Have you ever paused to think of the remarkable journey a piece of jewelry takes before it graces your wardrobe? From its inception as an opaque rock specimen in an artisanal mine to the boutique that offers it up for sale and finally into your possession, there is a complex passage this precious item must travel. In recent years, with globalization emphasizing social responsibility, the jewelry industry has been making strides towards ethically sourced pieces - but much work remains to be done. The story behind each gemstone should have roots deep in supporting local communities while considering their environmental impact. Thanks to technological advances such as blockchain tracing, consumers can now ensure they are buying responsibly.
Would you purchase a gemstone if you knew it came from a hard-working villager who was promised a job with financial security only to be forced into Modern Slavery by unruly gangs?
Let's take a brief look at all the hands that touch parts of your favorite pieces in your jewelry box and some of the health hazards those hands face.
The Gemstone Miner
The most dangerous jobs in the jewelry industry are in the mines. From large-scale to Artisan mining (which means mainly using non-mechanical tools these jobs come with extreme life-threatening dangers. Things like temperature extremes, air quality, and the hazard of collapsing tunnels. It is essential in the jewelry supply industry to support gemstone mining that minimizes its environmental impact and how it affects the local economy.
Mining for gold has always had a detrimental impact on the environment methods of extraction uses mercury, so for every amount of gold removed, an equal amount of mercury is disposed of back into the land. There are initiatives to change the methods for mining gold without using cyanide and other chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
The metal Refiner processes either the fresh ore or reclaimed metal into pure metals using smelting, casting, forging, and sintering. Refiners often face injury from burns and explosions and have exposure to toxic dust and by-products like sulfuric acid, dioxide, silica, lead, and arsenic. Some refiners are actively tracing their supply chain and are involved with Fairmined and Fairtrade projects.
The Gemstone Cutter is the individual who cuts the facets in gems and polishes them into glistening masterpieces. Health risks are still involved if these cutters don't have access to proper ventilation. In poorer unregulated countries, gem cutters, after time, can develop skin irritations or more severe lung issues. Good gear, education, and clean ventilation significantly reduce these risks to make our favorite gems shine.
The designer is the one who leads the project; even in large-scale retail jewelry brands, it's the designer who decides the feel and direction of the jewelry brand. The designer in many handcrafted jewelry lines is a single person responsible for sourcing materials and producing high-quality products.
The Maker is the miracle worker who transforms the metal, sets the gemstones, and fabricates the jewelry into a wearable piece of art. Makers have their share of health risks similar to the lapidary or gemstone cutter, and proper equipment and good ventilation are the priority.
Brick and Mortar stores, galleries, boutiques, and online marketplaces are some of the many ways jewelry represents in retail. They can choose to represent responsible jewelry designers or brands that make conscious choices to create sustainable jewelry.
You the customer
Shopping for jewelry is usually a joyful experience. Most often, it is for a celebration such as a birthday, milestone achievement, graduation, or holiday. Jewelry transforms into a deeper meaning and can become an heirloom passed down for generations. I am sure you wouldn't keep and pass down a cheap trinket from a discount chain whose gold has flaked off, revealing the ugly oxidized brass or Nickle.
It is essential to educate yourself as much as possible when purchasing jewelry; instead of big chain stores, look into your local independent designers. Many designers and makers like myself are doing their best to make their studios more eco-friendly and are as transparent as they can be regarding their supply chain.