Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are Gemstones Ethically Sourced?

Even though I don’t get this question a lot, since I teach ethics, it stands to reason that the ethical sourcing of gems would be a concern of mine. And it is. But if we consider the question carefully, it is obvious that even if we could all agree on what “ethical sourcing” meant in this context, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that the demand to only use ethically sourced gems is nearly impossible. The quick and dirty reason why is this: we don’t have enough information to really know.

First let’s break down our gems into two very rough categories: old mine and new mine gems. Old mine gems might be 20, 30, or even 70 years old (old mine diamonds are even older).

My Burma rubies for instance are old mine. That means they were mined and brought to the U.S. before the trade embargo. However, all that means is that we know that now laws were broken in bringing the stones into this country. And that is very little. The longer ago a stone was mined, the more hands it might have gone through. Maybe that was 10 different hands, maybe 100. So anyone who buys an old miner has little to no guarantee about any behavior anyone might have engaged in who once owned the stone. We know little to nothing about how or even exactly where the stone was mined, we don’t how much minors was paid, how well they were treated, what kind of environmental damage the mining caused, what payment the cutter received. We know nothing about any of the other possible owners, such as gemstone dealers, setters if the stone was previously set, private owners, or polishers who might have re-cut the stone, etc. Or how many countries the stone has travelled before it got here. It's just too much data to acquire, and I seriously doubt anyone has it. By contrast, we know a lot more about where our foods come from, if they were fair trade, organic, etc. For one, there are considerably stricter regulations about food.

And secondly, even canned foods are rarely more than a few months old. Take emeralds mined in Colombia. Yes, it might be true that no Colombian laws were broken in producing emeralds. Let’s assume that for the sake of the argument. But does that mean the miners, cutters, and dealers were paid fairly, that they were treated well? It means no such thing because Colombian laws do not guarantees this. Or take Brazil, a country that buys much of the toxic waste produced in the U.S. because it is too expensive to store it here (and our laws are too strict). Do you think that a country that buys our garbage for income, and stores it sometimes near populated areas, can afford to meet our ethical demands when it comes to the mining of aquamarine? (And aren’t we hypocrites if we make such demands when we also pay Brazil to store our toxic waste?)

Tie Bar with Old Mine Ruby Cabochons

Now let's take new mine stones, more recently mined material that is. At least in these cases we know that the chain of information is shorter, laws are more recent, and political situations better assessable. But we also know that the fair trade label, which is widely used for foods, does not apply to gemstone mining and sourcing. So there are no regulations to appeal to. The Kimberly laws are only for diamonds, and they're not that great either. Even regarding the U.S., we know that many of the environmental practices we had a while back are now considered unethical, and many are now illegal as well. We have gotten much stricter and much better (we hope, but let's assume we did). Very little of this applies outside of the U.S., the E.U., Canada or Australia. So even if we have some information about a particular gem, it is at best incomplete, and at worst we already know that the ethical demands we might have about its sourcing are not likely to have been met, or are ever likely to be met in the developing world.

1.6 Carat Old Mine Diamond
Let’s look at one more category, the only one that might hold some promise when it comes to ethical sourcing of gems. Consider cases where we buy recently mined materials nearly directly from the source, meaning from a dealer who came from, i.e. Tanzania, or who acquired the materials him(her)self and had them cut in his (her) own company. When it comes to my Tanzanian goods, my suppliers fall into that category. And they are nice people who I know pay better than the competition and who treat their workers well.

But now consider this. A German geologist recently told me that even though he personally supports families in Tanzania, he can only pay miners and cutters what an E.U. or U.S. consumer is willing to pay, in other words what the market bears, plus his own markup (he’s not rich, so his markup, let’s say, is just what’s necessary to live your average travelling salesman’s life). Is his pay fair? That same geologist told me that he was once offered a piece of tanzanite from a local who demanded $250. He offered $5 instead because he felt that’s what the market would allow. Was that ethical or not? The local had enough to feed his family for a few days, and then he would have to try to find a new piece of tanzanite. Long term planning for such an individual is not possible, nor is it what anyone else can manage.

Tanzanite Slice Necklace
I am personally very strict with myself when it comes to the foods I eat (they must be ethical) and a large portion of my other purchases, but with gems I have learned the hard way that there is no way for me to do this and at the same time offer a large variety of gems or jewelry. I also know if I don't buy goods, people don't get paid at all, so that's not necessarily an ethical alternative. It's what you call being between a rock and hard place, but at least it’s the honest answer.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Buying Sphene

I usually try to stay away from the softer gemstones – after too many experiences of them falling apart on you.  But sphene, which has a hardness of 5.5, is just such a beautiful stone that when J., my gemstone dealer friend who specializes in East African goods got a parcel, I just had to have some.

Sphene is also called “Titanite” because of its high titanium content.  It has an extremely high refractive index and in the sunlight, it looks like it actually has more than one color (this is also called pleochroism).  The prettiest, in my view, are lemon yellow with flashes of green.  The name “sphene” comes from the Greek for “wedge” because that’s how the rough looks before cutting.  You’ve seen it in my sphene slice jewelry.
J.’s material is Madagascan, which is one of the well known locations for sphene at the moment.  When he opened the plastic bag it came in and poured the content out over the table, I almost gasped.  I took some pix for you so you can see what I was facing.  Many stones were more yellowish-orangy, but a good portion had the green flashes I was looking for.  I spent a good hour just playing around with the parcel.

Pre-Sorted Parcel of Sphene

In terms of pricing, picking from a parcel usually gets you a lower per carat price because the material is not yet sorted (it is usually pre-sorted though, into lower and higher grade).  Sometimes, first pick from a new parcel can cost a little more though, because the best stones are still in there.  A parcel that’s been very picked through often gets discounted after the nice stuff is gone, but it’s not always worth looking at it, either.  Some dealers also up the price for “choice” as opposed to just scooping some out for you and weighing it (or trying to sell you the entire parcel). 

Individually priced stones are usually marked up, and since J. usually takes out the time to do just that for the shows – weigh each gem, measure it, determine the clarity, and then mark it up more or less depending on his expert judgment, I am always thrilled when I get an email saying a fresh parcel has arrived and I can pick before it’s been priced out.  Then the markup is standardized across the entire shipment, meaning if I pick well I get great materials at a great price.  The labor is mine of course, but I can enjoy playing around while J. makes phone calls, answers emails, or just watches me to see what I will pick.  Sometimes I line up the gems into pairs, and if J. is in the mood, he will individually bag the leftover pairs after I’ve made my choice.  That saves him the time of matching them later, and matched pairs also go at a premium because matching is very time consuming.

Anyway, I picked about 20 carats worth of sphene in the end (10 gems).  I closed my eyes when J. put my parcel on the scale, but it had no effect on the weight, lol.  I did what most gem dealers do, I immediately sold a couple stones at a very low markup just to cover part of my cost (so the cushion pair I bought is gone, but the oval pair is still there).  Then held on to the rest (I bought these in May), and just marveled over them for a while.   I’m still waffling over how I should sell them: individually or in finished jewelry.  Sphene is tricky to set and I don’t want to disappoint a customer.  On the other hand most of my customers seem to prefer to choose their design.  But no way I will bezel set these, and probably I will discourage rings (too bad, because then you can’t see the sparkle).  Maybe I will keep one for myself.  Choices choices…

Sphenes I bought in indirect light

Sphenes I bought in direct sunlight