It is now exactly a year since I came to Winchcombe to supervise the transformation of the old Post Office into trading premises for my business, Just Gems. Since I was a child, my dream was to run a jewellery shop. After 20 years of working around the world as a petroleum exploration geologist, that dream finally came true when I opened a little shop in 2011 in Aberdeen. Just Gems had actually started in 2006 when work colleagues asked me to source unusual stones. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my children, then still at primary school, and asking them what name we should choose for mum’s fledgling business.
After much debate, Just Gems was settled on as it encapsulates the ethos of the business. No watches, no silverware, no simulated or synthetic stones, we would sell only genuine gemstones. Not only that but, as far as possible, the gemstones would be fairly traded and ethically sourced.
2006 was also the year ‘Blood Diamond’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, shook the diamond industry to its core. De Beers, masterful manipulators of public opinion since shortly after the discovery of the first diamond in South Africa in 1867, were acutely aware that they had to act fast. Unless the diamond industry could be seen to respond to growing consumer unease, they risked losing their market share in the US, which then consumed around 45% of global gem quality diamond production. De Beers rushed to embrace the Kimberley Process (KP), a UN-initiated process set up in 2003 to try to prevent African war lords from using diamonds to buy weapons. Since 2003, some $13.88m has now been traded though the KP. The process restricts the movement of diamonds across international borders and between suppliers at critical stages in the diamond’s transformation from grimy pebble to brilliant jewel. Difficult to police and reliant on supplier integrity, it is deeply flawed and does not address the problems of child labour, mineworkers’ safety and the issues of native peoples’ land rights, where entire communities are forcibly relocated to make room for the bulldozers and diggers to move in.
12 years on, there is a growing awareness among consumers that over 80% of gold and diamond production is dominated by large companies. These large-scale mining operations use big machinery and employ relatively few local people. Fairtrade gold, while laudable in theory, is aspirational and difficult to verify.
Most coloured gemstones come from small-scale artisanal mining operations. The insatiable appetite of the Chinese middle classes for jade, ruby, aquamarine, sapphire, tourmaline and emerald in recent years has seen prices quadrupling and has fuelled a huge increase in the numbers of people working in the gem mining industry worldwide. In cultures where the only option to support a family is agriculture, gem mining provides an attractive alternative opportunity. Women make up 40-50% of workers in the African gem industry. Of course, we know that health, safety and environmental protection in less developed nations are not as we would wish them, but should we deprive a young family in Mozambique of much-needed income?
A truly ‘fair trade’ gemstone will likely come from a developed nation. Europe, Australia, the US and Canada are safe sources for opal, jet, sapphire, turquoise and diamond, but buyers must be prepared to pay a premium. Minimum wages, safety equipment and care for the environment do not come cheap in these countries and a sapphire from Montana will be twice the price of an equivalent sapphire from Madagascar. Sadly, it doesn’t much matter what we in Europe think about mining conditions in Africa – most Chinese people will buy the gems anyway!