Ethical Jewelry Manifesto: A Call to Action

Ethical Jewelry Manifesto: A Call to Action

Author: Marc Choyt | Tuesday, December 24, 2019


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."  —Frederick Douglas


A Situation Briefing on Ethical Jewelry

About 3.7 million people died in diamond funded wars in the 1980s and ‘90s, and thousands more have died since. Many large-scale mining companies who have allegedly committed environmental and social atrocities are now part of the Responsible Jewellery Council, an organization defining “responsible jewelry” in the North American market and beyond. 

Meanwhile, we still see zero restitution, truth, or reconciliation. Tens of millions of small-scale miners around world are still today being poisoned by mercury from gold mining, destroying the environment just so they can scrape by to survive in their destitute lives.

All this is in the name of luxury products and love symbols.  

The question is, why? And what can we do about it? 


A Starting Over Place

Let us begin anchored in our common humanity, our concern for our children’s children and the very ecology which sustains ourselves and our planet. 

The first step to right any wrong is acknowledging what has taken place in the past, and then taking action toward restitution.

For example, in recent years, we have learned of more abuse of some Catholic priests in Ireland, in Argentina, Pennsylvania, and around the globe. People in these faith communities, and others in civil society, have called for justice for the victims.

Imagine if the Pope and his bishops were to say that any actions of our priests before 2012 is absolved because the Church had created, at that date, a “responsible priests” standard. 

There would be moral outrage. Now, let us consider what has happened in the jewelry world.


Screenshot of the Responsible Jewellery Council’s homepage. White men (and a few white women) rule.


The Responsible Jewellery Council is led by a kind of synod composed of multinational bishops.  It was founded by 14 companies in 2004, among them Rio Tinto, De Beers, BHP Billiton, Cartier, Newmont Mining, Signet Group, Tiffany & Co, Zales Corp, and Jewelers of America.  

Together, they have written an encyclical, defining a “responsible jewelry” doctrine to their 1100-plus members. Foundational to this doctrine is continuity, the embracing of conservatism within the framing of the past. 



In this, a Grandfather clause, the wealth gained through the previous actions of members is officially declared “responsibly sourced.”

Not just the wealth, but the actions that obtained that wealth.

De Beers, one of the original 14 founding companies of the Responsible Jewellery Council back in 2004—and who controlled almost 90% control of diamonds during the blood diamond wars in the 1980s, and tried to maintain its monopoly into the ‘90s by hoovering up all diamonds in Africa—is forgiven. 

This forgiveness allowed the birth of the Kimberley Process, a certification that lacks credibility, a certification whose child is the “conflict free diamond” narrative. In addition to all the well-documented issues undermining Kimberley (see the Sixth Russian Doll: Kimberley Process’ Damn Lies”) we are told that we can be “conflict free” without any truth, reconciliation, or restitution to impacted communities. 

There’s no way of knowing how many of those diamonds from that time still sit in shoe boxes in De Beer’s London offices.  But it isn’t just diamonds that are absolved from past sins. Follow the links to these companies: Anglo Gold, BHP Billiton, Newmont, Rio Tinto   (read about their “Bougainville genocide” ) is now producing certified “responsible” gold.  

The truth is, the gold and diamonds in your wedding ring is likely produced from industry activities that result in ecocide and possibly through human rights atrocities. 

Yet all is forgiven in a standard contingent upon erasing memory and revisionist history.

This forgetting the past is merely a cover up for crimes that, to paraphrase historian Nikhil Pal Singh, are hidden in plain sight. 

Because of this Grandfather clause, there can be no ethics.  

Rather, I should say that any version of ethics is going to be deeply flawed because the past is prologue. The new ethics are a continuity, a rebranded narrative that updates the current practices to create a forward-facing narrative which is merely a cover up.

 Even without raising the Grandfather Clause as an issue, the Call To Action from Human Rights Watch’s February 2018 critique of the Responsible Jewellery Council, signed by 29 other organizations, states: “The Responsible Jewellery Council promotes standards that allow companies to be certified even when they fail to support basic human rights.” This reconfirms Earthworks’ 2013 More Shine Than Substance: How RJC Certification Fails to Create Responsible Jewelry

Yet between 2013 and today, the Council has grown from 400 members to over 1100. Much of this grown has come from retail jewelers, which act as a quasi-evangelical arm of the Responsible Jewellery Council.

We may conclude, therefore—as I have in the Exposé—that attempts to influence the Responsible Jewellery Council through civil engagement have failed to produce desired results. 

The exploited producer communities remain exploited producer communities. What is taking place is mere shapeshifting—when instead, we should heed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insightful statement: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."


Past is Prologue

White papers, international agencies detailing chains of custody or bottom line numbers, conceptual constructs of what may be ethical or not, written on computer screens in fine offices, easily separate us from proximity to pain.

They do not change the edifices. 

What we have here is a fundamental human problem, a method of exchange driven by iron teeth at the ragged edges of globalization where often the most vulnerable are voiceless; where consumption driven by commoditization silently squeezes the humanity out of us, including those working for the big corps in my critiques; where the Chronos-like determinates of capital and time drag us along, caught in the rip tide of history—like actors in a nightmare unaware that they live in a dream. 

The nightmare repeats itself over and over, back to the fifteenth century explorers sailing down the coast of Africa in search of slaves and gold.

A new version of the same old story.


Implicit in this old story is the notion that the people in the developing world, where most material used to produce jewelry is sourced, are somehow different from us. 

This is nothing less than a subterfuge white nationalism translated to business practices. A company these days knows better than to say that people live in “shithole countries.” Yet the fatal flaws in the standards themselves, and the unwillingness to recognize previous atrocities, often affirm this very sentiment. 

Underlying this sentiment is the notion that “others” do not feel the pain when they bleed or love their children like we do. Nor are they worthy of justice based upon any standard of human decency and a clean environment afforded to most of those in civil society.

Thus today, “responsible” or “ethical” jewelry sourcing is often a massive cover up. Keynote speakers at “responsible jewelry” events hide their agenda through talk of sustainability and beneficiation—minor initiatives that, in context to North American market forces, at least, create no real change.  

In fact, the person who should be speaking at such conferences, who should be interviewed by trade magazines and bloggers seeking to learn about ethical sourcing, is the diamond miner from Sierra Leone, the survivor with one arm hacked off; or Leonard Fong Roka, who wrote the Bougainville Manifesto.

These are the people whose voices matter most at this time. In their breath is the direction for a new ethical jewelry. They should be leading us and defining ethical jewelry. 

Perhaps, one day, just as those white Catholic priests responsible will have their day in court, those in our greater human family will be given restitution too—and will become part of the new ethical jewelry narrative. 

Until that time, and given the challenge present, the least we can do for producer communities, small-scale miners, is protest against those who deny their rightful responsibility on terms that actually matter to the opposition. 

Asking them to change through constructive engagement, as NGOs have done for many years, has not changed the course of the jewelry industry. The paramount priority of large multinationals is the bottom line: assets, accumulation of capital and profitability.  

This new campaign must hit their bottom line. Therefore, we take the advice of Virginia C. Drosos, CEO of Responsible Jewellery Council member Signet Corporation, who said in June, 2018, “Business as usual is insufficient, and we together must lead disruptive innovation now.”


Action Item 1: Build a New Coalition

We need to create a new community for action, one that has never been seen before.

NGOs who criticize the jewelry sector from the outside are easily dismissed—accused of not providing solutions. On the other hand, engagement from NGOs has become a form of enabling. The industry uses their feedback to justify that their concerns are being listened to without implementing any changes that impact their bottom line approach.

We must break this cycle. Jewelers need to be out front criticizing the industry. That way, the industry cannot claim that outsiders who don’t understand or want to work constructively are merely taking ignorant pot shots.

We need a coalition of jewelers and a broad sector of NGOs. Human rights organizations and environmental groups are the most obvious players, but any organization focusing in any way on making the world the more beautiful place our hearts know is possible has power in lending their voice. The more we work together, the louder our voice becomes—until it can no longer be ignored.

My company has personally made great strides in this direction with the implementation of our Giving  Back program, with offers 20% of sales generated by a broad list of our nonprofit partners.  

This collaboration between nonprofits and activist jewelers can help support our efforts in deep structural change in the jewelry section. 


Action Item 2: Boycott Responsible Jewellery Council Retailers

Let us then boycott all Responsible Jewellery Council retailers, and other jewelers that endorse their standards.

Let us work together to oppose elements of the ethical jewelry forward-facing responsible jewelry narrative for all the reasons listed by the Human Rights Watch study—and because ethics, in the case of large-scale multinationals, cannot be divorced from truth and reconciliation.


Consider that these three Responsible Jewellery Council members are now producing “responsible” gold, despite a plethora of alleged atrocities—as detailed in the Fourth Russian Doll: Responsible Jewellery Council Chain of Custody Scheme Exposed.


One day, perhaps the Responsible Jewellery Council will be something other than a trade association. Maybe it will become a true multi-sector organization with industry watchdogs and small-scale miners in decision-making capacities, and excellent standards such as those of IRMA in place. 

But until that time, the boycott will slow the forward-facing market narrative that anchors their insufficient notion of “responsible jewelry” in North America and beyond. 


Action Item 3: Debunk "Eco-friendly" Recycled Gold

These days the mainstream trade—in North America, at least—has doubled down on the recycled gold narrative as ethical gold. It is a means of maintaining the status quo, or diverting the focus which should be on producer communities: the people who dig in the earth to feed their families and need market support.  

Recycled gold was once best practice. It raised awareness of sourcing issues in the market. I was an early adopter when Hoover and Strong, the most ethical of all supply houses in North America, first provided it in 2007. I still use it when I cannot obtain Fairtrade Gold.

However, recycled gold and dirty gold come from the same place. For a jeweler to base their ethics on recycled gold is specious. It relies upon public ignorance of the trade’s true practices.

Read more on recycled gold here.


This is a call out to bloggers, journalists, and others who have the power to call out jewelers who base their ethical claims only on their “eco-friendly” recycled gold story. 

This gold does nothing to eliminate poverty or reduce mercury contamination among the twenty-five million small-scale gold miners worldwide.  

Hoover and Strong has always been at the forefront of North American ethical sourcing. They offer Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold. We have in place a supplier to anchor a true ethical jewelry movement with production. There is no excuse for jewelers who claim an ethical stance not to use gold from small producers.


Action Item 4: Fairtrade Gold is the Best Initiative 

Fairmined Gold and Fairtrade Gold are basically the same in context to on-the-ground principles and standards that support small-scale mining communities. The two initiatives were developed together: see the supplementary article Fairtrade/Fairmined Gold in the US/UK.

However, the difference between the brands of Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold is massive.

Right now, in the US, there is just one Fairtrade Gold jeweler: my company. This must change.

Igniting the market and changing consumer perception that is most going to benefit miners in the long run. 

Jewelers, consumers, and bloggers must support a new story consolidated around the Fairtrade Gold brand, following the success of European jewelers.   

In essence: ridicule “eco-friendly” recycled gold. Consolidate around Fairtrade Gold as the most ethical choice to change the market narrative toward an ethics focused on small-scale mining certified from source to market by Fairtrade.


Action Item 5: Debunk The “Conflict Free Diamond” Narrative

Diamond sales are around half of all jewelry revenue, which makes the “conflict free diamond” narrative a keystone of jewelry marketing.

This “conflict free” story needs to be disrupted. Instead, we need to describe a diamond’s ethical veracity based upon who mined it, where it was mined, and where it was cut.

A “Boycott Conflict Free Diamonds” campaign would directly attack the core deception: that it is acceptable to create such a designation without truth, reconciliation, and restitution to the 3.7 million people killed in (and the millions more affected by) the blood diamond-funded wars.

This is an initiative that must be part of an overall strategy to disrupt the market. 



Continue on to the Table of Contents

Return to the Foreword: Birth of the Movement

Return to the Landing Page





**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)**

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Comments ( 9)

Posted by: Audrey Migot-Adholla (Yala Jewellery) on Jul 17, 2019
Thank you so much for writing this article. The unfortunate truth is that the perceived value and status attached to certain precious metals and stones is so deeply entrenched into societal norms and expectations that convincing consumers to change their buying habits will be a long and difficult process. That said, it’s great that the conversations around ethics, transparency and sustainability of consumer goods in general are more visible and frequent now than in the past. Along with Fairtrade, there are other organisations that jewellery brands can align with to give third party validation to their ethics claims. Several jewellery brands around the world (including mine) have achieved B Corp certification which takes into account the performance of the whole company, not only the individual components like diamonds or gold, but by and large these jewellery companies do not deal in materials with such damaging histories. If more of the big players like DeBeers et al. were willing to change their practices to meet the standards for certification, the consumers would naturally follow.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jul 17, 2019
Hello Audrey, Really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I agree-- it is a long and difficult process. Kind of like trying to carve a granite monument made of 500 years of exploitative capitalism with a plastic spoon. Unfortunately, the big players-- and I am not just talking about companies that you mentioned, but large retailers, such as Brilliant Earth (see the section I wrote on them), have effectively created a narrative which creates the appearance of ethics in our existing supply chains. While it is true that there is much more talk about these issues, the amount of lies and deceptions has also gone up exponentially. Everyone now is an ethical jeweler!!! So, as I review all the writing and blogging on ethical sourcing, very little of it really is anything more than partial information at best, but most of it misleads and deceives the consumer in someway, which is a big reason why I wrote this piece. Hopefully there is some journalist out there willing to really do a deep dive into these issues, exposing the general malaise-- the consumer facing narratives that create the appearance of ethics but involve no change in the supply chain whatsoever from the way it has always been.
Posted by: Taylor Tang on Oct 21, 2020
I really appreciate the information you’ve shared. I’ve been doing a lot of my own research on recycled metal vs. fairmined or Fairtrade. I’ve come to lot of the same conclusions about RJC and that recycled metal. They act as a cover up and really just use semantics that make consumers feel like they’re doing the right thing. When really they’re being misinformed. I just recently started my own jewelry business, if you can call it that at this stage. I had no idea when I first started how many issues the industry had with gems, metals, and all its cutting centers, I’ve been learning slowly. I’ve already made some mistakes in promoting the use of recycled metals as ethical, I think it’s obviously a good thing to use, but not if people think that’s were we stop and that it’s original source and how it was mined is irrelevant, I suppose that goes for a lot of things. Anyways you already know that. I’ve been looking into Hoover and strong as I only work with silver at the moment. I was curious if you have more information on fairmined and Fairtrade silver, I know it’s a much newer frontier than fairmined gold. I endeavor to further peoples awareness of the issues in the jewelry industry, but I know I have a lot more work to do. It’s such a complex issue and I feel like a nobody when it comes to this and my business, but I know that sharing any information to dispense any misleading information is important. There are honestly days when I consider quitting jewelry, I’m that new to this that I could. I feel guilty about the whole thing because I know that even though I’ve tried to be as careful with my sources and transparent the metal I use has not been Fairtrade, when I’m able and through with my old resources that’s the route I plan to go. I know that if I stop that also contributes to the problem, so I’m striving to be better and better every day until, I will be switching to fairmined when I can and using recycled when I can’t. I hope one day I have a larger audience and louder voice and I’m able to make even more change.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Oct 27, 2020
The sentiments you express are common to many jewelers who are on the quest that you are. It is difficult. There is so much misinformation. Feel free to contact me and I'd be happy to talk to you and help as best as I can.
Posted by: Yahaira on Feb 24, 2021
Thank you for writing this entry. I am curious to know why there aren't more certified fairtrade gold retailers in the U.S.? Is it difficult to get certified?
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Feb 25, 2021
To answer your question, it's complex. Part of the reason is that Fairtrade America set up a commercial system that is different from others that have been successful in other parts of the world. Small jewelers in the U S went with Fairmined instead of Fairtrade gold, as explained here. But ultimately, it has a lot to do with large refiners who have it in their business interest to keep the structures in place that have oppressed small scale miners. I go into detail in this article:
Posted by: peter Dansua on Sep 01, 2021
Greeting This is to inform you of our interest and desire to make a publicity of our industry a small scale mining firm here in west Africa to seek a foreign individual or body for exportation of Gold & Diamond to any part of the world based on your experience, idea & interest in this proposal. Furthermore, we will furnish you the necessary documents of our existing firm including the government authorization certificate for mining Gold & Diamond in this territory. Do not hesitate to message us back in case you are interested for further action.As our Agent we are ready to give some commission of the total purchase if you can connect us to a buyer. Our Email Address ( Best Regards Mr. Peter Dansua
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Sep 01, 2021
Peter, I recommend that you contact the Society Artisanal. You can google them.
Posted by: Jody on Jul 02, 2023
Thanks for your work!

Only Fairtrade Gold Jeweler in the USA 
since 2015

Santa Fe, NM Green Business of the Year

Catalyzing the Ethical Jewelry Movement

Winner of MJSA Responsibly Sourced Design Challenge

Founder of First-Ever Ethical Jewelry Blog

Collaborators of USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project