Christina Miller and Alexandra Hart listen to a speaker presenting. Both are on the board of Ethical Metalsmiths.

Downtown Chicago, with a view of Lake Michigan from the 8th floor of Columbia College Chicago’s film center was the scene for the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference, the very first.

After two days of panels, speeches, and a film screening, all on the topic of responsible sourcing for the metals and gems that go into jewelry making, if asked to summarize, many participants would have said, “It’s complicated.”

And yet there were many reasons to feel hopeful. Jewelry designer Susan Wheeler spearheaded the conference, wanting to hold one in Chicago after attending a conference in Tuscan, AZ called Jewelry Industry Summit in January 2016.

View from Columbia College Film Center across the street from the conference.

The fashion department at Columbia College Chicago provided the space for the conference, which was sponsored by Susan Wheeler Design, Ethical Metalsmiths, MJSA (a jewelry industry trade group) and Richline Group (a large jewelry industry company that includes Rio Grande, a distributed of gems, findings and metals).

The attendees were from the traditional fine jewelry industry, and custom jewelry designers (think boutique) as well as beaders just starting out in their businesses. About half of the attendees appeared to be in their 30s and the majority were women.

While some attendees heard about the conference through word of mouth or through industry organizations such as the Women’s Jewelry Association, Chicago Chapter, others heard about it through Aleah Arundale’s Facebook group, Jewelers Helping Jewelers, or the online membership community Flourish and Thrive Academy.

Samuel Shiroff and Susan Wheeler. Shiroff spoke and Wheeler organized the conference.

Participants ranged from the skeptical to the fully committed. Everyone wanted to learn how to do a better job of sourcing materials responsibly.

Big players were present, including representatives of the U.S. State Department, PACT (“the largest NGO you’ve never heard of”), the World Diamond Council as well as some of the largest publicly traded companies in the industry.

Change agents such as Toby Pomeroy, founder of Mercury Free Gold, Brian Cook of Nature’s Geometry and Robin Gambler of Fair Trade Jewellery Co. were inspirational. Each of them are tackling an aspect of the industry and going all in to solve one particular problem.

Corinne Washington and Hannah Jackson are Columbia College students who worked the registration table.

Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House presented on the issues around the dangers of dust from cutting not only quartz gems (silica) but also the beryllium found in beryl gems, including morganite, which is increasingly popular.

At one point in his presentation, a member of the audience said, “Can I give you money? I’ll buy them dust masks right now.”

Mr. Braunwart explained that it’s complicated, that in cutting facilities that are outdoors, or not air-conditioned, that these masks are very uncomfortable, and that it’s not only the particles in the air as the individual is cutting, but what happens to the waste product when cutting is done. He showed a picture of an outdoor cutting area under a simple pavilion style roof, with piles of what looked like sand, but was actually dust from cutting gems.

Columbia Gem House’s facilities (in China) are indoors, air-conditioned and meet health and safety standards.

Moving from cutting gems to mining gems and metals, 90% of the mine workers in the world, across 70+ countries, are part of artisanal or small scale mining. And 30-40% of those workers are women. (Source: PACT)

Presenter Stewart Grice of Hoover and Strong (a large, important supplier of gold and other precious metals to the jewelry industry) presented about Fairmined (TM) gold and two mines in Peru, in particular, and how the miners have gathered together to improve safety and living conditions for themselves and their families.

Brian Cook of the Rutiliated Quartz Mine.

You may be familiar with products such as Fair Trade cocoa and coffee, where the farmers are paid a fair rate for their products Fairmined (TM) takes this further, and the mine cooperatives receive a Premium payment on top of their fair trade prices.

They vote on how to spend these premiums, and the Peruvian mines that we toured through his presentation had used them to have electricity run to their village, to have a cell phone tower installed at the mine site, so that they could communicate with their families when the miners are away for 20 days at a time.

While the standard of living of the miners may seem low to Americans, it’s significantly higher than others in the region, and particularly other miners working outside of the Fairmined (TM) system. Those folks live in structures with walls made of a woven mat material and mine without safety protections in place.

Engagement is a term that came up again and again. While there is sometimes a desire to just not deal with a “troublesome” source country at all, only be engaging with the individual and small scale producers in those countries can we create a legal marketplace for responsibly and sustainably mined gems and metals.

It’s complicated… and yet, so many people, all over the world, are working very hard to make it less complicated, more safe for the people in the mines and cutting the gems.

Conference organizer Susan Wheeler said there can be “4 or 5 countries represented in one piece of jewelry” so she wants to make that impact positive, “so that I’m not making my money as a jewelry designer on the backs of others.”

As Andrea Hill of the Hill Management Group said, “Pick one thing at a time and do it. And then pick another one, and that’s how we change the world.”


Elaine Luther is an artist, jeweler, public speaker and public artist in the Chicago area. She uses assemblage, collage and direct sculpting to get her message across. Visit her at



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