Ethical uncertainty


It’s never easy to walk into a jewellery shop and ask for the origin of the materials from a ring. It would be like asking the butcher where the chicken comes from; he just wouldn’t know. If one then happens to raise the controversial issue of ethicality, one usually gets defensive reactions: the denial argument “Oh no! This doesn’t happen any more. If you did your homework you would know…” or the fatalist argument “You sell your soul to the devil when you get into this business” [1]


These different situations happen due to the lack of clarity about the real situation. There is a need to clarify which processes and materials are ethical and which are not but as it will be shown, this is extremely difficult. The following are a few examples of role models, like Oro Verde; conflictive cases, like Anglo Gold Ashanti and the intermediates like the Tanzanite stone and Diamonds from Rio Tinto.


When ideas get in conflict with actions


So far, the “Council for responsible jewellery practices” have helped to raise awareness and initiate change. The problem arises when the aims of the Council get into conflict with the private interests from the participants. For example, the mining company Anglo Gold Ashanti, yet being part of the Council and accepting their code of ethics, chooses to practice mining using toxic products in the process and mining in virgin areas, with the real danger of damaging the environment.


“ The South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti owns the Iduapriem gold mine near Teberebie village in Ghana. Iduapriem has not been a good neighbor. Mine waste has blocked access to farms, and AngloGold Ashanti has not adequately compensated farmers for their lost land. Farmers now must walk long distances in search of new farmlands. And the mine's impact on nearby streams has left the people of Teberebie without easy access to clean water for drinking and washing”[2]


As a result of this situation, one starts questioning the value of being part of such a Council. But never the less: First come the thoughts, then the actions.


A lot of thoughts and ideas about ethicality were born during the “Carry the can” Symposium, June 2006, organized by the Association for Contemporary Jewellery, in London. At that time, participants decided, motivated by the organization “Ethical Goldsmiths”[3] to accept a resolution in support of responsible mining. Another strong idea that came out from the workshops was recycling old gold. In practice it’s not as easy. Getting the right carats and casters to accept it, is almost impossible. But for jewellers who work manually in their benches it becomes a very good option. Green karat is an example of a jewellery brand that only uses gold from recycled sources[4].


Oro Verde Gold


Newly created associations are developing traditional mining strategies where gold is mined without cyanide, and are allowing the tracking back of their products by keeping special agreements with refineries and intermediates. One of these initiatives is Oro Verde, Green Gold Corporation, in Colombia. They contribute to the wellbeing of the communities of the Biogeographic regions of Choco, where they mine, through research and training processes, the promotion of alliances and productive systems and the sustainable use of natural resources”[5] [6]

“Green Gold ® is the brand name of the first environmentally certified and socially responsible gold and platinum in the world. By purchasing our products you contribute to enhance life quality in one of the poorest regions of Colombia and the conservation and restoration of in a globally strategic environmental hotspot”[7].

Oro verde is also supporting other communities to develop this mining approach in other countries in South America. And it is exclusively used by Cred Jewellery, in the UK, a jewellery brand that only produces ethical jewellery.


Mining tanzanite




The tanzanite gemstone was brought to the market at the end of 1968. Launched as “the most beautiful blue stone discovered in over 2000 years” it made its ways to the shops. But after 11 September 2001, the Wall Street Journal linked the blue stone to Al-Qaida, and to funding terrorism, causing a big fall in the sales.


Governmental figures, tanzanite stakeholders and different jewellery association met in Tucson. in 2002 and agreed on the need to establish protocols to protect the trade from the mines to the point of first export, and to develop a system of warranties to assure that all tanzanite, throughout the supply chain, came from legitimated sources.


After intelligence reports, the false allegations were repudiated and Tanzanite gemstone was given a “clean bill of health” (free of any sort of irregularity) by the US State Department.


The Tanzanite Foundation is a non-profit organization, created after the protocols, to support and develop the Tanzanite industry. It has also initiated social programs to help the Masai community, such a school, a clinic and a community centre.[8]


This Foundation has also developed a quality grading system which includes: Colour, Clarity, Cut, Carat Weight and “confidence”. The first four are normal quality grades in the Diamond industry but the new “confidence” aims to grade and assure the stone ethical route to market via Tanzanite Foundation Members.


They have also developed and implanted The Mark of Rarity, a microscopically inscribed Icon which is synonymous with absolute assurance of the source and ethical provenance of Tanzanite. This is only used by Tanzanite Foundation Dealers and manufacturer members




The only Tanzanite mine in Tanzania is 5km long. While 70% is mined by the company named Tanzanite One, the 30% is own by locals and the Government. The monopoly of Tanzanite One ensures best mining practices by giving their workers training, higher salaries, and good safety conditions. It is also one of the main companies founding the Tanzanite Foundation.


But not all Tanzanite is mined by Tanzanite Foundation Members.


This is the opinion from Suleman, a man from Tanzania, living in Mombassa, Kenya whose relatives work in the Tanzanite mines in Tanzania. He is a tour operator and does voluntary work in the community. These are the answers to some questions from an interview, done through email (not edited).


What are the conditions of the people working in the mines?

The condition of the people who work at the mining is very bad.  This means their health is very bad.  And the children and women who work there. 

Are this people trained for the job?

Not!  They only take people who are not trained.  They normally take cheap labour so that they can get more profit in what they mine.

What kind of security do they have?

For now I don’t know.  But one year ago the security was not very good.  Some of the labour they can mange to steal some minings out the area and they go and sell them.  But the Government was trying to manage and put a good security and people to have a better health 

Is there, in the country, illegal mining?

No! Because the government is following up such things like that.

Is the Tanzanite foundation helping the mining process?

For sure I don’t know.  Because I have never heard about that organization.  So may be it is helping in other way.  But not so sure.

Does the benefit from the stone stay in the country or does it go elsewhere?

Almost 90% goes elsewhere and small percent remain in the country.  All of this is caused by corruption. That all this happen.

Could you please give me some insights?

It is very good to have the Tanzania stone.  For me it does not benefit.  The people from the government are the one who benefit and still the people are the when who get hurt.  So for myself I can’t be proud of it.  The bad thing is the minings are controlled by forgiveness mostly from South Africa.  Little percent is Tanzanian.  The government should look at it and at least to make some new changes


While Tanzanite One and the Tanzanite Foundation aim to improve their social and environmental standards for the mining and production of Tanzanite stone, it also might create the risk of a bigger social fissure between the different parts of the mine and social disconformities.


Rio Tinto: Diamonds


Rio Tinto is a global mining corporation which mines Diamonds as well as many other metals and minerals. The diamonds from Rio Tinto come from three different mines: the Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada, the Argyle Diamond Mine in Australia and the Murowa Diamond Mine in Zimbabwe.


Their mining policy is based on “making a positive contribution towards sustainable development” and “commits to provide a legacy of stronger, healthier and environmentally secure communities” [9]

Differently than other big diamond companies, Rio Tinto does not buy extra rough material from other mines and this situation assures that all diamonds come from their own controlled and regulated mines.[10] But, some of them have better condition than the others. While the Argyle Diamond Mine in East Kimberley, Western Australia, is an area of significant economic and social disadvantage, the Diavik mine in Canada has one of the higher profiles in terms of ethicality. Their relations with Aboriginal groups in the area are excellent and the environmental effects on wild life and natural resources are minimal.

When the aim is using Diamonds that are ethically mined, knowing the mine of origin helps the choice. But because diamonds sales are done by stockholders, who get different parcels of rough materials from different mining companies, the knowledge of mine of origin might get lost in the process of cutting the stones –parcels are put together and it is impossible to know “what” comes from “where”-. And even if the mine of origin is known, we encounter the problem that depending on the size, colour or quality, we cannot choose the mine; for example, small size diamonds do not usually come from Diavik Mine in Canada.[11]


Future scenario


There are other new ways for mining processes but mining companies do not have yet the pressure, neither the obligation to apply them. The are two possibilities still in an early stage but which show there are true alternative options: vapour deposition, a process through which under vacuum conditions, all materials, including metal, evaporate and condensate on the surface of the vacuum tower in order of its melting or condensing temperature; and Gold phytomining, a process based on the plants properties to accumulate metals and nanotechnology.[12]


New visions on entrepreneurship have a more social approach to business and are directed to social change. They not only measure their performance on profit and return but on the impact they have on society, the impact for change.[13]


A new adventure on ethical and sustainable jewellery must be based on developing partnerships with suppliers based on good working conditions, fair trade relations and a long-term mutual commitment. Therefore aiming and provoking change.


“Diamonds for humanity” is an interesting initiative that shares this approach. It is born with the idea to use the revenues from jewellery sales and reinvesting it into social programs for areas in need that suffered from conflict-diamond wars. But so far, this initiative is still in the developing stage and has only produced some sample pieces.[14]


It is important to be aware of assumptions. It would be natural to think that establishing contacts with small scale mines would help development but the reality is the opposite.  


“… there are rapidly increasing number of people seeking ASM9 small-scale mines) livelihoods in rural areas of the developing world, which is putting pressure on the available environmental and social resources, compounded by increasing gender inequality and child labor as well as poor health and safety and environmental practices in ASM”  

 “the social impacts of ASM are both positive and negative and tend to relate to health, livelihoods, economics and structure. The most significant negative social impacts are indirect and consequence of environmental impacts and a lack of investment. The most significant positive impact is employments”[15]


The aesthetics of ethicality


Already since the 70’s, recycled materials have been used in jewellery. This type of creations was usually produced as a reaction to the material value of traditional jewellery objects (Objects trouvés), made by the new called artist-makers/designer-makers, but yet not as a conversation about the origin of these materials.      


As the environmental issues became known, jewellers became aware of the problems and started embedding these issues in the design language. The artist David Poston, protested against the poor working conditions and exploitation of the black miners in South Africa in his piece “Diamonds, gold and slavery are forever” (1975), in a forged-steel necklace, which had this words inlaid in silver.


Today, we can find expression of this same kind. The designer-maker Mette Klarskov Larsen, showed at the Heirlooms exhibition in London (June 2006), a ring called “Rubbish” made with 2nd hand gold, which represented the sign of recycling.


Commercial ethical jewellery, like Cred Jewellery and Diamonds of humanity, choose not to show the ethical choice in the design. This might be because there is a basic problem when presenting ethical jewellery in a commercial jewellery environment, like a shop. By displaying ethical jewellery next to “normal” jewellery, this latter immediately takes the opposite role, in this case as un-ethical. This situation provokes a big gap between them both by polarisation, creating a conflict for the shop and also for the consumer, who gets a feeling of guiltiness. This guilty feeling might inform the future consuming actions, but choice is made with a discomfort feeling instead of a pleasurable one[16].


It can also happen that when ethical issues are visual in the design, it creates a confrontational situation with itself. A gold and diamond ring that gives the message “gold and diamonds are bad”, it rejects the object it represents: it denies itself.


But, what would happen if the ethical choice is, in some way, hidden in the design? And what would happen if two objects presented are visually exactly the same but one made with ethical materials and the other one not? What kind of narrative would it generate?


Fig 3.2. Arabel Lebrusan. Left earring unknown origin gold and diamonds. Right earring, Green Gold and Diamonds from Canada.


Another direction would be how to achieve the “luxury look” by using recycled and ethical materials.


[1] Giorgio Jewellery (2007). Life event research. Appendix B, p.19

[2] Earthworks.<> Accessed 21April 2007.

[3] Ethical Goldsmiths. Life Event research. Appendix B, p.4

[4] Green Karat. <> Access 10 April 2006

[5] Oro Verde. <> Accessed 14 April 2007

[6] Oro Verde. Life Event research. Appendix B, p.18

[7] Oro verde <> Accessed 17 April 2007

[8] Tanzanite Foundation. Life Event research. Appendix B, p.8

[9] Rio Tinto, <>. Accessed 8 May 2007-05-29

[10] Dix, D. Life Event Research. Appendix B, p.15

[11]  De beers and Purely natural diamonds. Life event research. Appendix B, p.1, p.15

[12] Gold phytomining, Vapour deposition. Appendix A

[13] Said Business school, Oxford.<> Accessed 21 April 2007

[14] Diamonds for Humanity, <> Accessed 2November 2005

[15] Natural Resources Institute. (2003)Towards an ethical jewellery business <> Accessed 2 May 2007

[16] Harrison,R, newholm,T. Shaw, D.(2005). The ethical consumer.London, Sage Publication.


This is an excerpt from Arabel Lebrusan's MA paper "Individualism and the heritage of Craftsmanship. Questioning Spanish sensibility and sustainable processes in the contemporary jewellery practice". Central Saint Martins. 2007.

If you have enjoyed reading this text, you can download the full paper HERE