Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How Are Gemstones Sourced, and is Their Sourcing Ethical?

That is actually a question I come across fairly often in some shape or other.  I.e. are your gems ethically sourced, do they meet the Kimberly standards, are they Fair Trade?  I have written about this before, but I think it is time to revisit the issue.

               Three observations, an anecdote, and finally an indeterminate conclusion:  First observation. Most countries in which gemstones are mined these days have few to no laws that protect workers or the environment, and few offer anything like “fair pay” (however much that is).  Second observation: the Kimberly process only applies to diamonds not colored stones - and there is a lot to be said about whether it even works in the first place.  Third observation: the label “Fair Trade” does not exist when it comes to minerals.  Fair Trade covers only food stuffs and more recently, apparel and home goods.  So given the way the questions were phrased above, the answer is simple: no, no, and no.  But it is more complicated than that. 

               Now the anecdote – or rather, two anecdotes.  My German geologist friend Jochen Hintze had recently heard about some new tourmaline finds in the Congo that he wanted to investigate.  He travelled to neighboring Rwanda, first to a town called Kigali and from there, together with a local friend, he took a bus to Gisengy, right at the border to the Congo.  Upon his first try at crossing the border to get to a town called Goma, he was refused entry because he didn’t have a visa.  But after some negotiations with the border chef which presumably involved money, he was given a “special” visa – there is no such thing according to the law, but the practice is nevertheless common.  The town of Goma is dangerous so one can travel only during the day.  Jochen had heard of various shops where minerals were being traded, but none of them seemed to exist any longer.  So his Rwandan friend placed various phone calls to old school friends which resulted in an invitation into the house of a local official.  The official loaned them a car and a bodyguard for a “tour of the city” and placed some phone calls of his own.  Shortly thereafter, people came to Jochen’s hotel to offer goods.  They explained that the local shops no longer existed because they kept getting robbed, so all trading now takes place privately and through connections.  Jochen was offered some faceted tourmalines at a fixed price, and he bought a few.

               Jochen then travelled back to his office in Arusha, Tanzania.  There, he was told by local brokers that some tourmaline crystals of an interesting yellow and pink color had been found at Mwanga the day before.  Negotiations took place a couple days later, once the locals had decided on the value of their parcel.  Jochen bought the entire 2 kg lot in the end.  How did he know what to pay?  After all, there are no fixed prices, only what the market will bear, or what someone is willing to pay.  In making his offer, Jochen has to calculate his travel costs, the costs of the shows at which he will offer out the goods, how much of the lot might move at which price, how much of the lot may not sell, and what kind of total income this will yield.  The locals in turn have to figure out how many possible buyers they have, who will be honest and who will cheat, and what the competition can offer that is better or worse, and at what price.  And those are just a few considerations.

Mwanga Tanzania

               Mining itself is usually done in locations without electricity and with very little equipment.  Stones can be washed out of rivers, or drilled out of rocks, sometimes just on the surface, sometimes a few meters below, and in a few cases, like Tanzanite, up to a few hundred meters down.  Very little energy, except human energy, is used.  The price of rough depends on availability of buyers and material.  Profits are shared among locals, with some percentage going to the local government for the use of the mine.  Or the mining is “illegal” meaning somewhere in the middle of nowhere where nobody is watching and people just take what they can, then sell it.  In a sense therefore, there is a system, but by American and European standards, it is ad hoc and involves little to no government control.  Still, among locals, the rules can be clear and will be adhered to.

               Let us now revisit our original question.  If I buy some of Jochen’s tourmalines, did I source them ethically?  Did he?  What is your view? 

               I usually do know where my materials come from, and of course just like you, I have access to information about how that particular area or country is structured in terms of mining, or how what type of mining it is.  I also tend to think that the more money flows back to the original source, the better.  I am against cheating, against the use of violence in sourcing materials, and I would like to see those who work to find these gems paid and fed.  I’d like the environmental impact to be minimal.  But is this enough? 


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