What is an ethically sourced gemstone and who supplies them? While Columbia Gemhouse is widely known, other suppliers are coming on line as well, including the “Open Source” Platform developed by Mike Angenent.
(This is the second of two articles that explore new ethical sources for colored gemstones that are coming into the market.)
~ Marc Choyt, Publisher, Fairjewelry.org.
MC: First, explain how you got involved in “Open Source.” What’s your personal background and what was the inspiration behind the project?
I realized that my customers also liked to know this and were fascinated by the stories behind the jewellery piece, the whole process of how to make an exclusive piece of jewellery and the story about the gems and the diamonds.
MC: You went out on a quest for this material?
MA: Yes, when a friend of mine was in Madagascar, I decided to visit him and of course, look for nice gemstones. It was not my first visit to a third world country but still it hit me like a brick.
He showed me a complete color line of sapphires and I was sold. But, I also saw the reality of mining and how little to nothing was left to the people there. (One reason, and one that should be applauded, that the current government put a ban on the export of rough).
After my visit I was already playing with the idea of setting up a foundation to better tend the needs of the people involved in mining. Had I not had a house and obligations back home, I would have probably stayed and taught English.
MC: But seeing nice gemstones is a long way from creating a business. How did that happen?
MA: It was only after visiting London, and more specifically Bond Street, I realized that the same sapphires I saw in Madagascar were put on display in the most luxurious jewellery stores you can imagine.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problems with luxury jewellery and I don’t want to point fingers at the people selling it in Bond Street. However, it is good to raise awareness, and once you know, it’s up to you.
I got the idea to get some diamantairs and investment companies involved in setting up a collection with their diamonds and sapphires from Mada. I would cough up the gold, designs and workload and part of the profit would go to the communities involved. This was 2005. What I got from most was a pat on the back and the “advice” to keep on dreaming. I took their advice.
MC: Back in 2005, many of these issues were not even public. What sensitized you?
MA: I was doing a study in Arts and Cultural Sciences at Maastricht University. I was specifically interested in ethics and how emotions play part in ethical decision making processes.
I picked up the Oro Verde project in Colombia and decided to work with their gold since it was benefiting the communities involved directly and was ecologically mined without the use of mercury or cyanide.
By chance, I met an old friend from the gemology course who was now the marketing manager for Nenoir diamonds. He immediately replied yes when I confronted him with the idea of the Jeweltree Foundation.
My ecologically mined fair traded rings needed transparently sourced diamonds. Nenoir was only doing 0.30ct and up and so I started looking for ethically sourced melee. Having found this and realizing the difficulty in doing so, but also the difficulty in guaranteeing transparency because you can’t have a one pointer laser inscribed. We started thinking of how to guarantee our customers that the stones used where indeed ethically sourced.
MC: How did you set up a criteria?
MA: Fortunately my next door neighbor happened to be a consultant that was previously involved in creating a quality label for responsibly, ecologically grown vegetables (sea krill).
We worked out the premises that would be needed to establish a quality label for traceable melee. I involved IPIS as, among others, a Kimberley process auditor to advise me on the matter and together we set out the requirements for the polishing factories regarding employment conditions.
Thus we set the rules for transparency, ecological sustainability and social responsibility. Now we had our label (in a nutshell) under the banner of the Jeweltree foundation and the foundation could issue the Quality Label to companies involved in ethically sourcing.
Since all the work on sourcing and creating the Quality Label was done by ourselves, it was obvious to also create a trading platform through which ethically sourced and traceable melee could be traded. Hence, I came up with the name: “Open Source Minerals” for my company that could trade in traceable Jeweltree certified melee and other ethically sourced minerals but also support the foundation and its goals to support fair trade (jewelry related) initiatives in third world countries.
MC: What have been some of the most difficult challenges in setting up your traceability platform?
MA: To make it trust worthy for outsiders and third parties. I mean, it’s mostly good enough for my direct customers if I say so, but I cannot expect the same from bigger brands, companies, retailers or manufacturers that I do not know personally, and of course I saw the opportunity to tend to their needs as well.
Therefore we took extra care in setting up the requirements for traceability etc. This also involved a complete administrative system that can track and trace every single diamond sold (from 0.80mm and up) back to its original purchase order accompanied by the guarantees involved and trust me, this sounds simpler than it is.
Getting these diamantairs involved was relatively easy, we not only got the assurance that they bought their rough separate, we were invited to see the actual process from purchasing and sorting the rough, polishing and track and tracing through the factory.
MC: Obtaining traceable diamond melee has been nearly impossible. I’m aware of some of the issues, but could you please explain for my readers why it is so difficult to do this in the diamond sector?
MA: For one, because most of the melee is polished in bulk, through machines, and in the end only sorted regarding the 4C’s. It takes a lot of effort, both physically and in administration to keep track.
Before, I stressed the importance for us to have traceable melee, I was shown parcels from different origins next to mixed parcels.
Since rough diamonds from different mines can vary a great deal on characteristics and need different handling, it is possible to track a part of a parcel. But because “origin” is not part of the 4C’s, it a difficult task to guarantee traceability and grading at the same time.
MC: Can you tell us something about how your sapphire sourcing from artisan mining in Madagascar?
MA: Well, as mentioned before, Mada was at the basis of this whole project. My friend put me in contact with people who had lived there for over 10 years and were involved in buying rough sapphires.
Now, there is a concrete road running from Tana through Tuliare but that has been for only for 2 years or so. Back then it was the wild, wild west. They have literally been shot at by other people buying rough there.
At the moment they are the remaining few that are allowed to export from Mada, basically because they add value to their rough by having it cut and polished by locals and also because they’ve set up a project to guarantee safe mining, fair wages and Madagascar origin.
MC: How is the current difficult political situation in Madagascar impacting you?
MA: As I said, we are allowed to import polished, so business wise it is not harming us. Politically speaking I have mixed feelings.
I’m very glad at what this government has established regarding their objective that value has to be created in Mada itself by polishing their own rough, and not in other countries. I also hear the objections of the other parties. So who’s right and who’s wrong?
MC: Why would you not consider these fair trade sapphires?
MA: Fair trade has almost become synonymous with FLO and the accompanying label. I salute this, since I know how hard it is to establish a trustworthy label.
These sapphires are most definitely fair traded in my opinion, but I consider it a good thing to keep this separate from Fair Trade as a Label.
MC: Are you going to provide a label?
MA: The Fair Trade Label should only be applied to projects that are audited under the same, just as our Label should be applied to traceable melee, larger diamonds, gems or jewelry that is audited accordingly.
The Jeweltree Label is not a fair trade label, it is a label guaranteeing supply chain transparency, and social and environmental best practice standards AND supporting fair trade jewelry related initiatives.
We believe this is necessary because in the current supply chain it is impossible to guarantee a consumer that the 1, 2, 6 or 17 pointer diamond or gem in his jewelry is guaranteed to be of ethical origin.
Same goes for the precious metals. Great thing to say that Oro Verde is not using mercury and is mined according to high social and environmental standards, but who is guaranteeing that a ring itself, when it comes to the goldsmith, is made with Oro Verde gold and not with gold from the “Pebble mine” in Bristol Bay, Alaska?
This kind of guarantee, the word of the artisan, might work with the small independent jeweler. But not for the bigger brands, they need more proof.
MC: Do you have a point of distribution in the US at this point and if not, do you intend to have one?
MA: Yes we do, we recently teamed up with Neal Levitan, a senior sales manager for luxury jewelry brands who put us into contact with Toby Pomeroy, last years luxury designer price winner at JCK Las Vegas. He’s located in Florida but is active throughout the US, Canada and the Caribbean.
MC: Anything else you would like to ad that is important for my readership to understand?
MA: Yes, we decided to keep the whole foundation as transparent and open as possible. At first I believed I could only do this by involving as much people and organizations as possible, getting references, setting up a council, creating a committee of representatives etc, etc.
In the end this meant a lot of bureaucratic nonsense that would make us look good but would mean nothing. In science they call this “mobilizing allies,”giving as much references possible to back up your point of view and to make you look stronger, more credible.
This is done to silence and counter objections and critical questions. We involved a lot of people active in fair trade, development initiatives and quality labeling to create the best we can but we are and always will be open for anyone that has comments, questions, remarks or wishes to contribute since I found that there are a lot of people out there that like to “keep on dreaming.”