(Soaking in all the info and sitting front row at the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference with Alexandra Hart and Christina Miller, both on the board of Ethical Metalsmiths and speakers at the conference. Photo from Craft Industry Alliance)
Ethical sourcing is something I began exploring before I started my business, when I began to question my shopping choices as a consumer following the tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse. Prior to that, it wasn’t an issue I was aware of, but once I knew it wasn’t something I could ignore. That mentality carried over into starting my business and the pieces I design and create. Even though I’ve “done my homework” on the issue of responsible sourcing, I came to the conference to learn more from true pioneers in this field. And I can honestly say I learned a ton in those two short days.
And we made it all the way to downtown Chicago, where the conference was hosted at Columbia College’s film center, with gorgeous views of the lakeshore and more rain than San Diego sees in a year. Everyone was there to learn more about what is happening in this part of the industry and how to do a better job of responsibly sourcing our materials. The speakers ranged from key players such as representatives from the US State Department, PACT (“the biggest nonprofit you’ve never heard of”), and some of the largest public companies in the industry, to independent designers, and industry changemakers such as Toby Pomeroy (founder of Mercury Free Gold) and Robin Gambler of Fair Trade Jewellery Co.
Stewart Grice from Hoover and Strong (a large supplier of recycled and Fairmined gold in the industry) presented on two gold mines in Peru and how the miners could work together to improve their working conditions and safety and reinvest in their communities to and improve life for themselves and their families. This is what Fairmined gold does. The mine cooperative votes on how to spend the premium from Fairmined gold and could improve their communities by bringing in electricity or a cellphone tower so the miners can communicate with their families in the 20 days they are at the remote mine. While these may seem third-world to many Americans, this is a significantly higher standard of living and working than for many miners in the area, especially those working outside of the Fairtrade and Fairmined systems.
From gold, we moved on to gems where presenters talked about issues ranging from silicosis in gem cutting, to the journey a stone takes from the mine to being set in a piece of jewelry, to the insights of those mining and sourcing rough gemstones in Africa (despite some technical difficulties). Complications with certain source countries such as Zimbabwe and the DRC came up a few times too. And that too, is complicated. By working directly with small scale miners in those countries, we can help create a legal marketplace for their precious metals and gems. One of the speakers, Robin Gambler of the Fair Trade Jewellery Co, spoke to that also. He figured out how to create his own legal supply chain, showing others that it can be done.
(Dinner with this amazing group of people, including Susan Wheeler (she organized the conference), Monica Stephenson of idazzle and Anza Gems, Christina Miller and Alexandra Hart of Ethical Metalsmiths, Tracy Matthews of Flourish and Thrive Academy and Brian Cook of Nature’s Geometry to name a few!)
After two days of presentations, a film screening of “Sharing the Rough”, and panels all on the topic of responsible sourcing in precious metals and gems, my first take away is that it’s complicated. Is a lab grown gem inherently more ethical than a mined gem? Not necessarily. Is a gem from one country a more ethical or sustainable choice than one from another? Again, it depends. But an even more important take away for me is hope. While it is complicated, there are many people working to make it less complicated and to improve the lives and working conditions of the men and women who mine our metals and gems. For two days, I could connect with not only others passionate about this issue, but people who have been working for years and decades already to make it happen. It’s hope and fuel to keep working for that change. And I also took home some ethically sourced gems from Columbia Gem House and Nature’s Geometry to make some one of a kind pieces...that’s a pretty good takeaway too.