Diamonds Aren’t Forever

Environmental Degradation and Civil War in the Gem Trade

Gleaming gems shining from plush velvet cases in quiet jewelry stores make it easy to forget that some of these symbols of love and prosperity originated in distant lands, deep in the soil of conflict.

Romancing the stone: Everyone agrees that gems, like these uncut diamonds, are beautiful, but what about the environmental cost?Darrel Plowes

It’s illegal in the United States to dump the finely ground ore materials known as "tailings" into waterways. But gem mining operations outside U.S. borders are not subject to the same rules, even if run by American companies or if their goods are bought by U.S. consumers. Large-scale demand calls for large-scale mining, which involves massive amounts of sedimentation and tailings falling into water systems around the world. The mercury and cyanide used to separate gold and copper from rock also finds its way into groundwater. The victims of these mining activities are generally local wildlife and indigenous peoples who live in resource-rich regions.

For example, New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan was sued in 1996 by indigenous leaders in Papua New Guinea for dumping 80,000 tons of mine tailings into the local river system daily. Freeport’s environmental auditors, Dames and Moore, said plans to expand Freeport’s mining activities in Indonesia could "increase its dumping of untreated tailings to 285,000 tons daily."

The diamond trade in Angola, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has become one of the greatest sources of internal and environmental conflict in those areas. According to the Africa Policy Information Center, Angolan rebels made an estimated $3.7 billion in diamond sales between 1992 and 1998 to fund their war effort against the Angolan government. Until the war is over, enforcing environmentally sensitive mining techniques will continue to be placed on the back burner. Meanwhile, diverted rivers are causing people to dislocate, dredging ponds are ruining large areas of land, and the polluted water table has caused sickness in mining communities, local villages and wildlife. Mining for jewels, however, is not inherently destructive. People have been finding valuable gems and minerals for centuries by panning in rivers at little environmental cost. There are even "theme parks" scattered across America that let you "mine your own gemstones."

Our romance with the stone employs thousands of people in gem-trading countries such as Namibia and South Africa, bolstering their economies. Most mining operations in the U.S. and other countries have extensive regulations requiring environmental assessments and land reclamation plans. Mines are expected to consider how their activities will affect native fish and wildlife, as well as abide by rules regarding air and water protection, waste disposal and the handling of hazardous materials. In the U.S., state reclamation laws call for revegetation, area cleanup and protection of surface and groundwater.

But the jewelry trade is a global, interweaving system of importers and exporters, miners and cutters, buyers and sellers. With no country-of-origin labeling system, consumers can never be sure if their jewelry came from a responsible source or one whose mining funded a civil war, leaked cyanide into groundwater or exploited indigenous people for their resources.

Jewelry Without Guilt

The tradition of diamonds and gold, especially for wedding and engagement rings, is firmly embedded in our culture, but we can adorn ourselves using more environmentally sustainable alternatives. If the thought of "eco-jewelry" brings visions of friendship bracelets made from organic cotton or acres of hemp necklaces, never fear—more artists and designers are using recycled materials to create wearable art that looks like anything but junk.

Australia-based Simon Harrison Designs creates a broad selection of jewelry made from recycled glass, coconut beads and handmade glass beads. The colors, unsurprisingly, are those of the most commonly used bottles: amber, olive, green, jade, clear and blue. The company gives two percent of its sales to a fund that supplies rice and other necessities to communities in the Philippines. Another player in the recycled glass jewelry market is Jody Freij-Tonder. She uses bottles, jars, windows and stained glass for her line of earrings (three pairs for $25) sold through Blue Skies Glassworks. Junk to Jewels turns old beads, electronic and bicycle parts into strangely beautiful jewelry: A circuit board becomes a pendant ($30); electrical wire and blue wooden beads form the illusion of a turquoise necklace ($18).

Eco-Artware.com’s artists also offer a wide variety of recycled, reused and natural materials. At its online boutique, you"ll find pins ($22 to $32) made from used Mardi Gras costumes, ball gowns and wires from broken TV sets. Old issues of Vogue magazine find a second fashion life in the paper bead jewelry ($12 to $28) made by Louisa and Yongwoo Kim.

For socially responsible jewelry, consider Global Marketplace, which helps poor artisans rise above the poverty line. Global Marketplace describes itself as "a nonprofit, grassroots community development organization." Members of the Co-op America Business Network and the Fair Trade Federation, the company returns as much of the sales price as possible to the local artists. For example, purchases of Haitian ceramic necklaces ($7.50 each) help support the Haitian women who handmade the wares. Global Marketplace also offers beaded, stone, copper, hematite, hemp, pewter, ceramic and silver selections.

And if, for you, there is still no substitute for gold and jewels, some companies make sure the people and environment from where their jewelry came are respected. One such firm is Snooty Jewelry. The company uses no animal products (leather, pearls, shell, bone) in its designs, uses 100 percent post-consumer waste and soy-based inks in packaging, and 10 percent of its profits go to animal, human and environmental welfare groups. Snooty Jewelry’s wide selection of sterling silver and 14-karat gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets are available with gems such as amythest, garnet, jade, sapphires and emeralds ($5 to $80). EnviroWatch also offers a line of high-quality sterling silver earrings ($35) and bracelets ($50) depicting dolphins, sharks, turtles, manatees and elephants. The jewelry sales help EnviroWatch in its efforts to ban shark finning, reduce the impacts of fisheries on protected species and support environmental justice projects.

KATHERINE KERLIN is associate editor of E.