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Is Sustainable Jewelry Possible? Here's What You Should Know

The fine jewelry industry has taken a few steps to become more eco-friendly, but is truly sustainable jewelry possible? Here's what to know.

Written by
Trista Bridges

In the jewelry industry, most debates about the level of ethics and sustainability of the sector have focused principally on diamonds. Given its sheer size, valued at $87 billion, the diamond market warrants the high level of scrutiny and focus it gets. In fact, if the diamond market gets its house in order, colored gemstones—as well as the particularly environmentally challenged gold industry—will follow.

Although the Kimberley Process—an international agreement created in hopes of minimizing the production of blood diamonds—has been helpful in tackling the proliferation of conflict diamonds bought and sold around the world, the issues it addresses are only the tip of the iceberg. So, is sustainable jewelry possible? Here's everything you should know.

Fixing What's Broken

Alan Cohen, current president of the London Diamond Bourse, knows a thing or two about gems. Since starting in the industry 50 years ago, he’s seen the sector from all sides, having trained as a rough and polished diamond sorter and an independent dealer around the world. Because of that, he understands the challenges the industry has had in creating truly sustainable jewelry.

"In the end, it’s all about the supply chain. If you know your supply chain, you’re halfway there [to sustainability]," he says. "In my opinion, there’s been too much focus on origin as a means to ensure that the diamond is 'responsible.' I’m not a great believer in this approach. Origin doesn’t tell me necessarily how the diamond was mined, what process it went through, or what labor practices were in place by the company who mined it."

And the Kimberley Process? While Cohen believes it was an important step for the industry, he maintains that its limited scope and self-regulation approach is wholly inadequate today. Instead, he would like to see a modernized process that focuses more on critical issues like labor rights, anti-corruption, and poverty, namely tackling the global challenges laid out in the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals head-on.

Cohen welcomes the upcoming implementation of the World Diamond Council (WDC)’s new and improved System of Warranties. It will include a commitment that buyers and sellers adhere to WDC Guidelines, which support universally accepted principles of human and labor rights, anti-corruption, and anti-money laundering. 

Steps in the Right Direction

It's important to note that the industry has taken some positive steps toward creating more sustainable jewelry.

The Responsible Jewellery Council has emerged as a leader in the push to make sustainable and responsible supply chains the norm across the jewelry and watch sector. The recently launched Gemstones and Jewellery Community Platform provides various sector participants access to tools and resources to enable them to adopt sustainable practices throughout the production process.

In addition, diamond behemoth De Beers has launched Gemfair—an initiative to shift the focus toward an important enabler of a more ethical and sustainable industry, connecting artisanal and small-scale miners to the global market. Other brands are innovating as well by developing ethical alternatives to diamonds.

In focusing on the De Beers and Rio Tintos of the world, we often forget that the foundation of the jewelry sector, as in many industries, are small businesses or sole proprietorships. In fact, the goal of achieving an ethical, transparent, and more sustainable supply chain is impossible without strong participation from small miners.

3 Ways You Can Drive Change

Mined, lab-grown, synthetic… there's a lot of speculation about the level of sustainability of each of these options. Ultimately, it comes down to a personal choice.

If mined stones are ultimately what you decide on, there are a few ways you can make sure you end up with a piece that's as sustainably made and sourced as possible. Here's how to choose more sustainable jewelry pieces.

1. Work with Private Designers

Often thought of as an option only for celebrities, the rise of digital technology and marketplaces has made it easier than ever to find jewelry designers to work with directly.

You can find those whose styling not only fits your aesthetic, but also your principles. One such designer that fits that bill is United Kingdom-based Jane Lunzer. Lunzer has worked as a private designer for many years, crafting pieces for clients in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

As sustainability has moved to the forefront of the industry, Lunzer has embraced this positive trend as well. Her work almost always incorporates natural gemstones, one of the hallmark aspects of her work. "Natural gems have unique markings and inclusions," she says. "They're treasures that are millions of years old. How does one even begin to comprehend this magic?"

From her perspective, however, using these dazzling stones shouldn’t be done at the expense of responsibility. Her pieces are unique and stunning, as well as increasingly sustainable thanks to her efforts to secure responsibly sourced stones and other key materials from dealers she can validate and trust.

Although a fully sustainable and transparent sector doesn't quite exist yet, supporting designers such as Lunzer—who are actively working to move the industry in the right direction—is key. And, the private designer route doesn’t need to cost a fortune. There are many that can be quite affordable.

Supporting these inspired creatives also helps break us of the habit of purchasing too many inexpensive, low-quality pieces rather than investing a bit more for something that's not just beautiful and timeless, but also embodies our values.

2. Go Vintage

While fine jewelry is less abundant than "semi-fine" or "fashion" jewelry, it's not exactly rare. As the vintage market has grown, antique and modern preloved jewelry is also on the upswing. And, even better, you can find beautiful pre-owned pieces almost everywhere these days.

Previously seen as old-fashioned, reinvigorated antique and vintage shops are always good places to start. Antique and collectibles fairs and flea markets are also perfect scouting places, and auctions—which are now physical and online—have many beautiful pieces available at a bargain.

Of course, one of the best sources is the myriad of online stores that have a wide selection of pre-loved pieces, including leading marketplaces such as Vestiaire Collective, Etsy, 1st Dibs, and Rebelle.

3. Repurpose What You Already Have

Many of us have old jewelry we might have inherited from others or maybe even picked up in an antique or vintage shop that we no longer use.

Oftentimes we're reluctant (mostly due to sentimental reasons) to remake what’s been passed down to us. Or, even if we’re open to a change, we’re not sure where to go to give these pieces a new look. This is starting to change. Many designers are now working with pre-loved pieces, giving them new life through a fresh new design. These types of projects are another great reason to work with private jewelers.

Ultimately, one of the key principles of sustainability is using what we already have—a principle that holds for jewelry as well. Think about it: Each repurposed gemstone is one less that’s mined.

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