The Complexities of Ethically Sourced Precious Stones


Maria Doulton | December 12, 2011

The Jewellery Editor, Maria Doulton, highlights the challenges posed by a highly fragmented market, dominated by independents, in the ethical sourcing of coloured precious stones

The ‘Uniquely You’ campaign by ethical Emerald provider Gemfields

With the news of Global Witness walking away from the Kimberley Process last week, the hope of a watertight guarantee for the provenance of diamonds is in the balance. The Kimberley Process – the most ambitious project of its kind – is a nine year-old system of controls intended to eliminate ‘conflict diamonds’ from the supply chain of rough stones.

Global Witness accused the self-regulated Kimberley Process as ‘an accomplice to diamond laundering’ and has abandoned its support of the system that was already under much criticism. So what hope is there for the fragmented coloured gem stone industry, which has no system of checks akin to the Kimberley Process, of providing a transparent supply chain and guarantees of ethics and sustainability?

So while all eyes may be on the diamonds, few consumers really know very much about the journey of a tourmaline, spinel, emerald, ruby, sapphire or citrine set into a ring – never mind under what conditions they were mined, where and how they were cut and each stone’s true value. The miner down a pit in central Brazil, prospecting for a topaz, is as unlikely to know the final value of the stone on Bond Street as the owner is to know the origin of his or her stone.

“ 90% of all coloured gemstones are mined on a small scale, often involving nothing more than a man, a hole and a pickaxe ”

Making sense of the diverse coloured gemstone industry is not an easy task. Mining for precious gemstones is highly fragmented and scattered across the globe. Unlike diamonds that are mined on an industrial scale, 90% of all coloured gemstones are mined on a small scale, often involving nothing more than a man, a hole and a pickaxe.

Byzantine, labyrinthine and archaic are just some of the words the people involved in the business use to describe the largely uncharted and unbranded territory of coloured precious stones. And with 80% of all coloured gemstone mining taking place in developing countries, the task seems forbidding.

But the industry is beginning to take action and the International Coloured Gem Stone Association’s (ICA) last conference in Brazil addressed issues of ethics and sustainability, in sourcing coloured gem-stones. Barbara Wheat, Executive Director of the ICA based in New York, says: “Nowadays having transparency is very important for all the luxury industry, but the coloured gem industry is quite different because we don’t have any one big company like De Beers dominating. It is mainly about small miners and their families. We are aiming for some a way to certify something, but at this point we are not quite certain what to certify. How do you certify a small miner?”

Sorting staff at Gemfields’ Kagem mine, with the “Insofu” 6,225 carat rough emerald

“No one system of certification is free of flaws,” adds Mrs. Wheat. “So we haven’t made a decision on which system to settle on but we know it can’t be like diamonds that is a very industrialised operation. Diamonds have standard grading systems but in gemstones the parameters are much more subjective. Gold and diamonds are commodities but there are too many exceptions and variants in coloured stones to be able to sell them as a commodity.”

Beyond the ICA’s work, change is afoot. Mining company Gemfields, who are members of the ICA, has taken on the challenge of bringing to market ‘ethical’ emeralds, amethyst and soon rubies. This London-based firm was brought to the AIM (Alternative Investment Market) in 2008 by Pallinghurst, led by Brian Gilbertson, ex CEO of mining giant BHP Billiton and his son Sean who put together the company. The company’s aim is to become the authority in the coloured gemstones markets.

The father and son team spotted the opportunity to professionalise and streamline the coloured gem market. “Carat for carat, coloured gemstones frequently out value the finest diamonds,” reports Martin Creamer in Mining Weekly. “ But despite that, until Gemfields came on the scene, little was done to realise greater value for coloured gemstones. Now the new order being injected into the business is providing tangible rewards.”

“ We are aiming for some a way to certify something, but at this point we are not quite certain what to certify. How do you certify a small miner? ”

Their first venture is the Kagem emerald mine in Zambia that has been in operation for 25 years. Gemfields own 75% of the mine and the remainder belongs to the Zambian Government. Beyond introducing modern mining techniques and optimising the potential of the mine, Gemfields is trying to do the right thing by working to make the operation ethical, fair and sustainable.

“Our focus: reliable and ethically produced Zambian emeralds,” states the firm. Adding that it “upholds fair-trade practices while remaining in accordance with the highest level of environmental, social and safety standards…Gemfields prides itself on excellence and transparency.” The company reports land rehabilitation programmes, new schools, health schemes and safety standards as well as supporting the World Land Trust’s work.

Furthermore an auction system run by Gemfields themselves means that stone buyers can now rely on a stable and organised source for stones, as opposed to long chains of dealers in which the stones change hands many more times, making it difficult to maintain a clear chain of custody. The knock on effect is that retailers can guarantee to their clients the source of the emerald as Gemfields provide a certificate of authenticity, ethics and environmental standards.

Miners at Gemfields’ Kagem emerald mine in Zambia

Gemfields has worked with the World Land Trust who has visited the mine but as yet there is not official third party certification in place. The mine is also working with the Gemological Association of America (GIA) to establish a system of certification that will allow each emerald to be identified right back to the pit of origin.

And it seems to make business sense. Since June 2009 Gemfields emerald auctions have raised $98.5 million. Ian Harebottle, CEO of Gemfields, commented of the most recent auction in November in Jaipur: "With each auction it becomes increasingly clear that our team and our industry partners are making significant progress in delivering on our vision of ensuring that coloured gemstones take their place alongside diamonds and other luxury goods.”

Gemfields has bought 50% of the largest amethysts mine, also in Zambia as well as 75% of the Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique, which could potentially be the largest ruby mine in the world. With large-scale operations such as these given the Gemfields turnaround, the potential to corner this fragmented market is evident. But where does this leave the small artisanal miners, scrabbling in the dust and down mud pits around the world?

“ The challenge is to include independent miners. If we don’t take them into account we will be doing a great disservice or even helping to put them out of business ”

Barbara Wheat of the ICA replies: “The challenge is to include these miners. If we don’t take them into account we will be doing a great disservice or even helping to put them out of business. We have to think carefully as we could be doing great damage to the people who live in these producing countries.”

She cites the example of a previous government initiative in Madagascar that required documentation for each stone. The unintended result was to put often-illiterate stone miners into the grasp of local henchmen who could provide the necessary documentation, at a cost. But Mrs. Wheat urges consumers not to turn their back on coloured stones: the consequences of not buying coloured stones at all would much graver for the poor people of the world.

Analysis | Jewellery