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Reporting on the Fair Trade Jewelry Conference


The Fair Trade Jewelry Conference at the JCK Jewelry Show in Las Vegas last Monday was so profound for me that it honestly has taken me over a week to process it. I was familiar with some of the issues discussed but learned a great many things about the various movements in ethical, fair trade, fair made and green jewelry and why they should matter to everyone who gives, receives and enjoys fine jewelry.

While most people have heard of the controversies regarding blood diamonds they may not have investigated the issue deeply enough to know that diamonds from Africa are not universally bad. As Russell Simmons stated in his keynote at the JCK Show, diamonds have done a lot of good in some countries. Botswana earns the bulk of its export revenue from the diamond trade. But it is important that workers receive a fair price for their labor, worker health is protected, and steps are taken to minimize the environmental havoc caused by diamond mining. Right now, the Kimberley Process exists to ensure that diamonds are conflict-free. The multi-nation agreement monitors the $38 billion in rough diamond trade. The question remains whether this collaborative organization should be doing more to protect the workers and the environment.

The conference was moderated by Martin Rapaport, the kingpin of diamonds, who is also deeply interested in fair trade and in jewelry processes that are of greatest benefit to the miners and producers. Rapaport showed a video of his trip to Sierra Leone in which he met with the diamond diggers about what they wanted. The diggers expressed frustration that they do not receive a fair price from the dealers. Even when they find a stone they know is good, a dealer will tell them it is black or cloudy and in that situation the digger has few options and has to take the price he is offered. For the people of Sierra Leone, who have no factories they can work in, and a limited tourism trade, the backbreaking work of searching for diamonds is one of the few opportunities to make any kind of money.
When it comes to diamonds, Wade Watson of Ruff & Cut is passionate about both the country and the people of Sierra Leone and the good diamonds can do there. This beautiful country, which once had a vibrant tourist trade, is synonymous with blood diamonds. For Watson it’s a personal mission to help lift up this country which is one of the richest in natural resources but the poorest in so many other ways. Right now, people are interested in buying stones from Canada because they are conflict-free but at the conference it was discussed if it might be “more ethical” to buy diamonds from a place like Sierra Leone where your purchase could actively help people. It’s a complex issue for those who are concerned about having their purchases not only cause no harm but do the best possible good.

I first received an education in fair trade gemstones when I heard Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House speak back in February. Braunwart’s commitment to the careful mining of colored gemstones makes him a leader in the field. Fair trade stones are closely tracked from mine to market to ensure that every gem has been handled according to strict protocols that include environmental protection of the mining sites as well as fair labor practices at the cutting and jewelry factories. Braunwart’s work has helped to bring schools and improved conditions to places like Malawi where his company mines for rubies. He is also introducing lapidary training so that some small locally made good can be sold to tourists in the area (instead of bringing in goods from China).

For Columbia Gem House, part of the hurdle has been getting consumers involved and showing other retailers that this type of effort does matter to the purchasers of jewelry. He has been asking retailers to report back on sales of his fair trade gems and has been making a video of fair trade testimonials.

The fair trade stones generally cost more than other stones. This is particularly true for stones that have a lower price point in general. Research has determined that most people are willing to pay a small premium (5 to 10% percent) for jewelry that is ethical or fair trade. We all want to be responsible and help others but it also needs to be easy.

The question of what determines fair trade when it comes to gemstones and jewelry can be very muddy. While third party systems for certifying foodstuffs like coffee and chocolate are in place, how to go about certifying jewelry is a bit less clear. There are two types of fair trade verification, company verification and product verification but much as the process that food producers go through to become certified organic, third party certification can be a long and involved journey, if it happens at all.

An important consideration in fair trade jewelry is manufacturing. Marc Choyt, who owns Reflective Images Celtic Jewelry and also runs the comprehensive Fair Jewelry website is part of the manufacturing committee of the Madison Dialogue, an ongoing conversation on sustainable and fair trade jewelry issues. Choyt has visited factories in Indonesia and other places and found that some people may not even be aware that they are using chemicals that can be toxic or that the conditions are unhealthy. Also the standards for factories can be different than the standards for the smaller manufacturers. Choyt’s solution is to use a system he calls FRE, which stands for fair, responsible and ecological. On his jewelry website, he is completely open about his policies and sources, even admitting when he doesn’t know where something came from.

One thing that was stressed over and over was a word I’ve heard elsewhere at tech conferences and other sessions on doing business: transparency. All of the people involved in the businesses at the Fair Trade Jewelry Conference are committed to doing business in a way that is honest and open. As was said time and again in the conference it’s not a perfect system right now. At this point it’s important not to “let the perfect get in the way of the good.” In some places, such as Madagascar, simply striving to give artisanal miners a fair deal is all that can be hoped for right now. What’s important on the consumer end is that people keep the pressure on the companies they do business with by asking questions on where and how things were made. As long as people remain engaged in the fair trade process more and more retailers will be interested in joining this movement.


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