About Fair Trade Jewelry


The notion of , particularly in the mainstream jewelry trade, is a relatively recent phenomena. This issue has gained prominence in the jewelry world partly as a result of the film, Blood Diamonds, released in December, 2006. The film exposed the conflict diamond trade that took place in Sierra Leone in the 1999, was a strong indictment against the jewelry industry. It showed how the diamonds were used to finance a bloody civil war. Diamond business comprises over fifty percent of all jewelry business in the US. Independent jewelers and the Diamond Trading Company were passionately concerned about the impact of this film on their business.

As it turned out, the film had minimal impact on Diamond sales. Safeguards, specifically the Kimberly Process, satisfied the conscience of the public-even though the effectiveness of Kimberly is still questioned by Global Witness who write that conflict diamonds continue to be mined and sold. Some leaders in the diamond industry, particularly Martin Rapaport, recognized that the issue of Conflict Diamonds is really an issue of Fair Trade. Other smaller jewelry manufacturers have joined the movement. Though there is wide recognition in the US market of some Fair Trade products, such as coffee and chocolate, neither the customer on the retail or trade level have any concept of Fair Trade in the jewelry world.

At this point, those who are taking leadership in Fair Trade jewelry are, metaphorically, voices in the wilderness. If you search on line, you will find a few small companies that are producing artisan jewelry. These companies, though admirable in their intention, actually represent a negligible share of the ethnic jewelry market. They do not even register in the main stream jewelry market, which consists of branded items and relies mostly on the diamond trade, high karat gold, watches, and precious gemstones. Jewelry is made up of many component pieces. The most publicized movement toward Fair Trade in the jewelry business has come from the area of gemstones. There are producers, most noteworthy, Columbia Gem House, that have set up mining practices that are fair and environmentally sound, while at the same time, channel money fairly back into the community. In my experience in the developing countries where I have lived, it is not that simple to improve the lives through community projects.

If the people in these poor communities do not feel that the project is their own, then the development money may just go down the drain. Development that really improves the long term well being of poor communities takes more than just money–it takes a strong commitment which includes often developing local leadership that is not corrupt. Columbia's example, which includes some development, has been widely toured in the jewelry trade press. However, the gemstone trade is huge. Very few precious and semi-precious stones are Fair Trade produced. For example, as a manufacturer myself, I purchase a large number of garnets that have to meet a certain price range to be competitive in the market place. These semi-precious gems are mined in Africa and cut in India and not available on a Fair Trade basis. What about other jewelry items or components outside of gemstones, such as handwoven chain or findings which are readily produced in the developing world? Jewelry manufacturing on a large scale does not easily fit the small village model as textiles or some agricultural product might. First, there is the cost of silver and gold which is high for someone in a small village in some third world country.

Second, there is the quality issue. In production jewelry manufacturing, there is an extremely low tolerance for variation, because variation, when it comes to precious metal, costs. Bali, Indonesia, is a place that would seem perfect for Fair Trade jewelry. Their hand silver work is arguably the finest in the world, and it is seeped in tradition. To manufacture on a large scale, many companies operating out of Bali will take an item and distribute it to the villages. Each artisan will purchase the silver in its raw form which they will refine in order to create their own sterling, which is .925 percent fine. The product that comes back is often inconsistent and often is not sterling silver, as hallmarked. The final difficulty to overcome is delivery time.

Time schedules in the developed and developing world do not easily match. A manufacturer can spend tens of thousands of dollars of marketing money to get a large order. The stakes are high. A manufacturer supplying a catalog or department store can be heavily penalized if an item is delivered late. The excuse that there was a holiday in the middle of a production schedule is difficult to accept. The village model is extremely difficult; perhaps, too difficult to surmount. Though the factory model is not the preferred method for Fair Trade manufacturing, for Fair Trade jewelry to be manufactured on a large scale, there has to be some type of factory structure. These factory conditions must be subject to full disclosure. They would include many of these elements:

  • Providing free room and board for their employees. Many factory workers leave home for long periods of time in order to do their production. The factory must support this by providing quarters.
  • Wages well above the minimum wage standards. Minimum wages are not sufficient. People must be well paid.
  • Clean, environmentally sound, well ventilated working conditions. In house environment must be safe and toxins have to be dealt with responsibly. Environmental responsible mining and refining are more difficult to assure Gold and silver purchased from a supplier can come from a wide variety of sources that can change from day to day.
  • Paid vacation. A Fair Trade manufacturer in Bali, for example, would close down during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, and provide pay at that time
  • Profit sharing.
  • A fund for medical expenses.
  •  Respect for all cultural traditions.

Another difficulty with establishing Fair Trade practice in the developing world where jewelry is produced is that there are gray areas. Consider child labor. We imagine young boy or girl in a toxic factory, working twelve hours a day. But is it wrong for a 17 year old who works in a cutting factory supporting a family, even though the legal working age might be 18?

How about the ten-year old, working with his father, learning to make hand woven chains with techniques that have been passed down through generations in a Balinese village? Do we want to stop that? These and many other issues have yet to be sorted out. At present is not an association or third party certification to support Fair Trade in the jewelry world. Rather, there is a loose network of players interested in conducting socially responsible business. A manufacturer interested in this issue would have to source out supply chains and products that indeed support Fair trade.

This is extremely difficult to do, as even a small manufacturing company can have thousands of inventory pieces from all over the world. Yet there is little doubt in my mind that the movement for Fair Trade in the jewelry industry will catch on. I write this as a manufacture who is trying to implement Fair Trade into his business. Martin Rapaport, in the January edition of the Rapaport Report, said, "Fair Trade has the potential to become the ultimate luxury product of our century… not only to compete, but to dominate." It is only a matter of time before those who purchase their jewelry strongly connect to the manufacturing process as well. Jewelry is usually purchased to mark an occasion or a commitment.

For others, it is about having something beautiful. It is not a commodity like gasoline. It is a often a luxury item purchased for emotional reasons. How would the customer feel knowing that the gem purchased funded a civil war or that the ring was made in toxic working conditions in some third world sweat shop? What man would ever knowingly purchase a conflict diamond to complete an engagement ring? Yet that is exactly what has happened in the past, and the movement in Fair Trade shows that at least some segments of the jewelry industry are waking up.

The percentage of people who are concern enough about corporate social responsibility is the same demographic that supports the organic movement-it is a strong and growing segment of the population. How fast the Fair Trade movement takes hold also depends to a large degree upon how much pressure the public exerts.

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