In our last post, Jewelry: the Troubles with Baubles, we explored the ocean of ethical, social and environmental troubles that are swamping conventional gold and diamond jewelry. In this post we turn our attention to the more sustainable solutions and alternatives that eco-jewelry offers for gold and diamond jewelry. In our next post, we will preview some of the other wonderfully beautiful options for eco-jewelry.
Sometimes, new “eco” and “green” terms seem to sprout faster than bamboo. So, what really is “eco-jewelry”? Simply defined, eco-jewelry is ornamental art that is made from natural or recycled non-toxic materials that have been manufactured without creating a damaging impact on the environment and habitat, on the miners who extracted the metals, gems and stones from the earth, on the artisans who created the jewelry, and on the wearer.
To help you locate that perfect piece of jewelry that not only captures your heart with its beauty but also doesn’t offend your consciousness or harm the earth and its inhabitants, we have compiled a list of questions to sort out the good, the bad, and the harmful.
“Diamonds Are Forever” so be careful to not start with a blood diamond. For those who adore diamonds search for conflict-free diamonds to avoid the blood diamond curse. Conflict diamonds are also known as blood diamonds because of the blood of innocents that was spilled in conflicts financed by illicit rough diamond trade in Angola, Ivory Coast, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo. Roughly 65% of all diamonds come from Africa.
The United Nations, seventy-one countries, and most relevant NGOs have adopted the Kimberley Process Certification System to certify that each diamond exported by signatory countries is from a conflict-free source. Amnesty International USA and Global Witness have published the Diamond Buyers Guide listing four questions that every diamond shopper should ask the sales person before buying:
1. How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds?
2. Do you know where your diamonds come from?
3. Can I see your company’s policy on conflict diamonds?
4. Can you show me a written guarantee from your diamond suppliers that your diamonds are conflict-free?
A survey by Global Witness / Amnesty International (GW/AI) in 2007 was sent to the 37 largest U.S. retail diamond sellers such as Helzberg Diamond Shops, Sterling, and Tiffany & Co. about their policies to combat blood diamonds in accord with the Kimberley Process Certification System. About half of the largest U.S. diamond retailers refused to participate in the survey about their conflict diamond policies. Of the half that did respond, 56% reported that they do not have corporate procedures to insure that the diamonds that they sell to customers are not blood diamonds. To insure that you are not buying a blood diamond, always start by asking the four questions above.
Sustainable Diamond Mining. Finding a certified conflict-free diamond is just the first obstacle to overcome when shopping for that special gift. The next question for your jeweler or retailer:
5. Have the semi-precious and precious stones and metals been sustainably mined?
Mining is too often an ecologically dirty and unsustainable operation. A new breed of mine operator is emerging that tries to practice sustainable mining – mining that attempts to reduce the environmental impact, improve working conditions and safety for miners, fairly compensate displaced farmers and indigenous peoples for their lands and return the land to its natural condition after the mine ceases operations … while still providing adequate shareholder profits and economic returns.
Diavik Diamond Mines, located in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories, is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto plc from London. Diavik Diamond Mines has a very aggressive sustainable development policy. The Diavik Diamond Mines sustainable development policy is comprehensive and thoroughly covers issues such as the protection and monitoring of wildlife including the migration of caribou and marine and fish habitat; development of extensive water systems to protect natural lakes, rivers and waterways; progressive reclamation of mining waste rocks and continual environmental preparation for mine closure; active development of community commitment and improvement especially with the large Aboriginal communities; improving the social well-being of workers and local communities including training programs for workers and scholarships for community school children; aggressive mining safety programs; employee and family assistant programs; worker and community economic development programs; and Aboriginal business support.
One of the more commendable features of the Diavik Diamond Mines sustainable development policy is that the plan was established before mining construction began and isn’t a retro fit to try to fix damage already done. Over and over in all industries we see that sustainability must be designed in and can not effectively be an afterthought.
A growing number of jewelry retailers, such as Brilliant Earth, are offering Canadian diamonds from more sustainable mining operations such as Diavik Diamond Mines. Brilliant Earth guarantees that all their diamonds are tracked from Canadian mines, through cutting and polishing, to final transport to their retailers. I've noticed that the web site for Brilliant Earth has recently disappeared and I would appreciate it anyone could tell me if they are still in business. They were a great site.
Canada is the third largest producer of diamonds globally with annual production of 12.6 million carats and growing. Unfortunately, Canada has antiquated mine staking laws that echo back to some of the worst practices of the Wild West mining boom days that encourage displacing native populations and rushing ahead on mine development without environmental planning. If you are considering purchasing a Canadian diamond, make sure that the mine it came from practices ethical and sustainable mining operations.
The Canadian diamond mining industry has been strongly criticized by organizations such as Mining Watch Canada. In a very thoughtful critique, “There Are No Clean Diamonds: What You Need To Know About Canadian Diamonds”, Mining Watch Canada outlines the actual environmental, wildlife and Aboriginal community impacts caused by the mining in Canada’s ecologically fragile and remote northern boreal regions. Their message is simple … avoid “Polar Bear Diamonds” that come from the frozen ecosystems of Canada.
Sustainable Green Gold. Currently the supply of renewed and recycled gold isn’t sufficient to meet demands for gold jewelry. To insure an adequate supply of gold for jewelry, a small but growing number of retail jewelers are also sourcing gold from sustainable artisanal mining coops such as Oro Verde (literally “green gold”) in South America.
6. Does your jeweler use sustainably mined “green” gold?
Small-scale, artisanal miners using simple mining tools such as the mining pan and sluices scratch through the mud and rocks of streams, rivers and dry waterways to collect the metal flakes or small precious stones. These alluvial deposits of gold, silver and diamonds have been broken free of larger veins of precious metals or stones forged deep in the earth and washed downstream by rains, streams and rivers. Today’s small-scale artisanal mining operations – which consists of an estimated 20 to 30 million artisanal miners in 55 countries – are marked by low productivity, poverty, lack of safety procedures, child labor, and high environmental impact as artisanal small-scale mining operations make streams and rivers unable to support human, aquatic and wildlife because of excessive sediment, mercury and cyanide poisoning, harm to pristine rainforests and remote mountain regions,
A report, “All that Glitters: Gold Mining in Guyana,” by the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program documents that “Medium and small scale gold mining as currently practiced and regulated inflict severe environmental, health, and social damage on the areas and people near mining operations.” In many regions around the world, small and medium scale mining inflicts disproportionately more damage and harm than large scale corporate mining.
The Green Gold Initiative, founded by Catalina Cock Duque, is attempting to create environmentally sustainable mining cooperatives that work with local artisanal miners to ensure the use of sustainable environmental practices, restore ecosystems damaged by previous mining operations, and improve the health and well being of the local communities.
Other organizations such as the Association for Responsible Mining are working “towards the transformation of artisanal and small scale mining into a socially and environmentally responsible activity, facilitate an economically just supply chain and educate the consumers as to their power to directly improve the quality of life of artisanal miners by purchasing fair trade jewellery and minerals.”
The movement for more socially and environmentally responsible mining is gaining momentum. The No Dirty Gold campaign has established the Golden Rules for jewelry retailers to support ethical and ecological mining. Jewelry retailers who support the No Dirty Gold campaign include Ben Bridge Jeweler, Birks & Mayors, Boscov’s, Brilliant Earth, Cartier, Commemorative Brands, Cred Jewellery, Fortunoff, Fred Meyer and Littman Jewelers, Helzberg Diamonds, Intergold, Jostens, Leber Jeweler, Michaels Jewelers, Piaget, QVC, Security Jewelers, Signet Group, Stephen Fortner, Tiffany & Co., TurningPoint, Van Cleef & Arpels, Van Gundy, Victoria Casual USA, Wal-Mart, Whitehall Jewellers, and Zale Corp. An interesting note is that Wal-Mart has become the largest U.S. retail jeweler and QVC is in fourth place.
Renewed and Recycled Jewelry. Small-scale, artisanal mining offers the greatest opportunities for socially, ethically and environmentally responsible sustainable mining and a source for green gold. But unless we find a way to perfect alchemy and make gold from lead, gold like oil in the ground is a non-renewable resource.
Another important eco-jewelry trend is the use of renewed and recycled gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and colored gems in new jewelry. Gold is renewed from recycled gold jewelry or industrial products by melting and refining the used gold and then recasting it to produce new gold settings and jewelry. There should be no degradation of quality in the recycled and renewed gold.
7. Does your jeweler use recycled and renewed gold, platinum or stones?
More and more companies such as GreenKarat are beginning to offer jewelry made from recycled and renewed gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, and other precious and semi-precious stones. GreenKarat makes the point that destructive mining operations continue to rip 2,500 tons of gold from the earth each year even though there is enough gold sitting in bank vaults and old, unused jewelry to satisfy the demands of the jewelry industry for the next 20 to 50 years depending upon how you estimate the amount of old jewelry available for recycling. The proponents of recycled and renewed gold, silver and diamond jewelry remind us that mining is an industry that is ecologically deeply flawed and that the earth – and social justice – can no longer support the unsustainable activities of mining. Like petroleum, the earth is not making any more precious metals and gem stones.
Because jewelry can have several components – such as one or more metals and different types of stones – GreenKarat has a feature that they call Green Assay to rate the specific ecological characteristics of the different components of the jewelry that they sell.
Consumers can also mine the corners of their own dressers, attics and jewelry boxes for unused jewelry to be recycled. Many jewelers, metal smiths and jewelry artisans are able to recycle and renew your old pieces into new settings and new castings.
Laboratory-created diamonds. While the alchemist’s dream of making gold from lead still isn’t possible, it is possible to make diamonds, both gem quality diamonds and industrial quality diamonds like those used in large drill bits to cut through rock when drilling for gas and oil.
8. Have you considered a more sustainable diamond alternative?
In the diamond world, there are basically four categories of diamonds:
§ Natural diamonds
§ Diamond simulants
§ Synthetic diamonds
§ Diamond like carbon (DLC)
Natural diamonds are made by Mother Nature deep within the earth’s crust of carbon deposits under great pressure and heat
Diamond simulants are imitation diamonds that have gemological properties similar to diamonds such as its color, refractive index, general appearance and even hardness. A diamond stimulant can be artificially manufactured (like rhinestones and cubic zirconia) or a naturally occurring material (like zircon which has been mined in Sri Lanka for more than 2,000 years and was originally thought to be an inferior diamond). A trained gemologist can tell the difference between a real diamond and a diamond simulant but because of technological advances it is becoming more difficult.
Synthetic diamonds are cultured diamonds that have been grown in a lab by a technological process rather than by a geological process like a natural diamond. The properties of a synthetic diamond depend upon the manufacturing process used to create the synthetic diamond and in some ways might be inferior, the same as, or even superior to a natural diamond. The most common process for manufacturing synthetic diamonds is High Pressure, High Temperature (HPHT) which uses enormous presses to create a very high pressure at a very high temperature, typically more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. A tiny sliver of natural diamond is used as a seed that is bathed in molten carbon and placed under high pressure and high temperatures. The HPHT process attempts to recreate the environment that naturally occurred deep within the earth’s crust to produce natural diamonds.
Apollo Diamonds manufactures cultured synthetic diamonds using a different process called Chemical Vapor Decomposition (CVD). Visit the Apollo Diamond web site for a visual overview of how the Chemical Vapor Decomposition process grows diamonds.
Gem quality cultured synthetic diamonds can be manufactured to be chemically, physically and visually identical to natural diamonds but a spectroscope can still be used to distinguish the difference.
Many people who really want that diamond engagement ring but without the heavy environmental and ethical baggage commonly attached to natural mined diamonds are opting for synthetic diamonds. Adia Diamonds, a Co-op America member, manufactures cultured synthetic diamonds by the HPHT process and retails through Pearlman’s.
Diamond-like carbon is composed amorphous carbon which means that it lacks the rigid crystalline structure of natural diamonds but still exhibits many of the properties of diamonds for industrial uses. Created in an industrial lab, diamond-like carbon is typically grown as a thin film coating to reduce friction and extend the product lifespan for moving components such as high performance engine parts, ball bearings, implanted human heart pumps, and even multi-blade shaving razors to reduce friction on sensitive skin. Depending upon which of several fabrication techniques is used, diamond-like carbon can be up to 50% harder than natural diamonds as measured by nanoindentation methods. Environmental proponents claim that significantly increasing the lifespan of moving metal components reduces the load on manufacturing and ultimately on landfills and many think of diamond-like carbon as a sustainability enhancer. We will leave it to you to decide if you agree with this perspective.
Unusual facts about diamonds. Diamonds have some fascinating properties that might not be commonly known but might be useful at a Holiday Party.
§ Diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring material but they are not very tough. Hardness is measured by the ability of a material to resist scratching but toughness is related to a material’s ability to resist impacts. A diamond will probably shatter if hit by an ordinary hammer. You might not want to try this at home … or at the party.
§ Even though diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring material, they can still be cut because their hardness is directional owing to various 3-dimensional planes that are formed by the way in which the carbon atoms bond together. The octahedral plane is very strong and hard and the dodecahedral plane is weaker. Diamond are cut for jewelry along dodecahedral planes.
§ Diamonds burn. If a diamond is placed in an intense flame in an oxygen-rich environment, it can ignite because diamonds are a carbon compound, like coal and charcoal. Because of their crystalline structure, though, diamonds have a much higher combustion temperature than coal.
§ Pure natural diamonds will conduct heat but not electrical current – except for natural blue diamonds found in the Argyle diamond mine in Australia which will conduct electricity.
Our next journey into eco-jewelry will focus on the fantastic adornments that are fashioned from natural and recycled materials other than precious and semi-precious metals and stones with an emphasis on Fair Trade and sustainability.
Until then, enjoy.
Resources for additional reading:
Framework for Responsible Mining – a guide to the evolving standards for ethical and environmentally responsible mining practices and how to create transparency and accountability for mining operations and mining corporations.
Ethical Metalsmiths – providing a resource for encouraging responsible sourcing of jewelry metals and manufacturing.