The Kimberley Process was introduced in 2003 to ban the trade of “conflict diamonds”. However, the world – and consumers’ expectations – have changed since then, and the process’ role has not. Nowadays, many critics say the process’ definition has not evolved, and is now too narrow. It only covers a specific type of diamonds: “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments”, as stated on its website.
This definition has allowed many other diamonds – cut or polished – mined while violating human rights or other illegal means, to be labelled as ethical, clean diamonds adorning our necks and fingers.
“It was a huge step in the right direction at the time,” says Nathalie Melville-Geary, founder and creative director of Melville Fine Jewellery, a Hong Kong company specialising in ethical jewellery. “It needed to evolve and it’s not done that.”
It has led to big names in the industry, such as Global Witness and Martin Rapaport, to withdraw their support.
“The diamond industry is inherently archaic,” Melville-Geary says. “People don’t want to change. There are special-interest groups that don’t want it to change because it suits them to have it the way it is.”
But with consumers no wiser and demanding more social responsibility, more ethical options have started to crop up. From synthetic diamonds to diamonds mined in developed countries where there is more accountability, transparency and better labour laws, some diamonds enter the market with provenance more in sync with the demands of today’s customers.
Take Amazon’s new line of lab-grown diamonds that you can buy from its online store. Another example is Rio Tinto, which owns white diamond mines in Canada and pink diamond mines in Australia – two developed countries with stringent labour laws in place. And, with both types of diamonds being on par with traditionally mined diamonds in terms of clarity, colour and carat, there is little wonder eco-conscious and human-rights conscious customers are shifting towards these new options.
“Today’s consumer wants to be able to hold their diamond up to the light and know that the diamond they are buying is not just rare and beautiful, but has an honourable pedigree,” says Bruno Sane, the general manager of marketing for Rio Tinto Diamonds.
“The value of the diamond is tied to where and how the diamond was mined, how it was cut and polished and the process of bringing it to sale,” he adds. “This means that retailers are asking for diamonds tracked to the mine of origin.”
Rio Tinto, which built a wind farm in order to use clean energy to fuel the mine, has a history of consulting with indigenous communities about the mine’s potential impact and future environmental consequences.
Some would argue that while the Kimberley Process is long overdue an overhaul, there is no other certification process that has enjoyed the same influence. Other certification processes, such as the Responsible Jewellery Council and the World Diamond Council System of Warranties, are based on the Kimberley Process.
An alternative to sourcing ethical diamonds is to build personal connections and relationships with small mines that are transparent and socially responsible, andsource stones directly from them.
Melville-Geary sources her diamonds from Canada and Australia, and from channels and organisations, including artisanal mines, that often work within the NGO sector, such as Jeweltree Foundation and Diamond Development Initiative.
Even the best and most ethical companies and options available, Melville-Geary says, are “still a work in progress”.
Diamonds and diamond-sourcing “is a horrendously difficult and complex industry”, she says. “It’s complicated. In terms of ethical sourcing, there’s no magic wand.”
Some brands are choosing to address the problem by expanding the narrative to include giving back to the local community and offsetting their carbon footprint with eco-friendly initiatives.
Examples include John Hardy, a jewellery firm based in Bali, which plants multiple bamboo seedlings for every jewellery piece sold from its Bamboo line. It supports Balinese orphans and disadvantaged students, and its Jobs for Life programme provides vocational training and apprenticeships.
Forevermark, a subsidiary of the De Beers Group, helps support small and medium-sized businesses, HIV/Aids treatment and prevention programmes and wildlife conservation programmes.
Chopard, a luxury heritage brand, uses fairmined gold in some high-jewellery collections and in its L.U.C. watches. Its Green Carpet Collection this year – a capsule collection within its annual high-jewellery Red Carpet collection – featured responsibly sourced emeralds from Gemfields; diamonds sourced from a Responsible Jewellery Council Code of Practices-certified diamond supplier; and fairmined certified gold.
The Fairmined Standard is recognised as the industry norm of how a certification programme can empower responsible small-scale mining organisations and connect them with the larger jewellery market.
“Luxury should be sustainable,” says Caroline Scheufele, artistic director and co-president of Chopard. “The ultimate luxury is that you “know how your product is produced and you know that when you invest in that “because you have the choice [to do so].”
The goal, she says, is to use fairmined gold in all of the high jewellery collections and in all L.U.C. watches, which she believes is “soon achievable”.
Another method is to upcycle materials that others consider “garbage” by incorporating them into jewellery designs.
Niin, a Hong Kong-based jewellery company, uses driftwood, off-cut wood sourced from a furniture factory, and abalone shells discarded by restaurants. Sourcing can be an issue even when the relationships and trust have been developed, as the available quantity of materials is directly linked to the spending habits and production cycles of third party consumers.
“[I collect the abalone] from restaurants that I know are discarding it,” says niin founder Jeanine Hsu. “I’d like to do that for everything, but the process and the time it takes to do that and the cost involved adds up.”
“You can’t always rely on the quantity of what will actually be available … when you need it,” she elaborates. It is not the most efficient way to make jewellery.”