Introduction to ethical jewellery
In life, we all strive to make the right moral and ethical choices. Whether it’s eating free range food or using cruelty-free makeup brands, using certain types of products is important to some consumers.
The same applies when it comes to buying different types of jewellery. Just as with clothing brands or shoe manufacturers, jewellery companies have a responsibility to ethical production.
In this guide, we’ll highlight exactly what constitutes classifying an item of jewellery as being ethical, with a focus on diamonds.
A history of diamond production
The first recorded presence of diamonds in human history came as far back as the 4th century BC. Despite that, it would take until the 1400s for the substance to become popular amongst the elite of Europe.
At this point, production was exclusive to India. The Asian nation supported the mining of diamonds for nearly 300 years. But, as with any natural resource, centuries of sourcing the gem took its toll.
By the 1700s, India could no longer sustain the excessive demand being placed on diamond production. And while a small horde of the gem was found in Brazil, attention turned instead to South Africa.
With the discovery of the Star of South Africa, a new diamond rush had begun. People started flocking to the African nation in order to take advantage of this treasure trove.
The modern diamond industry was born out of this era, with production rising from 1 million carats a year to 20 million between 1870 and 1920. This upward trend would continue until 2005, when the industry peaked at 177 million carats.
How are diamonds manufactured?
Diamonds themselves are formed deep underground, via a variety of natural methods. Movements of the Earth’s plates and extreme pressure (sometimes from ancient volcanic eruptions) have seen many pushed up to layers which are accessible via mining.
There are six core stages in manufacture, from the diamond being in the ground to on your finger. These are:
Kimberlite rocks serve as the primary source of diamond production. These are tested by diamond prospectors for magnetic fields which would indicate the presence of a precious gem.
Special technologies are introduced to remove items from the ground. There are a few different types of mining systems which are utilised at this point of the process, depending on where the diamonds are located. These include:
Open pit mines. The most common form of mining, used when diamonds are located near the surface
Underground mining. When a resource is deeper underground it might require mining tunnels to be built
Marine mining. Where something is extracted from the seabed
Artisanal mining. A non-industrial form, where local communities work together on a very basic level to recover resources
Once a diamond has been extracted, it’ll be sorted according to size and potential value. Shape, quality and colour are also taken into account. There are thousands of groups as a result.
Cutting and polishing
While diamonds look extravagant when they’re used in jewellery, they don’t come out of the ground sparkling. Experts are employed to shape and shine the precious gems so they’re fit for sale.
Diamonds are now ready to be turned into the finished product. It’s at this point they’ll be added to the likes of rings and necklaces.
Source: Swiss Gem Lab
The production method is effective, but at a cost. With such efficiency in mining and manufacturing diamond jewellery, the number left under the Earth’s crust continues to dwindle.
In recent years, a lack of sustainable manufacture has seen a dip in the number of diamonds being sourced. With the aforementioned peak of 2005, the necessity for ethical jewellery production has become paramount.
What is ethical jewellery?
It’s not natural to look at a piece of jewellery and consider its origin. But the impact which the sourcing of diamonds and other precious gems has on both the environment and mining communities can be staggering.
In order to counteract any potential harm, ethical practices have been adopted to improve both sustainability and the quality of life for those sourcing the gems. There are a number of ways in which these changes have been implemented.
Supply chain transparency.
Added impetus has been placed on ensuring each step of the diamond mining process is recorded and made publicly visible. That means tracing the origin of a diamond from the moment it’s found to when it’s used for jewellery.
So far great progress has been made in this regard, with De Beers even going as far as to create a blockchain platform which allowed them to trace the journey of any diamond from the earth to a shopfront. This guarantees only sustainable methods have been implemented.
No use of child labour.
It goes without saying that the use of child labour – especially in such harsh conditions – goes against what most people are willing to tolerate. Shockingly, mines in India and Africa sometimes use this type of workforce.
This will often resort in kids missing out on an education, in the process condemning them to a lifetime of mining work. Unsurprisingly, ethical jewellery bans the use of an underage workforce.
Despite exisiting child labour laws forbidding the practice, some developing countries will overlook the regulations. Organisations like Diamonds For Peace are working to ensure all sanctions are enforced, to prevent any further harm to the youth of third world countries.
More money and resources given back to the local community.
The government in countries which have diamond mines will often benefit from taxation on the gems, as well as profit-sharing arrangements. Mining companies also take a large percentage of the money earned.
Ethical diamonds can only be classified as such if there’s clear evidence of the local community receiving a fair and equal cut of the money being made. This can be pumped back into crucial resources like education, health and housing.
It’s hard to know for sure if the diamonds you’re purchasing are from areas where a labour force is given a fair and equal pay. As such, it’s best to turn to fairtrade institutes. They help to set up a system where those sourcing the diamonds are able to directly benefit from profits.
Recycling is a viable option for the diamond community. It’s sustainable because precious gems are repurposed. Using jewellery which has already been sourced means you cut out the mining process.
A limited impact on the environment.
While diamond mining is less hazardous to the environment than most forms of mining (owing to the lack of harmful substances present), it still poses a potential risk.
When ripping up large layers of the Earth’s crust, local ecosystems can be majorly disrupted. This can have a detrimental impact on wildlife, greenery and even small villages if their water system is disrupted.
In countries like Namibia and Botswana, systems have been put in place to ensure the surrounding ecosystem is protected when mining occurs. Artisanal mines are also a brilliant way of ensuring minimal damage is done to the world around us.
Examples of unethical jewellery production
But what happens when unethical practices are employed to source diamonds? Let’s take a look at some examples where immoral decisions have had a negative impact on both communities and the ecosystem.
Conflict Diamonds in Sierra Leone
Ravaged by Civil War between 1991 and 2002, the African country of Sierra Leone isone of the slowest developing nations in the world.
The primary issue stems from the use of ‘conflict diamonds’. Despite making revenue to the tune of $250m every year, widespread corruption has meant that very little of this money is returned to the communities who mine the precious gems.
The vast majority of funding for the civil war came from the money generated from selling these diamonds. With conditions which would be unacceptable in most developed countries, and a system which only sees workers paid on days when they find diamonds, the people of Sierra Leone are exploited by local-level artisanal mining companies.
Destruction of the local environment across Africa
This is a common problem which is prevalent across vast areas of Africa. Arguably the worst example of the impact to an ecosystem is the Finsch Diamond Mine in South Africa.
The crater used to source diamonds from this mine is 1,750 feet wide, with a depth of over 1,000 feet. The sheer scale of this mine has had a major impact on the world around it.
Reports suggest that diseases for both humans and animals in the local area are common. This is largely due to contamination of water supplies in the area. The disruption of the kimberlite level of bedrock has caused unnatural pollutants to enter streams and rivers, resulting in toxic elements in the water.
Child labour in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
We’ve already touched on the unethical use of child labour in some mines. This is perhaps at its worst in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A recent study by Swedewatch highlighted that of 49 people interviewed in a local mining community, only the one denied the use of child labour. The report also called into question the morality of Swedish companies who used these diamonds in their products.
These are just some examples of the ongoing unethical practices being utilised in the jewellery industry. While progress is being made, it’s important we continue to address the ongoing issues.