Feature image by Sara Johnston on Unsplash
Let's be honest, who doesn't love a fabulous diamond or sapphire dress ring? Or a pair of vibrant turquoise and silver earrings? Or an aventurine healing crystal bracelet that helps to release old habits and enhance creativity and motivation?
Diamonds, precious stones like rubies, emeralds and sapphires, and semi-precious stones like amethyst and blue topaz have been used for centuries to add beauty and sparkle to jewellery. And as spiritual consciousness becomes more mainstream, healing crystal jewellery is becoming more and more popular too.
Healing crystals and stones are touted by the likes of Adele, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian for their abilities to bestow calm and revitalise energy. Miranda Kerr apparently filters her skincare products through rose quartz 'to give the vibration of self-love.'
Healing crystals are marketed to spiritually conscious consumers as healing talismans that help us to overcome our fears, manifest the love of the universe and balance our chakras.
All those things sound amazing! We all want to live our most vibrant lives and feel connected, right? There’s nothing like a gorgeous crystal bracelet or a sparkling ruby ring to give us a little smile throughout the day.
So what's the problem?
We all know that diamonds, gemstones and healing crystals are mined out of the ground, but because they’re available to buy everywhere, we think everything must be okay.
But what's really going on?
How are diamonds, crystals and gemstones mined, and should we rethink the stones that we buy and wear in our jewellery?
Natural gemstones, semi-precious stones and diamonds are a finite resource. That is, when we retrieve them from the ground, they can't be easily or quickly replaced. Once they're gone, they're gone. This means that natural gemstones can never be 'sustainable,' despite mining companies’ best efforts to look after the environment.
If you ask Google, 'how long do diamonds take to form,' you'll find answers in the range of 1 to 3.5 billion years. It's not like bamboo that regrows super fast.
Diamonds, gemstones and healing crystals are not sustainable because it takes too long for new stones to form.
Diamonds and precious stones like sapphires and emeralds are mined by big mining companies who clear vast tracts of land to build enormous mines.
Photo by Matthew de Livera on Unsplash
About 250 tonnes of earth are mined to produce a one carat diamond (200 milligrams) of polished gem quality. The ore (the earth containing the diamonds) is blasted with explosives before being transported on trucks for sorting and processing. Diamond and precious stone mines are vast, gaping holes in the Earth.
The biggest diamond mine in the world, the Aikhal mine in Russia, was estimated in 2018 to contain 175.56 million carats of diamonds. The second biggest, the Jwaneng diamond mine in Botswana, was estimated in 2018 to contain 166.6 million carats of diamonds. The list goes on, and that's just for diamonds.
That's a mind-boggling amount of earth displaced and ecosystems destroyed.
It probably takes less time than you think before mines run out of gemstones.
The Argyle diamond mine in Western Australia stayed open for 37 years.
In Canada, diamonds were discovered in the 1990s. The Ekati and Diavik diamond mines, near the Arctic Circle in Canada, started operating in 1998 and 2003 respectively, but after only 20-odd years of mining, the diamonds are already starting to run out. Rio Tinto, who owns the Diavik mine, opened a fourth kimberlite pipe, which is essentially a fourth mine, on the site in 2018, and says that it plans to close several kimberlite pipes there in the next five years.
Mining companies constantly close mines when resources are depleted and build new ones where resources are found. It's the nature of the mining industry and how it meets global demand for resources.
All mines are planned to be temporary, because the resource will inevitably run out, and the mining companies all plan for the closure of their mines. But they don't all rehabilitate the land.
The Australian government's best practice guidelines for mine rehabilitation differentiates between mine 'rehabilitation' and 'restoration'.
Mine rehabilitation does not aim to re-establish original ecosystems, and rehabilitated mine sites might look significantly different to their original states. Land that was originally bushland might be replaced with plantations for forestry, crops for farming or grazing land for cattle so it remains productive. Or it might be re-planted with a limited variety of species native to the area.
Just plant some trees, in other words, but don't worry about the ecosystems.
[Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash]
Mine restoration, on the other hand, aims to re-establish ecosystems or replicate a reference ecosystem. A variety of species would be planted to re-create ecosystem that's similar to the original state.
The thing is, the best practice guidelines are just for rehabilitation in Australia, not for restoration. And each state and territory has its own guidelines on what that means. A minority of mines are investing genuine effort to re-create pre-existing ecosystems when they close.
So if Australia doesn't have regulations to re-establish ecosystems when mines close, what happens in developing countries?
In 2020, the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development found that of 30 countries surveyed around the world, all were aware of the importance of mine closures, but many did not have the capacity to regulate or manage responsible mine closures themselves.
And what about mines that closed before mine rehabilitation was even a thing?
The Geneva Graduate Institute reports that there are around 50,000 abandoned mine sites in Australia, more than 550,000 in the US, including 100,000 that pose a serious environmental risk, and more than 10,000 in Canada. But data doesn't exist for most developing countries, especially where artisanal and small scale mining is common.
Most of these mines were abandoned before the end of the last century, before the internet, when they could get away with it.
The problem is, mining strips away the vegetation and top soil, rendering the land permanently infertile. Nothing grows on it unless massive and expensive efforts are made to rehabilitate the area.
Mines use toxic chemicals to extract the precious resources from the earth, and old abandoned mine sites can contaminate local waterways and land with chemicals that damage ecosystems and affect local communities.
Big mining sites use tailings storage facilities, or 'tailings dams,' to store the toxic waste that they've used to extract the valuable resources from the earth. They're massive dams full of toxic water.
If a tailings dam leaks, immense volumes of hazardous materials that create catastrophic damage to nearby ecosystems and water systems.
In January 2019, a tailings dam at an iron ore mine failed at Brumadinho in Brazil, spilling 11.7 million cubic metres of mining waste through the mine’s offices and full cafeteria and destroying houses, roads and farmland downstream. 270 people died and 11 were reported missing.
At the time of the Brumadinho dam disaster, the company that owned the dam, Vale, was still under investigation, together with its partner, BHP Billiton, for another tailings dam failure at an iron ore mine in Mariana in Brazil. which killed 19 people and destroyed an entire village. That dam failure released 43.7 million cubic metres of tailings into the Doce river, creating a toxic brown mudflow that destroyed entire river ecosystems and beaches 17 days later when it reached the Atlantic Ocean, 629 km away. The force of the mudflow destroyed 1,469 hectares of forest along the river.
These disasters happened at tailings storage facilities at iron ore mines, but all mines store their waste in dams forever, and tailings dams at diamond and gemstone mines fail too.
In the last 100 years, more than 300 mine tailings dams have failed worldwide.
Wherever a finite valuable resource is discovered, there'll be power imbalances, and in developing countries and war zones, those resources inevitably finance wars, conflict and human rights abuses.
Conflict or 'blood' diamonds are diamonds that have funded war and conflict. Human rights group Global Witness exposed the truth and extent of conflict diamonds to the world in the 1990s, and diamonds are considered to have funded civil wars in six different African countries this century and last century. Conflict diamonds are often illegally mined in areas controlled by rebel groups, who then sell them to buy weapons and other supplies. This gives more power to rebel groups, prolonging conflicts and allowing them to control local communities.
Lapis lazuli is a beautiful blue gemstone that has been used in jewellery and other decorative items for centuries. Most of the world's lapis lazuli comes from ancient mines in Afghanistan, where it's been mined since the 7th century. And of course, it's been funding the Taliban for decades.
In 2016, an investigation by climate and human rights activist organisation Global Witness found that lapis lazuli was the Taliban's second biggest source of income, earning them up to $20 million per year. In 2021, the BBC reported that lapis lazuli was still a major source of income for the Taliban, citing a 2014 UN report that said that the Taliban received more than $10 million a year from 25 to 30 illegal mining operations in southern Helmand province in Afghanistan.
There’s no way of telling if the beautiful lapis lazuli tumble stones, pendants and beads that we can buy cheaply in Australia are funding the Taliban.
The Kimberley Process is an international certification scheme that was set up in 2003 to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds, which are diamonds used to finance wars against governments. But it has been criticised for failing to protect human rights.
The Process requires governments to certify that the diamonds they export are from sources that are not associated with conflict and have been lawfully mined and traded. However, it has loopholes, that allow conflict diamonds to be smuggled into neighbouring countries and enter the global market. It also doesn't require companies that sell diamonds to disclose where they come from.
In 2011, the New York Times reported that Global Witness, the international advocacy group that was integral in establishing the Kimberley Process in the first place, had withdrawn as an official observer of the Kimberley Process.
Global Witness's main issues with the Process are:
- that it uses a narrow definition of 'conflict diamonds' that doesn't cover all human rights abuses that happen in diamond mining, and it refuses to broaden it.
- that it doesn't cover cut and polished diamonds, only rough diamonds. So there's no accountability system once the rough diamonds are transported for processing.
The Kimberley Process is certainly better than nothing, but it’s not a guarantee that diamonds are conflict free. It also doesn’t cover child labour or environmental factors.
Despite its shortcomings, the Kimberley Process is a globally cohesive step in the right direction when it comes to human rights abuses and diamonds. However, no such system exists in the coloured gemstone sector.
Global gemstone trading is shrouded in secrecy. A lot of coloured gemstones are mined by artisanal and small-scale mining groups in developing countries, which are hard to regulate, and stones from different sources are mixed together during production processes.
In 2019, a German company called Gübelin Gem Lab released a blockchain technology system called Provenance Proof to track coloured gemstones from mines to market. But there's no global agreement like the Kimberley Process requiring stakeholders in the sector to use it.
In 2020 and 2021, I worked at one of the biggest mainstream jewellery brands in Australia. This store and its sister stores are a staple in shopping malls across Australia. Yet as salespeople, we had no idea where the diamonds or coloured gemstones that we were selling came from, apart from the few solitaire rings made with GIA certified diamonds.
We were told that we had to trust that the company would only source from reputable sources. However, the company had zero environmental or ethical polices on its website or in our training. The Kimberley Process was never mentioned.
People and the planet weren't a priority for that big mainstream jewellery company. Profits were.
Diamond and gemstone transparency wasn't something that company practiced. And the reason it could get away with it, and still does?
Big jewellery brands keeps getting away with non-transparency because people keep buying without asking questions.
Photo of jade miners at Hpakant in Myanmar by Minzarar on Global Witness
The rose quartz in your 'purifying' water bottle or in that bracelet of perfectly round shiny beads might well have been mined by a child.
Many healing crystals are mined by small scale or artisanal miners because their value isn’t high enough to warrant building big mines for. They are often mined in developing countries where safety and labour rights are lax.
Child labour in artisanal mining for precious metals, gemstones and healing crystals is common in developing countries around the world. In artisanal mining, small groups and families work together using shovels and pickaxes to mine for precious metals, gemstones and crystals. Artisanal mining is hard labour and people do it to alleviate poverty.
As global demand for finite resources increases, more and more people in resource-rich areas are turning to artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), especially when safer opportunities for making money are limited. It's hard and dangerous work, but people do it to make ends meet.
Further down the supply chain, children are used to cut and polish gemstones and crystals and make jewellery. A 2011 census in India found that there were 50,000 children working in the global gemstone processing hub of Jaipur, India, cutting and polishing stones.
In 2019, the World Bank and international aid organisation Pact created Delve, a global platform for ASM data. Delve’s research shows enormous growth in the ASM sector in the last 30 years, with the numbers of people working in ASM increasing from 6 million in 1993 to almost 45 million in 2020.
In 2019, The Guardian reported that the global demand for healing crystals and gemstones had doubled since 2016, in what was now a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar industry. It investigated child labour in mines in Madagascar, where healing crystals like rose quartz, amethyst, tourmaline, citrine, labradorite and carnelian are abundant, and regulations to protect miners and the environment are scarce.
It's the same story in any resource-rich developing country in the world.
Photo of child tourmaline miners in Madagascar by Tess McClure in The Guardian
There's currently an online petition with almost 17,000 signatures demanding that Gwyneth Paltrow's brand Goop sells only ethically produced healing crystals.
Yet on the her website, a 15" rose quartz beaded choker that 'balances the heart chakra and neutralizes negative emotions' sells for US$595. There's no mention of where the stones are sourced.
You can buy a full 15" strand of exactly the same round Madagascan rose quartz beads on Etsy for AUD$12.66.
When gemstone and crystal beads are so cheap to buy, you have to wonder how the people who mined them are paid.
The truth is, the miners in developing countries who produce the world's gemstones and healing crystals are paid a fraction of what those stones are worth further down the supply chain, even before they're made into jewellery or ornaments.
And those miners are often children.
Silicosis is a chronic lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica dust, which is found in rocks and soil. Over time it causes irreversible scarring in the lungs called pulmonary fibrosis and leads to premature death. Tens of millions of workers around the world are exposed to silica from mining, gemstone cutting and polishing and stone cutting.
There is no cure for silicosis, so prevention is the only solution.
In recent years there's been a push in the global gemstone processing hub of Jaipur in India to use wet techniques for gemstone grinding, cutting, polishing and factory cleaning, to reduce airborne dust levels.
But silicosis is still a problem for miners, where the only solution is an expensive respirator with a filter. Cheap dust masks, which artisanal miners are more likely to be able afford, are simply inadequate.
In March 2022, miners in Rajasthan in India were still fighting for the formation of a Mine Workers’ Welfare Board to ensure better protection against silicosis. They've been fighting for this since 2018.
Gem Legacy is a not for profit organisation that supports training, entrepreneurship and community development in East African artisanal gem mining communities. They're currently running a project to provide silicosis prevention masks and filters to 5,000 artisanal tanzanite miners in Tanzania.
The bottom line is that the mining of diamonds, gemstones and healing crystals comes at a high cost to people and the planet. Child labour is common in artisanal mining, and miners are paid a fraction of what their stones are worth. There are also serious environmental concerns, as mining destroys ecosystems and pollutes water sources.
If you're concerned about the ethical and sustainability issues surrounding diamonds, gemstones and healing crystals, you can make a positive contribution as a consumer.
One thing we know for sure is that change comes from consumer demand.
As long as no one's asking the hard questions, companies will keep putting profits over people and the planet. As soon as awareness grows and consumers start asking questions and demanding transparency from brands about the ethical and environmental origins of their products, those brands will be forced to change.
It's not enough for big jewellery brands to ask us to trust them simply because they've been around for 100 years. As consumers, we can choose to spend our money on brands that are demonstrating how they've looked after people and the environment in the making of their products. We need to start demanding that brands demonstrate transparency around their products' origins.
We're seeing this happen in the fast fashion industry already, and I'll be writing about it soon. The more people are aware and making conscious purchases, the more brands will listen and things will start to shift.
It takes courage and integrity to make these demands this as a consumer. After all, products that have been produced unethically are cheap to buy. They’re available in shiny shopping malls and it’s very easy and convenient to pretend that there’s no problem.
At Sugarberry Shimmy, we don't use gemstones that have been mined out of the ground. We make our jewellery with tiny Japanese glass seed beads. Our packaging is 100% biodegradable and recyclable and we create virtually no production waste. We plant a tree for every piece of jewellery we sell and our Queen of the Sea Starfish Earrings are a dedicated fundraiser and awareness raiser for the ocean clean up movement.
We still use gold and silver that’s mined out of the ground, so we’re not perfect. We don’t have a sustainable alternative to mined gold or silver yet, but we’re working on it. Refusing to use gemstones or crystals that have been mined from the earth is a strong start.
Sugarberry Shimmy image by Kirra Smith Photography
What are your thoughts on this? Is knowing all of this enough you make you change the way you shop? Would you choose to pay more for something that was ethically and sustainably produced? Let me know in the comments below!