Association members, including Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, took part in the 7th edition of the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference (CRJC). The event took place 11–12 and collocated with The INSTORE Show this year at the Donald E. Stephens Convention & Conference Center in Rosemont, Ill.
Susan Wheeler of Susan Wheeler Designs is the founder of CRJC and developed the conference after attending many others on related topics. She aimed to bring together voices from across the globe—“Voices that would directly represent the communities most affected by jewelry industry demands,” she explains.
Her goal? To engage everyone in the industry, including miners, makers, professionals, educators, and students to address all the ways that individuals and companies could be involved in the responsible jewelry movement.
This year’s event featured presentations such as “Introduction to Incorporating the UN SDGs and UN Women’s Goals into Your Jewelry Journey,” by Wheeler herself, and “Source Country Traders in the Gemstone Supply Chain,” a panel including Braunwart, a pioneer in the traceability arena, among others, and moderated by Brecken Branstrator of GemGuide.
Other presentations included an overview of Russian sanctions by Sara Yood, Deputy General Counsel of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, and “Casting a Wider Net: Responsibly Sourced Designs Inspiring Consumer Engagement,” another panel featuring Braunwart and others and moderated by Natasha Braunwart, Brand and Corporate Social Responsibility Manager for Columbia Gem House.
In Wheeler’s presentation, she talked about protecting the industry and poverty in the supply chain as a threat to it. Ending poverty is one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“We are responsible for what we buy and use in the supply chain,” she said. “We can take baby steps to economic justice, and new livelihoods, such as in the gemstone sector, are arising for women in source countries.”
Braunwart, Founder of Columbia Gem House, meanwhile, talked about his long roots in traceability, dating back 45 years in East Africa, when he first started working on traceability protocols. “We developed a silicosis abatement system that I still think is one of the best in the industry,” he explained about his gemstone cutting projects abroad.
He also talked about the importance of brokers in source countries, many of whom he’s had decades-long relationships with. “We need brokers, we buy every two weeks, and brokers are critical for us,” he says.
Braunwart, of course, was among the first in the industry to establish a vetting system for new suppliers and ensure miners were paid a living wage according to their countries. “Gemstone mining is largely secondary work in other countries. Many miners farm in other seasons.”
Yood, meanwhile, addressed sanctions on Russia’s Alrosa Diamonds and more restrictions to come at the beginning of 2024. She also noted that Diamonds purchased in Russia but transformed—i.e., cut—don’t circumvent U.S. “substantial transformation” laws. “This is just the pathway to move Diamonds in our industry, it’s not necessarily a loophole,” she says. As for the U.S. relationship with Russia, it’s not reverting to what it was anytime quickly. “I hope some kind of pathway back to a relationship opens up, but it will be a long time until we get there.”
AGTA CEO John W. Ford Sr. attended the conference with AGTA Board President Kimberly Collins of Kimberly Collins Colored Gems. “We were happy to attend, interact, and enlighten others by letting them know that the AGTA Code of Ethics addresses many, if not all, of the topics that they were discussing,” explains Ford.
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