Sure you’re shopping more consciously, but can you buy ethical jewellery?
There’s an avalanche of surveys on ethical and ecologically-minded consumerism.
Each of those claims might have its own credibility issues but the trend with the public seems undeniable: most of us still want buy and enjoy nice things, but we don’t want that to cause lasting damage to other people and our world.
These seem reasonable demands.
Which brings us to jewellery.
Raw materials sourcing is key to ethical jewellery buying
Is ethical jewellery possible?
If you read much news coverage you have probably come to assume that jewellery has become a poster product for unethical consumption.
We can probably thank a few high-profile media events for that. “Conflict diamonds” and “blood diamonds” became catchphrases that epitomised the damage our consumer culture can do.
The truth is that wars are being fought, and people are working in appalling conditions to produce much less glamorous products.
Your phone is probably brimming with minerals from conflict zones. You don’t want to think about where your petrol came from. Or how the workers who harvested the coffee beans in your morning cup were treated.
Because it's much easier to go without diamonds and gold than it is coffee, petrol, and smartphones confronting the questionable ethics of one product are easier.
But not being able to achieve everything shouldn’t be a barrier to doing something.
If you have money to spend you can – some might argue you should – make decisions about where it goes and what it supports.
And – unless you believe that there really is no ethical consumption, as some argue – jewellery buyers can try to make a difference with their choices.
Even the act of letting companies know that you won’t buy goods that aren’t produced to high ethical standards is a pressure on them to do better.
Diamonds or not? Can you tell?
It’s all about materials
JewelStreet is a platform for artisan makers and independent designers. We know they’re having a great time. They tell us they are. Most of them are following their passion.
It’s usually in the raw materials that jewellery can be difficult for ethical consumers.
Industrial extraction isn't often pretty
Of course, you need to know you can rely on the word of the jeweller when they make promises about the materials they use. There are some certifications, and we'll mention these later.
The good news about sustainable jewellery
The materials used to make jewellery are long lasting. They are generally very reusable. Their value is in large part down to their durability.
And their value adds incentive to keep them safe and secure.
Your mind will be boggled when you hear how much of the gold ever mined is still in use and accounted for. It’s 98%.
No-one chucks away gold and jewellers are champion precious metal recyclers.
Almost all jewellery will be somewhat recycled.
UK jewellers are reckoned to be making new jewellery from 80% recycled gold.
There’s thought to be – all of these figures are estimates – around 70,000 tonnes of gold left underground.
Increased demand from the tech sector – gold conducts electricity very well – is challenging the recycling model though. Your phone and laptop probably have gold in them. But breaking up the machines to extract the tiny amounts inside isn’t very cost effective.
If you want to be use recycled or reused precious metals find a website – like JewelStreet – that reports on sourcing.
A recycled silver ring
Recycling and reusing jewellery
You can go one better than recycling by reusing.
That means buying vintage jewellery. It’s probably the most sustainable way you can shop for jewellery.
Old pieces may have added value if they are made by well known, sought-after designers.
This vintage ring is from the 1960s
If you’re buying for authenticity you need to learn a little about how to assess old jewellery - a repair that makes a piece wearable may damage the value of an historic or collectible piece.
New ideas, new materials
It’s also possible to buy relatively ethically sourced raw materials.
Unfortunately, you will not find a single agreed definition of what this means.
The Responsible Jewellery Council sets standards for sustainability in the jewellery industry. Lots of big names are members and can use the body’s certification on their products.
The UK’s National Association of Jewellers also tries to support ethical production. It follows the World Diamond Council’s Code of Conduct.
There’s a Fairtrade certification for gold. This standard, which also applies to other precious metals, is supposed to support small-scale, artisan production of gold.
Membership or certification from these bodies (and their international equivalents) is likely to mean better ethical standards for raw materials.
Grow your own
The stone in this necklace was grown in a lab. Can you tell?
One way to avoid compromised precious stones is to buy artificial ones. “Lab grown” is the preferred term.
Lab-grown diamonds, emeralds and more don’t put miners in danger because there are no miners - and we’re happy to support pay rises and more breaks for lab assistants!
The stones are said to be chemically identical to the pieces of carbon we - perhaps strangely – attach so much value to. They’re generally a lot cheaper too.
The price differential probably has little to do with the production costs.
What is lost in choosing a lab-grown stone over one that has been hewn from the earth is intangible. A diamond is usually more than a billion years old. There is something magical in that.
The lab-grown stone will look exactly the same. It should feel the same. It’s not the same though. And that’s a decision for buyers to make.
Trusting your makers
In the end you’ll have to decide how ethical you want your shopping to be.
And how ethical you believe it can be.
Good communication with makers you trust is a great start.
If you want to buy something that is genuinely produced in better conditions you need to trust the makers.
Small, independent, and family run artisan businesses can very often provide this trust. Meet them at JewelStreet.