It should really be a routine question whenever a customer buys an item made from gold and precious stones: where did that gold and those stones originate? In this information age, no-one can ignore the fact that precious metals and sparkling gems can be linked to environmental degradation and worker exploitation; in some cases, even armed conflict and terrorism. Among the younger generation of luxury buyers at least, the question is of sufficient importance that the salesperson on the other side of the counter is no longer at a loss when asked about the sustainability or ethics of the products they sell. And for the industry to embrace codes of conduct intended to introduce more responsible practices into less than transparent supply chains. However, what is true for gold and diamonds, where the value chain is increasingly regulated and monitored, is less so for coloured gems.
This mainly comes down to the way the industry is structured. Writing in L’Officiel Horlogerie Bijouterie, a trade magazine for the watch and jewellery sector, Emilie de Poncheville, sales director at Piat, a well-known Paris-based lapidary, explains why: “Coloured gemstones are mined in some 60 countries. Whereas 85% of diamond mining is industrial, 80% of coloured gemstones are sourced from artisanal mines. This means we are dealing with small mines, a multitude of intermediaries and countries whose financial, legal and political structures are very different from our own.” According to industry estimates, there are 30 million artisanal miners producing coloured gemstones worldwide. They include two million children working in family units. Alongside dangerous working conditions, trafficking of coloured gemstones is known to finance the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as the military in Myanmar, the centre of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
Chopard was one of the first jewellers to commit to responsible sourcing when it set out on its “Journey to Sustainable Luxury” in 2013. It explains how there can be no one-size-fits-all solution for a jewellery industry that uses over 200 different types of gemstones, most of which are sourced from artisanal and small-scale mines and traded through a largely informal economy. In a highly complex context of small and family-run businesses, from miners to cutters, polishers, traders and jewellery-makers, where every stone has its own supply chain, industry-wide solutions have yet to be found. One of the ways forward is the Colored Gemstones Working Group (CGWG), an initiative launched in 2015 by Gemfields, the world’s largest producer of coloured gemstones, and some of the leading luxury jewellery names – Kering, LVMH, Richemont, Swarovski and Tiffany – joined two years later by Muzo, a Colombian mining company, and in 2019 by Chopard. The objective of the CGWG is to improve responsible practices and transparency across the gemstone industry.
The culmination of five years of collaboration with TDI Sustainability, an advisory firm, the CGWG this year launched the Gemstones and Jewellery Community Platform. Tested by 150 businesses over three years, the platform “provides all members of the gemstone and jewellery industry with free tools and resources to be more responsible in all that they do, including the sourcing of coloured gemstones.” Assheton Carter is founder and CEO of TDI Sustainability: “The Gemstones and Jewellery Community Platform aims to reach the smallest businesses, from miners to traders, cutters, polishers and retailers. It means, for example, that a trader in Tanzania can find online the resources and tools they need to answer questions that customers in Geneva, London or New York might ask about their responsible practices. They can also share their progress towards sustainable practices online. It’s about bringing small producers into a sustainable ecosystem and not excluding them from the market.”
Needless to say, Chopard has welcomed the platform as a means to “make a significant impact on improving the conditions for the mining of coloured stones (that) is fully in line with our own philosophy.” Other solutions are also laying the groundwork for greater transparency. After a process developed by Gübelin Gem Lab with the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich that traces a stone to the exact mine where it was sourced; after the Responsible Jewellery Council extended its Code of Practices to coloured gemstones; after the launch by Gübelin (again) and Everledger of the Provenance Proof blockchain that securely records all operations along a gemstone’s value chain, the latest initiative to date is Gemolith. Developed by GemCloud, a tech company for the coloured gems industry that also works with the CGWG, this online marketplace carries an inventory of more than 10,000 certified gemstones. “We made it our top priority to build solutions that encourage responsible sourcing,” says GemCloud CEO Veronica Favoroso “Today, more than before, we are all aware of the importance of having sustainable practices and we feel very privileged to be in the position to drive our community to do better.”