When deciding on a center gem, it’s common for jewelry shoppers to think: “I don’t want to buy a blood diamond, so maybe I’ll get a sapphire.”
At Brilliant Earth, we’re thrilled whenever people make an effort to buy jewelry responsibly. It speaks highly of today’s consumers that so many want to make an ethical choice. But is ditching diamonds definitely the way to go? Which are more ethical, diamonds or sapphires?
We’ve decided to answer this question through the lens of three fictional characters: Careful Cathy, Logical Lucy, and Super Sandy.
Lots of people begin by asking the question Careful Cathy asks: are the worst abuses linked to diamonds or sapphires? Cathy is careful because she cares. She wants be completely sure she doesn’t buy a gem tainted by violence. And she suspects that diamonds are more closely linked to violence than sapphires.
Cathy is right. Historically, more diamonds than sapphires have been linked to civil wars. Amnesty International estimates that 3.7 million people have died in civil wars fueled by blood diamonds. Amnesty doesn’t provide a similar statistic for sapphires—and that’s probably because sapphires don’t have the same tragic history.
At present, there remains one serious conflict being driven by diamonds: a conflict in the Central African Republic that broke out last year and has created a million refugees. Diamonds from Zimbabwe and Angola also have been linked to violence in recent years. By contrast, violence in sapphire mining is much less of a problem. (One side point: don’t assume that what’s true for sapphires is true for all colored gems. Emeralds and jade, for instance, sometimes do have violent origins.)
Another way to look at the question is from the perspective of Logical Lucy. Instead of asking about the worst abuses, Logical Lucy asks: if I buy a diamond or a sapphire, what kind of kind of gem am I likely to get?
Lucy is on to something. It’s true that some diamonds are linked to violence and that about 15 percent are mined by artisanal diamond diggers, who often work in abusive conditions and live in poverty. But most diamonds come from countries such as Canada and Botswana, where labor and environmental standards are high and local communities benefit. Diamond mining, in fact, has helped transform Botswana from one of Africa’s poorest countries into one of its most prosperous.
In sapphire mining, there’s comparatively much less violence, and labor and environmental standards in countries such as Sri Lanka and Australia are generally quite good. But not every sapphire comes from a responsible mine. About a quarter of the sapphire supply comes from Madagascar, where diggers often work in dangerous conditions, rely on abusive practices such as child labor, and don’t rehabilitate the land after mining.
All in all, when the focus is on the typical gem, the ethical advantage of sapphires over diamonds starts to look smaller.
Next comes the shopper who is more proactive and creative: Super Sandy. She sidesteps the debate about diamonds vs. sapphires by asking: where can I find jewelry that is responsibly sourced?
Sandy’s question will lead her to reputable jewelers, such as Brilliant Earth, that offer only ethical diamonds and sapphires. It’s likely she’ll learn about the eco-friendly option of lab created diamonds. And she’ll expand her focus beyond the center gem, recognizing that violence and abuse are a part of precious metals mining too. (Gold mining, for instance, is fueling a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Sandy will probably choose a setting made of recycled metals or fair trade gold, or perhaps a stylish vintage piece requiring no new mining of gems or metals.
Sandy is like Cathy in that she’s determined not to buy an unethical gem. She’s like Lucy in appreciating that diamonds can be a responsible choice. But she goes beyond Cathy’s narrow focus on avoiding blood diamonds. And she doesn’t try to blur away some of the serious problems related to diamonds as Lucy does. (Lucy’s position actually reminds us of the official stance of the diamond industry.) Sandy realizes that instead of playing the odds, it’s possible to find ethical jewelry with whatever stone or setting she prefers.
At Brilliant Earth, we take Sandy’s approach. We believe it’s not a question of whether diamonds or sapphires are more ethical, but whether consumers choose ethical gems and metals. What do you think?