'Ethically sourced' is the new buzzword when it comes to gemstones and sapphires, but the truth is, there's no real definition for ethical sourcing, and anyone can make that claim. While sapphires are generally a low-conflict stone with low environmental impact, standards vary widely around the world, between mines, and between gemstone dealers.
So, are sapphires ethical?
To be sure about ethically sourced sapphires, you have to know where they came from, the environmental practices at that mine, how the workers are being treated, and have visibility into the entire supply chain. If ethical sourcing is important to you, we're here with the full, unfiltered truth (as always) on sourcing ethical sapphires so you can make decisions that are most aligned for you.
Where do ethical sapphires come from?
We source ethical sapphires from all around the world. For this article, we consulted with trusted Gem Dealer Experts from all over the world to get the full picture on sourcing ethical sapphires from every origin: Australia, Montana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka.
Expert: Ian Bone, Capricorn Gems
Tell us a bit about the history of Queensland mining
Sapphires were originally mined in Central Queensland in the late 1800s – early pioneers and stockman found the gemstone and didn’t know what it was. By the early 1900s, the area had become the largest producer of sapphires. The stones were sent to London (the center of the gemstone business back then) and distributed across Europe. Many of those sapphires wound up in the royal houses across Europe.
In the 1980’s, mining went from strictly hand-mining to more mechanization (with excavators and trucks). The sapphire rough was being sent to Thailand for cutting and Thailand started buying stones in bulk – this helped build Thailand’s reputation as the gemstone capital of the world back in the 80’s.
Still today, all the mining is very small-scale – most business models are either a family operation or a partnership.
More recently, we built our business based on this geographical location and the ability to source mine-to-market stones with full traceability. The sapphire deposit in Queensland is the biggest in Australia – with beautiful multicolors, greens, yellows, bi-colors, and blues.
How are these stones mined ethically?
All sapphire mining is controlled by the Queensland state government – there are strict rules and regulations that all miners must follow. If you want to mine sapphires, you need to:
- Demonstrate to the mining department you have the resources and funding.
- Apply for a mining permit and a mining lease.
- Put down security deposits to cover any circumstance, ie: damage you may create to the countryside.
Because we’re a Western country, we’re very different than many other countries that mine gemstones. We’re very regulated and legalized - it’s just like mining in the U.S. That means labor laws (no children), health and safety equipment for all workers, full traceability of the mining operations, and no underground crime operations or corruption.
How is the environment protected when mining in Australia?
When the mining operation concludes, miners are obligated to reclaim the land and bring it back to its previous condition. That means planting trees, laying seeds, and levelling out the land. The land is inspected and there are penalties if it isn’t done properly.
The countryside where most of the mining takes place is very remote and the footprint of the mining is very small. The biggest hole will be 20 ft wide so the scale of the mining doesn’t impinge on the environment to any great degree.
How do you handle traceability?
With many gemstone vendors, stones will go through multiple different hands before arriving at their door (the miner, the buyer at the mine, a couple traders, an exporter or two) – it means you can’t guarantee where it came from based on the sheer number of transactions.
In our business in Australia, my business partner Rod sources the stones directly from the miners that take it out of the ground. Rod was a miner himself in the 80s and has very close contacts with the miners in the area.
To understand the average gemstone's journey read about our Mine To Market Sapphires Here.
Here’s what our sourcing process looks like:
- My partner, Rod visits the mine often.
- Rod takes the material directly from the mine, then he grades, separates, and pre-shapes the stones in his workshop at home. Because many of our gems are multi-colored, it’s important to orient the sapphire in the right direction to maximize the beauty of the gem.
- Every stone is photographed and recorded and then we send the pre-cut stones to Thailand for final cutting and polishing. Our employee, Andrew (who lives in Thailand) receives the stones and takes them to our cutters there. The cutters are people that Rod used to work with and who he knows very well.
- Andrew picks up the stones from the cutters and does a quality check to ensure it’s our parcel (it’s very easy to tell as our stones really stand out). Then, Andrew sends the parcel to Rod back in Australia.
- Rod brings the stones to me (we live about 10 minutes away from each other) and I sell the gemstones to designers and jewelers.
Why do you love these sapphires?
There are beautiful sapphires all over the world, but our gems are recognizable in many ways:
- Saturation and breadth of the color – our sapphires are very saturated as compared to Montana sapphires which are mostly pastel. The colors are mostly blue and blue-combinations, green and green combinations, and yellow or yellow combinations. We also occasionally find some very unusual colored sapphires like orange, pink, and orange and grey sapphires.
- Uniqueness of the gem itself: the orientation of our stones requires a special expertise in how to cut the rough piece for the most beautiful gemstone.
Expert: JEFFREY HAPEMAN, earth's treasury
Are Montana sapphires ethical? What makes it so?
For me, ethical mining has two sides
- The environment: I’m a biologist by training, so protecting ecology and natural life are hugely important to me.
- The miners: are the miners being paid fairly with good working conditions?
PROTECTING The Environment while mining
The bulk of our sapphires are from Rock Creek – the most stringent area in terms of mining regulations. Because the mining area feeds into Rock Creek (a globally renowned fly-fishing destination with an endangered species of fish called the Bull Trout), there are strict environmental regulations.
In Montana, you have to have almost a perfect loop of water relay so you don't impact the creek. Any water released from the mining operation must be drinking quality. We work with Potentate Mining and they have an entire system of ponds to manage their water needs:
- Water is captured from rainfall and used to wash the rough material.
- That water goes through a series of different ponds used for settling so any soil that is suspended is settled out.
- They use a special system at the end of the water chain that captures even the finest silt particles so that the water coming out is drinking quality.
- Then that water is recycled back into the cycle.
Because of this system, Rock Creek is not affected.
returning the Montana Land to its natural state
Once the sapphires are extracted, the topsoil is put back, and the area is replanted with pine and a wild plant mix and eventually returned to its natural state. All reclamation and active mining is inspected regularly by the Department of Environmental Quality and The Mining Bureau.
ETHICAL WORKING CONDITIONS
One of the advantages of working with US material is we have extremely stringent health & safety standards. All miners must be trained, have certifications, and the mining operations undergo regular inspections. MSHA (Mining Safety Health Administration) enforces these regulations. We really like working with Potentate in particular because they’re an excellent employer - they pay an above average wage for that region.
How do you handle traceability?
In Montana, we have a direct relationship with the owner/operator of the mine, making it (in my opinion) the most traceable material in the world.
How Mining Montana sapphires works:
- Any sapphires over 1 inch get pulled out, and the rest of the sapphire-gravel mix is processed through a plant to extract the smaller sapphires.
- The sapphires are sorted on-site by hand to find the good-quality stones. Those are kept in a safe.
- Then the sapphires go through a cleaning process on-site.
- At the end of the year, we help the mine sort and grade the rough sapphires for sale. We’re their largest partner and we bring all their large, rare, and unusual stones to market. So, that means when we arrive, we’re the third person to touch the stones since they came out of the ground.
5. The cutting: Even though it costs more, we cut our stones here in the U.S. to ensure that without a doubt, it's done ethically.
6. We sell the stones to our customers. With our process, we know where every sapphire came from to within a 5 or 10-acre patch of land if someone wanted to know that.
Why do you love Montana Sapphires?
Montana sapphires are unique because of their huge diversity of colors. They’re most well known for their blue-green sapphires – everything from teal and aqua to peacock blue and robin’s egg. They’re also known for their blue-green parti colors, and sometimes rare combinations like orange and purple or light blue and yellow. Overall, Montana sapphires tend to be a lighter, more open-color than sapphires from other areas.
Nigeria, Africa Sapphires
Expert: KINS, CHOICE GEMS CO.
Tell us what mining & sapphire sourcing looks like in Nigeria
Ethical sourcing in my view is: sourcing gemstones in a way that supports the mining community and environment, and is a win-win situation between the miners and the buyers. The keyword is fairness, both in terms of sourcing and protecting the environment.
We source our sapphires from Nigeria (where I grew up), primarily in Gombe and Kaduna. Most of the mines in Nigeria are family-owned, small-scale operations (2-5 people). Mining operations work one of two ways:
- Miners work as employees for the people who own the mining lease. Their equipment is supplied and they get a share of the income from the owner of the mine.
- Miners rent the land from the mining lease owners. This kind of independent mining is the most common - in this case, the miners directly profit from the stones.
In both scenarios, many miners have dual-jobs – they work as miners during the rainy season and work on their farms during the dry season.
How the sourcing works
- Miners dig up the stones and wash them.
- The miners hand their stones over to a broker who sells them to gem dealers like us. The miners tell the broker their ideal price range and the broker negotiates within that range plus a commission for themselves. Ultimately, the pricing is up to the miners and if a broker is not getting the miners what they want, they'll be cut off from the business. It’s about being true to your word – if you don’t meet the terms, the miners won’t use your services.
You can’t really compare ethical sourcing in the U.S. vs sourcing in Africa – it’s a very different culture and economic climate. In Africa, gem sourcing is heavily based on relationships and trust. We are looking at fairness between buyers and miners, the sustainability of the business, and fair pay grades in the context of that community - can their kids go to school, and can they afford to provide for their family. To ensure the miners are being paid and treated fairly: we visit the mines and we only work with brokers we know very well. We see for ourselves that the miners are living good lives. Of course, the living standards are very different than in the West, but they are living well in their culture.
Over time, as these communities get wealthier, things will evolve and regulations will improve, but right now, these people feel fortunate to have sapphires under their feet and a career formed around them. The more we invest in these communities and support them through the purchase of their goods, the more they will evolve.
How does the sourcing impact the community?
The government does not provide adequate social services, so as a company, we want to help fill the social gaps to support the miners and their community. We support them by:
- Purchasing better mining equipment to make their work easier and more efficient.
- Setting up water wells in their community – previously, families in our major source village were travelling about 2 miles to fetch water for their household.
- Purchasing books for elementary schools.
We consult with the miners and the Community Chief to find the gaps we can fill in their community. Because we invest in the community, get to know the miners and brokers, and pay fairly, the miners, brokers, and communities trust us and ensure we get the best stones. It’s very competitiveto get the highest-quality gemstones, so beyond our ethical motivations, doing the right thing helps us as a company. The miners know that when we succeed, they succeed.
How do you handle traceability?
Knowing the brokers and miners we work with assures us (to an extent) the origin of the stone. However, traceability cannot be guaranteed 100% of the time. However, when you are very experienced in the business (and especially in a specific region), you can easily tell the difference between stones. Within Nigeria, the sapphire colors and qualities vary widely and we can easily tell where a stone came from.
For example, the rough stones in Gombe are all alluvial sapphires (rounded and water-worn), whereas the rough sapphires in Kaduna are crystallized pyramids. Anyone could tell the difference between these stones.
Why do you love these sapphires?
Gombe Sapphires – the best blue-green sapphires in the world, in my opinion. They are softer colors with just the right saturation – not too dark and not too light.
Mambilla Sapphires – mostly soft, medium range blues or medium range greens. They’re very beautiful.
Kaduna Sapphires – deeper blues and deeper blue greens (teal), and stunning parti-stones.
Moyo Gems Sapphires, Tanzania
Expert: ashkan asgari, misfit diamonds
When I came across the Moyo gems program, I thought it was amazing. They work with artisanal miners who are being paid a liveable wage. And they’re focused on helping women achieve economic empowerment which is an issue in many parts of the world. These women can advance their training, get paid fairly, and get their stones to market easily.
Ethical mining practices
The gems are mined by independent local women and a handful of men. The women miners helped design the Moyo Gems program - how they wanted it to operate, how they wanted to be paid, and what they hoped to accomplish. All the initiatives to give back to the community are also chosen by the female miners.
How the program works:
- The miners sign up for free, go through worker safety training, free gemology training, and Moyo Gems helps them secure legal mining rights.
- When they find gems, the miners can sell into the Moyo Gems program or they can choose to sell elsewhere. The miners negotiate with the assistance of an experienced broker that they select, and all miners make 95% of the export price of their materials. The broker makes 5%. According to the miners, they are making 3-10 times what they would expect to make selling gems outside of the Moyo program.
- PACT (an international NGO) oversees the entire program and makes sure that the miners are treated well, paid fairly, and have access to education and training resources to empower the women as miners and entrepreneurs.
All miners are members of the Tanzanian Women Miners Association - a trade group founded, led, and made up of women miners across Tanzania. The group works to fight discrimination, advocate for better laws and services, and help reach the most remote miners with the fewest resources.
The Moyo Gems project is aimed at creating economic empowerment for miners, and specifically women, for whom this is a problem in many nations around the world. By providing gemstone training, easy (and voluntary) access to gemstone buyers, and safety training and equipment, these women can make a liveable income on their own terms. This lifts the whole community as they spend their income locally and help to grow the local economy as a whole.
Learn more about Askhan Asgari and his company Misfit Diamonds in this interview with him!
Traceability of these stones
The Moyo-approved miners are invited to participate in 'market days', with vetted local brokers. All sales are voluntary and it’s up to the miner whether to sell through the Moyo system or not.
Once sold, the stones are bagged in branded tamper-proof bags, duties/taxes are paid by the approved exporter, and the gemstones are delivered to program trading partners, and then onto us.
We buy from one of Moyo’s trading partners, Maison PIAT - a highly esteemed gem house in France – they are fully RJC (Responsible Jewelry Counsel) certified and they are one of three companies with access to Moyo gemstones right now. To become RJC certified, your program is fully audited, and while no system is perfect, RJC is one of the primary industry councils that holds weight because they are very thorough. This gives us confidence in the Moyo process and their traceabilty.
Why do you love these sapphires?
When we found Moyo Gems, we knew it was a perfect fit with our sustainable, ethical mission. The mining in the Umba River Valley is being done right, the artisanal miners are being paid fairly, and working with companies like Maison PIAT, we have confidence in terms of how they’re being sourced. They are a great addition to our sustainable sapphire lineup.
The colors are spectacularly beautiful – very vibrant pinks, purples, blues, oranges and teals. And my favorite part is the smokiness in the colors and their mesmerizing color change qualities.
Sri Lanka & Madagascar Sapphires
Expert: noelle habib, noelle habib gems
Tell us a bit about growing up in the gem business
I was surrounded by gemstones and jewelry all my life – my mom was a Jewelry Designer and Gemologist and my dad was an International Gem Dealer extraordinaire. My father was brought into the business by his uncle in Brazil. He travelled the world, opened a factory in Bangkok and bought rough sapphires throughout the world. He had offices in Arusha, Tanzania, Brazil, LA, New York, Hong Kong, and Bangkok.
After university, I thought I would go another route. but this world pulled me back in. I worked with my dad for 10 years at his company, Kaiser Gems. He retired in 2017 – selling some parts of the business and closing others. At that point, I decided to start my own business in San Francisco. I opened a small office - not quite as intense as a multinational several-hundred-person operation like my dad's.
I work mostly with individual designers – understanding their vision and helping them bring their creativity to life through my knowledge of gems and cutting and color. I love working 1 on 1 with my clients.
What’s it like being a woman in the gem dealing industry?
On the supply side, it’s definitely a man’s world. It can be challenging, especially in certain international cultures where working with woman is not the cultural norm. I was afforded a lot of benefits through my dad’s relationships so it was easier for me than it would be for a woman without those pre-existing relationships.
On the designer side, however, I have a unique advantage and perspective since I’m working with mostly female designers whi and designing pieces for women. There’s so few female dealers and we support each other – designers and dealers alike. I take every opportunity I get to support other women in this industry.
Can you give us a brief history of Sri Lanka and Madagascar sapphires?
Sri Lanka is one of the oldest mining areas. They were originally known as the mecca for classic fine deep blue sapphires, but every color comes from there (as well as Madagascar).
Madasgar is a relatively new discovery. It wasn’t known for mining sapphires until the mid 1990s, whereas Sri Lanka has been mining sapphires for about 2000 years. Sri Lanka is also one of the only places where fine quality star sapphires are found.
Tell us about the supply chain for Sri Lankan & Madagascar sapphires
- Most of these sapphires are mined artisanally (hand-mining with pick and axe) and very small-scale operations.
- The miners take their sapphire to the local markets and sell to dealers. If they’re a big enough company, they’ll cut their own gems. But most often, the rough stones get sent to cutting facilities to get cut into a finished gemstone.
- Finished gemstone are sold to the wholesale market who sell to the designers, jewelers, and manufacturers.
- Finished jewelry is sold to the consumer.
How do you handle traceability?
I source sapphires from all over the world, but in most overseas countries, origin is not that reliable – sometimes markets in Sri Lanka will have Sri Lankan and Madagascar rough sapphires all mixed together. People are so invested in this idea of origin, but the truth is, unless you pulled it out of the ground yourself, you can never be 100% sure. Stones get mixed up along the way, and many stones are indistinguishable from each other. Even labs that say they can distinguish – you can take the same stone to three different labs and get three different origins.
Having said that, I have a few suppliers that own their own mines and lapidaries – they dig the rough out of the ground, they cut it, and I buy it directly from them. This is the most traceable option from these regions.
Other stones I buy from dealers who source locally from known mines and then I purchase from them and have the stones cut. We have a great level of trust with our suppliers and we hope we’re getting what they say they’re giving us. Long-standing relationships are a way to ensure that, but again, there’s no guarantee.
When you’re sourcing overseas, there’s an ethical responsibility to speak to that uncertainty – to say “to the best of my knowledge, this is where it comes from”, rather than stating definites that you can’t guarantee. For me, ethics is also about treating my suppliers well, asking questions, being truthful and transparent, and never making promises or claims that I can’t verify.
What does ethical sourcing look like in Sri Lanka & Madagascar?
Part of the conversation that people don’t want to talk about – these are families and real people mining these stones and they’re relying on that income to survive. Ethical sourcing to me is about supporting the local economy and ensuring (to the best of your knowledge) that no individuals are being harmed in the mining of sapphires.
Overall, sapphires are not high-conflict stones - they’re mined locally and they support the local economy of those source regions. I try to keep the wealth in Sri Lanka by buying the stones and having them cut there. Doing as much processing within the source countries helps to maintain the most value within that source country.
I have long-standing relationships with my suppliers and it’s important to me to support these small, local vendors. Especially for some of my overseas vendors, mining is their livelihood so I try to keep a consistent flow of business going their way.