Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference
Held October 21 and 22 at Cinema Row, the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference drew 200 attendees who heard industry experts discuss safe, sustainable, ethical gem production and jewelry design.
Friday’s session opened with a keynote address by Mark Hanna (Richline Group). “Our vision is the creation and maintenance of a responsible, worldwide supply chain that promotes trust in the global fine jewelry industry,” Hanna announced. He discussed the ways blockchain technology is allowing for greater mine-to-market transparency. While there are communication and efficiency issues, as the various blockchains do not yet interact, open-source tracking does seem to be the wave of the future. Following Hanna’s presentation, Rolberto Alvarez of Colombia’s Mina Gualconda reported on the gold mine’s transformation from a manual operation with mercury extraction (1974–2001) to an environmentally conscious, Fairmined-branded enterprise, supporting 12 families and using zero mercury.
Eric Braunwart (Columbia Gem House) moderated the first of several panels held during the conference. A group of gem cutters, representing four continents, discussed locale-based challenges that included the costs of replacing broken equipment, a lack of cutting knowledge and experience among locals, and recent restrictions on exporting rough from countries such as Tanzania. Panelists observed that clients also want corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts to extend to cutters and reiterated what has been said at similar gatherings: The art of cutting involves more than just faceting a stone. Often cutters say the stones “speak” to them, telling them where to begin and end. The storytelling that has become part of the jewelry industry’s outreach to customers should include tales of the cut as well.
Day one ended with the work of sustainability consultants The Dragonfly Initiative (TDI), which has developed the Coloured Gemstone Working Group (CGWG) to support the communities impacted by the colored gems sector. TDI’s Sarah Caven posed the question: “Things are not perfect, and we can maybe never get perfection, but what can we do to improve transparency and do a better job in the supply chains?” She explained that the CGWG has created due diligence systems that are adaptable for everything from micro-businesses to large corporations, with commitments from 12 major luxury jewelry brands. With corporate partnerships, TDI has also launched artisanal and small-scale mining projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Brazil. Brian Cook (Nature’s Geometry) spoke of his work as a consultant for TDI, investigating the financial records and environmental reclamation efforts of alluvial mining sites in Brazil. He also provided updates on the rutilated golden quartz community he established in Brazil’s Bahia State.
The first day also featured the premiere of River of Gold, a documentary on illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest. The film shows the environmental devastation and human corruption that results from this form of gold exploitation. After the screening, sustainable jewelry consultant Christina Miller moderated a Q&A session with producer Sarah DuPont, joined by Susan Egan Keane (Natural Resources Defense Council) and Nigel Pitman (The Field Museum).
Day two opened with a panel in which jewelry designers described how they began working ethically sourced material. Moderated by jewelry designer and metalsmith Alexandra Hart, panelists told of humble beginnings in the responsible sourcing sphere; Helene Grassin (Paulette à Bicyclette) recalled sharing casting trees with other like-minded Parisian designers in order to afford the cost of ethically mined gold. The designers noted that their clientele know how to find them and were adamant about balancing bad news with transparency: If the customer cannot be told honestly that their materials are ethically sourced, they will often select a different metal or gemstone. They shared a desire to reach out to independent ethical, environmentally responsible gem suppliers so that designers and suppliers could join together to create a remarkable story for clientele. As one panelist stated, “We are the pioneers of creating these relationships.
Joanne Lebert (Impact) used a case study from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to explain how Impact believes ASM activity should operate. Borrowing the Reagan-era dictum “Trust, but verify” allows the gemstone or jewelry piece’s story to be told honestly and ethically. The Clinton campaign mantra “It’s the economy, stupid!” reminds us that producers along the supply chain should be seen as economic actors who have a stake—and a final impact—on the material. Finally, Lebert’s assertion that Obama focused on the good of the community as a whole reminds us that men and women in the mining and cutting sectors benefit differently from CSR efforts, a point examined further by the next speaker. Glenn Lehrer (Colourful Life Foundation) discussed the importance of giving back to communities that produce and work in the gem and jewelry industry. While the foundation is working in gem communities around the world, Lehrer focused on the schools it has opened for low-income children in Jaipur, India. Mothers of the children attending Colourful Life schools were provided with faceting training to prepare them for Jaipur’s workforce. He was surprised to learn that the women rejected at-home training and workshop equipment. Going to school and work was a form of dignity for them, whereas Western workers often prefer the convenience of working remotely.
The last panel of the conference, moderated by Monica Stephenson (Anza Gems and iDazzle) focused on artisanal mining. Panelists recounted their personal experiences, challenges, and triumphs in the mining sector. Among the speakers was Salma Kundi, a tourmaline miner from Tanga, Tanzania, and secretary general of Tanzanian Women’s Mining Association (TAWOMA); her group was involved in the Pact/GIA guidebook project (see below). Where Kundi comes from, a miner pays for a concession and a license and exploits the deposit with assistance. A mining license costs about US$400, a high price for a woman, and that does not cover mining and food expenses. Membership in TAWOMA allows for collective mining, enabling women to pay for licenses. Other challenges include a need to reach buyers beyond their local markets.
Robert Weldon spoke about GIA’s collaboration with Washington, DC–based NGO Pact to create and distribute a rough gem guidebook among Tanzanian miners (Summer 2018 GNI, pp. 245–246). Since early 2017, GIA and Pact have provided training with the Swahili-language guidebook, which is accompanied by a tray for sorting gemstones using reflected and transmitted light. Follow-up surveys revealed a $12 social return on investment for every $1 invested in the program. As of October 2018, the guidebook has reached approximately 1,000 Tanzanian miners. The final speaker of the day, Yianni Melas (The Gem Explorer), recounted his experiences as a human rights advocate for gem and jewelry laborers, including a recent 31-day hunger strike that made international headlines.
Both days also featured a gem boutique, with information on ventures and gemstones available for sale. There were also optional lunch sessions that elaborated on topics that will affect the industry’s future, such as the Jewelry Development Index, the flagship project of the University of Delaware’s “Mines, Minerals and Society” program; the Mercury-Free Mining Challenge; and TrustChain, a collaboration between industry leaders and IBM to create a blockchain solution. As Mark Hanna said in opening the conference, “The challenge of our unknown future is so much more exciting than the stories of our accomplished past.”
The 2019 Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference is slated for Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26.