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Responsible Diamond Mining and Crafting—Is It Possible?

By Caroline Suganda

Established brands procure their rough diamonds from mining companies, who often do not disclose or perhaps, have the ability to identify the mines of origin for the diamonds they sell.
 
Tiffany & Co.
Established brands procure their rough diamonds from mining companies, who often do not disclose or perhaps, have the ability to identify the mines of origin for the diamonds they sell.

If there is a word that would perfectly describe the changing lifestyle of Singaporeans today, it is a journey towards sustainability. We’re probably years behind when compared to the Scandinavian countries who topped the chart for world’s most sustainable countries last year, but it only took us one unprecedented haze (caused by fires in Indonesia, set by villages and businesses who slash and burn shrub land to make way for crops) that hit its highest level in 2015 to trigger the masses into action. The island’s population had to deal with consequences they hadn’t asked for and in return, they cast their vote with their wallets. Having experienced the possible environmental and health effects, we’ve been quick to lean towards paper products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, and even going as far as to swapping to those made of unbleached bamboo pulps. Fingers crossed, we’ve yet to face another haze since then.

People are now more aware of where their products are coming from or going to. Here, the trend-following millennials are beginning to launch their own anti-plastic movement as evident in their own daily lifestyle. Whether driven by their own initiative, or for the sake of Instagram content, these are little victories that cultivate habits and amount to greater things. Reusable tumblers are now a common sight for takeaway beverages. Cafés are beginning to replace plastic straws with reusable metal ones. Earlier this year, UnPackt, the packaging-free, BYO-container concept of grocery shopping, started operations in Singapore.

As recently as five years ago, it came to light that fast fashion brands were deemed unethical in their reported exploitation of child labour, poor working environments and toxic dumping that pollute the ecosystem. Since then, sustainable measures have been contemplated and put in place. We’re not done with this battle, but we’re making progress. Today, it’s common to see fast fashion and luxury brands install their sustainabile initiatives and there are even some who use it as a marketing tool, from trading-in old clothes, repurposing vintage clothing, or even reusing packaging made of recycled paper.

Tiffany & Co.Diamonds weighing less than 0.20 carat are called melee. The cost of cutting and polishing these are more expensive than its cost at rough, but these add a big impact to jewellery pieces when used in large quantities.
Diamonds weighing less than 0.20 carat are called melee. The cost of cutting and polishing these are more expensive than its cost at rough, but these add a big impact to jewellery pieces when used in large quantities.

Another industry that still faces the challenge of sustainable business models is the diamond industry. Globally, about 90 million carats of rough diamonds and 1,600 tons of gold are mined for jewellery every year, generating over US$300 billion (approx. S$401 billion) in revenue.

In the same fight for ethical fashion, consumers are increasingly demanding for responsible sourcing of diamonds too. There is a growing segment of younger consumers concerned about the origins of the products they buy, and want to be sure that the jewellery they purchase has been procured and produced under ethical
 conditions. Most established
 brands procure their rough 
diamonds from mining
 companies, who often do not
 disclose or have the ability to
 identify the mines of origin for 
the diamonds they sell.

Tiffany & Co.The Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada is known for its many environmental protection and sustainable initiatives. It is one of the mines Laurelton Diamonds sources from.
The Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada is known for its many environmental protection and sustainable initiatives. It is one of the mines Laurelton Diamonds sources from.

Behind those glistening diamonds with astronomical price tags, an estimated 40 million people work in small-scale mines, which operate with little or no machinery. They are adults and children who are threatened with death if they were to flee, who are subjected to harsh working conditions in deep, unsecure pits, exposed to toxic chemicals. Workers are not fairly compensated and some are even sexually abused.

But the adversities do not stop there. After rough diamonds
 are mined, they are typically exported to Antwerp in Belgium, 
the world’s biggest diamond trading hub. Here, these roughs 
may be traded multiple times, sold by tender, at any point in time between the cutting and polishing stages, which are mostly carried out in India and China as labour is cheap in these countries. Poor working environment, long hours and very little protective measures against the safety of the laser-sharp machineries are the norm.

In a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) — a non-profit, non-governmental human rights organisation with a mission to defend the rights of people worldwide — released earlier this year, 13 well-known luxury brands were ranked according to the efforts they made towards responsible sourcing of materials. The advocacy director, Jo Becker, says, “Overall, we were looking at what these companies do to make sure their gold and jewellery aren’t linked to human rights abuses.”

No one brand was awarded the highest rank of excellence. However, Tiffany & Co. was the only brand rated as “strong”, which propelled the American jeweller to the top of the ranks. The other 12 brands were ranked from moderate to weak, with some not earning any rank for their refusal to participate in this assessment.

Tiffany & Co.Diamonds with strong fluorescence colour is not a defect, but is not aligned with Tiffany’s quality as it tends to appear chalky under strong daylight.
Diamonds with strong fluorescence colour is not a defect, but is not aligned with Tiffany’s quality as it tends to appear chalky under strong daylight.

It came as a little surprise that in the world of aggressive, trend-targetted marketing, Tiffany has never used the above case as its main marketing tool. Digging a little deeper revealed that their commitment for accountability and traceability of each diamond goes is quite extraordinary.

The year 2002 marked the beginning of Tiffany’s journey towards sustainability. The company established a wholly owned subsidiary, Laurelton Diamonds, to procure rough diamonds and manage their worldwide supply chain that sources, cuts, polishes and supplies finished stones to Tiffany — a vertically integrated approach that bolsters responsible practice. With 10 facilities located around the world, including Antwerp (its headquarters), Mauritius, and Vietnam, each has its own specialisation in cutting or polishing different shapes and sizes. Being able to control most of the parts of its supply chain not only contributes to its success and accountability, but also guarantees Tiffany’s exceptional levels of quality and artistry. In general, only 0.04 per cent of the world’s supply of diamonds are found in the Tiffany’s boutique, all due to the brand’s stringent quality control.

Tiffany & Co.The Laurelton Diamonds Mauritius facility has trained over 200 new staff members in the last 10 years, contributing to the unique skill set possessed by the locals.
The Laurelton Diamonds Mauritius facility has trained over 200 new staff members in the last 10 years, contributing to the unique skill set possessed by the locals.

Located within the unassuming, but highly guarded diamond district, Laurelton Diamonds in Antwerp is where diamonds (rough form) meant for Tiffany make their first stop. Here is where they are tested for clarity and colours before they are marked for cutting. These diamonds are sourced either directly from a known mine or a supplier with known mines. These mines are located mainly in Botswana, Canada, Namibia, Russia, Sierra Leone and South Africa, some of which are mines that Tiffany has invested in.

The ability to name one’s suppliers is a good sign as not
 many in the same trade are able to, but vertically integrating one’s supply chain to fully include mines with a stream
of steady supply is an almost impossible task. Instead, to
 ensure its sustainability and an ethical working environment, Tiffany visits these sites regularly to evaluate 
working conditions — which is not a common practice in
 other companies. The jeweller also works with mines through a Social Accountability Program, to review and improve their human rights, labour and environmental performance. A code of conduct for their suppliers are made public, and there have been instances where Tiffany terminated contracts with those who failed to meet the former’s requirements.

Tiffany & Co.In Antwerp, each rough stone is wrapped in an envelope, with information on what stage of the diamond’s “journey” it is at, written on it. The same envelope is dispatched to all of the Laurelton Diamonds facility for polishing.
In Antwerp, each rough stone is wrapped in an envelope, with information on what stage of the diamond’s “journey” it is at, written on it. The same envelope is dispatched to all of the Laurelton Diamonds facility for polishing.

After the diamonds are cut in Antwerp, they are dispatched for polishing in other Laurelton Diamonds facilities around the world. Prior to the integration of this supply chain, Tiffany would outsource the polishing stage to third-party polishers. There was one in Vietnam, a polishing factory that specialised in small diamonds used for pavé settings. Its work quality impressed Tiffany but their operational environment was not up to standard. “The operation should be a place where I’ll be proud to take any of our customers there, but I couldn’t say that with Vietnam,” says Andrew Hart, senior vice president of diamond and jewellery supply. There were too many problems that couldn’t be fixed. A year later, in 2005, Tiffany bought over the operations and offered a better standard of living to the workers — the working environment and wages are now aligned with Tiffany’s structure (a significantly higher amount compared to the
average local wage). “What makes me feel good about my job is that we’re giving people a better life and they too, feel good about themselves,” says Hart. The whole building was reconstructed, shabby bicycle garage made way for proper parking space for new motorbikes. Fans were replaced with proper air conditioning and equipment was redeveloped and redesigned with proper safety measures put in place. This has become the standard operation for all Laurelton Diamonds facilities.

In 2013, when the garment industry moved out of Cambodia (seeking lower wage cost in Bangladesh and Myanmar), Tiffany took over the abandoned labour and installed a similar facility just outside of Phnom Penh. As there was no diamond experience to draw from in the country, the diamond polishers from Vietnam had to come in and train the locals. Unlike the garment industry, which requires just two days of training (or rather, familiarisation), diamond polishing requires at least 10 to 12 months of training. Setting up a facility where diamond skills were entirely non-existent before can be considered a valuable investment in the economic potential of the country. The facility in Cambodia, which was built from ground up, is also LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, attributing 10 per cent of the power used to the solar panels installed.

Tiffany & Co.Tiffany also seeks to preserve the world’s most treasured landscapes and seascapes.
Tiffany also seeks to preserve the world’s most treasured landscapes and seascapes.
Tiffany & Co.Mauritius is an island three times the size of Singapore.
Mauritius is an island three times the size of Singapore.
Tiffany & Co.The quintessential of island living, the locals in Mauritius depend largely on sugar cane and tourism.
The quintessential of island living, the locals in Mauritius depend largely on sugar cane and tourism.

Another Laurelton Diamonds facility is in Mauritius, an island where tourism and sugar cane are the main sources of income. In the same way the facility in Vietnam was built, the Mauritius facility was bought over from a Belgian entrepreneur whose factory was already polishing Tiffany diamonds at 90 per cent of its capacity. The team of polishers there, who specialised in polishing round and fancy shape diamonds grew from 80 to 280 staff members, from producing 18,000 stones a year to 56,000 in about 10 years. These were achieved within working hours of five days a week, eight hours per day. From the next year on, Laurelton Diamonds is looking at increasing the facility’s size and productivity by 30,000 stones a year, as a result of higher demand. Due to its remote location that is inaccessible by public transport, free transportation and lunch are provided to all of their staff. But way beyond that, the staff members whom the company sees as people who add value to their diamonds, are also giving back to the society by participating in community services, such as painting a local school.

The brilliance of these diamonds is slowly coaxed out at these three, but not limited to, facilities, before they make their way to their Pelham, New York facilities, where final grading, inspection and inscription are done. Each of these polished rocks (that are bigger than 0.18 carats) is laser-inscribed with a microscopic code (that is invisible to the naked eye) as accountability to its provenance. These diamonds are then used in settings done in its other workshops in the US, before they make the transit to all of Tiffany’s boutiques worldwide. Each piece of jewellery is lovingly wrapped in its iconic blue box and bagged; all materials are made with paper from sustainable sources, including FSC-certified recycled materials.

Tiffany & Co.Rough diamonds do not have any sparkles. It is the the effort of the polishers that add sparkle (and value) to these rocks. On average, Tiffany diamonds are looked at approximately 1,300 times between rough stone and the finished product.
Rough diamonds do not have any sparkles. It is the the effort of the polishers that add sparkle (and value) to these rocks. On average, Tiffany diamonds are looked at approximately 1,300 times between rough stone and the finished product.

Tiffany’s passion for responsible diamond sourcing and crafting are just two of the company’s biggest initiatives. Currently, the 181-year-old jeweller also supports the development of marine protected areas around the world, is opposed to proposed mining sites (like the gold mine at Yellowstone National Park, Rock Creek Mine in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Montana, Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay) to raise awareness and the need to protect the ecosystem.


The sustainability journey of a Tiffany’s diamond requires dedication, commitment and passion to ensure the journey continues far into the future. And as this multi-billion-dollar company “aspires to leave behind a world that is as beautiful and abundant as the one [it has] inherited”, surely we, an island nation, can take even more steps towards making sustainability part of a lifestyle we can be proud of.