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Why “Fair Trade” Matters

We’re proud of the fair-trade stones that sparkle in our new jewelry. Here’s why

All gemstones are not created equal.

For centuries, the jewelry industry has exploited both people and the environment, extracting stones from mining sites with unsafe working conditions, underpaid (or unpaid) workers, and devastating ecological consequences.

But not Columbia Gem House.

A leader in the industry since 1976, this Pacific Northwest–based firm has pioneered a new way of sourcing stones. Forging partnerships with mining communities around the world, CGH is committed to paying workers fairly and treating diverse cultures with respect. From extraction to polishing to setting, every stone is rigorously and individually tracked along the custody journey, with supply-chain quality rigorously enforced. At its owned sites in Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, the CGH team treats the beautiful landscapes with a maximum of respect, avoiding destructive extraction techniques and toxic chemicals.

CGH codified its process into an influential protocol that other jewelry makers around the world now follow, a three-tiered system of Fair Trade Levels that captures what the company knows about each and every gem. And this team knows a lot. Read on to find out where The Met Store’s newest jewelry comes from.

Garnet (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, USA)

With rich red and purple tones, garnet is abundant in the Gem State. CGH has several small claims in Idaho, where orange-sized chunks of the stone are mined by hand in dried-up riverbeds and streambeds. (Smaller-sized pieces of garnet are used to manufacture sandpaper.)

Top left: Sorting garnets one by one. Bottom left: Lustrous red gemstones lie within unassuming rocks. Right: Byzantine Gems Garnet and Pearl 3-Drop Necklace ($295) and Byzantine Gems Garnet Drop Earrings ($165)

 

Black Jasper (Black Stallion Mine, Oregon, USA)

In the Columbia River Valley of Oregon, black jasper is found in boulders strewn around flat plains—you won’t find shafts at this mining site. Splitting them open with crowbars and sledgehammers reveals rich formations of this opaque quartz.

Clockwise from top left: Drilling for black seams; the raw crystal, just from the ground; rough chunks ready to be cut; post-cutting black jasper cabochons

 

Prized by jewelry makers for millennia thanks to its deep-black color and hardness, black jasper is alluring whether carved into cabochons or crosses. 

Left: Black jasper stones featured in our Hellenistic Cabochon Collection. Right: The black jasper pendant of our Coptic Cross Pendant Necklace ($185)

 

Labradorite (Maniry, Madagascar)

CGH founder Eric Braunwart first traveled to Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, as part of a World Bank poverty-alleviation project in 2003. Inspired, he decided to export the practices he had developed in the U.S., setting up a transparent, traceable supply chain, in the process sharing more of the proceeds of gemstones with communities in producing countries.

Mined in huge 20′ by 20′ chunks of “dimensional stone” then legally exported, labradorite is used for countertops, furniture, and other architecture applications. At CGH’s gem-cutting facility in Shenzen, China, workers look for areas of uninterrupted “labradorescence”—the rich green iridescence that makes this stone so intriguing.

 

Left: Shimmering labradorite, before and after cutting and polishing. Right: Hellenistic Gilded Mesh Labradorite Necklace ($225)

 

Lapis Lazuli (Ovalle, Chile) 

At a remote site high in the Andes, Las Flores de los Andes extracts a stone that occurs in abundance only here and in Afghanistan. Famous throughout the world for its signature deep-blue color, lapis lazuli has been a coveted luxury material in the Americas for centuries.

CGH purchased a cache of Las Flores’s rough lapis—the provenance of which, unlike the Afghan lapis that flows through clandestine networks, is clear. While cutting Chilean lapis poses a challenge, CGH’s skilled artisans were able to find the most uninterrupted blue areas of the striated stones. The results of their work dazzle.

Top left: Lapis, fresh from Chile, ready to be sorted. Bottom left: Raw or cut, lapis reveals its namesake color. Right: Byzantine Gems Lapis and Pearl 3-Drop Necklace ($285) and Byzantine Gems Lapis Drop Earrings ($165)

 

Rock Crystal Quartz (Minas Gerais, Brazil)

The hills near Curvelo and Corinto in Minas Gerais, Brazil, have produced quartz for American markets since the 1940s, when the stones were used to manufacture radios. Today, the innovative workers’ cooperative Uniquartz has 125 members who have banded together to encourage a legal and sustainable source of quartz crystals that benefits worker as well as world markets. 

The quartz crystals found here are still mined by hand to protect the pyramidal crystal termination points that collectors prize. After sorting for size and clarity, CGH sends its crystals to Shenzhen, where workers carve the stones in carefully monitored conditions to reduce quartz-dust exposure. 

Clockwise from top left: A crystal fresh from the dry sansdtone earth in Brazil; cut and cleaned up back at CGH HQ; assembling a set of cross necklaces; from raw stones to carefully carved jewelry.

 

At the end of the journey, the result is a stone of astonishing clarity and hardness.

Rock solid: Rock Crystal Coptic Cross Necklace ($185) and Earrings ($125)

 

Blue Ice Chalcedony (Madras, Oregon, USA)

These beautiful pale-blue stones come from the Polkadot Mine, owned by Dale Hewitt of West Coast Mining. On a sagebrush-covered plateau, miners use excavators rather then breaking the rock with fire, allowing more control and less physical effort with of lifting and hammering by hand. Subtle varaitions in the finished cut and polished stones illustrate that the color of these stones is entirely nature, and never dyed.

Top right: Columbia Gem House owner Eric Braunwart mines a chalcedony seam by hand. Bottom right: The raw and finished gemstones, side by side. Left: Hellenistic Silver Mesh Chalcedony Necklace ($225) and Large Hellenistic Silver Chalcedony Earrings ($110)

 

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