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Scratching the surface – Ethical Jewellery

Scratching the surface – Ethical Jewellery


by Laura McCreddie

As ethical jewellery finally starts to seep into the public consciousness, Laura McCreddie from Retail reports on the issues facing retailers and designers.

It was a second blood diamond that put ethical jewellery back in the spotlight in 2010. There had been one before, the film with Leonardo DiCaprio as a smuggler who comes good, but this pouch of them was apparently handed to Naomi Campbell by men employed by former Liberian president Charles Taylor after a dinner that she attended 13 years ago with Nelson Mandela, actress Mia Farrow and music producer Quincy Jones.

These “dirty-looking stones”, as Campbell described them at Taylor’s war crimes tribunal at the Hague in August last year, highlighted once again how little we really know about where our jewellery comes from.

Familiar with sweatshop exposés

cred-solitaire-ethical-diamondConsumers are now familiar with sweatshop exposés and the human labour that goes into creating a cup of coffee, but would the average person on the street know why artisanal mining isn’t necessarily a good thing, or why they should be boycotting jewellery from China?

“I think most people, if they really think about it, equate mining with the large industrial side of the business; they don’t really think of people scrabbling around in the dirt,” says Christian Cheesman, design director for Cred Jewellery, the ethical and fair-trade jewellery company, which also has an ethical sourcing arm, Cred Sources. “However, I do think people are becoming more aware of their purchases and the journey everything takes.”

Cred is one of the pioneers of the ethical jewellery movement. It was started in 1996 and, in 2003, became the first European retailer to sell truly ethical wedding and engagement rings. “The first customers who sought us out were really dark green in their ethical outlook,” says Cheesman.

The turning tide
However, that is slowly changing. The Ethical Jewellery Pavilion was a huge success at last year’s contemporary jewellery exhibition Treasure, which was part of London Jewellery Week, and more and more retailers are stocking an ethical range.

Dennis Allen, director of new ethical jewellery brand Chaos, whose products are made from completely recycled metal rather than metal that is partially recycled and partially combined with newly mined metal, thinks this shift has occurred for two reasons. Firstly, because retailers are getting their heads around ethical jewellery and, secondly, because so are consumers.

“There is an element of chicken and egg, but what we are seeing is that people are becoming more conscious of ethical jewellery, and for that I give full credit to the designers who have been championing it,” says Allen. “However, more retailers are also realising that stocking ethical jewellery isn’t a question of wearing a hair shirt, but is a way to appeal to another sector of the market.”

One of the problems that retailers have faced until recently is a lack of a recognisable standard that can be applied to jewellery and that easily indicates to consumers the provenance of the pieces, in the same way that coffee and chocolate can bear a Fairtrade symbol and organic products can use the Soil Association or Ecocert logos.

Fairmined & Fairtrade Gold 2011

cred-hex-bangle-goldThat all changed on February 14, with the introduction of the Fairtrade and Fairmined gold standards. These standards are the result of a collaboration between the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International, the global organisation working to secure better deals for farmers and miners, and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), the independent, global initiative established in 2004 to improve the well-being of artisanal and small scale mining communities through better labour practices and the implementation of environmental restoration practices. It is a third-party independent certification for gold, whereby interested licensees can apply for certification of their gold products, including everything from gold jewellery to ingots, medals and religious artefacts.

Stamp of approval

Retailers will be able to stock jewellery that has a dual stamp of the Fairtrade and Fairmined marks from The Assay Office and, in return, consumers will be able to purchase a product that they know has come from a mine that has had to adhere to certain standards (see box below).

“The Fairtrade and Fairmined standards are the best standards in the market today for gold in terms of impact on mining communities,” says ARM executive director Cristina Echavarria. “They even set an example for the large-scale mining industry on issues such as traceability. Fairtrade and Fairmined is the premium among consumer labels, taken up by the most conscious consumers, a growing market segment that is setting future trends.”

This burgeoning sector of eco-istas is something many designers are looking to appeal to. Linnie Mclarty is one such designer. Along with fellow ethical designer Ute Decker, she opened a pop-up shop on Columbia Road in early February to coincide with the Valentine’s Day launch of the Fairtrade and Fairmined standard. The pair is retailing two of the world’s first collections using the new certified gold, alongside their iconic silver pieces.

Mclarty got involved because she felt she wanted to operate in a more socially responsible way. “Knowing that countless people’s lives will be affected in an incredibly positive way as a result of the Fairtrade gold gives an item of jewellery a value on an entirely different level,” she says. “Both the public and the industry are paying more attention to how gold is produced and what effects the production of gold has on entire communities. Villages are often decimated by the effects of mining, through both the mining process and by fuelling war and abuses of human rights.”
Mclarty works with Fairtrade gold that has an extra 5% premium on top of the usual 10% price increase that is added to the metal. The extra 10% ensures that miners get paid fairly for their labour as well as improving the community through areas such as healthcare, sanitation and education. The additional 5% goes towards environmental restoration and ensures that no cyanide or other toxic chemicals are used in the extraction process.

“I felt that, as a responsible business and as a responsible human being, not using fair-trade gold wasn’t even an option,” explains Mclarty. “Any change, whatever the scale, is a plus. And this is a huge plus.”

Celebrity kudos

It also helps that ethical fashion – and that includes jewellery – has started to get some high-profile and glamorous ambassadors. One such person is Livia Firth, wife of Oscar-nominated actor Colin Firth. Firth is no stranger to fashionable ethics – in 2007, she set up a shop in Chiswick called Eco Age, which sells sustainable and ethical goods from homeware and jewellery to cleaning products – but she has started to use her numerous red carpet appearances to make an ethical point. She started the Green Carpet challenge in 2009, when husband Colin was nominated for his performance in A Single Man and she has continued the project for her red carpet appearances for The King’s Speech (her blog on the subject can be found at

Anna Loucah was Firth’s jewellery designer of choice to make the pieces she wore with her “vegan silk” gown from US eco-designer Jeff Garner’s line Prophetik at this year’s Golden Globes. Loucah used gold donated by US company Hoover & Strong, an eco-friendly refiner and manufacturer of precious metals. For the rubies and spinels, she chose, a site set up through a partnership between British jewellers and Tanzanian ruby miners that assures the stones are mined in an environment where the ecology of the land and welfare of the miners is considered. And the pearls came courtesy of Jersey Pearl, which farms pearls under strict environmental codes. The base metal was 100% ethically sourced, recycled gold and the pieces will be auctioned off with the proceeds going to Oxfam.

“I make bespoke pieces and wanted to move more towards the ethical side of the industry,” says Loucah. “Working with Livia, who wanted to promote British designers as well as the ethical element, has been really positive. The whole project is about gaining awareness and really getting the ethical message out there in the mainstream. I think there is a huge shift in the industry towards more ethical jewellery and consumers are also starting to make those sorts of enquiries for themselves.”

However, despite the great leaps made in promoting ethical jewellery, some retailers and designers are loath to advertise their eco-credentials for fear of exposing the non-ethical pieces they stock or produce.

“I know that some people in the industry are concerned that the introduction of Fairtrade gold will have a negative effect on standard gold jewellery, implying that metal that isn’t fair trade is therefore bad, and that this will impact on their business,” says McIarty. “Rather than take the view that it’s an ‘either or’ situation, I think they should consider offering their clients the option. People like to have a choice, and if they feel they are being catered for it can only be a plus.”

Allen agrees and points to the supermarket model. “Supermarkets stock fair trade alongside non-fair trade items without a problem. Retailers need to realise that there are segments to the market and it is all a case of people’s bias in their own lives. Stocking fair trade doesn’t knock everything else; it just gives consumers a choice.”

Stony ground

credbrilliant-wrap-solitaireAlthough the industry has come a long way in terms of tracing its metals, one part of the industry that remains slightly more murky is diamond and gemstone sourcing. Because a gemstone has to pass through so many hands in its journey from mine to market, there is an argument that you can never truly guarantee its ethical pedigree.

The current issue facing the diamond industry in particular is that of stones coming out of mines in Zimbabwe.

The Marange diamond fields are a particular area of concern. These fields are a large area of small-scale diamond production in the Mutare West constituency of Zimbabwe. The fields were originally protected by an Exclusive Prospecting Order held by De Beers from the early 1980s until its expiration in 2006, when the rights were taken up by the British-registered African Consolidated Resources. In December 2006, however, the mines were taken over by the Government of Zimbabwe and, since then, they have been tainted with human rights violations and violence.

In 2008, the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition called for Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Kimberley Process, the process designed to certify the origin of rough diamonds from sources where conflict is not funded by diamond production. By 2009, this was downgraded to a 12-month plan to monitor the diamonds mined from the Marange fields and, in 2010, the Kimberley Process agreed that, despite Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s continued hold over the country, diamonds from the Marange could be sold on the international market.

The waters have been further muddied on this issue by reports that the Chinese are now controlling mines in Marange, leading to retail jewellers such as David Dudley – which is based in Marlborough, Wiltshire – calling for a boycott of stones coming from China.

“It came to my attention how China is clearly supporting President Mugabe,” says David Dudley, owner of the jeweller. “The discovery of the Marange Diamond Mine and its valuable resources has resulted in China taking full control of this mine. As from 2011, I have decided not to purchase Chinese jewellery and to continue supporting British and European manufacturers.”

It is an issue to which, at the moment, there is no easy solution, but until it is resolved, buying diamonds will be a headache for many retailers.

However, with education, awareness and enough people willing to campaign for a better supply chain for the global jewellery industry, there is a possibility that, the next time a model is handed a bag of rough stones, the only dirt on them will be from the ground in which they were found.

Gold standard facts

1 Miners will get a better price for their gold, with increased security of the Fairtrade guaranteed minimum price. The Fairtrade minimum price for the pure gold content in unrefined gold is set at 95% of the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA), fixing at the Free on Board export point.
2 Miners will receive a Fairtrade social premium, calculated as 10% of the applicable LBMA fixing. For ecological gold – gold that has been extracted without the use of chemicals and with strict ecological restoration requirements – an additional ecological premium, 5% of the applicable LBMA fixing on top of the Fairtrade premium, must be paid.
3 Miners can form groups to give themselves better bargaining power with traders, to get a fairer return for their produce, and gain greater control over the jewellery supply chain. Although the price of gold is widely known in gold-mining communities, miners often receive less owing to the number of middlemen between the miner and exporter. Once everyone takes their percentage, the miner may receive as little as 70% of the LBMA. Fairtrade and Fairmined certification will allow miners to ask for pre-financing from prospective buyers, and provide miners with a minimum price for their product.
4 Certified miners must use safe and responsible practices for the management of toxic chemicals in gold recovery, such as mercury and cyanide. Chemicals have to be reduced to a minimum, and where possible eliminated over the years. Miners earn an additional ecological premium when they recover gold through gravity only.
5 Fairtrade and Fairmined gold will not contribute to conflict or violence. In fact, where certified organisations are in areas of conflict, increased economic stability, transparency and traceability from the sale of their gold may help contribute to peace-building.

For more information on the standard, visit

Images courtesy of CRED Jewellery & Oria.

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