Anyone who has ever seen the photographs taken in 1986 by Sebastião Salgado in the Serra Pelada gold mine in the state of Pará (Brazil), will not have been able to see their jewellery the same way afterwards. Illustrating modern-day slavery and working conditions in these vast gold mines, these photos leave their mark on you for evermore. The same can be said about the film Blood Diamond (with Leonardo DiCaprio), released in 2006. Diamonds seem much less glamourous after having seen that film than Breakfast at Tiffany’s (with Audrey Hepburn).
Precious stone and precious metal mining can have catastrophic consequences on the environment and on people. That’s why, over the past 20 years or so, big jewellery brands and newcomers on the market, backed by professional confederations and NGOs, have been trying to clean up this industry. They have done so by opting for suppliers who have changed their production methods and offer a higher standard of traceability.
Gold – extraction with grim consequences
Extraction that’s costly in terms of natural resources
Each year, 2,500 tonnes of gold is processed to make jewellery. And gold mining is one of the most polluting activities and requires large amounts of ore for paltry results. According to the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), to extract 20 g of gold, 70 tonnes of material are turned over, of which 50 tonnes of earth, using 50,000 litres of water, and releasing 430 kg of CO2. Not to mention the mercury and cyanide used as solvents for extraction in the industrial mines that supply 90% of the market.
Extremely polluting and destructive
Each year, the biggest gold mines are thought to spill up to 900 tonnes of cyanide into the natural environment. This practice causes pollution of rivers and the destruction of entire ecosystems.
The consequences can be every bit as disastrous if contaminated water reservoirs give way, as happened in Romania in January 2000 and in Brazil in 2015. In 2019, a burst barrage in Brazil caused a tsunami of toxic mud (iron ore). It flooded the region of Minas Gerais, leaving several dead and an ecological catastrophe in its wake.
In Guyana, the Gold Mountain project – right in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest – had also been set to use the water reservoir technique. This project laid out plans to operate France’s biggest open-cut mine from 2022 onwards. However, in May 2019, the government ruled that the Gold Mountain mining project was incompatible with France’s stance on the environment.
However, the fact remains that the shelving of the Gold Mountain project does not solve the problem of illegal gold digging. The authorities put the number of illegal gold-digging operations at 10,000 across some 500 sites. To separate gold flakes from mud they use mercury, some of which gets dispersed into the natural environment.
And also socially destructive
The use of chemicals also has an impact on workers and local populations. The former come into direct contact with toxic substances, and the latter see their natural resources polluted. African villages around small-scale mining operations are directly affected in this way: growing crops and fishing are no longer possible.
Lastly, working conditions pose a problem: child labour, unsafe facilities and low wages.
Certifications to make for clean gold: Fairmined and Fairtrade
Among the certifications developed to make for more ethically-sound gold, two stand out: Fairmined, granted by a Colombian NGO, and Fairtrade launched by the Max Havelaar foundation of Switzerland. These certifications guarantee the gold’s traceability, with extraction methods that rein in or even eliminate the use of harmful chemicals. It’s also about upholding workers’ rights within these operations, and guaranteeing decent wages, even for small-scale operations. The Minamata convention, signed in 2013, controls the use of mercury for gold extraction more tightly.
While Fairmined and Fairtrade gold only cost 10-12% more, production is extremely limited: a few hundred kilos per year, whereas worldwide gold production stands at 3,300 tonnes.
Increasing use of recycled gold
Gold is a finite resource, and stocks are limited. However, it is thought that enough gold has already been mined to meet the needs of the jewellery industry for the next 50 years. So jewellers mindful of traceability mainly use recycled gold, and work with players certified by the RJC (Responsible Jewellery Council). The latter has developed a standard for the whole supply chain.
This recycled gold barely costs anything more, and is also gold that has a past life in the form of jewellery or as part of an electronics component. Since 1 January 2016, it has no longer been possible to directly recycle gold from private individuals. The gold must be bought before it can be used to make a new piece of jewellery. The purchase price then includes the processing costs incurred in purifying it before it can be used to make a new alloy.
Diamonds – easier traceability thanks to concentration in the sector
The end of “blood diamonds”
Conflict diamonds became an alarming issue with the civil war in Angola from the 1970s onwards, then with the conflict in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. That was when NGOs uncovered the way in which rebel groups, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, bankrolled their bloody offensives with diamonds from the mines of which they had seized control.
In May 2000, upon the initiative of the UN, a summit brought together the producing countries who wished to participate, the diamond industry and NGOs in the mining town of Kimberley (South Africa). This summit initiated the Kimberley Process, whose Certification Scheme, established in 2003, documents the origin of diamonds. It guarantees – in theory – that no rough diamond is a “conflict diamond”. The Scheme’s members now account for more than 99% of worldwide diamond production. In Switzerland, in 2006, the jewellers’ and goldsmiths’ union (UBOS) developed a brokers’ code of conduct. Other verification and traceability schemes exist: Forevermark for marking out untreated natural diamonds that come from conflict-free areas and Everledger, a secure register that establishes the supply chain of each gemstone with stringent certification held in a digital vault.
Regulation encouraged by concentration
Two events allowed the Kimberley Process to get a strong foothold.
In the late 1990s, the diamond firm De Beers of Belgium had an almost monopolistic market share. It produced around 45% of the world’s diamonds and sold some 80% of worldwide production. This handed it a significant regulatory role. And the fact is that diamonds transit through a few well-known trading hubs, of which Antwerp is the biggest. To this day it accounts for 50% of worldwide production, ahead of Tel Aviv, New York and London.
Significant environmental impact
It is significant since the sector requires space, a lot of water and energy. While the amount of pollutants used in stone processing is almost negligeable – especially compared to that used in gold processing – diamonds weigh heavy on the environment. Digging a hole with the volume of 26,000 Olympic swimming pools – as has been done at the Victor mine operated by De Beers in Attawapiskat, in Canada’s Great North – is not without harmful consequences on the balance of an ecosystem. But over the last 15-20 years, as well as the Kimberley process, diamond firms have made significant progress when it comes to responsible, transparent practices.
A study commissioned from S&P Global subsidiary Trucost by the Diamond Producers’ Association (DPA), a body accounting for 75% of worldwide production, breaks down the impact that these big diamond mines in Canada, Botswana, Australia and Russia have on nature.
According to this report, in 2016, the activities of natural diamond mining companies emitted an average of 160 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) for each carat of diamond produced. They state that they pay their miners (who are drawn from the local population) wages 66% higher than the local going rate, and invest in social welfare and education programmes. However, the report acknowledges that to reduce its environmental impact, the sector must embrace renewable energies more, ramp up the recycling of mining waste on its sites and continue to raise safety standards.
Precious stones – hard to “clean up”
A fragmented sector that’s hard to regulate
As far as coloured precious stones are concerned, the issue is a different one. While the industry is working to set international standards, the challenge lies in the way in which the vast majority coloured precious stones are extracted. Coloured precious stone mining is done on a smaller scale than that of diamonds – in 47 countries – and there may be as many as 30 million small-scale miners, around two million of whom are children. In some countries it is also associated with the bankrolling of conflict, not least in Colombia. In addition, the scarcity of rubies and emeralds makes it hard to pinpoint commercially-viable sources, and makes large-scale production almost impossible. So it’s hard to implement the regulation of working methods in mines.
An attempt to rein in the industry
In 2010, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), in conjunction with the Vienna International Justice Institute and the International
Colored Gemstones Association, set up a public-private partnership. It is aimed at improving transparency, regulation, working conditions and sustainability in the supply chain of precious stones, from mine to export market. Among the brands participating in this initiative are Cartier, Bulgari, Dior, Tiffany & Co., Gemfields as well as countries such as Myanmar (Burma), Kenya, Colombia, Brazil, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. A great many more have been invited to join them.
Are synthetic gemstones the solution?
Amid dwindling natural resources, and also (and most importantly) demand from younger consumers, who are more mindful of environmental concerns and more price-conscious, demand for synthetic gemstones has risen sharply over the past few years.
Artificial diamonds are nothing new. The process of manufacturing artificial gemstones has its beginnings in the early 20th century, but their arrival on the jewellery market is a more recent development. While mined diamonds are the result of millennia of natural processes, those that come from laboratories are created within barely a few weeks. Made of carbon, they have the same structure, the same physical, chemical and optical characteristics and the same hardness and shine as standard diamonds. However, they have less of an impact on the natural environment. Certified synthetic diamonds are traded at prices 40% lower.
- In France, Courbet is the specialist. The jeweller has millennials in its sights, since they have more misgivings about the conditions under which natural gemstones are extracted.
- In 2018, the global leader of the diamond market, De Beers, also opted for synthetic diamonds through its Lightbox Jewelry brand launched in the USA at much more affordable prices, whilst continuing its natural gemstone operations within the Diamond Producers’ Association (DPA).
- A few years back, Pomellato acted as forerunner in bringing out the “Rouge Passion” collection with scarlet synthetic gemstones.
- Swarovski has unveiled a line of fine jewellery made of ethically-sound Peruvian white gold and cultured diamonds.
- In May 2021, Pandora of Denmark decided to drop mined diamonds in favour of synthetic ones.
A disputed footprint
The Trucost study put the greenhouse gas emissions of synthetic gemstones at 511 kilogrammes de CO2 for each carat of diamond, i.e. three times that of natural diamonds. Synthetic gemstones don’t exploit nature, but their production requires a lot of energy. Hence some controversy raised by the natural diamond industry.
While some manufacturers are starting to use renewable energies, not least in California, it is not the case in India or China, where fossil fuel energies predominate by far. And Courbet, which refers to itself as an “ecologically-sound jeweller”, claims to have a negligible carbon footprint thanks to nuclear energy from France, solar energy from the USA and hydro energy from Russia. The two camps are very much entrenched in their stances.
All the major jewellers have now got their collections in order, challenged by the newcomers on the market
- In 2013 Chopard launched its Green Carpet collection, the first high-end jewellery line with Fairmined gold and ethically-sound gemstones. In 2018 the firm rolled it out to all of its jewellery. In doing do it pledges to acquire its precious metal from responsible suppliers meeting the highest environmental and social welfare standards, from artisans in small mining communities connected to official bodies through the Fairmined and Fairtrade programmes, or from a refinery accredited by the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC).
- At LVMH, all watch and jewellery brands (Bulgari, Tiffany & Co., Chaumet, Fred, Dior, Hublot and Tag Heuer) are certified by the RJC. In 2017, 98.5% of the diamonds bought by the group were certified by the RJC.
- In 2015, Bulgari secured the Chain of Custody gold certification established by the RJC.
- Since 2003, Cartier group (part of Richemont group) has conducted all of its diamond purchases under the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, and was certified by the RJC as far back as 2011.
- Kering group (Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo and Gucci) aims to reach 100% responsible gold by 2025. Its gold comes from several approved sources combining Chain of Custody (RJC-) certified gold with that from small-scale mines certified by Fairmined or Fairtrade. Or from mines which have sworn off the use of mercury in their extraction processes.
- In October 2021, wanting to go beyond supply issues, Cartier, Kering and the Responsible Jewellery Council launched the Watch and Jewellery Initiative 2030. It brings together those players in the watchmaking and jewellery sector who wish to commit to hitting a set of ambitious common targets in three areas: bolstering the climate’s resilience, safeguarding resources and promoting inclusion.
A great many brands are coming through which promote short supply chains, upcycling, recycling and artisan knowhow. The British brand Cred was a pioneer as far back as 1996, with Fairmined and Fairtrade gold and recycled gemstones. In the same vein, the following French brands are just a few of many examples: JEM (Jewellery Ethically Minded, gold Fairmined), and also Douze Paris (recycled gold, authenticated gemstones), DFLY (synthetic diamonds and recycled 18 K gold), Courbet (recycled gold and synthetic diamonds), Héloïse & Abélard (recycled gold and second-hand diamonds), Elise Tsikis (recycled 24 k gold with a short, controlled supply chain).
When it comes to jewellery, in the 1990s, conflicts in countries where the precious stone seams lay brought matters to a head. This led to better regulation of the origin and traceability of precious stones. They allowed these industries to head for sustainable, ethically-sound policies in favour of social welfare and the environment. They did so fairly early on, bolstered by demand from a new generation of luxury consumer. However, the fact remains that mining operations, even those that are more tightly controlled, degrade soil and shake up the landscape in a lasting way.