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How Ethical is Ethical with Gemstones?

We ask, can mined gemstones ever be truly ethical?

We feel it’s fair to say that most of us love beautiful pieces of jewellery. But behind the beauty of gemstones lies a whole world of environmental problems, labour issues and political conflict. We take a look behind the shiny façade and ask if it is possible to ever get definitively ethical gemstones. We look at some of the social as well as environmental issues attached to gems during their mine-to-market journey.

Gemstones can be mined in two different ways. The first is by cutting the stones from their original rocks and the second is by finding them after they have come loose and been removed from their original formation places. The first method, needless to say, has a much larger and wider-reaching, negative environmental impact as it cuts away at commercially valueless rock to get to the more valuable stones. For the diamond on an average engagement ring, 200-400 million times the volume of the gemstone needs to be removed in the weight of rock. This gets piled up and effects the natural landscape by making it less liveable for both animals and people. For some gems, toxic chemicals are used to extract them from the rock, many of which make their way into the local environment,  responsible for high pollution levels. Mining is a dirty business, however, a lot of the pollution that comes along side this practice actually happens after the mines are abandoned. Often they fill up with water, causing metal-filled substances to break down from the mine and turn into a reddish-brown material that enters the groundwater. The water emerging from the mine might be highly acidic and filled with metals, which is harmful for the environment and the people living nearby. These water-filled pits also attract disease-carrying insects such as mosquitos that can lead to the increase of diseases such as malaria.

The social problems surrounding gemstone mining range from paying low salaries to the workers, to covering the expenses of civil wars. In some countries – like Angola and Zimbabwe – governments want to keep control over the mines and use military force to impose violence on the workers if they do not cooperate. People in the mines are forced to work under dangerous circumstances, like the threat of collapsing tunnels. Despite the jewellery business being a billion dollar industry, the people who pull the stones out of the ground are severely underpaid and oftentimes live in poverty. Children are often forced to work in the mines as well and the exploitation of a child labour force is something that mars the entire industry.

Fortunately there are ways to avoid buying bad jewels. There are currently several labs that are recreating gemstones in laboratories. This science costs half the energy of mining and has far less of an environmental impact. Experts oftentimes can’t even tell the difference between a gem found in the ground and one grown in a lab. Unfortunately, lab-grown gems are still a tough sell. They only make up about 1 percent of the current jewellery market. That is why an even better option is to buy ethically sourced gemstones. Ethically sourced gemstones promise to be mined by people who are paid a decent wage and pose as little impact on the environment as possible. There won’t be any child labour involved and the work conditions are decent for the workers. These are certified, the origins of which can also be traced, which in turn applies greater pressure for far more transparency within the industry.

Melissa Joy Manning is one of those jewellery designers who wants the story behind her pieces to be as beautiful as the piece itself. The designer – who doesn’t think of herself as someone who became a jewellery designer, but rather who was one all along – creates beautiful jewellery made with either upcycled or ethically sourced stones. She wants the pieces she makes to have longevity and for them to be representative of much better practices and ways of doing business within the industry. One of the stones she uses in her jewellery for example, is the Herkimer Diamond. This diamond can only be found in Herkimer, New York, and grows in unique shapes that Melissa Joy Manning embraces and uses in her jewellery alongside the gemstones themselves.

Gemstones are beautiful, but they would be much prettier if the story behind them was always as beautiful as they are.

Click to shop the Melissa Joy Manning collection here.