Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Ring, pt 1

Surprised as I was to find myself Quite Fancying the idea of getting married, I was even more surprised to find myself Quite Fancying the idea of having an engagement ring. I'm not really a big jewellery person, and the idea of wearing any item of bling that costs more than about 10p makes me nervous, in case I either lose it or someone else takes into their heads to relieve me of it.
Anyway, having decided I wanted one of these, I had to find one I liked. Overgrown Antipodean had very sensibly not done the down-on-one-knee-with-a-rock thing – I'm far too pernickety for buying me jewellery on spec to be a safe option.
Did I mention also that this wedding is happening on a serious budget? Estimates for the cost of the average UK wedding range from £12,000 - £20,000. Not so long ago you could buy a house in my neighbourhood for that. Certainly spending that on a single day, even a (hopefully!) once-in-a-lifetime one, seems kinda obscene. And anyway, OA and I would rather chew our ring fingers off than start getting in hock for this...
So a traditional diamond was probably never going to be an option. In addition to cost issues, I'm still highly sceptical about most diamonds. Many people will by now have heard of the issue of blood diamonds – those gems mined in conflict zones in Africa and then sold to fund further warfare. Most mainstream jewellers in the UK now sport claims that they are conflict-diamond-free and sell gems that are approved under the Kimberley Process (, an industry and international government initiative which was supposed to eliminate the danger that new diamonds would likely be tainted with the blood of millions of people caught up in a number of very dirty wars.
Despite the claims of big diamond merchants like De Beers (and most diamonds you come across anywhere in the world), the Kimberley Process is far from a guarantee that a diamond will come from a source that has not involved human and environmental exploitation. One example is the recent eviction from their traditional lands of a number of Kalahari Bushmen by the government of Botswana so that diamond mining could take place there. People who had lived as roaming hunters and gatherers for centuries were forced into 'resettlement camps' with high levels of violence, alcoholism and HIV, and made dependent on aid rations by being prevented from hunting and gathering food in their usual way. Not a bloody civil war, but a major infringement of human rights, and not covered by the Kimberley Process. For more detailed criticisms, see Global Witness' pages at and information on the PR campaigns run by big diamond companies at
The problems don't stop with diamonds. Many other gems are mined in similar ways and with similar ethical problems, although there are a small number of ethical gems projects which are being started up, although many are still in their infancy.
And gold is another big problem. Gold mining is often accompanies by terrific human rights abuses and environmental degradation. In Guatemala and Honduras, for example, anti-mine activists from environmental groups and indigenous peoples have been threatened in some cases murdered by gold companies from North America, and local people evicted so that precious metals on their land can be exploited. Similar tales come from countries as far apart as Indonesia and Guyana.
As well as human rights abuses, most modern gold mining is a hugely polluting affair. Movies and history books might have inculcated images of ragged prospectors panning rivers for gold, but the reality of most gold production now is very different. Tons and tons of rock are mined by heavy machinery, crushed, and mixed with highly toxic cyanide solutions in order to separate gold and silver from the stone. The gold – perhaps only a few ounces per ton of rock – is filtered out. This leaves gallons of toxic cyanide sludge, called tailings, which is stored in lakes called 'tailings ponds,' as there is pretty much no cost-effective way of processing it. At a number of mines around the world – from Guyana or Romania to the Philippines and Ghana - the dams that hold these ponds in have burst, causing massive pollution which kills fish, animals, plants and often people. For more information see or
Despite these tales of doom and gloom there is some hope for the ethical engagement ring seeker with a bit of cash to burn. The Green Gold project in Colombia provides a small source of artisanal gold (remember those gold-panning scenes? This is where it still happens) which is used by some jewellers, while others use recycled metal from second-hand jewellery. Second-hand gems might also be considered, and at least one British jeweller is looking into diamond sources in Canada. This whole issue will be re-explored when the time comes to try and find some ethical, affordable wedding rings, but until then possible sources of ethical new engagement rings are April Doubleday in Cornwall ( or Cred in Chichester and at stockists around the UK ( Both also do mail order. In the USA, will remake old rings to your specifications and will try and connect you up with ethical jewellers who can meet your requirements.
So what did I do? Well, having decided that I'd reserve my major ring-hunting efforts (and budget) for wedding rings, I just sort of kept an eye out in the windows of second-hand jewellers. I came across one or two possibilities that didn't quite hit the mark, until in a spot of serendipity, waiting for a late friend, I came across something in a small shop in the god-awful heap of South London concrete I grew up in. Three garnets in pinkish (ie nice cheap, impure 9-carat) gold, it was made in 1906 in Chester – the year my beloved house was built and not far from Sunny Manchester where that house is. Perfect. Of course it needed resizing, so it's currently in the possession of my mum. I hope she's keeping it safe...


redcap said...

Are you sure this should be a blog, mate? It sounds like it has great book potential to me. Apart from bloood diamonds, nasty tailings dams and that enormous Bolivian mine that turned a mountain into a hole, I hadn't actually thought about the ethical aspects of jewellery before!

redcap said...

Oh, and I love the fact that you refer to him as the Overgrown Antipodean. Ha!

Polly said...

I am a UK jeweller strongly committed to ethical working practices. It is really vital that we raise the profile of ethical issues within the jewellery industry and for taking part in this I thank you. I have just completed extensive research in Bolivia and California into sustainable mining practices. I have also been investigating the labelling of fair trade metals; at this point there are no certified fair trade metals (PLEASE BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU BUY...). I have found a source of gold in California which is found in the riverbed and not mined. Please check out what we are doing ( and let us know what you think!

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