founded in 2006 by the Prince of Wales to promote and conserve traditional crafts in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Small’s involvement with the project means there are now 11 independent jewelry businesses in Afghanistan employing 68 artisans, and another 150 artisans in Myanmar. Next, Small and Turquoise Mountain will travel to Jordan to work with Syrian refugees, among whom are many artisans with knowledge of traditional Syrian goldsmithing and jewelry design that are at risk of dying out.

Little wonder that Small received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her ethical jewelry production and philanthropic work. It doesn’t hurt, either, that her designs have a luxuriously rustic charm adored by legions of well-heeled fans. Take, for example, a necklace of gold and lapis lazuli from the 10th-anniversary Turquoise Mountain collection—a multilayered, chain-link concoction of deep blue teardrop- and cabochon-cut lapis stones suspended from cones of yellow gold.

Ana Khouri Coco earrings made with Mozambique emeralds from Gemfields, and Teresa earrings made with responsibly sourced tanzanite. Both pieces are set in 18-karat Fairmined gold and diamonds.  Photography by Yuki Saito

Award-winning jewelry designer Fernando Jorge uses his native Brazil’s tagua seed, or vegetable ivory—a beautiful and sustainable alternative to mammalian ivory derived from the seed of tagua palms. Passionate about his country’s resources, Jorge uses the material in combination with diamonds and gold, making the case for fine jewelry taking many forms—not just the traditional ones.

Ultimately, whatever jewelry you buy, whether it’s in the form of the most traditional gemstones like emerald or ruby, or something less obvious like tsavorite or even vegetable ivory, you have a right to know where it comes from.

These Pippa Small designs were made as part of the Turquoise Mountain project: gold-vermeil and hand-painted ring and earrings, and Hamsa multistrand necklace.  Photography by Yuki Saito

The London-based mining company Gemfields, the world’s largest supplier of colored gemstones, says it’s important for the buyer to ask the right questions about the jewelry she’s investing in. “The main question for a consumer to ask is where the individual elements of the jewelry have come from,” says Gemfields’ sustainability, policy, and risk director Jack Cunningham. “For particular stones of interest, the jeweler may be able to tell you the country of origin. You can also ask what certification the jewelry comes with, to prove the origin. Since some countries have less transparent or ethical approaches for the production and trading of gemstones, the consumer should be able to make a judgement about sustainability from those proofs of origin if they are available.”

It might sound like hard work. But if we keep asking the important questions, we’ll be compelling all jewelry companies to answer them as standard practice— without us even having to ask.

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