It is possible you have never heard of the term loose gemstones before. To you gemstones come set in jewellery - end of story. Often that changes when you decide to get married and the shopping for rings begins. For many this is the first exposure to the fact that like anything, rings get made from raw materials. It's just their raw materials are precious metals and loose gemstones or diamonds. It is interesting to explore where they come from and how they get to your home town and the issues surround fair trade gems.
Unlike the diamond market which is well structured with centres of trading in Antwerp, New York and Tel Aviv, the market for coloured loose gemstones is far more fluid. Given that many coloured gemstones are mined by small operators in various parts of the world it is more difficult to organise this market. The International Coloured Gemstone Association said that 80% of stones are coming from small scale mining, and of these 90% are located in developing countries.
For example the president of the Sri Lankan Gem merchants federation said in 2002 there were over five thousand mining sites registered in Sri Lanka. Most of them are bucket and spade operations where the mining pits are three metres square and go to depths of only about 25 metres.
The other factor that makes regulation of the industry hard is that loose gemstones are commonly sold at local markets. The miners want to turn their rough stones to cash as soon as possible and often do not have the means to travel far to go to central markets. Buyers and dealers in rough stones will purchase these offerings and offer them to wholesalers in foreign markets.
An Australian sapphire mine found that their stones would pass through a supply chain of up to six people from the mine door until it reached the retail purchaser.
Due to the location and small size of many of the coloured gemstone miners there has been an increased interest in the fair trade aspects of loose gemstones. With large proportions of the world stones coming from developing countries it is important to make sure the benefits are going back to the people. In situations like this corruption, child labour, working conditions, money laundering, terrorism (and the list goes on and on) become ethical considerations.
With the support of governments, and bodies such as the World Bank, initiatives such as gemstone bodies and education programs are improving the outlook for communities. Fair trade is a wonderful idea but a fine balance has to be maintained between sanctioning countries that are treating their workers exploitatively and the impact such sanctions have on the miners themselves. If we stop buying Burmese rubies, the miner in Burma will ultimately pay the price for factors outside his control. There is no easy answer on this.
The loose gemstones market is a fascinating and fraught one, but the gemstones themselves are pure works of beauty.