Coloured gemstones are found in more than 50 countries and there are more than 200 varieties. Unlike gold and diamond mining, nearly 80% of the world’s coloured gemstone production is ASM. These are small, inland or open-pit mines, often in remote locations, involving rudimentary methods and hand tools, with limited or no mechanisation.

Approximately 90% are mined in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Artisanal coloured gemstone mining is often a poverty-driven activity and, in some areas of the world, represents one of the few available income opportunities. It is often undertaken informally, and involves long and harsh working hours that rarely result in fair pay. Child labour is also a common feature: more than a million children work in artisanal mines.

Mining is often a dangerous activity, particularly when it is done with few resources and lacking adequate safety measures. Tunnels dug too deep and with scant support and infrastructure can collapse, trapping workers. In times of heavy tropical rains, mines can flood. Devastating accidents have occurred as a result of cave-ins, falls down shafts, poorly maintained equipment, and so forth. Furthermore, you can find widespread chronic respiratory diseases due to exposure to dust, as well as the proliferation of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in mining areas. Health hazards are not limited to the people working in the mines, but extend to those involved in the downstream stage of the chain. Because of exposure during gem cutting, cutters often suffer from fatal lung diseases such as silicosis (which arises from inhaling crystalline silica dust, causing irreversible damage to the lungs and often premature death).

At present, there are also no recognised certification standards for coloured gemstones. In fact, this market is subject to the least control in the jewellery industry. The path of gemstones is very challenging to trace, as it involves multiple intermediaries, and their supply chains are very intricate. It is said that they can change hands dozens of times before reaching the end customer.

Responsible coloured gems

Despite this dreary scenario, the ASM of coloured gemstones offers fruitful and hopeful ground for the creation of responsible initiatives with a positive impact. These are projects that, besides guaranteeing fair prices and upholding human rights and environmental standards throughout the chain, follow the mine-to-market model. In broad terms, this model is governed by the huge reduction of intermediaries and the documentation of traceability throughout the gemstone’s journey.

While there are no reliable standards in gemstones, traceability and transparency are aspects available to us with stones from responsible small-scale mining initiatives, which are noteworthy for their proximity to the mines. The more closely the supplier works with the mines, the more it can guarantee traceability in the supply chain.

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