Read our guide for creating an ethical engagement ring to learn more about mining and supply chain issues as well as your options for buying diamonds and other gemstones as well as gold. [Reading time: 12 min]
What Does Ethical Mean?
Before we start, we have to decide what defines an ethical engagement ring. For this article, we’ll focus on environmental sustainability, fair wages, and human rights and whether producers and processes respect these values.
However, you may want to consider other factors as well. For example, you may want to avoid supporting companies that donate to certain causes or buying gems that contribute to certain countries’ economies. Political factors like these would be too many to number and would differ from person to person.
If you’re sensitive about political issues, research the companies and supply chains before choosing where to buy.
Is Artisanal Mining Ethical?
Artisanal mining is sometimes put forward as a more ethical alternative to industrial mining. However, this is a contentious issue.
As opposed to industrial mining, in which a company mines metals or minerals, artisanal mining is more informal. Often, farmers work seasonally as artisanal miners to supplement their income. In some parts of the world, this activity constitutes a vital part of the local economy.
However, artisanal mining raises two major ethical concerns. First, it can be devastating to the environment. This type of mining usually exploits secondary deposits in river beds. This means that the miners dig up the river bed and pan for gold or gemstones. Because it’s informal, such mining is often unregulated, and there is often no environmental restoration, leaving riverbed habitat destroyed.
Second, artisanal mining can also be exploitative. Again, because it’s impossible to regulate in certain countries, entire families — including children — often participate in the backbreaking labor. Furthermore, artisanal miners usually don’t have the expertise to judge the quality and price of what they mine. Thus, they may be poorly compensated for their finds.
While artisanal mining isn’t inherently unethical, be aware that some countries have protections in place to prevent child labor, unsafe working conditions, and environmental degradation. Others have little or no regulations in place.
Diamond Supply Chains for an Ethical Engagement Ring
Supply chains should tell you a stone’s source mine, the intermediaries who moved it after mining, the lapidary who cut and polished it, and the labs and retailers it passed through afterwards.
For diamonds, there are a few independently verified, robust supply chain tracking systems. Although the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme ensures most diamonds on the market are conflict-free, some supply chain tracking systems can give consumers better assurances.
Diamond Supply Chains and the Kimberley Process
Diamonds are notorious for their complicated and opaque supply chain. In the 1990s, sales of diamonds once used to fund bloody civil wars prompted international outrage and the implementation of the Kimberley Process. Before its creation in 2003, there was no supply chain control for diamonds and no way to tell a diamond’s country of origin.
Although the Kimberley Process is meant to guarantee that diamonds are conflict-free, there’s still a very, very small chance that your diamond is a conflict diamond. Furthermore, it doesn’t protect against human rights violations that aren’t part of a civil war conflict, including child labor and unfair wages. The Kimberley Process also can’t guarantee environmental sustainability.
Recently, consumer pressure on diamond companies has encouraged innovations in supply chain management like blockchain technology. However, implementation isn’t widespread yet. While nearly all diamonds on the market are conflict-free and compliant with the Kimberley Process, few have any further information about their sourcing available.
The Canadamark system is a notable exception. Diamonds from Canada’s Dominion Diamond mines are closely tracked from mining to polishing through this hallmark program. Girdle inscriptions on the finished diamonds give you serial numbers you can enter on the Canadamark website to verify their authenticity and learn about their movement through the supply chain.
While these diamonds come with premium pricing, the assurance they provide makes them an ideal choice for an ethical engagement ring. Learn where you can find a Canadamark diamond.
Kalahari Dream Diamonds
Perhaps even better than Canadamark, Kalahari Dream also has a robust and independently verified supply chain. Diamonds from reputable mines in southern Africa are cut and polished by artisans in Botswana, contributing to economic growth in that country.
Although few retailers carry these diamonds, check if there’s one near you.
If you have a sizable budget or a minimalist style, check out Argyle diamonds. Famous for their beautiful pink hues, these rare diamonds from Australia’s Argyle Mine come with a big price tag. Still, they’ll make an attractive center stone for an ethical engagement ring.
Other Mined Diamond Options
If you browse Brilliant Earth, you’ll probably notice that they also offer Russian and “Botswana Sort” diamonds. However, these might not be 100% ethical diamonds. Russia’s obstruction of human rights and free speech may give you pause before committing to a Russian diamond. Choosing “Botswana Sort” diamonds as ethical options means trusting, per the Kimberley Process, that these diamonds actually come from reputable mines in Botswana, rather than other sources.
However, there’s another option for finding a diamond for an ethical engagement ring. Take a trip to Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds State Park and see what you can pick yourself. In 2015, one visitor found the most valuable diamond ever mined in the United States!
Small Accent Diamonds
While larger diamonds typically used for center stones can be closely tracked, smaller diamonds used for halo or pavé bands can have an even more complicated supply chain history. You normally won’t find tiny accent diamonds with traceable origins. For these stones, you’ll either need to compromise or opt for laboratory-created diamonds for your ethical engagement ring.
Finding Different Types of Mined Gemstones for an Ethical Engagement Ring
If you’re shopping for gemstones other than diamonds for your ethical engagement ring, here are some sources and issues to consider.
If you have the time, trade shows are a great place to find a good deal on a gemstone. Trade shows bring many dealers, lapidaries, and jewelers together and offer many kinds of gemstones in a wide range of prices and quality. Most importantly, the professionals there are knowledgeable and would be thrilled to tell you about the origins of their wares and help you find the perfect gem for your ethical engagement ring.
With so many choices in a relatively small space, you can easily compare goods and prices between vendors. Of course, always beware the deal that’s too good to be true. While most dealers are reputable, some may mislead you. Also, remember to ask for receipts and inquire about return policies. Not every seller can offer returns for trade show purchases, but some might.
Independent Jewelers and Lapidaries
If you’re buying from a large, commercial jewelry store, the sales clerk will most likely not be able to tell you where a gemstone came from. However, the gem trade is, in many ways, a small community, and many independent jewelers and lapidaries can tell you where the stone was mined and how it eventually came into their hands.
Many independent jewelers and lapidaries operate online and can get you exactly what you’re looking for in your ethical engagement ring. You can also check out local stores. Again, always ask about returns before you buy.
Gemstones with Certified Origins
For certain types of gemstones, a gemological laboratory can independently determine the country of origin and sometimes even the source mine through close analysis of the stone’s inclusions. When purchasing an expensive stone where the origin can affect price, it’s especially important to have this independent verification. This can corroborate the story you’ve heard from the vendor.
For example, Montana sapphires can command higher prices than similar stones with different origins. If you’re paying extra for one of these gems, have it certified.
Gemstones without Certified Origins
However, not all gemstones can have certified origins. In fact, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) currently limits gemstone origin reports to ruby, sapphire, emerald, paraíba-type tourmaline, and red spinel. For other gemstones, you’ll have to trust your seller or buy a gemstone with only few and reliable sources. For example, nearly all gem-grade opal originates in Australia, and tanzanite occurs in only one small locale.
Also, keep in mind that low-cost gems are less likely to come with lab reports simply because that adds to their cost.
Of course, if you don’t have your heart set on a mined stone, you should consider synthetic or laboratory-made alternatives. These are just as beautiful as their mined counterparts but cost much less. In fact, they have the same chemical, physical, and optical properties as mined stones, and it takes an expert, and sometimes advanced equipment, to tell whether a gem is lab-made.
If you’re creating an ethical engagement ring, lab-created gems also have an advantage over mined stones. They don’t involve the environmental devastation that can come with mining.
Since diamonds are so expense, many consumers are opting for lab-made alternatives. Although lab-made diamonds will never have the resale value of a mined diamond, their significant discount in price means that you can afford a larger, sparklier stone. (By the way, even mined diamonds don’t have great resale value. In general, high-end gems like diamonds don’t necessarily make good investments).
With lab-made diamonds, you don’t have to worry about the Kimberley Process or environmental contamination. Creating a diamond also has a much lower energy cost than mining one does.
Lab-made moissanite is another great alternative to a mined diamond for an ethical engagement ring. It looks like diamond and costs even less than a lab-made diamond of similar weight and quality.
Keep in mind that, despite its appearance, moissanite isn’t diamond. You can learn about the differences between moissanite and diamond here.
More Synthetic Gemstones
Most gemstones can be synthesized, including ever-popular rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Like lab-made diamonds, these sustainably sourced lab-made gems are less expensive. However, these three lab-made gems in particular have other advantages over their mined counterparts: they can be more beautiful and durable.
Ruby, sapphire, and emerald are very popular and very rare. That drives their prices very high, leaving only lower-quality stones at an affordable price range. For the cost of a bright, bold, lab-made gem, you would likely only get a mined gem that’s too dark or washed out. Many mined gemstones — like emeralds, for example — may contain inclusions and fractures that make them more likely to break when worn as jewelry. Synthetic emeralds, on the other hand, generally have fewer flaws and inclusions, so they have less chance of breaking from normal wear.
Re-use and Recycle: Secondhand Sources
Of course, you don’t need a brand new stone. Many older diamonds and other gemstones are still beautiful, and some may just need a simple polish. While recycling may make an appealing option for an ethical engagement ring, you still don’t know the circumstances behind the stone’s sourcing.
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide if a recycled gem of unknown origin is preferable to a newly mined gem of unknown origin. At the very least, secondhand stones are abundant and don’t contribute to the demand for new stones that promotes ongoing unsustainable mining.
Sourcing Gold for an Ethical Engagement Ring
If you’re taking the time to find a gemstone for an ethical engagement ring, you should carefully consider the sourcing of the gold for the setting, too. Gold mining can also contribute to environmental contamination. In addition, it’s impossible to know whether market gold was mined using child labor or underpaid workers.
As with gemstones, using secondhand gold is an option. However, unlike gemstones, gold can be melted down and homogenized, which often happens, so secondhand gold still contributes to a general market demand for gold. This, in turn, promotes more mining.
Another option is fair trade certified gold. While this certification will add somewhat to the cost of your ethical engagement ring, buying this gold contributes directly to providing livable wages to the miners. In addition, fair trade miners receive money to invest in their community and their business.
A Final Note
Buying an ethical engagement ring isn’t impossible. However, it will require some work. Remember to look closely at any report that comes with a stone and always ask questions.
Your best bet for an ethical engagement ring is to choose a reputable custom jeweler like CustomMade. For such a personal purchase, it’s important to work with a jeweler you can trust. CustomMade specializes in guiding customers through the process of creating an engagement ring. Their gem specialists do a great job of guiding customers through the gem selection process and thoroughly explaining their options.