Gemfields is the world leader in responsibly sourced colored stones. Over a decade ago, they had the vision of an ethical gemstone business, long before “sustainability” was the word on everyone’s mind. Their transparent approach begins underground, and travels downstream all the way to the consumer.
We spoke with Gemfields CEO Sean Gilbertson about what exactly it means to practice social and environmental sustainability in his industry, the growing use of colored stones by up-and-coming designers, and how no two emeralds, rubies, or sapphires are the same.
WHITEWALL: What does it mean for a gemstone to be responsibly sourced?
SEAN GILBERTSON: You can start with things like the underground practices. What are the actual mining techniques we deploy to get the gemstones out of the ground? What are the environmental impacts? Are we using any harmful chemicals or processes? Are the employees engaged in the mining and processing activities properly paid? Do they receive the appropriate training? Do they receive the appropriate personal protection equipment? What happens after the end of their employment contracts; in other words, will they be properly looked after? Are there termination payments that mean they receive something at the end of the contract? What is the process that the physical gemstones follow on the mining operation?
Once that’s been done, you can start looking at some of the more downstream practices, like how the gemstone leaves the country of origin. Do we follow a form of procedure in which any export is documented by the government?
And when we make the sales overseas, are we sending the money directly back to the country of origin? That’s another element of it—making sure there’s no transfer pricing, that the money goes back directly and that the government gets the royalty based on the actual sales price that we achieve at international auction.
WW: How did this focus on environmental and social responsibility become the core of Gemfields’ mission?
SG: We had a vision 11 years ago for what the colored gemstone business could become. We felt that the only way that it could work was if you were able to build trust—not only with your host government, but also with your downstream customers, and the end consumer. And that meant that you had to be transparent in the approach you took, because without the transparency, you cannot build the trust.
For the first time, instead of everybody holding their cards very close to their chest and not being willing to say anything about the operations, we saw the publishing revenues, production figures, carats, grades—all of that information suddenly became available. I don’t think anybody had done that before in the colored gemstone business, and it started building people’s level of insight; it started to give them an understanding of what these things were really worth. How did the gemstone market really function? What was the best way to maximize the value?
WW: How do you hope that understanding of value within the colored gem field will change the perception of colored gems within the larger stone industry?
SG: It’s a multi-tiered effect. Emeralds, rubies, and sapphires have been around for centuries. They’ve all been mined since the times of Cleopatra. But very little has actually been understood about the way in which they’re mined or the contributions that they’ve made to governments or to local communities.
We try to help consumers understand that an emerald is not an emerald is not an emerald. Every gemstone, quite genuinely, is distinguishable from the next. No two colored gems are the same. As people start understanding more about colored gemstones—where they come from, how they’re mined, how they’re formed (many of these gems are 300 to 600 million years old; that’s when the crystal formation took place in the ground)—it helps them understand what’s going on, and it helps them know what to ask when they’re purchasing one.
WW: And you are you seeing a larger interest from jewelry designers, whether up-and-coming or at well-known houses, drawn to colored gems because they know they are responsibly sourced?
SG: Absolutely. The treatment toward color in the last seven or eight years—I can only describe it as profound. Colored gems are emotionally engaging because no two are the same. People have the ability to express their personalities between the different gemstones.
Gemfields has historically worked with a wide variety of designers. We involve a lot of young designers. We are increasingly hosting, on the mining operations, visits by some of the best names in both jewelry and fashion, as part of improving their own due diligence about the sourcing of their gemstones. In the spring, we are hosted two of the biggest names—one out of fashion, one out of jewelry—who will be visiting the operations in Zambia and Mozambique, respectively, to get a feeling for what is actually happening on the ground. I think that’s a trend that is going to pick up in the years to come.