While there are 47 countries that mine & produce colored gemstones, very few types of stones can actually be sustainably sourced. This is due to the fact that very few sources of gems can be traced to their origins in the first place. The lovely and ethically certified exceptions include rubies, Gemfields emeralds, and amethysts, that can be traced back to their mine and even vein of origin. The production of colored gems has remained a fragmented and unregulated process, as consumers have only relatively recently begun to ask questions about where their fine jewelry comes from, and just what exactly our industry’s claims of “ethical” and “sustainable” really mean. Demand for sustainable sourcing of diamonds, even, is a relatively recent consumer trend as well, sparked in part by the 2006 movie Blood Diamonds with Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Edward Zwick.
Jewels pass through so many different hands, from the time of their mining and extraction, to their cutting and polishing, and finally, to their certification and use in fine jewelry. Both value and rarity compound the sustainability challenge, as large-scale production is next to impossible and there are few viable mines to invest in. Artisanal, small-scale mining is dependent on individuals using very basic tools, yet makes up 75 to 80 percent of colored gem production worldwide.
Tragically, some types of colored gems have been associated with funding criminal activities. Burmese rubies and jade are notorious examples of such conflict gems, used by authoritarian regimes/guerrilla or terrorist groups to fund conflict and perpetuate human rights abuse. Cambodian sapphires financed the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and then the subsequent regime. Tanzanite has been linked to the funding of the 1998 terrorist bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Afghan lapis lazuli production has, and still continues to generate millions of dollars for armed groups in the region, including the Taliban. Gems are so susceptible to such insidious influences because their small size (relative to their value) and the industry’s complete lack of regulation makes them a great material for smuggling (like Colombian emeralds), money laundering, and fraud.
While the extraction of colored gems does not require the massive amounts of toxic chemicals that diamonds do, mining is by nature, an environmentally destructive practice. Mines in the United States, Myanmar, Brazil, and Sri Lanka have stripped entire forests, poisoned groundwaters, and lead to catastrophic erosion.
Looking to the future, the younger generations — from Millenials to Gen Z — are leading the charge towards sustainability. As the multi-billion dollar American jewelry industry continues to grow, more and more consumers are considering the sustainable & ethical implications of their fine jewelry. Studies have shown Millenials to be the generation that cares most about the ethics of purchasing. Younger people tend to consider purchases as investments in brands, and consequentially look to brands that are reflective of their own personal values.
All this goes to show, that when it comes to sustainably sourcing gemstones, it is always better to work with what we already have instead of creating more demand for nonrenewable resources that tend to leave bloody trails in their wake. Not only is reviving old gems the most sustainable option, it is the most ethical. It is clear we need to do better, as an industry, as a society, and most importantly, as a planet. This starts with us, in the choices we make every single day.