I’d heard of blood diamonds before, but I’d never given much thought to the ethics of the wider jewelry industry until the other day, when a friend told me about a local shop that’s working to further the cause of nonexploitative jewelry.
Lori Bonn Design, in Oakland, Calif., has spearheaded an effort to develop an industry-wide standard for ethically made jewelry called Clear Conscience. It’s a multiyear process involving lots of meetings at industry conferences, Lori Bonn co-owner Bill Gallagher told me, and it sounds like it may be a couple of years before anything final is hammered out. But it’s something to look forward to. “Consumers want to know that they didn’t harm the environment or people with this pretty thing they’re wearing,” Gallagher said.
What does that harm look like, and how does it take place? One biggie is the extraction of the metals used in jewelry. You can read all about the horrors of acid leaching, air pollution, and the exploitation of indigenous peoples associated with mining on the No Dirty Gold campaign’s website. Another good source of information is Ethical Metalsmiths, which works to stimulate demand for responsibly sourced materials.
Then there are the gemstones. The Kimberly Process was designed to address concerns about blood diamonds, but it doesn’t cover other gems. “We buy from apparently honest, ethical people, but there’s a whole progression of things before the stones get to the dealers that we don’t know about, and until there’s a standard, there’s no independent way to know,” Gallagher said. He added that “there are beginning to be sources of gemstones whose path can be verified,” such as Columbia Gem House, which Lori Bonn is starting to use as a source for its offerings.
Finally, there are the working conditions of the actual jewelry makers to consider. Lori Bonn has its designs executed by facilities in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Gallagher said that when checking out possible factories to work with, “we go there to see what it looks like and smells like, and we follow our gut. We know that our workers generally can afford an above-average standard of living, and their kids are in school.”
An argument can be made that having any jewelry made outside of the first world is necessarily exploitative. Gallagher counters that it’s not so simple. “If you just source from developed countries, you’re taking away the livelihood potential from poor countries that are deeply dependent on this work,” he said. Furthermore, he added, “there’s a level of craft, detail, and workmanship that’s not available on any kind of scale in the U.S. It’s inherent in other cultures, and I think it should be preserved.”
One thing is clear: momentum for responsible jewelry is building. Twenty-six companies, including Tiffany & Co. and Wal-Mart, have signed on to No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules protocol. The Fair Trade Jewelry blog hums with news. And last year saw the creation of the Madison Dialogue, an initiative for businesses and interested parties to encourage verified sources of responsible metals and gems. Next month the Madison Dialogue will hold the Ethical Jewelry Summit in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the Clear Conscience program will gain some traction there.
It’s only a matter of time before ethical jewelry hits the mainstream. Already, retailers like Brilliant Earth are responding to demand for conflict-free diamonds and renewed metals. That’s great, but I look forward to the day when consumers can depend on a recognizable label or logo to assure us that, whether it’s a diamond engagement ring or a pair of casual earrings that we’re after, we can have a clear conscience about buying it.