Sustainability giving the brilliance back to diamonds

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Where the concept of luxury was once built on scarcity, skill and premium materials, it is increasingly encompassing fair treatment of workers and responsible environmental practices too. The jewellery industry is no exception.

Iris Van der Veken, executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council, who has been championing better practices in the industry since 2005, has seen the trend taking off. “The demand for transparency in the provenance of jewellery has increased. When a consumer walks into a store or buys a diamond online, he or she has a right to know that the company they buy from is a company that drives sustainability forward and integrates good practices.”

A recent study by the Gemological Institute of America found that 69% of American bridal consumers prefer to buy a diamond with an origin story but the industry is still playing catch up to this new demand.

For many ethically-minded consumers, the exposé on blood diamonds in the 1990s has left them wary of investing in something that could be funding the suffering of others. The industry has worked hard to tackle the issue, primarily through the introduction of the Kimberley Process set up in 2000 which now regulates 99.8% of the diamond trade to cut conflict diamonds out of it. However, diamonds certified by the Kimberley Process do not provide reassurance against other consumer concerns. It’s now quite easy to seek out internationally-recognised, independent certificates such as Fairtrade for the gold and silver used in jewellery, but no such hallmark of ethics exists for diamonds yet, creating further distrust for shoppers looking to spend a good amount of money whether on an engagements ring or the growing category of buying gifts for themselves.

[Transparency] is really important for what we’re selling. Diamonds are a promise of sincerity and love,” explains Jean Marc Lieberherr, chief executive of the Diamond Producers Association. “Some people still think [diamond mining is] people digging through mud and that’s just not the case. Most mining is large scale mines that are respectful of people and the planet

Just five companies operate 70% of the world’s diamond production. All except De Beers, the market leader who is well recognised for its eponymous jewellery brand, are largely unknown names to consumers. Most conduct the bulk of their business as B2B suppliers of rough diamonds, passing them on to polishers who sell on to jewellers, meaning their names, and the origin of the stones, get lost by the time they hit the shop floor. Small diamonds are even harder to trace, often being sold in bulk which may then be resold with other bags from different mining companies.

While low competition is not usually considered a positive thing, it’s more common in the diamond space that examples of unethical practices happen at small-scale and artisanal mines that, while creating work in countries where they are very much needed, are less heavily regulated. Consumers concerned about the origins of their stones would be wise to look for large, recognised names to ensure above-board practices but this isn’t commonly available information; a problem for consumers and miners.

A “made in Italy” tag in an item of clothing can instantly increase the value of an item in the eyes of the customer, yet for jewellery shoppers, the equivalent information hasn’t been handed to them so easily. Many diamond producing countries have particular characteristics to the gems they mine and, crucially, have different regulations on worker’s rights and environmental impacts.

Many consumers still associate diamonds with those areas affected by conflict diamonds that have received significant media attention, notably Angola, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau. However, none of these are in the top three country producers, Russia, Botswana and Canada, which account for two thirds of diamonds on the market.

Alrosa, the world’s second largest diamond producer, is proud to say they’re from Russia. They claim that rough diamonds from their 12 kimberlite pipes are superior for producing a high proportion of regularly-shaped crystals, produce more exceptionally white diamonds, the highest grade of colour, and manufacturers have noted that Russian diamonds possess qualities which allow them reduce process costs and time.

Alrosa is also proud to say that they’re mined in conflict-free areas. What’s more, as well as continually working to reduce their impact in areas such as water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the company is spending 6 billion RUB (£77.5 million) on environmental initiatives this year. Customers might also be surprised to hear that Alrosa’s 35,000 employees earn on average two times the average wage in the region of Yakutia (where Alrosa’s mines are based) and three times than the average salary in Russia. The majority of workers are also members of the independent Interregional Labour Union of Alrosa Employees.

In Alrosa’s Alliance Guidelines on Responsible Business Practices released in 2018, they urged their clients to disclose the origin of the diamonds when selling them on. “The establishment of a responsible diamond supply chain from mine to retail is an important element in ensuring transparency of the diamond industry as a whole,” they said in a statement. “Responsible supply chain is based on the principle of unconditional disclosure of information on [a diamond’s] conflict-free source and quality characteristics… at every stage of change of ownership, with the aim of promoting consumer confidence in diamonds.”

They’re also looking at ways to tackle the issue themselves. Alrosa has taken part in the pilot for De Beers’ blockchain scheme Tracr which aims to track a diamonds journey securely at every step of the process from mine to shop floor.

Knowing where a diamond comes from is just one step of the process though. Raising the profile of that source is another, and key to tapping the business opportunity in transparency. Could “mined in Russia” be the “made in Italy” of the fine jewellery world? Alrosa hopes so.

Earlier this year, Alrosa launched a consumer-facing website to share information and story-telling content about their diamonds’ origin. They are also trialling a service on 2,000 diamonds that gives each one an electronic passport revealing its age, place and the date of its extraction, as well as the time and place of its cutting, the craftsman’s name and background with a full video history of the diamond’s extraction and cutting.

Tracing systems not only protect from the purchase of stones with a dubious reputation, but also potentially create a new experience for the consumer, the opportunity to see the whole route of the diamond and its origin, and thus learn the unique history of the purchase, says head of the Alrosa press office, Jane Kozenko.

The reality of being able to know where our diamonds come from is close to fruition. The next challenge for the world’s diamond producers and sellers will be leveraging the stories from those countries to not only provide trust and transparency, but added value to become the most luxurious diamonds in the world.

This page was last updated on 06 August 2019 at 09.47