Opinion: Simon Watt Says to Take the Lead on Responsible Sourcing

By Simon Watt, Mayer & Watt

After reading last week’s article about proposed updates to the Green Guides, I feel compelled to address my fellow dealers about this important move. AGTA must take the lead on providing feedback about terms that are circulating in our realm but do not yet have clear definitions, such as “responsible sourcing” and “traceability.” Otherwise, the flag will be picked up by some other group, and no one has more longevity and seriousness in this space than AGTA.

But when we talk about some of these terms, we must remember context. Mining is different in Sri Lanka than in Madagascar—from the deposits to the culture, there’s no comparison, and you can’t say one country has a bigger or better halo in terms of ethical sourcing. And there are unintended consequences to actions that no one sees coming.

About six years ago, I was able to visit Burma—Mogok is a holy grail destination for gem dealers. We got special permits to go, and it was a wonderful trip. But before we went, I googled a map of Burma and zoomed in. I saw scars on the landscape that I didn’t recall being there 20 years ago.

Emerald-cut multicolor Sapphire from Australia, $7,103; Mayer & Watt
Emerald-cut multicolor Sapphire from Australia, $7,103; Mayer & Watt

I learned that when the Americans sanctioned the country for human rights violations—which are horrible, and the U.S. was right to do so—artisanal mining was affected. The Burmese couldn’t sell gems to Americans, so they sold to neighboring countries who were less concerned about environmental stewardship. New partners started removing mountain tops in search of gems, and never filled anything back in when they were done mining. This was an unintended consequence of the West that killed off artisanal mining in Mogok, and it left a horrible taste in my mouth.

I wish mining issues were black and white, but they are not, and we need to be globally aware of them as we move forward in our own businesses and the terms we use.

For example, the word “sustainable” is completely inappropriate for gemstones because there is a finite number of gemstones in the ground. To me, sustainable means if you take away a commodity you replace it. Consider bamboo, which grows from a seed to maturity in six years. For bamboo, the word “sustainable” is completely appropriate, but it’s not for the gem business.

Our business is aware of merchants who have asked dealers to sign documents saying that every single stone sold is conflict free. That’s simply not possible; the best the industry can do is to say that your business is constantly working towards that goal. The fact is that most dealers are not on the ground through the entire mining process. So, few can say that he or she got a gem from Joe Miner in Africa and it’s absolutely non-conflict; you’re not there to verify every link in the chain. AGTA dealers do their due diligence—and some like Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House go above and beyond and have for years in knowing sources, miners, and cutters—but there’s a lot of gray areas.

Colored gemstone mining is 90% artisanal or small scale. AGTA dealers have been ethical and responsible our whole lives—we’ve been disclosing treatment our entire careers. We’re responsible because we care about the people we deal with, from providing healthcare to our employees to raising and sending money to Tanzanians after floods. We are responsible and accountable for our actions, and moves like this are part of our normal business model.

Being ethical means being fair and honest. I have a situation now with a person not being fair and honest, and when that person walks up to my booth in Tucson, I’m going to tell them that I can’t do business with them until they resolve the issue. That is ethical to me. But gem dealers can’t track or guarantee that every child in Sri Lanka has more than a bowl of rice to eat a day—that has nothing to do with a country’s mining regulations.

And what is responsible sourcing? I know traceability, from when the stone comes out of ground until it reaches my hand. Therefore, I can prove a certain degree of responsibility to that source. What sets AGTA dealers apart is that many of us have very small and clearly defined supply chains and in some cases control them.

I am against codification of these terms in the context of the U.S. and how some may want efforts to look to the public. Diamonds have the Kimberley Process, but it’s b.s. Gem dealers don’t have the money to pay for lawyers and marketers to put together a ruse of a dictionary of terms. Gem dealers don’t have the money to spend on smoke and mirrors.

It’s critical that AGTA weighs in on proposed revisions to the Green Guides, but we must remember that what we do cannot be packaged up neatly with a bow.

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