Ethical diamonds are this girl's best friend

  • February 18, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - When Michael Schmidt and Vanessa Nicholas got engaged they decided they wanted to symbolize their commitment ethically — with a socially and ecologically just ring.

“It is a symbolic piece of jewellery. It was going to be a big expenditure and we thought it would be good to put our values in it of what makes us a couple,” said Schmidt, a 25-year-old architecture masters student studying at the University of Waterloo.

“Striving to change the world is something that Michael and I value in our relationship — to try and be conscious citizens and active Catholics,” said Nicholas, 25, assistant director of Faith Connections, a young adult ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

The couple invested five months of research and planning into figuring out what ethical engagement and wedding rings are and how to make such a purchase. Early on they decided that the most ethical ring would be a recycled one such as a family heirloom, but neither of their families had a ring to pass down. They also considered buying a ring from a pawn shop, but decided they wanted something uniquely their own.

Next they tried looking online at ethical ring companies such as Green Karat, Brilliant Earth and Ethical Metal Smiths. But the couple preferred to buy locally.

They found the Ethical Metal Smiths Association where they posted a notice on its message board looking for a local jeweller who did ethical work.

The founders of Establishment and Co., Ryan Taylor and Adam Dietrich, responded. The couple worked with them over two months to design their rings, figure out pricing and try to locate ethical gold. While Taylor was unable to locate ethical gold for their engagement rings, he secured a deal with a co-operative in Colombia so their wedding bands will be made with 100-per-cent recycled gold.

Still uncertain about whether to go with a traditional diamond ring they explored alternatives to mined diamonds. They met Brad Wilson, a geologist who collects rocks as a hobby. He challenged them to look at the bigger picture.

“He said it’s really a frivolous purchase. You don’t need an engagement ring to get engaged,” said Nicholas. He also said “gravel pit mines cause the most problems in Ontario.”

After a lot of thought and consideration they settled on a Canadian diamond.

“What I liked about a gem is the tradition of a solitary. I bought into the corporate engagement (idea) that diamonds mean love. I liked how people would congratulate me without me having to say anything,” said Nicholas.

However, she was sensitive to abuses in the diamond industry, having written a major university paper on conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone.

“I knew I didn’t want a blood diamond,” said Nicholas.

Human and labour rights abuses in the diamond industry became popularized after the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo Di Caprio about diamonds mined in African war zones and sold to finance the conflicts.

With the backing of the United Nations General Assembly governments and the international diamond industry created an international certification plan in 2003 called the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme. It has since imposed requirements on its members to ensure rough diamonds come from conflict-free areas. As of September, there are 48 members, representing 74 countries with the European Union counting as an individual member.

But still today large corporations are unaccounted for. Harry Winston Diamond Corporation does not ensure its diamonds come from conflict free zones. Meritas Mutual Fund shareholders are demanding the company develop a supplier code of conduct that shows suppliers’ ties to repressive governments by April 30, 2009.

“This is becoming much more of an issue for consumers and I think (Harry Winston) would start losing out on customers,” said Meritas CEO Gary Hawton. “They could also end up losing shareholders. I don’t need to own Harry Winston to diversify my portfolio, especially if it’s misaligned with my values.”

For some, Canadian diamonds are becoming an alternative for consumers as they are not used to finance terror, war and weapons, unlike in Sierra Leone and Angola. Canada ranks among the top three diamond producers in the world in terms of value after Botswana and Russia, according to a Statistics Canada report.

For diamonds purchased in the Northwest Territories, the territorial government offers a Government Certified Canadian Diamond certificate that carries a serial number to assure buyers the diamond has been mined, cut and polished in the territory and monitored from the mine through to the diamond factory.

The diamond that Schmidt and Nicholas purchased was extracted from the Ekati Mines and shaped by a Toronto cutter who embossed a microscopic serial number and Ekati Mines arctic fox symbol.

“Ecologically it might not be the best for the North,” said Nicholas, who also expressed concern over the effect mining has on indigenous communities.

“The up side is that it’s creating many jobs and there is a paper trail and at least you know people aren’t losing their hands over it,” she added.

An ethical diamond does come at a cost. The price of the two engagement rings was $1,300 and the wedding rings were $600.

“I don’t know if our rings are a perfect example of sustainable rings. If we would have gone for a wood ring that would have accomplished our goal,” said Schmidt. “Vanessa and I wanted to make a statement but we’re not that radical.”

The couple uses any opportunity to talk about their rings as a chance to raise awareness about diamonds and mining issues.

“I don’t know if our rings make a lot of difference. I don’t think at all we made a dent in that industry, but the rings become an excuse to tell the story. I think that’s changed the awareness of a lot of our friends,” said Schmidt.

“At the end of the day we had this goal of setting out to buy 100-per-cent socially just/eco-just rings — maybe we were only 40-per-cent successful,” said Nicholas.

“We are only called to do as much as we can do, but we are called to do a lot,” said Nicholas. “When you put your heart and soul into something you have to hand over the rest to God.”

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