When it comes to responsible sourcing, says Monica Stephenson, “diamonds are a tricky subject.” Stephenson is the founder of Anza Gems, which purchases colored gems directly from East African artisanal miners and gives a portion of its sales back to the mining communities.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to ensure responsible sourcing of natural diamonds. Aside from the Kimberley Process — which has been criticized in the past, but does provide assurance that diamonds have non-conflict origins — organizations like the Diamond Development Initiative are bringing diamonds directly from artisanal and small-scale miners to consumers in a way that benefits the mining communities.
De Beers, through its sightholder system and its Forevermark brand, offers additional safeguards. Each Forevermark diamond has a numerical inscription attesting to the responsible sourcing of the gem.
Meanwhile, Rio Tinto runs mine-of-origin programs at both Diavik and Argyle, where the polished is directly traced to the mine and country. Argyle issues an Argyle Pink Diamonds Gem Identification & Authenticity document for every diamond over 0.15 carats. As for Canadian diamonds, they come with Maple Leaf and CanadaMark engravings.
However, diamonds do come from many sources, and it requires a lot of work to determine whether those sources are ethical ones. “You really want to look for a vendor with a documented chain of custody from the mine, through the cutting process, to the retailer’s hands,” says Stephenson. “There are companies out there providing this, but they are often not your typical diamond dealers. Ask for documentation.”
In lieu of these options, she recommends that retailers ask designers and manufacturers where their materials are sourced. “Look for designers working with responsible materials so you can represent that jewelry to your customers with confidence,” she says. “At some point, it comes down to trust between you and your vendor, and between you and your customers [that you will] deliver what you are promising.”
Toronto-based jewelry designer Shelly Purdy has used Canadian diamonds exclusively since 2000. “I was excited, because being a Canadian designer, I wanted Canadian content in my work,” she says. “I focus on diamond engagement rings, and using Canadian diamonds was important to me.”
In doing so, she continues, she has “an authentic Canadian story to go along with my work. I think it’s important to look at the provenance of a stone. For the diamond industry to become stronger, the consumer needs to trust us, and we need to make the information available.”
Lester Oehler, CEO of wholesale manufacturer and designer Toby Pomeroy, agrees that Canadian diamonds are the best option today, but says there are limitations to the supply. The company’s founder, Toby Pomeroy, is a pioneer in responsibly sourced gold and platinum.
However, determining the provenance of diamonds outside of Canada has been a greater challenge, Oehler says. “We wish we had nice, easy, clean criteria to draw from, but we don’t have that much. We don’t do enough volume for it to be a huge issue. We just try to find the most traceable we can.”
It’s important that retailers at least make a sincere effort to show they care how their products are sourced, he stresses. “They should have something in their shop so when the pickiest person comes for something where the metal or diamond is traceable, you can really tell a story about it. If they know you’re making an effort, it makes a big difference.”
Skeptical on synthetics
On the subject of lab-grown stones, some, such as Stephenson, have been skeptical about their marketing pitch. “Synthetic diamond companies have done this marketing job, saying they are the ultimate answer to sustainable engagement rings, but we have to be careful not to eliminate an entire continent as a diamond source [by replacing African mining with synthetics],” she says. “As someone who has been in mining communities, I’ve seen the benefits of mining firsthand. We should work on improving artisanal mining conditions, but mining is not inherently bad, and synthetics are not necessarily the only alternative.”
She also expresses doubt about the carbon footprint of lab-grown diamonds. Although the companies claim to be “carbon neutral,” that just means they are funding low-emissions projects to offset their own emissions, she argues. “And what is the environmental impact of that versus a mined diamond?”
This article was first published in a special supplement produced in collaboration with the Diamond Producers Association.