Creating a truly ethical engagement ring
Note: In our blogs, we typically like to show you all the amazing work Secrète Fine Jewelry does in our two locations in the metro-DC area, and we tend to mention our unique advantage in terms of quality and service. But for this particular blog, we’re simply going to present you with facts. Far too often, it’s impossible to get straight-forward information from industry insiders about your ethical engagement options. This is an exception to the norm. This is plain information without sales-pitches.
Many young couples are hesitant to buy a diamond engagement ring because of ethical concerns. As people are becoming more educated about the impacts of their consumer choices, the market responds with products that seem to solve the problem. Whether it’s free-range chicken wings or recycled textile denim, there are more and more “responsible” products because there are more concerned consumers. But when it comes to buying an engagement ring, it can be hard to differentiate genuine information from ad campaigns, difficult to find honest expert opinions in a sea of sales-pitches. So here's an overview of the situation, facts-only.
So let’s talk about the problem: Typically, the major concern is that a diamond will be sourced from a conflict-zone, that the stone could be the product of violence or was sold to fund violent people. It’s a sad truth that historically, the diamond industry has been guilty of many of the same crimes of violence and greed that have plagued (or continue to plague) many other lucrative industries from oil and cotton to coffee and even bananas. An engagement is such a happy occasion, and it’s unbearable to imagine the heartbreak of an unfair system being a part of your love story.
Ongoing Global, National, and Industry Solutions
Artisinal women diamond miners in Africa. Photo credit- Carleton University.
There’s a lot of good news. The diamond industry isn’t nearly as shady as it used to be! There is a global protocol called the Kimberley Process which enacted a system of tracking the origins of diamonds to prevent the sales of diamonds from conflict zones. The UN supports the Kimberley Process, announcing that it has “made significant strides in fulfilling its mandate” which includes accurate certification, tracking, and statistics for diamonds to stop the sale of conflict-diamonds Source- The United Nations. Since it has been in effect, third party experts estimate that only about 5% of diamonds on the market are traded illegally Source- Time Magazine. The Kimberley Process can be credited with reducing the trade of conflict diamonds by 99.8% Source- The Kimberley Process. Better yet, major diamond markets like Tel Aviv have implemented their own stricter code of ethics to respect human dignity Source- Israeli Diamond Exchange. The industry has been bold and firm in standing up against buying diamonds from conflict-zones, and has drastically reduced the sales of “blood diamonds” across the world. Furthermore, countries around the world are putting legislation into effect to make the industry more responsible with regards to violence and conflict. In the United States, section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act addresses the need for due-diligence and other preventative measures against the sale of conflict minerals in America Source- United States Congress. Many other countries also have passed legislation to the same effect.
When desperate people are in desperate situations, illegal actions may be taken, so even the most stringent protocols can’t fully assure that the miners of every diamond on the market had a really great life with a fair salary and good benefits; there is still violence in some countries with natural deposits of diamonds, and more work needs to be done to stop it. The long story short of it all is yes, it used to be bad, but it’s getting better-- it’s not a perfect system yet (and like any other global capitalist market, it probably won’t ever be perfect), but the market is becoming more responsible, transparent, and ethical because people care. UN representatives from African countries are among the most vocal about the good work that’s being done in the diamond industry today, and the UN says that the protocols in place today would “ensure that diamonds were a source of economic development rather than a catalyst for civil war” - Source- The United Nations.
So what are the solutions? To many, finding a nice diamond from a jeweler they trust and learning about its origins as much as possible is enough, especially considering the amazing strides the industry has taken in the past twenty years (and some more recently) to address the problems of violence. A great way to feel good about a diamond purchase is to allocate a portion of your ring budget to donate to an organization that continues the great efforts made to make diamonds a force of good in the world, like the Diamond Development Initiative Source- Diamond Development Initiative.
But some couples may want extra assurance that their choice is ethical, so they look for stones with extra certifications of origins to make sure they’re getting an ethically sourced diamond. Some consider synthetic diamonds/diamond alternatives. Still others look to other gems to take the place of a diamond. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of all the options, one by one.
A certified Canadian diamond arrives with its CanadaMark certificate serial number, and separate GIA documentation. Photo by Secrète Fine Jewelry.
The one good way to make sure you’re getting a natural diamond that was ethically sourced is to go with a Canadian diamond that is independently certified as such. Diamonds mined in Canada’s Arctic region are given serial numbers by reputable companies that are certified by an independent board, and they are definitely conflict-free. CanadaMark and companies like it (source- The Canadian Diamond Code of Conduct) track each stone from the mine to your purchase, and they have a lot of oversight to make sure that they’re doing it the right way. The Canadian government has very strict laws on sustainability, environmental impact, and fair labor Source- Government of Canada Natural Resources Department.
These diamonds are slightly more costly than similar non-Canadian diamonds (think grass-fed steak prices vs conventional steak, organic Egyptian cotton sheets vs regular bed sheets- you pay a premium for the preferred production method and origin).
Unfortunately, some jewelers and even companies that “specialize” in ethical jewelry sometimes try to scam people with regards to Canadian diamonds. There are some reports of sales of fake Canadian diamonds-- jewelers are reported to have charged customers premium prices for diamonds that actually originated elsewhere, or at least with dubious proof of Canadian origin, such as a self-branded certificate of origin. Since reports of fraud may not be accurate and have led to some pretty intense lawsuits, we’re going to let you do your own research on this point. While the veracity of specific reports against specific brands may not be rock solid, it is a fact that every true Canadian diamond will come with a certificate detailing the mine of origin with a serial number and often a laser inscription (it’s possible that smaller Canadian diamonds may not be inscribed).
If the only certificate a jeweler or website offers you is a printed out piece of paper with their own logo on it, beware. Because a dealer can get more money for a real Canadian diamond than its non-Canadian counterpart, nobody is going to export legit diamonds from Canada without those certifications-- it would be like a department store ripping all the designer labels out of its clothes before trying to sell them-- who would try to sell the real thing without the real label?
Ethical vintage diamond engagement ring altered to fit recycled/inherited center stone. Photo by Secrète Fine Jewelry.
Choosing an antique ring means you don’t contribute to any current market practice. It also means you’re ecologically responsible by reusing available material instead of harvesting more- You’re recycling! Source- Inhabitat You often find beautiful cuts you don’t see much anymore like Old Euro and Old Miner. You also get to know that your diamond has been loved for years and that you are part of that romantic history.
There’s a lot less certainty about the origins of older things. It is highly unlikely you’ll know where an older diamond was mined, and it’s hard to verify if the diamond is actually antique, even if it’s set in a vintage setting. You also may have fewer options when it comes to cut style or have to really hunt to find the specs (4Cs) you want.
Lab-created diamond (left) vs natural diamond (right)- Photo Credit-NPR
There’s a lot of news about lab-grown diamonds, and they definitely have some appeal. They’re man-made but chemically identical to real diamonds, and they don’t come from any mine. They have the same types of flaws natural diamonds have, so they don’t look fake in the way that “too perfect” imitation-diamonds do. You can save anywhere from 10% - 30% on a synthetic diamond versus real natural diamonds, so that’s also really great for the budget-conscious Source- NPR.
According to Forbes, 89% of people agreed with the statement, “When treating myself to a luxury item, I look for authenticity,” suggesting that not everyone will find a synthesized diamond appealing. There’s a little romance missing from the equation- instead of the natural millennia-long process it takes for Mother Earth to form a diamond, a lab-grown diamond comes from the less-epic process of “microwave plasma chemical deposition” Source- New York Times. Lab-grown diamonds are expensive for a “created” stone. They’re nearly as expensive as the real deal. These also require a lot of energy to create the heat and high pressure needed to “grow” these stones. It’s sort of like trading one mine for another-- even though you don’t have to worry about the ethics of the diamond industry, now you have to worry about the ethics of the fossil-fuel industry.
Finally, they are an industry based in developed economies, and by replacing a product found in developing countries, they take jobs away from poorer people. A lot of work has been done in countries like Botswana to make the diamond industry help traditionally underserved and oppressed people start their own businesses and thrive as small business owners in healthy economic communities source-Diamonds Do Good and even to empower women Source- Carleton University, so it’s up to each consumer to weigh whether they want to try to support an old industry becoming more ethical in the developing world or to abandon it completely for a new high-tech product.
Comparison chart showing appearance differences between diamonds and alternatives. Photo credit
Again, this diamond-alternative is a man-made stone that isn’t mined. It has a lot of sparkle, and is very durable. They are fairly affordable, but that’s a matter of opinion. They are widely available in a variety of sizes and cuts.
Moissanites don’t look like natural diamonds (that doesn’t mean they look bad, just that they don’t look like diamonds). They are definitely sparkly, more so even than natural diamonds, but they can display darker flashes in some lights and may appear yellowish. Moissanite manufacturers say it’s hard to tell a difference, but to anyone who knows diamonds, moissanites can be “readily separated” from diamonds based on their appearance, specifically a weird light effect around facet junctions Source- GIA. To their affordability issue, while they cost less than natural diamond options, they’re still pretty steep when compared to other white synthetic stones like cubic zirconia.
Sapphire mine in Madagascar- Photo Credit- Boston.com
Gemstones, white or colored, offer beauty and style to an engagement ring. For decades, it was popular to choose gemstones in a ring before diamonds became the norm. Some of the most beautiful engagement designs incorporate colored stones. Also, depending on the stone, you may be able to get a great look for a lesser price. In many places, there are amazing ethical and ecologically sustainable/ economically empowering practices for the mining of gemstones (but it's not a universal rule...) Source- Huffington Post.
Gemstones are natural commodities found in the earth. You’ll have to research the origins and the mining conditions and labor conditions for gemstones, too. Just because it isn’t a diamond doesn’t mean it’s a fair-trade purchase. In fact, there is no global regulatory protocol like the Kimberley Process for the gemstone industry. Colombian drug cartels used the country’s rich emerald mines to fund systematic violence throughout the 70s and 80s, and there’s some reputable evidence that these practices may not be over Source- The Atlantic. The Scottish gem-expert who discovered Tsavorite garnets was murdered a few years ago in Kenya by a mob in order to gain control of his lucrative mines Source- LA Times, so clearly the gem industry isn't perfect. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only instances of violence continuing today related to the mining and sales of gemstones. This isn’t meant to scare anyone off a gemstone ring, only to remind people that every valuable commodity in the world has been abused by bad people to do bad things at some point or another; while many industries and governments have taken big steps to stop bad practices, some industries and locations still have some important work to do.
Finally, as a practical concern, some gemstones lack the durability you may want for a ring that’s worn every day source- GIA, and some people may hesitate to choose a colored stone for a ring that’s going to be worn with everything.
The bottom line:
There are a lot of options for creating an engagement ring that reflects your commitment to ethical consumerism.
The number one thing is that you’re accurately informed and you trust your jeweler.
Make sure that any claims about origins or production practices are backed up with reputable paperwork, preferably from a 3rd-party organization. Transparency is very important.
Choosing a conflict-free ring is a complex, ethical matter, and you have a right to come to the right answer for your personal beliefs. Don’t let your values be pressured by any sales pitch. Your jeweler should work to give you what you feel is right.
There are trade-offs with every option, but don’t let that become overwhelming. The fact that you’re becoming informed about your consumer choices and making an honest effort is admirable, but don’t let the stress of those what-ifs (What if this isn’t the most ethical choice ever made? What if it’s not “perfect”? What if those Canadians aren’t really as friendly as they seem? etc.) make you forget that you’re in love, you’re buying a beautiful piece of jewelry for the person with whom you want to spend your life, and that this is a joyous occasion. Yes, absolutely, do your due-diligence and follow your conscience, but make sure to leave a little energy for romance, too.
Remember, it's about love. Photo by Secrète Fine Jewelry.