Getting to the truth of ethical jewellery.
As a ethical jeweller I have always approached jewellery from the bottom up. Not the perfectly rounded bottoms of the air brushed models used by luxury jewellery brands to seduce customers into the false narrative that their jewellery equals better sex. I am an iconoclast of the luxury jewellery convention, where the true bottoms in the jewellery profession are bent double in muddy holes processing small volumes of gold, diamonds or coloured gemstones, eked out of marginal ground in forgotten corners of our glorious world.
This imperative for ethical jewellery is beautifully illustrated in a short conversation with Simon, who heads up Africa’s first certified Fairtrade Gold mine, Syanyonja.
‘If my water pump breaks, I have to borrow money from the local Asian trader. 1 million shillings equals 10 grams of gold plus 3 gram interest every month. I have to pay the loan back in gold, he will not accept money. Half way through the period of the loan the trader often changes the terms saying the gold price has gone down. Now my 10 grams only gets me 800,000 shillings, so I owe him another 1.5 grams a month’.
To add insult to injury Simon adds,
‘The only pumps I can afford with the money are Chinese pumps, which always break down every 3-4 months. So I have to borrow more money from the same trader, on the same terms to keep my mine working before I have paid off the first loan’.
Oh and guess who owns the hardware shop where sub standard Chinese pumps are purchased? The Asian trader. And so it continues, this story replicated hundreds of times across the thousands of little marginal subsistence mining operations in the Busia district of eastern Uganda.
This story of unfair terms of trade, debt bondage, systemic mercury usage and resulting health problems, criminality in gold trading is the truthful bottom of the jewellery profession that every jeweller should be aware of. It is as unethical to sell a luxury jewel without disclosure of source as it is for the Asian trader to exploit Simon with such maleficent intentional debt bondage.
This is the complicated context that ethical jewellers such as myself unashamedly get involved in. Unscrambling this omelette is not easy. Re-addressing the trade disparities in gold is fraught with danger. I am a Fairtrade jeweller and proud of it. It does not devalue my brand as Cartier once told me it would their brand (even though up to recently Cartier sourced gold from a Fairtrade certified mine but refused to do business on Fairtrade terms). Ethical jewellery claims are founded upon two basic principles, transparency and traceability. Without these two pillars in place, talk of ethical jewellery (ἠθικός ethikos, meaning what actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances) is meaningless.
However this is just the beginning of the jewellery story. Jewellery is a natural product, a treasure from the earth that brings joy and meaning. A gift, a talisman, a treasure from the deep that speaks of value and worth. Measuring this value is important and my jewellery represents these truthful values. The value of craftsmanship, the genius of design, the beauty of natural gemstones, the richness of gold. To authentically value the hand from which the jewel emerged, the integrity of the eco system that gave birth to it, is as important as the design of the jewel itself. Jewellery is worn to beautify, there is no beauty in exploitation.
That is why I use Fairtrade Gold, because it blesses the poor, this is why I use traceable coloured gemstones from community based mines, because it places benefiting the poorest at the beginning of the creative process. This is natural justice and fulfills and nurtures the goodness of the human spirit. Jewellery has become for me a celebration of life, all life, and was never meant to be a product associated with elite luxury, privileged status and an advertisement for objectifying women as sexual objects.
So I invite couples of good conscious to consider my ethical bridal collection. Whether it is a pair of Fairtrade wedding rings, an ethical engagement or a custom designed one off jewel, your considered purchase will bring joy and happiness to everyone. It will celebrate the beauty of all life and symbolise true happiness. This is the natural beauty of jewellery.