Alyssa talks with Kerin of The Raw Stone about the benefits of using rough diamonds, diamond mining in Canada, and the movement toward ethical gems.
When did you start your company The Raw Stone, and what made you want to do it? I started The Raw Stone in 2009. Before I began the business I worked in social media in San Francisco and venture capital in China. I worked with many high tech companies that were doing amazing, cutting edge things. But, I realized that this high tech path was not allowing me to do something that I felt very important. Essentially, I wanted to focus my life’s work on raising the ethical bar of an ancient, pervasive industry.
Did you start The Raw Stone by yourself, and do you now run it with other people? I did start it by myself and continue to run it. When I started it, I received a great deal of help from a community of ethically-minded professionals in jewelry-related industries. There are a lot of people out there who really want to see a business like this survive. These people continue to support from behind the scenes.
How did you go from internet and venture capital to precious gems? I’ve been fortunate enough to travel throughout the world throughout my career and meet people in many different countries who have worked in the gem and jewelry trade. Over time,it became clear to me that the jewelry business needed someone who sources ethical gemstones, does all the background research, and has relationships with organizations such as the Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA – a non-governmental, non-profit organization that facilitates women miners in Tanzania to acquire the resources they need for the development of safe, environmentally sustainable, and profitable mining).
I know that you source some of your rough diamonds from Canada–can you give a little background on Canadian diamonds, and why they might be preferable? Canadian diamond mining happens mostly in the Northwest Territories, and there is one mine in Ontario. People realized that diamond deposits were there not long ago. No one was living there, and no one owned the land, so basically whoever dropped a flag first had claim to that land. Larger companies started flying airplanes low over the land and dropping flags wherever they could, thereby staking the land as their own. Eventually, these large companies developed mines in these areas.
The type of mining that occurs in Canada is open pit mining. This type of mining is the most safe type of mining for workers in developed countries, and due to Canadian labor and mining laws, we can be assured that laborers are working with safe equipment in safe circumstances. Unfortunately, the flip side of open pit mining is that it is not environmentally sound. This means that the beautiful, vast wilderness of northern Canada now has several deep mines that have been found to disrupt the ecosystem. While there are no ethical issues involving human rights and labor, the practices are in no way environmentally sustainable.
What mines do you use for colored gems and diamonds? I source diamonds from mines such as the Diavik, Ekati, and Williams Mines in Canada, as well as the the Mir Mine in Russia. I source aquamarines from the Lundazi Mine in Zambia, and I get most of my other gemstones gems from TAWOMA mines or through TAWOMA dealers who can trace to additional mines in Tanzania. The gems available from TAWOMA run the gamut from ruby, aquamarine, sapphire, citrine, sunstone, moonstone, garnets, black onyx, amethyst, rhodolite, and others. They’re an awesome group.
What is the ratio of rough diamonds to colored gemstones distributed by The Raw Stone? It’s about 1:1. It used to be more gems than diamonds, but rough diamonds have become popular recently, so it’s more of an equal balance now.
You buy only rough diamonds. What are the benefits of using rough diamonds as opposed to cut diamonds? Rough diamonds eliminate the potentially dangerous process of cutting. Many of the human rights abuses associated with the diamond industry happen in this step. Reason being, you need either excellent tools or very small fingers to to cut small diamonds well. So, in certain places where access to excellent tools is diminished, it’s easier, cheaper and faster to use child labor. With rough diamonds, you know this isn’t happening.
Another benefit of using rough diamonds is that it is easier to trace the diamonds back to specific mines when they are still rough, as you can see the types of inclusions and the natural shape and color more clearly.
Where are the human rights abuses associated with diamond cutting happening? I don’t want to accuse or pinpoint specific countries for these abuses, but it is common to have low- to middle-end diamonds cut in India, China, and Thailand. High-end diamonds are commonly cut in Israel and Belgium. In both of these countries, cutting is done in a very ethical way, by members of families who have been in the business for generations.
How do diamonds and gems travel from the mines to you? It depends on the mine. Sometimes I buy from a distributor who buys directly from the mine, other times I buy directly from a mine. I have to do due diligence on the distributors to make sure that they’re legitimate, that they have actually been to the mine and/or are familiar with the owners and operators there. When I buy from distributors, I make sure to buy rough, so there is no question about the ethics of the cutting process. I then sell the rough as is, or have it cut by a trusted cutter.
What do you see as some of the successes and failures of the Kimberley Process? The Kimberley Process is not specifically focused on the ethics of the diamond industry, rather it is a mechanism that ensures that diamonds are not coming from conflict nations. But even this part of the Process has failed. For instance, the Central African Republic (CAR) is not a conflict nation, but is surrounded by conflict countries. It is very easy to traffic stones from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) into the CAR. There are stories of people trafficking diamonds by canoe into the CAR. There is a huge discrepancy in the number of diamonds that can be mined in the CAR and the number of diamonds that come out of that country. It’s obvious that trafficking is happening, but because the enforcement authority of the Kimberley Process is limited, there is no way to completely stop the trafficking from happening. The Process is better than nothing, but, unfortunately in many ways is actually incentivizing trafficking.
What are some things you feel optimistic about in the diamond industry? The concept of the Kimberley Process brought some public consciousness to the ethical issues in the diamond industry. We tried it, and now we know the Process doesn’t completely work, and that it’s not enough to create an ethical diamond industry. Now people–individuals and jewelers–are looking toward businesses like The Raw Stone who do the legwork of finding ethically-sourced gems. It is exciting to see that people are taking it upon themselves to ensure they are putting their money in the right place.