Ethical Gemstones Are the Future of Sustainable Jewelry, So Why Are So Few Jewelers Using Them?
TL;DR Ethically sourced gemstones — like mine-to-market regulated or lab-grown gems — are nearly identical to their naturally occurring counterparts, and they are gaining traction in the jewelry industry. Jewelers and vendors, however, are still hesitant to incorporate responsibly sourced gemstones into their pieces because of their perceived lesser value and expensive price tag. Even though ethically sourced gemstones guarantee safe working conditions and fair pay — and are free of conflict, child labor, and forced labor — the jewelry industry still has a long way to go in accepting and utilizing them.
Opal. Sunstone. Moonstone. Beautiful, shimmering gemstones sit sprawled across the small wooden desk Amy Fox uses as her workstation. Half of the desk is occupied with wires, chains, and necklace clasps organized neatly in small baggies and a wooden organizer, filled to the brim with tools. A much-loved miniature anvil sits in the corner of the desk, the blue painter’s tape stuck onto the face starting to chip away, revealing the dark, metallic hue from extensive use. She concentrates as she meticulously lines up one of the gems and gently places it within the metal frame of a recycled bronze ring band.
Fox, owner and designer of the small-batch jewelry brand Iron Oxide, handcrafts and casts rings, necklaces, and hairpieces from 100% recycled scrap brass and silver that she’s sourced locally.
When Fox started her business in 2009 and began using gemstones in her pieces, she hadn’t considered where the stones were sourced, who mined them, the working conditions in the mines, or how much the miners were paid. Some of the gemstones she used in her jewelry were lab-grown, but as she became more knowledgeable about ethical sourcing and the jewelry industry, she began contemplating the origins and sourcing of the rest of her gems.
Without the guarantee of ethically sourced gemstones, it’s nearly impossible to determine if a gemstone was mined ethically. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) found that “child labor and forced labor can be found at every step along the jewelry supply chain”, and that gold and diamonds, specifically, are connected to the highest number of countries using child or forced labor to extract those goods. As Fox learned more about the dubious ethics within the gem mining industry, she knew she had to guarantee that her jewelry did not pay into these oppressive practices.
“It’s not an option to build your business on child labor,” Fox said.
So, in 2020, Fox set out on a mission to purchase only ethically mined and lab-grown gemstones for her jewelry line and became determined to find an ethical and sustainable gem supplier.
Her first stop: The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.
The Tucson Gem Show
At the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona, jewelers, collectors, and vendors can find nearly anything they could ever want or need: delicate amethyst beads, lustrous pearls, crystal-clear diamonds, and even towering rose quartz or selenite spires. Fox flew from Oregon to look through the sprawling market of the largest gem show in the United States in the Arizona heat. She’d come all this way, and although she found her lab-grown supplier among the vendors at the Tucson Gem Show a few years prior, she felt it was unlikely she would be able to find another responsibly sourced supplier. But she still had to try.
Fox perused from stall to stall, browsing through each vendor’s selection and pouring herself over the dazzling stones and crystals. She fingered through the displays of exquisite opals, shining sunstones, and iridescent turquoises, gathering small, shimmering beads in her palm — imagining how she could incorporate them into her earrings, necklaces, and rings.
She chatted with potential suppliers and inquired about the sourcing of their gemstones. Where were the gemstones mined? Who mined them? Who cuts the gemstones and where is that done? What regulations are in place to ensure humane and fair labor practices? What are suppliers doing to minimize their environmental impact?
Why are ethical gemstones important?
These answers were extremely important to Fox’s mission. A study by the University of Basel in Switzerland found that there are a variety of negative environmental impacts from mining gemstones. While the environmental impact depends on which gemstone is being mined, the study generally found that river and water supply contamination, poaching, land-use conflict, and infertile soil are just a handful of the negative effects crystal mining can cause.
Working conditions were also an area of focus and concern. Naturally sourced gemstones are often processed in facilities without proper ventilation, and workers can easily become sick. Illnesses like silicosis — an incurable respiratory disease that occurs when workers breathe in large quantities of silica while filing, drilling, or grinding gems — are common when workers are not given adequate protection. Finding the answers to these questions would determine whether the supplier met her standards for anything “ethically sourced”, Fox said.
But all Fox found were blank stares.
“I’m trying to ask people about sourcing, and I’ve just been laughed at or treated very dismissively,” Fox said. “It’s just not something the industry as a whole has been made to consider.”
Fox also mentioned that it’s common practice for gemstone vendors to buy, barter, and trade their gemstones with other vendors so often, it makes it nearly impossible to track a stone’s source or origin. None of the sellers she spoke to at the Tucson Gem Show could give her an answer to her questions.
The Ethical Gem Fair
Fox decided to try her luck at the new Ethical Gem Fair, an exhibit a few-minutes drive from the main show. She planned her trip around the dates of the Ethical Gem Fair in the hopes of finding ethically sourced gemstones there. But when she arrived at the venue, Fox felt a tinge of disappointment. The Ethical Gem Fair consisted of less than 10 vendors, all within the confines of a Scottish Rite Cathedral basement — a small fraction compared to the nearly 230 vendors that set up shop at the Tucson Gem Show, and the thousands of vendors at the over 30 satellite shows in the area. Only about 25 other buyers and a security guard were in attendance.
However, the lab-grown and ethically mined gems Fox found shimmered and shined as brightly as the ones she poured over under the lights of the main exhibition hall. As she asked the vendors about sourcing and mining practices, she found genuine answers about proper ventilation, mine-to-market tracking, and regulations against child labor. The vendors were able to provide photos of the mines and the miners, and they could tell her exactly where each gemstone originated from. Many were directly involved with the mine the gems were coming from, and Fox said she found the eagerness to share information about ethical sourcing refreshing.
At the Ethical Gem Fair, Fox was finally able to find what she’d been looking for. She emerged from the Cathedral basement with about 20 ethically sourced gemstones in hand and her brand new ethical gem supplier secured.
“It was really small,” Fox said. “But it was a start.”
Ethically Sourced Gemstones in the Jewelry Industry
Ethically sourced gemstones are a growing presence in the jewelry, crystal, and gemstone industry, but only a tiny fraction of the gemstones in circulation are ethically sourced or lab-grown. While Fox and other jewelry companies are moving toward using 100% ethically sourced gemstones and recycled metal in their designs, the jewelry industry is still widely dominated by the circulation of non-renewable gemstones and metals that have no known origin, no fair labor guidelines, and no documented environmental protections.
“As a buyer, over time, it became more and more obvious that the crystal and gemstone market needed a lot more scrutiny,” Fox said. “We’re taking a closer look at how our products are made and where they come from. But this is an industry that flew under the radar for a long time. People weren’t questioning it.”
From Latin America to Africa to Asia and Europe, the Department of Labor found that child and forced labor have been used to mine a large number of jewelry staples like rubies, emeralds, jade, and silver. The United States is the number one importer of semi-precious stones in the world, so without documentation on the origin of a gemstone, it’s impossible to know what conditions the miner was working in, if they were a child, or if they worked in safe, healthy, and fair conditions.
What are lab-grown gemstones?
Lab-grown gemstones are man-made, which ensures that there’s no forced or child labor exploited in their creation. Sterling Turquoise & Opal, Iron Oxide’s supplier of lab-created opals, handcrafts their gemstones in their lab in Phoenix, Arizona, where each gem is created conflict-free. Made with the same chemical structure, physical properties, and appearance, cultured gems are generally more economical and financially inclusive than their naturally occurring counterparts.
What are ethically sourced gemstones?
Ethical gem and crystal suppliers not only implement regulations to ensure their worker’s safety and livelihood, but also enforce protections for the environment. Columbia Gem House — Iron Oxide’s supplier of ethically sourced sunstones, that Fox met at the Ethical Gem Fair — implements principles in order to guarantee the rights and safety of their workers, environmental protections, cultural diversity, product integrity, and a transparent supply chain.
While there are no third party organizations who certify gemstone companies for fair trade practices, “companies like Columbia Gem House who are really rigorously tracking everything about their gemstones are effectively certifying them,” Fox said.
Why are jewelers hesitant to use ethical gemstones?
With ambiguity around the ethics of naturally occurring gemstones, and the human rights and environmental benefits of ethically sourced and lab-grown gems, it may be confusing why gemstones produced under harmful and inequitable conditions still dominate the jewelry industry. According to Fox, lab-created gemstones have a bad reputation in the jewelry industry and are perceived to be less valuable than their naturally occurring counterparts, even though there are no chemical differences between the two.
“The gem and jewelry industry is so old, and there’s a lot of these ideas of what is real and what is valuable, and it’s so tied up in classism and colonialism,” Fox said. “It doesn’t stand up to the ethical and sustainability lens that millennial and Gen Z customers are bringing to the market.
The gemstones produced from Columbia Gem House — that are ethically mined and can be sourced back to their country of origin — come with a hefty price tag, a price some jewelers and gemstone suppliers may not want to pay. Fox theorizes that besides the high price point and perceived lesser value of lab-grown and consciously sourced gemstones, confronting and reconciling the potential human rights violations and harmful environmental practices attached to vendors’ livelihoods may also be a barrier to moving toward ethically sourced products.
“Once you know, you can’t unknow. Part of the reaction I got in Tucson when I asked about sourcing is that people do know,” Fox said.
For Fox, though, the decision to only implement ethical gemstones was an easy one to make.
Iron Oxide’s Future with Ethically Sourced Gemstones
“It’s definitely a sacrifice in some ways, because it’s a lot more expensive. It cuts into my profit margins in a big way, and it, artistically, limits what I can work with,” Fox said. “But overall, it’s an easy choice to use lab-grown and [ethically mined gemstones].”
Since her time at the Ethical Gem Fair in early 2020, Fox says she now exclusively buys ethically sourced gems. About 75% of the gems in her jewelry at Iron Oxide are stones she purchased from ethically mined and lab-made gemstone suppliers, and the other 25% consist of gemstones she bought before she began consciously sourcing. Fox says, to ensure her jewelry line is zero waste, she’s slowly phasing out the older gemstones from her production process until all her designs are made with ethically sourced gems.
While ethically sourced and lab-grown gemstones are still the exception, Fox says she’s hopeful for the future of the industry. Fox says that as consumers are becoming more aware of the sustainable fashion movement and the negative effects of fast fashion, they are beginning to take a closer look at their accessories and their jewelry as well.
“I think the sustainable fashion movement grows out of a larger philosophy, and it extends to every realm of what we consume,” Fox said. “I’m hopeful, and I think the industry is going to be forced to change.”