(Update: On 22 March 2018, Chopard declared that it’ll use 100 percent ethical gold in its jewellery and watches from July 2018 onwards.)

Long regarded as symbols of luxury and — in the case of diamonds — romance, gemstones’ allure has always been linked to their scintillation, lustre and size. But it seems that times are changing, with more consumers also taking into account the provenance of these rocks, and opting to purchase only those that have been ethically sourced.

In response to this, recent years have seen many jewellery brands stepping up to produce jewels that are conflict-free and eco-friendly. This development may also be attributed to a growing awareness of how gemstone mining often carries with it an host of social and environmental problems, which range from exploitation of workers to water pollution — a stark contrast to how beautiful the jewels look on the surface.

Films delving into these issues, have even been produced — the most prominent being the 2006 political thriller Blood Diamond, which depicted the gritty, cruel methods in which diamonds are mined in Sierra Leone. The movie’s graphic scenes of abuse and oppression towards the diamond miners, sent shockwaves among audiences. It also sparked conversations about the ramifications of gemstone mining.

Social consequences

As reflected in Blood Diamond, one pressing aspect is the exploitation of gemstone mine workers. In African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, poverty-stricken people — and even children — are forced to toil in the mines for gruelling, long hours and meagre pay by powerful warlords and armed groups who have seized control of the towns.

Apart from abuse, labourers also face risks such as mine collapses and landslides, along with ailments like pneumoconiosis, a lung disease linked to inhalation of mineral dust.

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Child labourers in the diamond mines of Africa’s Carnot region. (Photo from Amnesty International)

“Artisanal miners often work in dangerous conditions and the State – even when functioning – provides little in the way of protection,” said Amnesty International in a 2015 report. “[We] found several children, including an 11 year-old boy, working in hazardous conditions at a diamond site. However, the scale of the child labour problem has never been examined.”

The profits from the gemstones then go into the pockets of anti-government rebels, who use them for illegal activities such as buying weapons and funding wars. Naturally, this creates widespread violence and civil unrest in communities. Diamonds obtained in such situations are hence referred to as “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds”. They are sold to diamond traders and houses, which in turn export them around the world.

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A miner wounded by militia that had taken control of his town. (Photo from Amnesty International)

According to a 2015 study by the Enough Project, a non-profit organisation dedicated to “ending genocide and crimes against humanity”, the total value of the illicit diamond trade and taxation by armed groups in the Central African Republic — one of the poorest nations in the world — is estimated to be between US$3.87 million (S$5.53 million) and US$5.8 million (S$8.28 million) annually.

Considering that an estimated 65 percent of the world’s diamonds comes from Africa, this matter is a rampant one that will take time to eradicate.

Environmental effects

Alongside these social issues, gemstone mining also causes environmental degradation. When looking for stones, miners have to dig deep into the ground, displacing its topsoil. As the soil gets eroded over a prolonged period of time, the result is unsightly. Giant craters remain and the land is left uninhabitable. The large holes also create opportunities for water to accumulate and stagnate, leading to water-borne diseases such as malaria.

With the land left derelict and barren of vegetation, biodiversity is destroyed. Leftover waste from the mining processes also pollutes water sources.

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The Jericho diamond mine in its better days. The site has since been left derelict. (Photo from Nunatsiaq Online)

One example is the Jericho diamond mine in Nunavut, Canada. The mine has been left abandoned by diamond exploration company Shear Diamonds since 2012, and garbage has been building up at the site. Residents in the nearby Chesterfield Inlet community are worried that it will eventually contaminate their lake, and harm the surrounding wildlife. “The land around it is starting to be destroyed from the rust and the mould, and it’s at a site where our fishermen go set out nets in the fall and during the winter,” said Chesterfield Inlet mayor Barnie Aggark to CBC News last June.

There may be good news for residents, though. Last month, Canada’s federal government expressed plans to clean up the mine. It is currently looking for a suitable contractor to take on the remediation, and expects most of the work to be completed by next year.

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Today, the mining site lies abandoned, with buckets of waste left haphazardly around it. (Photo from Nunatsiaq Online: Nunavut Impact Review Board)

But not all cases get a happy ending. Over in Zimbabwe, villagers living near the Marange region have been grappling with water pollution for years, thanks to extensive diamond mining activities that have released waste materials and chemicals into the rivers. The contaminated water has affected livestock, and made it difficult for people to obtain clean drinking water. This continues to be an issue up till today.

According to a 2012 study by the Zimbabwe Association of Environmental Lawyers, diamond mining processes have contributed to “large-scale impacts that include siltation, chemical pollution and heavy metal pollution”, as well as led to “high concentrations of iron, chromium and nickel” in the water. Chromium and nickel may cause cancer in people and livestock if ingested.

A silver lining

Looking at the many social and environmental effects they entail, gemstones may suddenly seem a lot less appealing. But all is not lost, as recent years have seen players in the jewellery industry ramping up efforts to address these challenges.

In 2003, the Kimberley Process was founded to prevent blood diamonds from making their way into global supply chains. As of 2013, it has 54 participants, representing 81 countries such as Australia, the US, China, Japan and Singapore. Members are required to get a Kimberley Process certificate testifying that their rough diamonds are not conflict stones that aid anti-government warfare.

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A necklace from Bulgari’s Magnificent Inspirations collection. The brand is committed to using conflict-free diamonds. (Photo from Bulgari)

Many renowned jewellers have embraced this regulation, and voiced their commitment to shun blood diamonds. One example is Italian high jewellery brand Bulgari, which only purchases diamonds from suppliers in countries that follow the Kimberley Process. This ensures that blood diamonds never make their way into Bulgari’s designs. It has even informed its suppliers that all diamonds polished after January 1, 2003 have to come with a warranty stating they don’t offer conflict diamonds. Bulgari’s US subsidiary is also a member of Jewellers of America, which aims to abolish the trade of such diamonds.

Tiffany & Co is taking steps to phase out blood diamonds, too. The jeweller’s website states that it has a “zero tolerance policy” towards these sparklers, and is “committed to sourcing [its] materials in an ethical and sustainable manner.” In a November interview with The Telegraph, Andy Hart — the label’s head of diamond and jewellery supply — explained why the brand champions efforts such as responsible mining: “I just ask myself, if I had to pull back the curtain on our factories, would I want our customers to see what’s there?…Could I go on 60 Minutes and talk with a clear conscience about our supply chain? That’s part of it.”

Both Bulgari and Tiffany & Co are part of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), which was launched in 2004 in support of responsible business practices across the jewellery industry. Tiffany & Co is also a founding member of the organisation. Other high profile names include Boucheron, Harry Winston and Louis Vuitton.

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A ring from Tiffany & Co, which doesn’t use blood diamonds. (Photo from Tiffany & Co)

Avoiding conflict

Also making waves in the realm of producing ethical, sustainable jewellery is Swiss label Chopard. In 2013, it introduced its Green Carpet collection, a range of jewels designed in partnership with sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. The jewels were mounted with diamonds from IGC Group, an RJC member, and set in Fairmined gold — which is gold obtained from artisanal and small-scale mines that uphold responsible environmental and social standards.

The Green Carpet line was so well-received that last May, Chopard added a new capsule collection to it. The new additions are the result of a collaboration with Gemfelds — which specialises in coloured gemstones — and features responsibly sourced emeralds from Zambia. A few of these pieces were unveiled at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, when actress Julianne Moore walked the red carpet wearing a stunning ring and a pair of statement earrings adorned with emeralds and diamonds.

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Julianne Moore debuted Chopard’s Green Carpet earrings and ring at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. (Photo from Chopard)

“We are so proud of what we have achieved so far with our journey to sustainable luxury. It has been challenging at times, but the results are incredible. Chopard is defined by true luxury, and today this means knowing where the precious materials in our jewellery come from, and having this independently validated,” said Caroline Scheufele, Co-President and Artistic Director of Chopard.

A number of boutique labels have also jumped on the bandwagon. New York-based fine jeweller Monique Péan, for example, has been committed to using only sustainable and eco-friendly materials since its launch in 2006. Her jewels are incorporated with recycled 18k gold and platinum, along with conflict-free precious stones, diamonds and fossils obtained with no mining involved. “‘I want to create beautiful objects without having a negative impact on the earth,” she told design magazine Wallpaper* earlier this month. 

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A dazzling diamond ring by Monique Péan. (Photo from Monique Péan)

Another noteworthy brand is Bario Neal, which creates its jewellery in Philadelphia with reclaimed precious metals, Fairmined gold and responsibly sourced stones. Its website states that it “offers ethically sourced gemstones that are traced from mine to market. This ensures that every gem has been handled according to strict environmental, labor, health, and safety protocols, and has been handled in a tight chain of custody.“

Going Synthetic

For consumers who want the absolute assurance that their jewels have not had any detrimental effects on societies or the environment, there’s the option of synthetic diamonds, which are basically sparklers created using artificial methods.

One company offering this is Diamond Foundry, a Santa Clara-based startup that launched in November 2015 and specialises in laboratory-made diamonds. The stones are produced at high heat using a plasma reactor, which is fuelled by solar power — this means there’s zero carbon footprint. The diamonds are then cut and polished in a factory, and graded by GIA gemologists to verify their quality.

At the moment, they can only be grown to up to 3 carats. “A diamond is a diamond…Scientifically it is a tetrahedral carbon allotrope, and it is the same thing whether mined or man-made,” said the company’s CEO and founder R. Martin Roscheisen in an August interview with CNN.

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A Vrai & Oro White engagement ring festooned with synthetic diamonds from Diamond Foundry. (Photo from Vrai & Oro White)

The sparklers can now be found in Vrai & Oro White, a bridal collection by Los Angeles-based fine jeweller Vrai & Oro. The two brands recently formed a partnership. Diamond Foundry has also received the support of actor Leonardo DiCaprio — one of the leads in Blood Diamond. “Proud to invest in Diamond Foundry — a company reducing human and environmental toll, by sustainably culturing diamonds,” said DiCaprio on Twitter in 2015.

It will probably take some time for consumers to warm to the idea of getting a man-made diamond over a natural stone, but such technology provides an answer to those wanting complete peace of mind about their jewels’ provenance.

What’s next

Seeing how a growing number of brands are championing sustainability and turning to eco-friendly alternatives, the jewellery industry is clearly on the right path. And hopefully one day, we will be able to appreciate our glittering gems without having to worry that they hide an ugly past.

(Main photo credit: Bulgari; Featured photo credit: Chopard)

Sara Yap
Deputy Director, Digital Operations (Asia)
Sara Yap is the Deputy Director of Digital Operations at BurdaLuxury, and a contributing writer to Lifestyle Asia’s dining and jewellery beats. When she’s not on the lookout for exciting new restaurants or bejewelled trinkets, she’s probably buried in a riveting read, or reminiscing the good ol’ days with her favourite playlist of ’90s boyband hits.