Responsible sourcing has been a hot topic within the industry for the last several years, as a growing number of consumers have begun asking about the origins of the materials used in the jewelry they purchase, as well as the conditions under which that jewelry is produced. While part of the industry has embraced the concept, many have been left wondering what it really means to be “responsible” and how that responsibility can be verified. There are three projects that have been underway designed to help the process in the coming year.
The first effort is the Jewelry Glossary Project, which is attempting to define common terms related to responsible jewelry practices, such as ethical, sustainability, and Fairmined. The goal of the online glossary (jewelryglossaryproject.com) is to serve as an educational tool to clarify these terms so the industry is speaking the same language when it discusses responsible sourcing issues.
The idea for a glossary originated from a group of volunteers that attended the first Jewelry Industry Summit in 2016. In an effort to get every sector of the jewelry industry supply chain involved, the summit was developed to create awareness of the challenges the industry needs to overcome to develop and promote responsible sourcing best practices. Summit attendees were split up into different groups to work together on identifying needed initiatives, such as launching a communication platform to track progress of responsible initiatives, developing educational tools for consumers and sales associates, and conducting consumer research. The group of six volunteers tasked with education issues soon determined that “we couldn’t educate anyone without common usage,” recalls Erin Daily, co-founder of Brooklyn Metal Works and one of the leaders of this initiative. “We needed to get people on the same page to bring the conversation forward.
“A lot of terms people seem to think they have an understanding of, and maybe they do when it comes to agriculture or textiles, but maybe not specifically in regards to the jewelry industry,” she continues. Take the word recycled, for example. “Recycled is a term that necessitated a deeper dive into pre-consumer and post-consumer situations, as they pertain to metals and gemstones, which are quite different,” explains Daily. “Is it appropriate to say that new mined gold that is turned into bullion and then cast into a ring is recycled? Some widely accepted industry definitions would say yes.”
As they started working on the project, they began “developing a list of terms that were being used and often misused in the industry,” she says. “That’s where we decided to focus. It’s important to give them more value by increasing awareness of the definitions.”
The group of volunteers decided to initially focus on a group of 10 terms: ethical, recycled, post-consumer recycled, pre-consumer recycled, sustainability, conflict-free diamond, Fairmined, Fairtrade, Fair Trade Certified, and fair trade. Once they reached a clear consensus on the definitions of those terms, they created an online survey and reached out to various members of the industry to participate and offer feedback. They used the feedback they received to fine-tune the definitions before posting the finalized versions online.
“It’s a tool for understanding and to increase communication,” says Daily. “We need this to be public facing and consumer friendly. Sometimes we can’t be quite as specific as a trade definition would need to be in order to be more easily understood by a broader public.”
She points out that the definitions they’ve created aren’t meant to serve as the final word on the issue. “We see the website as a living document that will always be continuing its forward motion based on what we learn and [on] changes in the industry.”
Toward that end, the team is currently identifying the next batch of words that they feel need to be defined; eventually they’ll formally ask for feedback on those definitions with surveys that will be open to the public. “We would like for people to comment on what terms they would like to see defined and any other feedback is also welcome,” says Daily.
“We’re really pleased at all of the support that we’ve received from the industry across the board,” she continues. “It’s exciting to know that this seems to be something that people want and need. We hope that it will continue in this way and that people can actually utilize this as [a] resource.”
In addition to encouraging people to link to the content on the website, the group plans to put together a PDF of the defined terms that could be downloaded or printed out by schools and other organizations. “The glossary is just a tool; how people use it is up to them,” says Daily. “We hope it will catch on.”
Another project that’s underway is a supplier self-assessment program spearheaded by Ethical Metalsmiths (EM). Initially undertaken by the group’s responsible committee about two and a half years ago, the project involves creating a self-assessment and review process for suppliers. The group divided the project into four categories: colored gemstones, metal, diamonds, and findings. It decided to tackle the hardest category first: colored gemstones.
“They come from so many places and there are so many different kinds,” explains committee chair Susan Crow of East Fourth Street Jewelry in Northfield, Minnesota.
Colored gemstone suppliers interested in participating with the program can apply to join on the EM website (ethicalmetalsmiths.com). A committee member will then arrange to have a one-on-one interview with the supplier to discuss the program and what it entails. If the committee member and supplier both feel that they’re ready to move forward with the next step, the supplier is given the self-assessment to complete.
"Our goal is to have the review notes listed so that whoever is looking into a supplier can see the whole process. The whole theory behind this is education." —Susan Crow
The self-assessment asks for an extensive range of details. An applicant should be willing to share details about the companies it does business with, the sources of the gemstones, the working and living conditions where the gems were sourced, any traceability systems the applicant uses, and who cuts the stones purchased and under what working conditions.
Once a self-assessment is completed, it gets sent to the committee for review. If there are questions (“There will always be questions,” says Crow), the committee members will ask for clarification, documentation, or additional information. Throughout the process, the committee documents everything.
“Our goal is to have the review notes listed so that whoever is looking into a suppler can see the whole process,” says Crow. “The whole theory behind this is education.”
Once a company passes through the process, it joins the list of suppliers on the EM website, where visitors can also review the completed self-assessments.
Although the committee did discuss how this information would be presented on the website and the possibility of restricting it to EM members only, it ultimately decided to make it public.
“Everyone should be able to see what someone is doing,” says Crow. (While the complete self-assessment is viewable on the website, companies can request that some information, such as addresses, be redacted.)
There is a $1,000 annual fee to be listed as a supplier. It’s also important to understand that this is an ever-evolving process, and that companies will need to complete the self-assessment annually.
“Our self-assessments are live documents that will constantly be updated,” explains Crow. “The industry is changing by leaps and bounds, and it will always be changing. We feel that by having a live document, we’ll keep up with those changes. It’s important that everyone stays up-to-date with everyone else.”
Another step forward in responsible sourcing relates to blockchain technology. There have been several blockchain initiatives started within the industry over the past few years: TrustChain Initiative (which is a collaboration of Asashi Refining, Helzberg Diamonds, LeachGarner, Richline Group, Underwriters Laboratories, and IBM to track diamonds and precious metals and the finished jewelry made with them), Tracr (which was launched by De Beers to track a selection of rough diamonds as they moved through the supply chain), and the Provenance Proof Blockchain (which was launched by Gübelin Gem Lab to develop a protocol for tracing colored gemstones). All share the goal of one day helping to track all of the precious metals and gemstones used in the creation of jewelry—from point of origin to point of sale (and resale later on down the road).
That’s the ultimate goal. Today, the problem has been in getting these different blockchain programs to communicate with each other.
“One of the most important obstacles for industry adoption of blockchain is that there are many blockchain protocols and they don’t talk to each other,” explains Hanna, who’s spearheaded Richline’s involvement with the TrustChain blockchain initiative. For example, he says, “we are IBM-based. De Beers has its own system. We haven’t found that translator for our protocols to talk to each other, but we’re working on it together.”
Hanna expects to get to interoperability sometime in 2020, which will help speed up the pace of adoption of the technology within the industry.
“We’re going slowly; it’s not a rush to glory,” says Hanna. “The efforts will continue and progress will keep happening.”
"We haven’t found that translator for our [blockchain] protocols to talk to each other, but we’re working on it together." —Mark Hanna
And the timing is perfect, as Hanna expects the U.S. State Department to be demanding complete transparency of materials over the next several years. At a meeting earlier this year, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to the jewelry industry that businesses must know and declare where all their materials originate from or they’ll be subject to new regulations. The government is frustrated that the industry seems to be dragging its feet when it comes to adhering to current regulations, such as submitting Suspicious Activity Reports, of which the industry has barely filed. “Transparency and origin are here to stay,” he says.
Although it’s still too soon for most of the industry’s players to get involved in blockchain, Hanna recommends that jewelers stay on top of developments so that when widespread adoption is possible, they’ll be ready.
“Companies should be reading, learning, and investigating,” Hanna says. “It starts with determining if they have a need for using it; not everyone has to have it—it depends on where you are in the supply chain.”
Until widespread adoption of these protocols is possible, good common sense continues to go a long way (as it will even after adoption).
“For many years it was enough to verbally ask your suppliers if you’re covered,” adds Andrea Hill of Hill Management Group/Werx Brands in Chicago. “Simple verbal assurances are no longer sufficient. Either deal with companies with certifications or find alternative ways of verifying their claims. The supplier’s word is no longer enough. Get out and get educated on this stuff.”
Hanna notes that this issue is particularly important for our industry. “In terms of things such as human rights abuses, we have to be very sure they’re not affecting our industry, which sells emotional products,” he says. “We can’t have those types of things touching our industry.”