We recently received an email from an American dealer which brought into sharp focus the difficulties faced by miners worldwide who have to negotiate with buyers who are only interested in the cheapest price with no consideration of ethical and environmental issues. His approach to trade negotation involved insulting our character and the quality of our product (sight unseen), quoting an amazingly low price he claims to have paid for unspecified sapphire rough from Africa and asking if we could match the price which was significantly below our cost of production. While we lose no sleep over not being able to do business with people like this, it did make us think about ethics in the gemstone industry and how the lack of it hurts everyone except these dealers who profit from paying too little and charging too much.
Here at Aussie Sapphire, we operate a commercial sapphire mine in Australia – a country with a high level of government regulation and very high running costs. In some ways, this puts us at a competitive disadvantage to producers from developing countries. However, we take pride in being able to offer a high quality product at comparable prices with sound ethical and environmental production methods. The following article provides some discussion of these issues and relevant links for those who are interested in ethical gemstone purchasing. One link I would like to focus on at this point is this excellent field trip report by Vincent Pardieu from the AIGS laboratory in Thailand – An update on Ruby and Sapphire mining in South East Asia and East Africa – some of the photos in this article come from this report (see acknowledgements).
While mining obviously requires some temporary disruption to the local environment, it is possible to mine in such a way as land is protected and restored completely. In Australia, environmental protection is legislated by the government and enforced by periodic and thorough inspections – we are required to have zero impact on water quality in the nearby stream and must restore all mined land back to original or better condition. As we also farm this land, it is in our best interest to take care of it in any case. However, in many other countries, lack of government regulation or illicit mining activities result in significant environmental damage.
Mining in Tanzania. Photo: V Pardieu, 2005
River mining in Sri Lanka. Photo: V Pardieu, 2005
Our mine – topsoil is set aside and replaced after cut is filled in. Environmental impact is minimal and ground restored to full agricultural production. Mining within a water course is prohibited and all activities must not affect water quality or flow. Photo: Aussie Sapphire, 2004
Conditions for workers
Mining can be a dangerous occupation. However, our mining is restricted to surface level, open cut (single trench) mining only which is extremely safe. Our excavator drivers must be qualified to operate the machinery and there is strict regulation on Health and Safety in the workplace which must be followed at all times. While complying with all safety rules is costly, operating a safe mine is a priority at Aussie Sapphire with no shortcuts taken.
In contrast, mining in other countries can be extremely hazardous for those who must operate their mines at depth or in remote areas with little equipment. The use of child labour is another problem with many small-scale mines in developing countries – banned almost everywhere but difficult to eradicate as many families rely on the income brought in by these small children.
Wages for our staff are paid at prescribed rates with all included benefits including superannuation (retirement benefits) – no piece work rates or casual payments which are common in this industry in other countries but offer the worker no long-term security. All of our mining income is declared so all relevant taxes are paid.
Woman mining in Sri Lanka. Photo V Pardieu, 2005
Women and children work in many mines to help support family income – working conditions and pay rates vary greatly.
The Black Market and Illegal Activities
Gemstones of all varieties provide criminals and terrorists with an ideal method of transferring and laundering money because they're high in value, hard to trace, very light and easy to move across borders. Sanctions against various countries have been imposed (eg. Liberia, Myanmar, etc) as a form of political protest – however, this fuels the black market trade and depresses prices everywhere as this illicit trades sets a price benchmark that legitimate operators find difficult to match.
Australia is a country with no political unrest (just some polite disagreement every now and then) and there are no economic sanctions imposed on gemstones or other products. The business environment is excellent with Australia being very safe for travelling, financial transactions and postage. Our terms and conditions at Aussie Sapphire should give you confidence to buy any of our products and we can provide references upon request. Negotiations are undertaken in the English language and payment is in AUD – a stable currency with favourable exchange rates to the US dollar. If you want low-risk buying, Australia is a good choice.
Another challenge for the buyer is to be sure that the gemstones are natural and accurately described. Synthetic gems have been mixed in with rough to boost profits in a number of mining areas and is a trap for the unwary buyer – the recent field trip report by Vincent Pardieu notes this in a number of regions – in Madagascar he states that "Foreign stones from other African countries and possibly other continents are probably mixed with local stones or sold as local gems. Tumbled synthetics are present in all mining areas as well as rough stones dyed with ink. Heated rough that did not react correctly to heat treatment are also present in the markets as well as stones locally heated at low temperatures". When a gemstone is described as natural but is a bargain that seems too good to be true – a wise buyer would be very careful before parting with their money. However, buying from Aussie Sapphire presents no risk – satisfaction guaranteed or your money is refunded – the gems from our mine are direct from the ground. Where basic heat treatment is used, this is fully disclosed – we do not use any other form of gemstone enhancement (bulk diffusion, irradition, etc).
For those interested in learning more about these issues, here are just a few relevant links:
Conflict diamonds and other political issues
Wikipedia article on conflict diamonds
Myanmar:The Whispering Land – an article by Robert Weldon, G.G.
Article on diamond mining in Liberia – available at Gemscout.com
General issues – environmentalproblems, prevalence of synthetics, etc
Article on $250m-Trade in Tanzanite Hit By Fakes – available at Gemscout.com
A comprehensive collection of papers dealing with these issues was published from the Fourth CASM Annual General Meeting and Learning Event held at Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2004.
Again, Vincent Pardieu's excellent report on mining in the region: An update on Ruby and Sapphire mining in South East Asia and East Africa
Obviously none of these problems will be solved overnight. Banning the use of child labour in gemstone mining and processing is a noble cause but without a holistic approach, it will inevitably cause real economic difficulty to the families who rely on the income brought in by family members. Without effective government regulation of the mining industry, there is no incentive to follow environmental or workplace safety best practice. The real problem lies with the dealers and ultimately retail buyers who insist on buying on price alone – this affects both industrialised miners who cannot compete with the low prices and miners in developing countries who accept the low prices but are being exploited in doing so. Nobody wins in this scenario – a fair price paid to all would do more to solve these problems than anything else.
So, if you are someone who wants to buy in an ethically sound manner, please consider supporting the Australian sapphire industry. Here at Aussie Sapphire, we can provide sapphires of world-class quality with the assurance that you are buying a product that has been mined in a responsible manner – our "mine to design" philosophy means you can wear any of our jewelry pieces with pride. Be impressed with the best and surprised by the price.
cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire