By Shawna Kulpa
Consumers love a good story, and jewelry, with its sparkling gemstones, storied history, and romantic underpinnings, has lent itself to many an intriguing tale. But there’s also a side of the jewelry industry that doesn’t make for a good story—one where precious metals are mined by enslaved labor or underage children in deplorable conditions, where gemstones fund wars and terrorist activities. And for consumers who learn more about those stories, jewelry quickly loses its luster.
Thankfully, there’s been a movement afoot to ensure that good stories can still come to the fore. Its leaders include Eric Braunwart, owner of Columbia Gem House, and designer Toby Pomeroy, founder of the Mercury Free Mining Challenge. Braunwart has taken the lead in pushing for responsibly sourced colored gemstones, while Pomeroy has been working to find ways to eliminate the use of mercury by small-scale and artisanal gold miners. While they both admit the industry has a long way to go on each of these fronts, they’re determined to make a difference. On the following pages, they share how they’ve found themselves on the path, as well as how they see their initiatives contributing to the greater good of the industry.
Eric Braunwart always wanted to tell the stories behind the gems he sells, to describe their origins—“the exotic part,” as he says. But from 1975 (the year he started his company, Columbia Gem House, in Vancouver, Washington) until the turn of the century, there were few stories to tell because they didn’t have a formal tracking and documenting system in place for the stones.
That changed after 2001, when Braunwart was invited by the World Bank to participate in a Madagascar study into whether gemstone production could alleviate the country’s poverty. (Madagascar was and still is one of the world’s poorest countries, with 77 percent of its urban population living in slums.)
“I was wandering around in my suit and Italian shoes when I stepped in an open sewer,” he recalls. “I was annoyed, but then I thought about how one shoe cost more than the annual income of the country. If one shoe is more than a gemstone producer makes, that doesn’t sound real equitable.”
While he was there, he was approached by a station chief from the U.S. embassy, who told him that the U.S. government felt the local gems were funding terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda. Braunwart found that hard to believe, but when the station chief asked him if he could prove it, he knew that he couldn’t.
From that point, Braunwart made it his mission to ensure that any gemstone he cut could be traced to its origins, and that he would sell only gems guaranteed to be free of terrorist ties. His first step was to establish protocols determining how a gem could be identified as “responsibly sourced”—a concept that didn’t really exist in the industry at that time.
“There was nothing in the gem area, so I had to make up our protocols based on other industries,” he recalls. “I looked at health foods, coffee, etc.” Since he realized that it’s not always possible to know everything about a gem, Braunwart created a system with five levels. They range from stones whose journey from mine to market cannot be traced (Level 5) to stones that can be traced back to mines on which the company has had an impact (Level 1).
At this time, the organic food industry had just introduced the concept of “fair trade” coffee, so Braunwart adopted the term for those stones that fit his new protocols. Nearly 20 years and thousands of gemstones later, Braunwart and Columbia Gem House are recognized leaders in the responsible movement, and pioneers in the responsible sourcing of colored stones. He’s faced challenges, but he’s also made a difference.
Over the years, Braunwart has worked to help improve conditions in gemstone mining communities. In Malawi, he’s partnered with other companies and retailers in the U.S. to fund a local school expansion, build teacher housing, add a medication dispensary to an existing clinic, work on reforestation in the area, and help fund the only clean water wells in the area.
And his concern extends beyond mining communities. In 2005, Braunwart was asked by an NGOto investigate ways to prevent silicosis among those working in a cutting facility in China. “Dust levels in the cutting workshop were below the allowable level of silica dust, but we looked to see if we could do better,” he says. He partnered with the cutting company to install a specially designed air filtration system, which reduced the dust level in the facility.
Braunwart believes that one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is determining what “responsibly sourcing” gemstones actually means.
Sourcing things responsibly from first-world countries that have good laws is relatively easy, but that doesn’t mean limiting stock to just the material available from those countries. It also doesn’t mean that we should apply first-world standards to third-world countries.
For example, Braunwart points out that most first-world countries have formal land lease/ownership laws and environmental laws that require mine clean up, and reclamation bonds are required to assure compliance. “In many third-world countries, environmental laws and mineral lease laws do not exist or are not enforced,” he says. “How can we workwith these miners and help support their work and things like cleanup after?
“We’re cutters in general, so we try to explain to people at the front end (manufacturers, consumers)that just because a certain level isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean that it’s not doing good,” he continues. “I explain that if we un-employ artisanal miners around the world and work only in perfectly clean locations, that will make things worse. Even if things aren’t perfect, it’s important that we engage with those people and work to improve both what they’re doing and their lives. We can’t just walk away from them.”
To help this responsible sourcing movement be successful, Braunwart believes it requires more interaction and sharing between miners and those who buy their stones.
“Success would be to start working with a small mining group and community, and, through engagement, explain how by taking the environment and working conditions into account, consumers will support it and that they would prefer this product,” he says. “Thus, they will buy more, and maybe even pay more, than the gems produced in the old ‘anything goes’ manner.
“Nearly all miners believe this is a good idea for them and their community,” he continues, “as long as we understand we have to help pay for these extra expenses.”
Braunwart has worked to improve conditions in mining communities, including funding a school expansion and building teacher housing in Malawi.
And those efforts would need to go far beyond just the conditions in the mines. Braunwart believes the industry needs to help develop community projects that sustain the mining community now and even after the mine runs out.
“Since many of these communities are rural, this could include agriculture projects that could also help improve living, health, and environmental conditions,” he says. “Success would be seeing gemstones help those individuals directly involved in gemstone production, but also the community—in a way that would help parents see opportunities and a better future for their children.”
While Braunwart applauds recent efforts to create blockchains that will trace the origins of stones, he isn’t convinced that they’re the key to solving the responsible sourcing problem for colored gemstones.
“Blockchains are a ledger—they’re tools,” he says.“People make themselves responsible.”
Although blockchain can trace the origin of a stone as well as the path it took to market, it can’t tell you about the working conditions at the mine it came from or the factory where it was cut.
“Just tracing is not the solution,” says Braunwart. “It is the beliefs of people actually supporting each other in a fair and positive way that will allow blockchain, or other ledger methods, to document an uplifting story.”
Instead of viewing blockchain as the only solution for responsible sourcing, Braunwart says that the better solutions are different initiatives on the ground in cutting and mining areas that are trying to find a way to better support the people along the supply chain.
“Primarily it means you are looking after the well-being of everyone along the supply chain, just as you are looking at the financial well-being of the project itself—they go hand in hand. After that’s addressed, tools such as blockchain can be used to document it.”
Despite the difficulties that continue to face the industry’s efforts in this arena, Braunwart is optimistic about the future of responsible gem sourcing, thanks in large part to the growing number of younger designers entering the industry dedicated to doing right by everyone along the supply chain.
He credits this same group with being among the first not only to bring attention to the situation, but also to actively do something about the problem.
According to Braunwart, this group grew up caring about sustainability, but when they were getting married, they couldn’t find jewelers who spoke their language.
“No one had anything to offer them,” he says. “They didn’t want to hear the spiel. They wanted to hear a personal sustainable message. We, as an industry, don’t have the right narrative to talk to them.”
When they didn’t get the answers they were looking for, some of them resorted to creating their own rings and, eventually, their own companies dedicated to sourcing materials sustainably.
“In a lot of ways, younger designers are driving the movement,” he says.
And that movement is only going to get bigger.
When he initially created his protocols, Braunwart looked toward the health food industry, and he now thinks that the jewelry industry could follow a similar path.
“You don’t have to go to a health food market to buy organic, non-GMO milk anymore; we go to the grocery store,” he says. “That’s where gemstones are going—there won’t be stores that won’t offer those options. Some will be the Whole Foods, others the Albertsons, but they all have the option. And it’s going to go quickly.”