All That Glitters Isn't Gold

An extraordinary graveyard, Namibia
All That Glitters Isn't Gold - Emily Olsson

Gemstones and gold have been prized for centuries for their rarity, brilliance, and durability, but it has been the sentiments and powers attributed to them that have truly captivated everyone from Pliny the Elder to Kayne West. The lore surrounding them is endless. At one point it was believed that amethysts could ward off drunkenness and that diamonds would be able to protect the wearer from ghosts and magic spells. Royalty around the world have used jewelry as a symbol of their wealth, status, and power. Pieces are passed down from generation to generation, growing more and more sentimentally valuable with each passing year. De Beers was able to successfully create an insatiable global demand for diamonds by equating them to true love. Today’s jewelry industry exploits a variety of these culturally embedded beliefs to make a profit. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that Americans alone spent over $70 billion on fine jewelry and watches in 2012, $11 billion of which was spent on engagement rings.

Sadly, if the true stories behind these stones and precious metals were used for marketing, jewelers would go out of business. Much of the jewelry in today’s market can be connected to environmental and/or human rights abuses, including child labor, forced labor, extreme poverty, illegal mining operations, smuggling, corruption, water pollution, and deforestation. The majority of such issues have gone largely unnoticed. Over the past decade, campaigns by organizations like Amnesty International in conjunction with big name actors, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, have helped publicize and educate consumers on blood diamonds. However, this industry is not the only one that needs to have a spotlight shown on it. Serious crimes have been committed in other industries like the gold, ruby, and sapphire ones. 

Mining for gold is an extremely environmentally unfriendly process. Over the years it has become much harder to extract gold from its ores, causing companies both large and small to use harsher methods. The two most popular techniques are open-pit mining and heap leaching, and while both methods are cheaper than the traditional underground mining operations, they cause massive damages to the surrounding ecosystem. Open-pit mining achieves it through the generation of huge amounts of waste in terms of rock. Heap leaching involves pouring a cyanide solution over large rock piles to force the gold to separate from the rock, which results in elevated levels of cyanide and mercury in the air and water surrounding the minesThere are also concerns over the methods used in other industries. The extraction of precious and semi-precious stones is closely related to small-scale, artisanal mining. Such informal settings lack the proper safety and environmental protections that many larger operations might employ. In the sapphire trade in Madagascar, children will often be used to detect the presence of stones due to their size and agility. The small-scale miners in Brazil, known as garempieros, who search for anything from alluvial diamonds to tourmalines, cause soil erosion, water pollution, and deforestation of the Amazon with their rudimentary mining practices. Then there is the ruby industry in Burma (Mynamar). Rubies are the most expensive stone per carat. Not only does the corrupt military junta use the sale of these stones to help prop up their regime, but they also force citizens to work for extremely low wages in the mines.

The examples listed above only begin to scratch the surface. There are issues throughout other industries and the supply chain – not just with the extraction. Change is possible though. To begin to overcome the enormous challenges that the jewelry industry faces, two things need to happen. First, consumers must be made more aware of the issues to foster more informed decision-making. Second, there needs to be better value chain management. Certification schemes, such as the Kimberly Process, were initially created to help stop the trade of conflict minerals, but there are so many loopholes that they are completely ineffective. To improve these systems, the private and public sectors must work together. The private sector has begun to create their own certification programs in which specific companies verify the provenance of each stone or metal. For instance, De Beers created the Forevermark to ensure its customers that the diamonds have been responsibly sourced. Governments should also pass more and stricter legislation that forces the large mining companies and corrupt governments to clean up their acts and assist the small-scale miners. The US government has been somewhat active on this front, banning the import of Burmese rubies and jadeite. It also passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, which forbids the import of conflict minerals that are connected to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the nine countries that surround it. Much remains to be done, but these are encouraging steps.