The Challenges Begin With the Raw Materials
Fine jewelry is made with at least one product – a precious metal – that started out in the ground. It is also likely produced with precious gemstones or diamonds, which also started out in the ground. Does this mean that jewelry cannot ever be sustainable? Of course not, but it does take more effort than one might expect.
The most basic aspect of ethical production, supply chain transparency, is one of the most difficult to achieve. Why? Because most metals and minerals come out of the poorest regions on earth, and pass through multiple hands on their way to market, most without any traceability.
Alternatively, a small handmade jewelry bisness does not use mass produced materials from large production companies. I personally source my metals from US refineries and often use recycled metals that I recycle myself. I use US artisan made tools whenever possible and it is the bulk of my tool collection. I have a personal relationship with a large network of artisan tool makers that also make jewelry. WI get my cabochons from US lapidary artist that, many times, go out and find the stones, then carve them in their tiny home work spaces. e are a large United States network of small artists helping each other.
Is the solution to stop using mined materials to make jewelry? Not according to Christina Villegas of the international development non-profit Pact. At the 2017 Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference, she pointed out to attendees that artisanal mining feeds millions of families that might not eat otherwise. Consider this statistic: In 2017, the World Bank estimated that at least 100 million people – workers and families— worldwide are involved in artisanal mining, the types of mines often producing precious metals and gemstones. So the goal is to help them mine safely, and make sure that enough mining revenue remains with them so they can invest in the clean water, schools, and other services their families and communities need.
One aspect of jewelry production most consumers don’t consider is gem-cutting (sometimes referred to as polishing). Gem cutting produces microscopic dust damaging to the lungs. Laborers in gem cutting facilities often work without proper ventilation or safety gear. How is a consumer to know if the person who cut their gemstone worked in one of those facilities, or in a safe gem cutting facility? There are currently dozens of efforts around the world to create gem cutting education and improve gem cutting facilities. If social impact is important to you, be sure to ask your jeweler where they purchased their gems, and if they know where those gems were cut. Gem dealers are increasingly focusing on social impact, and organizations like Columbia Gem House are actively funding gem cutting education in the field and offering Fair Mined Gems.
I purchase my gemstones like moonstone and labradorite from a small home bisness owner in India that I have cultivated a long lasting friendship with and I know their sales are directly helping their household.
For some consumers, fine jewelry may not ever be an option, due to the environment and social risks involved in producing it.