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How I Source Fair Trade Gems (and Why They're Important)

Karin Jacobson design process gem buying

Remember how I broke the “what happens in Vegas …” rule by telling you all about my recent trip to the JCK and AGTA shows? Well, today I’m digging deeper into that well of memories! I mentioned that I hit up AGTA to learn more about Columbia Gem House (CGH) and I want to share my findings since they underscore several of my core values as an artisan. Namely that jewelry should be made from dazzling materials that have been responsibly sourced, and that gorgeous adornments needn’t be created at the expense of human welfare.

Columbia Gem House: Fair Trade Leaders

I’d purchased gems from CGH a few times in the past, but wanted to connect with their reps at AGTA so I could see the full breadth of their offerings. I’m always on the lookout for reputable sources of fair trade gems, and was eager to find out if this company would be a good fit for my ongoing gem needs. So I spent several hours chatting with the CGH folks, picking their brains and perusing their selection.

And I am so glad I did.

sourcing fair trade Afghan tourmalines from Columbia Gem House
fair trade tourmalines from Afghanistan

Turns out, CGH is one of the first jewelry industry companies to join the fair trade movement, and adheres to strict protocols that include environmental protection and fair labor practices at cutting and jewelry factories. In addition to several overseas mines, CGH works with loads of domestic sources. I happily snapped up Arkansas quartz, Oregon opal, Arizona peridot, and Montana sapphires from their glittering stockpile. The reps I spoke with were incredibly proud of their organization, and dedicated to bringing absolutely stellar gemstones to market without risking worker safety while ensuring those workers get a fair wage. As I mentioned last time, finding legit fair trade gems is increasingly challenging, so I was just thrilled to confirm that CGH is the real deal.

But let’s rewind a bit.

sourcing fair trade gemstones from Columbia Gem House
fair trade colored gemstone melee (small gems) from around the world

What “Ethically Sourced” Means to Me as a Jewelry Designer

You probably know what “fair trade” means when we’re talking coffee or chocolate, but may wonder how it applies to gems. You might also be curious about conflict stones and the ethics of sourcing precious materials from war-torn countries. If you’ve seen the movie “Blood Diamond,” you know that diamonds have been used to support civil wars in Africa. Unfortunately they’ve also been used to fund militant terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda.

We don’t want to buy breathtaking gemstones just to have our money end up in the pockets of warlords and terrorists, and fair trade protocols address that issue head-on. But they also go much deeper.

Colored gemstones are mined in every corner of the globe, and it is crucial for those who buy them to know their origins. Assuring country of origin is Columbia Gem House’s first protocol. Even that basic piece of information can tell us about working conditions, since there are different legal standards for workers in Australia, Montana, or Malawi. (All of which are sources for CGH sapphires.)

sourcing domestic Montana sapphires from Columbia Gem House
sapphires from Montana

Along with worker safety, fair trade protocols are designed to support economic development in mining regions. This ensures that gem companies are supporting miners with fair wages and safe working environments, and supporting the communities where those workers live. CGH’s Malawi sapphires are Level 1 Fair Trade, which means that they are fair trade all of the way back to the mine. This means that CGH can have a significant impact on mining practices, worker safety, and worker pay in Malawi. They’re also positioned to help the local community through production sales and by supporting community development projects.

fair trade gem sourcing from malawi to mexico
 Some information on where the gems are sourced and economic effects in the local community.

I’ve noticed that we focus a lot on where our gems are coming from but often forget about who is processing them. Which is why I see gem cutter safety as a key fair trade protocol. Lax safety standards can create health hazards, particularly Silicosis, which may result in the deaths of stone cutters. Many of CGH’s gems are processed at their own cutting facility where they enforce high safety standards. Other gems come from cutting facilities that meet all of their employment and health standards.

The final protocol is disclosing any treatments that have been applied to gems, and explaining how they might affect the stone. For instance, gem companies may heat  a stone to enhance its color. Although this procedure doesn’t compromise durability, it  still needs to be disclosed. Other treatments are not so benign. In the last decade, rubies whose inclusions (cracks) are filled with lead glass to improve their clarity have begun to show up on the market. These stones  are so fragile that they can no longer hold up to normal jewelry creation techniques. They can even be ruined by a simple cleaning! This is why it is so important for CGH to disclose any treatments and ensure that harmful treatments are omitted from their product line entirely.

sourcing fair trade Nigerian ruby from Columbia Gem House
fair trade, untreated Nigerian ruby 

(Side note: “Fair trade” is *not* a legally certifiable term when applied to gemstones. The industry hasn’t agreed on parameters for a fair trade standard, and we don’t have an objective third party to monitor mines and cutters. This means each company maintains their own fair trade standards, and buyers are responsible for understanding each company’s standards. But it does move our industry in the direction of transparency, and as more companies adopt fair trade standards, it becomes both more important and easier for the next company to follow suit.)

sourcing fair trade gemstones from columbia gem house
Here I am with some of the terrific folks from Columbia Gem House - Tod, Eric, yours truly, & Lisa.

The Best of Both Worlds

As a designer, I want to know that the gems I purchase can be traced back to fairly paid workers with safe working conditions in communities that directly benefit from this industry. I want to feel good about the rings, necklaces, and earrings I design, and want to pass along that unsullied good-feeling to my customers and clients! And that means making sure I know my source companies’ policies inside and out, and using fair trade materials whenever I can.

I also want to showcase the natural resources of the origin countries for the shiny and sparkly elements of my designs. Too often, we focus on the stone itself without thinking about where it came from and whose hands it has passed through. If you know where your gems come from, that can open up a conversation about the place and the people. And that’s a conversation I love to have with my clients!

My goal is to show jewelry lovers that their beloved accessories can be responsibly sourced and impeccably designed. It doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition! I’m excited to have forged a deeper connection with Columbia Gem House, since it gives me access to a whole new stream of sustainable gemstones around which to build my signature pieces.

Take a look at what I've made with CGH's Arizona peridot since I've been home ...

 

origami earrings in sterling silver and 18k yellow gold with arizona peridots
Origami earrings in sterling and 18K yellow gold with Arizona peridots and recycled diamonds.
(photo by Cole Rodger Photographics)
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