Most people don't think about where that sparkling, faceted gem came from - who dug it out of the ground, who cut it, and how it landed in that stunning setting. We're all about sharing that journey with you - we give you the full truth so you can make the most aligned, informed decision and choose a truly ethical stone that benefits the people that unearthed and cut that scintillating stone.
If you're searching for ethical gemstone jewelry, ethical engagement rings, or just want to educate yourself on the world of gemstone sourcing, keep reading for all you need to know, including:
- What are ethical gemstones?
Responsible sourcing vs ethical sourcing
How to find ethically sourced gems and ethical jewelry
The difference between ethical, sustainable, and conflict-free gemstones
How we source ethical stones at Gem Breakfast
The ethics of lab-grown gemstones vs natural gemstones
What Are Ethical Gemstones?
While there's no agreed-upon definition, ethical gemstones, in our view, are stones that have been mined, cut, and traded in the most socially and environmentally responsible fashion possible. There's two important factors to consider when shopping for ethically sourced gemstones:
The people:fair labor practices including safe working conditions, fair pay, and ethical treatment of miners and workers all along the supply chain.
The environment: environmentally responsible mining system which protects and respects the land and restores it back to its previous condition once mining is completed.
Australian bi-color mine-to-market sapphire ring
The diamond industry versus the colored gemstones industry
Unlike the diamond industry, which uses large-scale, heavily-mechanized operations, about 70% of the world's colored gemstones are mined by small-scale, artisanal mining operations. As a result, the gemstone industry is generally less disruptive to the environment and more likely to benefit the communities where they're found.
Colored gemstones have the biggest opportunity to lift people out of poverty all over the world - there's less barriers to entry than in the diamond industry and it's not expensive to start digging for gemstones.
That doesn't mean gemstones are without ethical challenges however. Keep reading for how to spot an ethical gem, and how we as consumers can help create a more ethical gem mining industry.
Shield cut purple mine to market sapphire ring
How are most gemstones sourced?
Unlike diamonds, most gemstones have a very complicated supply chain - that's because they're often mined, cut, and sold in different countries.
Most gemstones pass through 10-15 different hands on their journey to a Jewelry Designer, and it's impossible to know which country it came from, let alone which mine. Without knowing it's origin, it's impossible to know the working conditions of the miners who found it, how the environment was impacted by its extraction, and any other ethical issues along the way.
Most gemstones don't come with a stated origin, as they're usually mixed with many other stones from all over the world and no one can be sure of where each one originated. Having said that, knowing a gemstone's origin is essential to ensure a gemstone is ethical - we must know where it came from to verify the ethics of that stone.
The highest standard of an ethical gemstone is a mine-to-market gemstone- these are fully traceable stones - we know the exact mine it came from, who cut it, and have full visibility of it's journey from the mine to you, the wearer.
How Can You Tell if You’re Buying Ethically Sourced Gemstones?
1. Traceability: An ethical gemstone should have a transparent supply chain - where it was mined, who cut it, and all the hands it passed through before getting to you.
2. Origin: truly ethically sourced stones should have an origin stated. You cannot know a gemstone is ethical unless you know where it came from and the practices of that mine.
If you're purchasing a gemstone labeled as 'ethical' and the seller has no information on sourcing and origin, that stone is simply not ethical - they are just making baseless claims.
If you're unsure, ask questions! A reputable seller should be able to provide clear and transparent information about their gemstones.
How Consumers Can Change The Gemstone Industry
The more questions we ask, the more the industry will see that shoppers care about ethical gemstones, and they will make ethical sourcing a priority.
Montana sapphire tiara band
We, the gem-obsessed have so much power to improve conditions for everyone - if we demand more transparency, better conditions for miners, and will only purchase stones with these conditions, the industry will make it happen. If we continue accepting baseless claims and no transparency, the conditions will stay the same.
The Pride Collection: Mine-to-market Sri Lankan sapphire rings
Questions to Ask to Ensure a Gemstone Is Ethical
Is this stone traceable?
Where was this gemstone mined?
Does this mine use environmentally responsible mining techniques? Are they required to reclaim the land once mining is completed?
Are the miners paid fairly, working in a safe environment, and treated ethically?
Who cut this stone? Are the workers paid fairly and treated ethically?
What areas have the most ethical gemstone mining?
Countries like the U.S., Canada, and Australia have a positive reputation for ethical gemstone mining. It's more straightforward to find ethical gemstones in these areas thanks to their stringent labor and environmental laws.
That doesn't mean you can't find ethical gemstone from other countries however, it just means you have to ask more questions and find the right suppliers. We also source ethical gemstones from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
How we responsibly source ethical gemstones from all over the world at Gem Breakfast
We work with trusted gemstone dealers all over the world to source ethical gemstones. Whenever possible, we work with mine to market stones, and if they're not available for the specific stone we're searching for, we look for traceable stones where we can verify the origin, environmental practices, and ethical treatment of workers at that specific mine.
For example, we work with Capricorn Gems in Australia and Earth's Treasury in Montana - both are mine to market gemstone dealers that have full visibility over their supply chain. They follow strict environmental laws during mining and all land is fully reclaimed after mining is complete. Miners are paid fairly and have safe working conditions.
While the easiest way to source ethical gemstone is to buy U.S., Canadian, or Australian stones, it is possible to source ethical gemstones from all of the world. Moyo Gems is a beautiful example of the impact that can be made when dealers work directly with mining communities to create a program that truly benefits them.
Lizzo, an emerald cut mine-to-market Moyo sapphire ring
A mine to market initiative in Africa, Moyo Gems is a collective of mostly female miners who are paid 3 - 10 times more than they would outside of the program. These stones are fully traceable and the miners make a liveable income and are treated fairly and ethically.
For more on how we source ethical sapphires all around the world, read our in-depth blog.
Should we boycott areas with ethical challenges?
This is something we talk about with gemstone dealers a lot. Let's say a mine is found to have questionable worker safety or low wages for miners. The most common response is to boycott that mine - to buy gemstones mined in the U.S. instead where labor laws are enforced.
Ethically sourced sapphire ring - Nigerian origin
But does boycotting a mine help the miners? Is avoiding that mine the most ethical thing to do? Mining is their livelihood and it may be their only option for work - it's how they feed their families. Boycotting the operation means those miners will lose their only source of income.
Another alternative (and one that many of our gemstone dealers employ), is to work with mines directly to help improve working conditions by purchasing safety equipment, giving miners access to training, and most importantly, paying a fair amount for their gemstones. If we want conditions to improve, avoidance is never the answer. We need to get involved and help.
So yes, while buying a Montana sapphire is an easy ethical choice (and you know we love Montana sapphires), buying a stone from overseas can be impactful and important when they're sourced in a responsible fashion from dealers who are invested in the communities they source from.
Who decides what's ethical?
We have to keep in mind, what we deem 'ethical' in the West may mean nothing to a miner overseas. Often the Western approach is to create more regulation or checkpoints. To the miners, these measures can seem like gatekeeping - it means very few people are allowed access and resources to comply with these regulations which can potentially create more corruption in their local communities.
Truly ethical sourcing means working directly with communities and understanding what is most impactful and beneficial to them - not deciding what's ethical on their behalf.
Do All Jewelry Designers Use Ethically-Sourced Gemstones?
No, not all jewelry designers or brands use ethical gemstones. In fact, most don't. Why? Ethically sourced gemstones are more expensive since miners and cutters are paid a fair wage and extra care is taken to protect and restore the environment.
Many Jewelers are not willing to pay extra for stones as it means less profit for them or higher prices for their customers. Most Jewelers are searching for the most aesthetic gemstones at the lowest price.
Not all Jewelers ask questions about where their stones come from or build relationships with their suppliers to understand the supply chain. If a Jeweler is using ethical gems, they'll have information on the origin, mining practices, and environmental practices behind that stone. Don't be afraid to ask for more information!
WHAT ARE THE MOST ETHICAL GEMSTONES?
There isn't one colored gemstone that's more ethical than the others - it's more about the individual mine's environmental and human rights policies. You can find ethical and unethical options in most gemstones.
Mine-to-market Pink Montana Sapphire
What's the Difference Between Responsibly Sourced Gemstones and Ethically Sourced Gemstones?
We'd like to shift away from using the word 'ethical' and start using the world 'responsible'. 'Ethical' has lost its meaning thanks to so much misuse, plus it doesn't imply any future actions. 'Responsible' on the other hand, put the onus on us, the Jewelers and the Dealers responsibility to do the right thing and make the world a better place. Responsible sourcing means:
We're responsible for asking our vendors questions and digging deep to understand the full truth behind our gemstones.
We're responsible for working with our vendors to find out how to give back to mining communities in a way that's meaningful and impactful for them.
We're responsible for conducting business in the most fair and ethical manner for all parties involved.
We're responsible to keep improving our sourcing practices, to keep pushing the industry forward in its treatment of miners and the environment, and to keep expecting more transparency and more accountability along the supply chain.
Is There a Difference Between Ethical, Sustainable, and Conflict-Free Gemstones?
Truly ethical gemstones encompass both the human rights and environmental side of gemstone sourcing. Ethically sourced gemstones should use environmentally responsible mining practices, and treat miners and workers fairly and ethically all throughout the supply chain.
Calling gemstones sustainable is simply greenwashing. 'Sustainable' means that a resource is naturally renewable or easily restored. Mining gemstones involves taking non-renewable resources out of the ground that take millions of years to form and that can't be replaced at anywhere near the rate we're extracting them.
Three stone mine-to-market teal Montana sapphire ring
Eventually we will run out of gemstones - it's an unsustainable practice by nature.
Mining can be made more sustainable by using responsible environmental measures like restoring the land after mining, ensuring clean water, and not using chemicals - but it can never be truly sustainable.
Conflict-free means a gemstone isn't involved in funding wars, terrorism, or other human rights violations. Again, it's essential to know a stone's origin and supply chain to ensure it's not involved in funding conflict.
Conflict-free doesn't necessarily mean ethically sourced - these gemstones could still be mined with environmentally destructive methods. A truly ethically source gemstone however would by default be conflict-free.
Are Lab-Grown Gemstones an Ethical Alternative?
Lab-grown gemstones are man-made gems produced in a lab. Just like natural gemstones, lab-made gems can be created ethically or unethically.
While some facilities use renewable energy and pay their workers fairly, others release toxic chemicals into the environment, use massive amounts of water and energy, and pay their workers next to nothing in terrible working conditions.
Just like natural gemstones, it's all about the individual mine, or in this case, lab. Ask questions to find out the truth of how these gems are being produced and what they're doing to protect the environment and their workers.
We don't generally work with lab-created stones at Gem Breakfast simply because we love the unique, earth-made magic of natural gemstones that can never be replicated in a lab. However, if you're set on a lab-made gemstone, or want to compare the two options, we're happy to chat!