In this blog, we’re explaining what mine to market sourcing means in gem mining, why it matters, plus the supply chain of an average gemstone, and how the mining industry works.
Mine To Market means that the stone is purchased at the mine andit's journey to us is tracked from the mine to the cutter to the gemstone dealer. Ultimately, this controlled loop mitigates external interferences and ensures more ethical standards across the supply chain. It makes it easier to validate claims around origin, ethics, and supply chain.
This is difficult to do in today's enviroment and these stones will often command a slight premuim.
Lizzo Blue Emerald Cut Mine-to-market Sapphire Ring
First, why is mine to market sourcing important?
Most gemstones go through a massive supply chain before reaching the retailer or designer, and ultimately, you. In most cases, it’s impossible to be sure which country the stone originated from, let alone the specific mine.
Most gems pass through 10 to 15 hands before reaching a jewelry designer or retailer. The journey for a typical gemstone looks something like this:
1. The gemstone is mined
2. The miner passes the stone(s) onto a Broker. The Broker’s job is to help the miner sell their gemstones. This is often what happens: they will sell the stone(s) for a much higher price than they tell the miner, and they give the miner a tiny portion of the selling price.
3. The Broker sells the gemstone to a Rough Gemstone Dealer
4. The Gemstone Dealer sends the gemstone to a Cutter (often in another country) who cuts the rough stone into the finished gemstone. This step is not talked about much in ethical sourcing. Cutting is often outsourced to Thailand because it's cheaper than cutting locally. It's cheaper because the cutter is paid less. The truth is, ethical costs more because people along the way are paid fairly.
5. The Gemstone Cutter sends the stones back to the Dealer
6. The gemstone is sold to a Trader
7. The Trader passes the gemstone to a Broker to sell
8. The gemstone is sold to a Wholesale Importer
9. The gemstone is sold to another Dealer, usually in the destination country
10. The dealer sells the stone to a Jeweler or Designer, who sets it into a piece of jewelry
11. If the end of the chain is a large retailer, there will be even more steps involving several manufacturers and distributors
Because of this long, winding supply chain, unethical sourcing and mining practices can easily be hidden in gemstone mining - think: labor issues, dangerous working conditions, corruption, and low wages. Also, it makes it hard for the person responsible for mining the stone to a get a fair share of the stone's sale price. When miners get their fair share, it helps bring communities out of poverty and enrich the areas where stones are mined.
Looking through that supply chain, even at Step 3, when a Dealer buys a stone from a Broker, that Broker can easily make any claims about the origins or ethics of that stone and the dealer has no way (or doesn't try) to verify the truth. Then, think about the last step in that chain – the Jeweler. They have no way to verify the true origin or mining practices behind that stone after it passes down the telephone line of 10-15 people.
If a jeweler says their gemstones are ethically sourced, but has no information about the origin or sourcing of that stone, be very wary. Oftentimes these Jewelers are taking the word of the dealer they purchased it from, and sometimes they are just claiming “ethically sourced” because it’s what the market wants to hear or conflating it with "conflict free" sourcing.
We believe "ethically sourced" has a different meaning than "conflict-free" although the industry often uses these words interchangeably.
Transparency is what matters in gem mining - we should all be able to purchase gemstones that align with our ethos and that's only possible if we know the truth behind a stone. When you're dealing with someone honest that doesn't know (or can't verify) a stone's origin, they will simply say they can't be sure.
At Gem Breakfast, we always try to source mine to market stones or stones with origin, however depending on the client’s design requirements, it can be challenging. We ask clients to understand that when we say “we don’t know” about a specific stone's origin, that is the most ethical answer (when many in the industry feel compelled to stretch the truth to appease clients). We all deserve the truth without a filter.
Why does Mine to Market matter?
In the colored gemstone mining industry, the miners who make it all happen usually reap the least benefits.
Gemstone mining is an extremely tiring, sometimes hazardous job, where forced labor and child labor are concerns and miners are often paid a tiny fraction of what their gemstone finds are worth. In some areas, corrupt governments and police profit off the industry, using bribery and coercion to get their cut from the already impoverished miners. Unethical mining can also include damage to the environment - degradation of the land, water contamination, soil erosion, and habitat loss for wildlife.
Mine to market stones are different – because these stones are tracked back to a specific mine, and trusted dealers have direct contact with the mine and visibility into the practices at that mine, the unethical treatment of miners and environmental issues can no longer fly under the radar. With a tighter supply chain and less people in the middle, more money goes to the miners - the ultimate goal for ethical sourcing. More money to the miners also means more money to their local communities and more direct benefit from the sale of their stones.
When we as jewelers and shoppers are asking questions and are looking for stones that were sourced from fairly paid and ethically treated miners, the whole industry is uplifted. What starts with a few mines around the world will spread as we as an industry expect more.
We also have to keep in mind, what we deem as '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 potentionally create more corruption in their local communities.
Ethical sourcing is not about imposing our standards or way-of-life on others, it's about asking questions and digging deep to ensure miners are being paid properly and treated fairly.
That may look different than what we expect here in the West. Boycotting regions with ethical issues is also not always the answer - that's just taking away these miners' livelihoods. If we want to create a more ethical world, we need to look at the issues head-on and do our part to improve the system for those involved.
Mine to Market Sourcing: Montana Sapphires
DEALER: JEFFREY HAPEMAN, earth's treasury
Here’s what our sourcing process looks like:
- Sapphires larger than 1 inch are separated out and the rest of the sapphire-gravel mix is processed through a plant to extract the smaller sapphires. The sapphires are sorted by hand on-site to find the good-quality stones. Those are kept in a safe.
- Next, the sapphires are cleaned on-site.
- At the end of the year, we go to the mine and help them sort and grade their rough sapphires for sale.
- Even though it costs more, we cut our stones here in the U.S. to ensure that without a doubt, it's done ethically.
- We sell the stones to our customers. We know where every sapphire came from to within a 5 or 10-acre patch of land if someone wanted to know that.
In Montana, there are stringent evironmental regulations to ensure the nearby Rock Creek is not affected by Mining operations. That means any water released from the mine must be drinking quality, and the land is reclaimed and returned to its natural state. All reclamation and mining is inspected regularly by the Department of Environmental Quality and The Mining Bureau to make sure all regulations are being followed.
Mine To Market Sourcing: Moyo Gems, Tanzania
DEALER: ashkan asgari, misfit diamonds
The Moyo gems program works with artisanal miners who are paid a liveable wage and receive free worker safety and gemology training. The gems are mined by independent local women and a few men. The female miners helped design the Moyo Gems program - how they wanted it to operate, how they wanted to be paid, and what they wanted to accomplish. All the community initiatives are also chosen by the female miners.
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.
HOW THESE STONES are sourced
- The Moyo-approved miners are invited to participate in 'market days' to sell their gemstones. The miners negotiate with the assistance of an vetted, 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.
- 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 to Misfit Diamonds. Webuy from one of Moyo Gem’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 only 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.
- Misfit Diamonds sells the gems to Gem Breakfast or another Designer or Jeweler.
DEALER: Ian Bone, Capricorn Gems
Here’s what our sourcing process looks like:
- My partner, Rod visits the mines in Queensland Australian often.
- Rod takes the material directly from the Queensland mine, then he grades, separates, and pre-shapes the stones in his workshop at home.
- Every stone is photographed and recorded, and then we send our 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 to make into fine jewelry!
When the mining is finished, miners must 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.
Editor's note - we have consciously excluded the word "traceable" from this blog post because we believe that word has more rigorous implications on how gemstone sourcing is handled than "mine to market".