Since the beginning of history, gemstones have been intertwined with the fates of kings and empires. From sapphires and rubies mined by children’s hands to the environmental and societal catastrophes of diamonds, the light is finally shining on humanity’s dark obsession with these beautiful, crystallized minerals. Given their past, is it possible to mine ethical gemstones? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about gemstone mining, sourcing, and our top 10 most ethically mined gems.
A History of Colored Gemstones
When we imagine gemstones, our first thought is usually associated with a piece of jewelry. The oldest known piece of jewelry, though not a gemstone, is a 150,000 year old necklace made of snail-shell beads discovered in Morocco. With jewelry made of found materials, our ancient ancestors set the stage for a form of non-verbal communication that remains to this day.
Humans have worn gems for thousands of years as visible symbols of status, beauty, power, protection, healing, community and religion. Various cultures have prescribed different meanings and special significance to each gemstone but one fact unites them across time: their perceived value.
The bottom line is that gems, worn as pieces of jewelry or other adornments for the home or body, are meant to be seen and valued.
What Are Gems?
A gemstone is defined as a deposit of crystallized minerals. However, as today’s gemstones are mostly used in the jewelry industry, some unique, colorful rocks like opals and lapis lazuli or valuable organic matter like pearls are currently classified by the industry to fit into the gemstone category.
The Crystallization Process
Scientifically, all gems are crystals. This includes diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, to name a few.
Gemstone crystals form through a variety of methods determined by the type of rock they are found in and what minerals are present.
For example, gemstones found in igneous rock (volcanic or magmatic) are formed as the minerals in lava cool and bind together. The length of time these minerals take to cool and their chemical composition determines the type of gem that forms such as diamonds, moonstones or amethysts.
Gemstones found in sedimentary rock start their formation on the planet’s surface and in the presence of water. As the minerals and organic matter submerged in water dissolve, they sink into the rock beneath the body of water and settle together in fissures or cracks in the rock.
Over time, the pressures beneath the earth compress these minerals into gems such as zircon, opal and malachite.
Lastly, when pre-existing rocks and minerals deep within the earth’s crust experience both high pressure and extreme heat, they form new composites. This intense pressure/heat combo of metamorphic rock produces gems like jade, rubies and emeralds.
But it’s not just the minerals that make up the structure of the crystal that are important. Impurities in the formation of the crystal also determine its color. In amethyst, for example, iron impurities give it its characteristic purple hue.
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Our Obsession Didn’t Start With Diamonds
Contrary to their popularity today, the diamond wasn’t nearly as commercially valuable as other gemstones until the 1300s when methods to cut and polish the hardest substance on earth were discovered.
The earliest gemstones were those that contained color. They were considered to hold magical power and were used for healing, protection and religious symbolism. According to Marisa Galvez, a scholar at Standford Universtiy, a gemstone’s “…ability to refract light and its transparent but dark appearance are partially the reason why so many different cultures and societies ascribed magical powers to this stone.”
The ancient Egyptians considered gems to be a part of everyday life. As gemstones were difficult to mine, source, and transport 6,000 years ago, they were mostly owned by the wealthy or those with religious or leadership status.
Though not a true, crystallized gemstone, lapis lazuli was one of the most revered gemstones in ancient Egypt, hence why it is still considered a gem today. It was associated with mental clarity, wisdom and was highly prized by pharaohs and priests. Some gemstones had so much worth that they have even been documented as payment for ancient parcels of land.
Though we revere the ancient Egyptians for their awe-inspiring achievements, it must be noted that their wealth of gems went hand in hand with slavery.
Slaves worked gemstone mines in harsh conditions and wore their own form of jewelry: simple cuffs, bracelets or necklaces that signified their masters. Though not the first civilization to implement slavery, the Egyptians certainly expanded the practice on one of the largest scales of their time, showcasing the ancient unethical nature of gemstone mining.
Christianity and Medieval Gems
As societies have risen and fallen since the time of the ancient Egyptians, so too have gemstones changed hands among kings and religious figures.
Most notably, as Christianity rose throughout the Byzantine Empire, the church started amassing hoards of crystals. Crystals have been valued throughout Christianity and are referenced many times in the Christian bible. Crystals were added to everything from chalices to rings to altars.
With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of the difficult Middle Ages the Christian church possessed most of the crystals in current circulation in Europe. The Crusades brought more opportunity for Christian forces to loot and steal gemstones from other lands, continuing to fill their coffers and continuing to contribute to the bloody history of gems.
The Rise of the Diamond
A diamond is the only crystal comprised of a single mineral, carbon, and is the hardest substance naturally found on earth.
Rough diamonds were first found in ancient India and were considered valuable but could not be cut due to their extreme hardness. Finally, some techniques began to develop in the 1300s to polish diamonds but the first cut didn’t take place until the 15th century when it was discovered that diamonds could be cut with their own dust.
Once the crystalline structure of diamonds was exposed through cutting and polishing, everyone wanted one. Diamonds found their way into necklaces, crowns, engagement rings and other forms of jewelry.
Demand for diamonds increased and mine owners exploited workers and the environment to rake in profits. The owners of diamond mines began using the profits to gain power, influence, and protection.
As the demand for diamonds exploded, so too did conflict.
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Today’s Conflicted Gemstone and Diamond Industry
Today, diamonds make up 85% of the gemstone market and are typically used in jewelry.
It wasn’t until 1998 that a group called Global Witness brought international attention to the conflict surrounding diamonds.
Since their rise in demand during the 15th century, diamonds have become associated with societal and environmental corruption, exploitation and death. If you’ve heard of the movie Blood Diamond, then you know something about this already.
The term conflict diamond or blood diamond was refers to any diamond that is mined in areas controlled by forces opposed to the legitimate, internationally recognized government of a country and that is sold to fund military action against that government.
Territorial groups and corrupt governments across the globe control massive diamond mining operations with a singular goal: profits to support war and control. Global Witness brought to light the conditions these illegitimate groups impose upon people and the environment in search of conflict diamonds.
They force child labor, ignore the costs of good equipment, turn a blind eye to preventative safety measures and pay workers very little.
Burma supplies 80 to 90 percent of the world’ rubies. They have been under military rule for the last 50 years or so and are known to enforce child labor in every step of the ruby production process from mining to cutting and polishing.
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It’s not just the abuse of human rights that makes a lot of diamond mining unethical, it’s the destruction of the environment surrounding these mines.
Most diamonds are produced through 3 types of large-scale operations: pipe mining, alluvial mining or marine mining.
Pipe mining is either performed in open pits or in underground tunnels and involves blasting and crushing of tons of rock.
Alluvial mining screens sand and silt from streams, though today’s screens block entire rivers and waterways.
Contemporary marine mining involves large ships that suck up the sand and gravel in the sea bed to sift through it.
All of these methods directly impact the environment and little regulation has existed to protect these areas from exploitation in the diamond industry.
Huge swaths of forests and grasslands are cleared for massive pits to be blasted away. Giant ore crushers spew pollutants into the air as they grind rock into slurry. These pits, once mined for everything they have, are left empty and unfilled, a breeding ground for malarial mosquitos.
Local water sources are polluted with the slurry from grinding rock. Large vessels suck up the sand and gravel in sea beds, filtering the microbial life that bottom-feeders forage upon and altering the landscape of earth’s deepest places.
While most of the controversy surrounding gemstones stems from the diamond industry, it also exists in the colored gemstone industry.
Unlike diamonds, colored gemstones are mined through small-scale efforts. While this doesn’t eliminate human rights and environmental abuses, it does provide more localized industries that focus on artisanal miners.
Small scale miners typically leave less impact upon a natural area but are also more difficult to regulate. 75 to 80 percent of colored gems are mined with hand tools or through rudimentary methods.
An Ethical Future Requires Work
Many human rights and environmental organizations across the globe are calling for blanket regulations on the gem mining industry but there are several hurdles standing in the way.
Gemstones are mined in 47 different countries and not all of them align on fair labor practices and environmental regulations.
The solutions are far from simple. As more individual consumers become aware of the conflict behind their gems, they’re searching for ethical options. However, these other options are causing a decline in demand from some countries whose people need the most help.
As diamonds and other gems are beginning to be sourced elsewhere, the livelihoods of people in the world’s poorest countries hang in the balance.
The complexities of the gemstone and diamond industry may take generations to solve on a global scale.
Ethics in the Gemstone Industry Today
Thanks to the human rights groups who drew attention to the conflict behind gemstone mining 23 years ago, ethical changes have already been implemented in many corners of the industry.
The definition of an ethical gemstone varies between countries and suppliers but all agree that, at the bare minimum, an ethical gemstone is conflict-free.
Some countries have their own ethical gemstone programs like the American Gem Society or subscribe to global membership programs like the Kimberley Process.
The Kimberley Process
In 2003 the industry introduced the Kimberley Process. The process focusses on verifying that rough diamonds are conflict-free.
These diamonds are traded between countries that have agreed to be part of the program. Governmental members of the process are committed to transparent mining practices and certify that their shipments have not been tampered with.
While the Kimberley Process is a step in the right direction, it has only been officially adopted by the diamond industry and not all gem-producing countries are members. Many countries and governments are still working to implement these practices into the small-scale mining efforts for colored gemstones.
As consumers become more knowledgeable about the conflict behind gemstones, individual suppliers are stepping up to implement solutions in this new age of ethical jewelry.
If you visit any jeweler’s website today, you can find ethical gemstone certifications and source-tracking systems, though the definitions of these ethics vary. Belonging to a country that is a member of the Kimberley Process is a great first step but individual miners and suppliers are beginning to take their ethics seriously and promote additional ethics and benefits surrounding their gems.
These can include promoting better living wages for miners and other staff, safe working conditions and funding for good equipment. Some mining operations today help the environment by implementing practice leave-no-trace principles, zero emissions practices and are carbon-negative.
Lab-grown gems are also growing as a great alternative. With our advances in technology, any gem can be created in a laboratory. While some people don’t value them as much as gems produced by the earth, lab-grown gemstones are conflict-free and usually environmentally friendly.
Some jewelers have even started offering recycled metal jewelry to complement ethical gemstones.
So What Should I Look For?
This new world of ethical gemstones begins with you, the purchaser. Consumer demand for ethical gemstones is what will eventually change the industry for good. So what can you do to ensure you’re buying a conflict-free gem that honors the environment it was taken from?
Every jeweler’s or supplier’s website should list transparent, ethical gem sourcing information. It’s up to you to make an informed decision that you feel is ethical. If you’re looking for an authentic, nature-made gem, the steps below detail the specifics you should look for:
- A Kimberley Process certification and any other ethical or environmental certifications.
- Supply chain transparency and a detailed mine-to-market tracking system for each type of gem. Look for which country the gem was mined in.
- Details on the working conditions, wages, and community improvement projects the miner or supplier provides.
- The effects that the mining and shipping processes have had on the environment and what the miner and/or supplier are doing to implement sustainability into their practices.
Other alternatives to consider are lab-grown gems or heirloom/familial gems. Even if your familial gems were obtained through conflict, you can contact a jeweler to discuss re-purposing or thrifting options and easily avoid contributing to future conflict gemstones.
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Our Top 10 Most Ethical Gemstones
Now that you understand the long and tumultuous history of gemstones, it is imperative that you consider ethical gems whenever possible. No gemstone itself can be ethical, the ethicality of a gemstone is derived from how humans handle it. Here are our top 10 most ethical gemstones and their ethical sources.
1. Diamonds in the Kimberley Process.
While diamonds have had the bloodiest and most environmentally destructive history of all gemstones, they also have the power to become the most ethical but only if consumer demand drives them there. 85% of the gemstone market consists of diamonds.
Your pocket holds the power that drives the industry and by choosing to purchase an ethical diamond you’re putting weight behind the necessity for conflict-free and environmentally friendly options.
Diamonds that are sourced from a country that is a Kimberley Process member or are lab-grown are the best options.
2. Lab-grown Moissanite.
The gem that most closely resembles the diamond is moissanite. While mined moissanite is pretty rare, it is one of the most common lab-grown gems which are completely ethical.
If you’re looking for a more affordable and ethical diamond alternative, lab-grown moissanite is for you.
3. Canadian Ammolite.
Canada accounts for 90% of ammolite on the market today. Ammolite is technically the fossilized remains of an ancient cephalopod species but is considered a gemstone in the current industry.
Canadian ammolite miners are laser-focussed on the ethics of their operations, and even replace the soil and grasses in the order they were removed, leaving little trace of the operation.
4. Sri Lankan Sapphires.
A majority of sapphires can be found in Sri Lanka, a leader in ethical mining. Two regulatory bodies operate in the country where small-scale artisanal miners are supported by fair labor and environmental care laws.
5. Small-scale Amethysts.
Piedra Prada, a town in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, produces a significant portion of the international market of amethysts. The community has been mining there for over 70 years and provides a living for families.
No corporation owns the entire area (though some private mines belong to individuals) and the individual miners sell directly to ethical international markets.
6. Sustainable Pearls.
Though not a scientifically-classified gemstone, the jewelry industry considers them to be a part of the gem family. There are many sustainable pearl suppliers along oceanic coasts from Japan to Denmark.
7. Muzo Emeralds.
The Muzo Mine in Colombia produces many of the emeralds in the industry today. Muzo miners belong to a union, have access to healthcare, fixed salaries and profits are invested into both the local community and environment.
8. Brazilian Citrine.
Large deposits of citrine can be found in Brazil where the government recently passed new environmental laws. The significant gem mining industry in Brazil must adhere to the environmental laws and partake in reforestation projects.
9. Californian Howlite.
Most howlite is found in the state of California, USA. Tick Canyon, California is known for its high concentration of rough howlite that can be found by anyone walking through the canyon.
10. Australian Opals.
Many opals are found in Australia where country-wide labor and environmental laws must be implemented and adhered to.
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