Photo taken on a bike path near my home in Santa Fe, NM.
In early June, 2006, I attended the JCK show in Las Vegas, NV, the most important jewelry trade event in North America, and jewelers were in a panic. The Blood Diamond film was to be released in early December, the start of the holiday season.
This meant that diamond sourcing would be front and center in the mind of the American consumer during the most critical time for retail sales. Plus, Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign, launched in 2004, was gaining traction.
The broader issue of jewelry sourcing threatened branding narratives. Numerous seminars were scheduled by industry leaders to unpack the film’s potential ramifications..
What caught my attention was the one meeting sponsored by Martin Rapaport, one of the most influential voices in the jewelry trade. This was the first ever fair trade jewelry meeting. The blood diamond wars had been funded by purchases from small-scale diamond diggers. Solutions, in my view, had to focus on those impacted communities.
I left my booth in the designer section to attend Rapaport’s event, weaving my way through plush plum carpets in the two-story trade pavilions of De Beers distributors—with paneled walls and private meeting rooms containing tens of millions of dollars of diamonds.
The spacious room on the second floor of the Venetian convention center had mostly empty seats—perhaps there were about thirty attendees. Journalists seemed to outnumber jewelers.
Rapaport spoke of his valiant attempt to anchor a fair trade diamond supply chain out of Sierra Leone. We heard from a few panels on the theme of ethical sourcing practices.
Next door was another event, a large conference room packed with people. Jewelers were briefed on the Kimberley Process, in place since 2003, which now assured that diamonds were certified “conflict free.” The focus there was on essentially protecting the bottom line through consumer-facing strategies to mitigate the film’s impact.
Over a decade later, the Kimberley Process has been abandoned by a number of key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in its inception. Martin Rapaport himself called the Process “bullshit” in May of 2017. Yet the term “conflict free” remains the keystone in the marketing of responsible diamonds to consumers.
The Blood Diamond film had no impact on diamond sales, to a large degree because its ending showed the emergence of the Kimberley Process. Jewelers breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Dodging the Bullet”
In March of the following year, Frank Dallahan summarized much of the trade’s take on the film in this article in JCK Magazine, writing, “The industry dodged a bullet as a result of a concerted effort on the part of many industry groups and leaders to address this latest threat.”
So, according to the editorial from one of North America’s most influential trade magazines, jewelers were the victims—not the survivors of wars funded by diamonds, such as my taxi driver, who had picked me up at the convention center to take me to the airport back from the JCK Show the previous June.
He had an African accent, and I asked him where he was from. “Sierra Leone.”
As we wove our way through traffic on the way to the airport, I learned of his family, who had been diamond diggers in a village of about seventy people. He recalls soldiers walking in at first light, shouting. His mother telling him to run, run. He, twelve years old, holding the sweaty hand of his five-year-old brother. Hiding in the bush. Trying not to breathe. Soldiers’ voices, their legs moving through brush.
Next day, clouds of flies. The smell. Walking around bodies. His mother shot in the stomach, bled out. The head of this father chewed apart by animals quick to the scent.
He and his brother ate rodents, insects, whatever they could find to stave off hunger—until they joined a militia, learned how to shoot an AK-47. Every few months he witnessed soldiers arrive in helicopters to purchase diamonds from his chief.
His brother liked being a soldier. But he could not get used to it. He ran away, ending up at a refugee camp, eventually making his way to the US.
Since that flight home, I’ve often thought about which of those diamonteers in tailored suits at the JCK show were hiring the paramilitary groups to purchase the diamonds that funded the wars that killed 3.7 million people.
How much culpability do jewelers themselves have to their perhaps millions of customers wearing blood diamonds as engagement rings?
Regardless, over the past ten-plus years all jewelers have doubled down on the “conflict free diamond” narrative. The term is more potent in the market today than ever. As a jeweler, I know that just using that language will satisfy about 95% of all customers’ concerns.
What I failed to grasp back in 2006 is that the Kimberley Process has two components: the scheme itself, which is backed by a system of warrantees signed by eighty-one countries, and the “conflict free” consumer-facing narrative.
Without truth and reconciliation to impacted communities, or restitution to the victims and survivors, the marketing of diamonds as “conflict free” is nothing short of a lie—a damn lie.
To be clear: when we speak of “restitution,” what we mean is support for regenerative fair-trade based localized economic development. We need to support best practices among small-scale mining producer communities who control their resources. We need to connect such communities to the markets seeking ethical jewelry.
Pioneering Ethical Jewelry Sourcing
Yet, looking back at that JCK Show, I can see how the Blood Diamond film, Rapaport’s first fair trade jewelry meeting, and the many articles written around these events raised ethical sourcing issues and in fact seeded the broader ethical jewelry movement.
The trade began highlighting jewelers who were pioneering a more ethical stance, including features like this one in May of 2007 labeling me as a “Vanguard of Responsibility.”
I launched the first-ever ethical jewelry blog, Fairjewelry.org, focusing on human rights and environmental issues—and in October of 2007 I was one of a hundred invited to a watershed event known as the Madison Dialogue. The press was not invited, so I wrote a feature article for Modern Jeweler, and later produced a white paper on Fair Trade Manufacturing.
I returned to the JCK show a few more times, promoting the ethical sourcing of our company. For the trade as a whole, the notion of responsible sourcing was radical. Back then, ethics concerned issues related to the karat or carat—the realm of an organization such as the Jewelers Vigilance Committee.
I remember an encounter at my booth at a later JCK Show with a “major” buyer, one of the top ten. On our walls we’d posted blown-up trade articles about our ethical sourcing platform. She asked me about ethical jewelry. When I began talking, she stared at me for a moment as if I were an alien from another galaxy, then walked off.
Over the years that followed, I continued my involvement in ethical sourcing as a change agent from the inside, as an activist jeweler. (My wife Helen Chantler and I started our company, Reflective Jewelry, in 1995. Helen is our CEO and Creative Director.) Fairjewelry.org evolved into a human rights and environmental justice network, Fair Jewelry Action. I became a trade watchdog, campaigner for Indigenous miners' rights, and anti-mining activist in my hometown of Santa Fe, NM. Even today, I occasionally engage in freelance writing about ethical sources for trade magazines.
Perhaps most relevant to my perspective is that Reflective Jewelry is the only FLO-certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US, a status we’ve held since 2015. Just imagine being the first Fairtrade coffee seller forty years ago, and not having one other company join the initiative after THREE YEARS!
Three years of working to build a movement, one that that would align the meaning of a wedding ring with its sourcing. One that could alleviate poverty for hundreds of thousands of small-scale miners.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched the Fairtrade Gold movement grow in the UK to over 200 jewelers, anchoring great change in that market’s perception of jewelry and its connection to sourcing.
All this work was done in the hope of seeing responsible jewelry become standard practice, widely adopted by the trade—which is where we find ourselves today…
The Responsible Jewelry Zeitgeist
“Ethical jewelry” or “responsible jewelry” has become a foundational marketing of jewelry. Every jeweler is now aiming to be an ethical/responsible jeweler.
This is just good business sense. According to the De Beers 2016 Diamond Insight Report, 36% of millennials were, when purchasing a diamond wedding ring, least likely to compromise on the issue of responsible diamond sourcing.
[For a good case study of what I'm discussing here, a review of "ethical jewelry leader" Brilliant Earth, see the Eighth Russian Doll: Brilliant Earth's Long, Tall Tale.]
A current study, also from De Beers, notes that Gen Z, the emerging market of people born between 1995 and 2014, “won’t buy corporate story telling” and “they want to see proof of ethical sourcing or the good that diamonds are doing for communities from which they came.”
Yet in the US in particular, outside of a few small studios, there has been almost zero change over the last ten years in how jewelry is sourced.
The terms used in the marketing of ethical/responsible jewelry in North America—i.e. “conflict free diamonds,” or “sustainable/eco-friendly/recycled jewelry”—are rarely grounded in any meaningful, on-the-ground impact relative to the values they imply.
Small-scale diamond miners impacted by the blood diamond wars continue to live in poverty. Millions around the world are being poisoned by mercury from small-scale gold mining, destroying the environment just so they can scrape by to survive.
Producer communities are plagued with the same resource curse issues that were present well before ethical jewelry became the hot new trend. All this is in the name of luxury products and love symbols.
In North America, large corporate interests continue to shape and mold their marketing, just as they always have. Now, however, the trade-wide focus is to create a “responsible jewelry” narrative. It is skillfully designed to protect the bottom line and massive investments in global large-scale mining, branding, and retailing.
Consequently, the energy for change—the concerns of the Millennials, Gen Z, and all those who wish to align their values with their dollars—are essentially supporting the historical continuity of a status quo.
The energy for change that could ignite a new jewelry story—one that focuses on benefitting small-scale producers, alleviating poverty for millions while strengthening both cultural and ecological diversity—has been subverted.
The question is: what can be done?
This writing explores the roots of the new “responsible jewelry” messaging. This is a peek behind the curtain, a dive into the “deep state” of the jewelry sector.
What makes the current ethical jewelry zeitgeist so complex is that it is multilayered.
To get to the why, I have had to survey ethical jewelry history, market trends, manufacturing issues, suppliers and supply chains, trade magazines, thought leaders, mining issues related to the environment and human rights, and even customer interaction.
Each of these pieces inform a part a complex framework that is nearly impossible to grasp in full, even if you are in the jewelry trade.
Once we understand the intent behind the current and past narratives—to shape, mold, mislead, and deceive the ethically-concerned public into purchasing jewelry (that continues to erode producer communities and the greater ecosystem) to maximize profits—we can begin to consider new tactics.
My goal in writing this exposé, just as my goal was when I started writing the first ethical jewelry blog in 2006, is to seed the possibility of a North American ethical jewelry movement focused on benefit to producer communities.
The difference is that, back then, I thought that I could achieve this by working within the trade. Now, what’s needed is broad market disruption that would provide an opening for a new story.
As Laura Kipnis wrote, “Toppling power isn’t about storming the Bastille these days, it’s about changing the way people talk and think.”
Continue on to the Ethical Jewelry Manifesto
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**All writing and images are open source, under Creative Commons 3.0. Any reproduction of this material must back link to the landing page, here. For high resolution images for publication, contact us at expose(AT)reflectivejewelry.com.**