If you don’t know who Gen Z are, then it’s worth finding out, because how they think and how they buy are already shaping how you and I are consuming. They are the generation born between 1997 and 2012, and just as fast fashion has had to face some awkward questions from them in recent years, it's now the turn of the jewellery business. Put simply, they want to know that the sector cares about the earth as well as their future on it.

The jewellery industry has been trying to clean up its act for some time, ever since the 2006 film Blood Diamond highlighted how deeply entrenched diamond mining was in financing conflict. Now, with environmental messages coming through loud and clear, never has the imperative been greater to look behind the sparkle and ask: How has this been made? What impact did its making have on the environment? And on the people producing it? In business parlance, how is the industry’s record on ESG? (Plot-spoiler: it’s not good.)

According to last year’s State of Fashion report from the Business of Fashion and management consultants McKinsey, “…20-30% of fine jewellery purchases in 2025 will be influenced by sustainability considerations”. That’s worth between $70bn and $110bn.

With this as the backdrop, just how do you find jewellery you can feel good about? After all, no matter how much we adore it, jewellery can’t be classified as essential.

Buying vintage and pre-owned is one solution – and the best, of course. Putting that aside for one moment, let’s look at what’s happening in the industry as a whole to meet the ethical challenges head-on.

There is a price nature pays for any and all extraction. It has been estimated that for every carat of gem-quality diamond mined, 250 tons of additional earth has to be moved. On the people side, in 2018, Human Rights Watch released The Hidden Cost of Jewelry: Human Rights in Supply Chains and the Responsibility of Jewelry Companies. It highlighted how, for the millions of workers employed to extract gold and diamonds, mining is an important source of income but at the same time it’s these very people who have often been exploited for the sake of the natural resources beneath their feet.

The Heavy Price of Metal

There are, however, more and more initiatives to support the responsible sourcing of gold and other metals, from recycling programmes to certification, particularly Fairmined, which came out of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, itself set up in 2004; and Fairtrade. Look for these certifications when buying new.

The Swiss Better Gold Association was set up in 2013, and this supports both jewellers and watch-makers in their search for ethically sourced raw material. The non-profit association aims to improve “working  and living conditions in artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities”, who, it has been noted, are responsible annually for the production of about 20% of the world’s gold supply. It’s another certification to check for.

There are a number of high-profile jewellers who have been vanguards in the area of responsible sourcing. The family-owned maison Chopard has been striving for 100% ethical gold for all of its watch and jewellery production since 2017. According to Chopard: “This objective has been successfully met since July 2018 when Chopard began using 100% ethically produced gold – verified as having met international best practice environmental and social standards – in its workshops.” The maison is also aligned, like many of the major brands, with the Responsible Jewellery Council, which operates its own certification process.

Tiffany & Co helped drive the Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign from 2005, but it did take until 2021 before the company “made its first purchase of Fairmined certified artisanal gold”.

Admittedly, it can be a confusing picture, but with the smallest amount of research, consumers can now easily discover how committed a company is to sustainability. Dig a little before buying, but beware the headlines. It’s all too easy to make promises that, when you look at the small print, aren’t met.

Is Your Opinion Coloured?

The origins of coloured gemstones can be notoriously difficult to trace. (Another good reason for repurposing stones from antique pieces of jewellery?) But in the name of sustainability and transparency, more and more designers are establishing closer and traceable links with those providing their raw materials. Traceability is part of a gem’s story, and stories allow consumers to connect with what they are buying.

Moyo Gems is an interesting example of a sustainable mine-to-market model. Launched in 2019, it came out of an earlier initiative between the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and the non-profit organisation Pact combining with the Tanzanian Women Miners Association (TAWOMA). It promotes education and a fair price for the gems it sources from women artisanal gem miners in both Tanzania and Kenya, supplying designers such as Anabela Chan – who is also a champion of lab-grown gemstones.

The beginning of the story: gemstones from Tanzania for Moyo Gems © Michael Goima for Pact

Jeweller Ara Vartanian is strongly committed to a more sustainable way of doing business. He acknowledges many of the issues we are grappling with in his company’s mission statement.

“All our raw material, and therefore our creations, come from the earth. Thinking about sustainable solutions is not an option, but our main objective. That is why this philosophy is now engrained into our company’s mission statement. These values naturally go hand in hand with other contemporary issues like more focus on the local economy and responsible social investment to nurture the appreciation of Brazilian culture and resources. ‘I work only as a pedestal for stones, the real luxury comes from nature,’ says Ara.

“Even the concept of luxury is adapting with our times. Today, transparency of your supply chain is an ethical obligation. Giving a voice, a face and a quality of life to the artisans who keep the jewelry tradition alive in different regions of Brazil is one way of perpetuating the art of conscious mining, hereby giving visibility and value to suppliers that care about future generations…”

Vartanian has close relationships with particular mines: the Cruzeiro mine for rubellite and indicolite tourmalines; and for emeralds he has partnered with the Belmont mine, and for paraiba tourmalines the Brazil Paraiba mine. 

Repurpose in Life

Virgin materials are no longer the go-to, either. As London-based jeweller Shaun Leane said in the State of Fashion report: “A lot of my gemstones come from a dealer who uses antique stones that come out of vintage pieces so I know where they’re coming from, and what’s beautiful about it is they can be Burma rubies, Colombian emeralds. They are the best of the best, because they were mined so long ago.”

So why contribute to new extraction? Designers such as Monique Péan use only recycled gold and recycled platinum, and there are a growing number like her. Even giant Danish jeweller Pandora recently committed to using only recycled silver and gold in its jewellery by 2025.

Power to the People

As early as 2008, West London-based Pippa Small was named an ambassador for the human rights organisation Survival International for her work with indigenous communities, and in 2013 she was awarded an MBE for her ethical jewellery and charity work. Her awards as an ethical jeweller are many. Not only does she source all her materials in a sustainable way, but she uses the production of jewellery as a weapon against poverty and discrimination, a way of helping to establish economic independence for communities, whether for Afghan refugees in Jordan or artisans is Myanmar.

Vartanian, too, has established his “Future is Brilliant” project: a series of collaborations with Brazil's indigenous people which started in 2018.

Good jewellery is about both product and people; and good jewellery can be an agent of change. As Small says: “Jewellery has the potential to change lives.”

Now for Some Science

There is growing interest in the question of how much more sustainable are lab-grown diamonds versus traditionally mined diamonds? Can either claim to have the green credentials required by our new generation of jewellery lovers?

While naturally occurring diamonds were created by the earth’s forces between 1 billion and 3 billion years ago, lab-created diamonds are created by man-made forces – extreme pressure and extreme heat – in a laboratory. Recently, chemical vapour deposition (CVD) has taken over from high pressure high temperature (HPTP) as the new technology with which to produce the gems, with the former requiring a mere 800C against the latter’s 1,500C temperatures to make the magic happen. Even from these figures, it’s obvious that the lab-grown diamond business is an energy-intensive one.

A leading (and sparkling) light in this sector is The Diamond Foundry, which uses hydropower and solar to produce the energy diamond-creation requires, and is one of the first lab-grown diamond producers certified carbon neutral. Although 10 years old, it largely remained invisible until Leonardo DiCaprio and 12 tech billionaires bumped up its profile with investments in 2016. Last year, the company, now a market-leader, was valued at $1.8bn.

There’s something compelling about the Diamond Foundry’s mission statement, where its diamonds are said to be: “Just diamond. No mining. No carbon emissions. No cartel pricing. No conflicts funded. No land displacement. No wildlife displacement. No animals harmed. No ground water polluted. No local communities displaced.”

When the jewellery industry collectively is able to make these claims, we’ll know a good job has been done.

Main image: Africa Studio – stock.adobe.com

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