Jewelry – glitter vs green

Nothing says “I love you” like a diamond and gold ring; after all, diamonds are forever – or so we are led to believe. The gemstones and precious metals we adorn ourselves with don’t just pack a wallop on our wallets, but many jewelry pieces also come at a horrible cost to the environment.

While jewelry has been an attraction for humanity for millennia, the market for precious stones and metals has certainly increased over the last hundred years; thanks not just to their extensive use in industry, but also to clever marketing.

For example, did you know that wedding rings for men in western culture are a tradition born of the 20th century and the company that created that “tradition”, De Beers, is also the same company that has convinced us that a gift of diamonds equates to love? In the late 1930’s De Beers increased sales of diamonds by 55 percent over three years by instilling this notion in people’s minds. They were also the company that coined the term “diamonds are forever”.

How exactly does the purchase of that half carat diamond ring prove your love for someone? How does that differ from a beautiful colored glass piece? In my opinion, in no way at all – it’s just that the jewelry industry has convinced us otherwise.

While diamonds have always been appreciated, they weren’t necessarily the most prized of gems. In fact, the ancient Egyptians often favored colored glass over precious stones.

Purchasing massed produced gemstone based jewelry is certainly not a financial investment either – diamond rings are like new cars; once you purchase the ring, it loses value. If you’ve ever tried to sell a diamond ring, unless it was particularly unique or it was purchased many years ago, the chances are you’ll never get what you paid for it.

Looking at it from an environmental angle; the gemstone and precious metals industries destroys thousands of acres of habitat each year. In some mining and refining processes, toxic chemicals are used. For instance, the amount of mercury entering the environment from gold mining activities is estimated to be in the hundreds of tons annually. Cyanide is another commonly used toxin in the processing of gold ore.

Another poison, Arsenic, occurs naturally and is often found among gold and silver bearing minerals. Once the ore is mined, it can be released into the surface environment and dissolve in ground/surface water; poisoning water a great distance from the mining operation.

To make a simple gold ring takes somewhere in the region of 5 tons of water and generates up to 20 tons of mine waste.

Opal mining in Australia over 100 years has created a moonscape type environment in the opal fields. Sapphire mining has had similar impacts. Ruby mining is often carried out close to rivers; threatening water supplies with contamination from effluent.

There can also a great human cost. The term ‘blood diamonds’ refers to the trade of diamonds where the proceeds are used to that help fund wars in Africa. With nearly 50% of the world’s diamonds coming from Africa, it’s not unknown for blood diamonds to wind up in the stores of major jewelry chains. Aside from financing wars; in many diamond mines, working conditions are deplorable and the miners paid a pittance.

There are alternatives – earth friendly jewelry is becoming increasingly popular. Instead of precious metals and gemstones, components such as glass, shells and recycled materials are used.

There are many ways to show someone you love them, but if you do settle on precious metal/gem stone jewelry and are concerned about your purchase’s impact on the environment; consider these two ideas:

a) Find socially responsible jewelers who are certified to be sourcing precious metals and gemstones in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. While no form of mining can be considered truly environmentally friendly, some responsible mining companies are making an effort to ensure that damage to the environment is minimal, effluent properly managed, workers fairly treated and areas mined rehabilitated.

b) consider buying a pre-owned ring; or even a couple of pieces. Take them to a jeweler and have them make something new from it – if you purchase wisely, you might save a stack of cash and wind up with a truly original piece!

I don’t think we’ll ever change our fascination with things that sparkle, but something we do need to change is our gullibility for allowing companies to convince us of what we need to give to make someone feel special and to demonstrate our depth of feeling; or allowing them to dictate to us what is beautiful, precious and “forever”.