It’s no secret that the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) has faced a barrage of criticism since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war.
The uproar emanated from the RJC’s perceived lack of action on Alrosa, one of its high-profile members and which is 33 per cent owned by the Russian government.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February and on 3 March the RJC announced that the Alrosa representative had voluntarily resigned as vice chair of the RJC board. However, many members and the wider jewellery industry thought action was required, believing that it was incompatible for Alrosa to remain an RJC member.
Perhaps more perplexing was the RJC’s silence given much of the Western world was establishing and adopting economic sanctions against Russia, essentially led by the US.
While there may have been activity behind the scenes, the silence was effectively seen as inaction, hypocrisy and a lack of transparency – something that should be an anathema to an organisation that operates under the ‘responsible’ moniker.
However, the RJC’s lack of transparency over Alrosa is not the first time it has avoided membership issues.
In 2019, Jeweller reported on the obfuscation and deflection by the RJC concerning potentially misleading conduct by its retail member Michael Hill International, as well as the lack of transparency over other questions raised, and which still remain unanswered today.
We also recently reported on questions surrounding the RJC’s membership directory where the websites of around 200 members cannot be located.
However, there are more questions to be asked of the RJC, which claims to be “the world’s leading standard setting organisation for the jewellery and watch industry.”
Veneer or verity: a walk on eggshells
Gemfields Group is based in London and listed on the Johannesburg and London Stock Exchanges and is incorporated in the tax haven of Guernsey. Revenue in 2021 was $US258 million, up from $US35 million in 2020.
The company claims to be “a world-leading supplier of responsibly sourced African emeralds, rubies and sapphires …”.
Although the words ‘responsibly sourced’ feature heavily throughout its website, and are highlighted and promoted in the company’s annual reports and other media, Gemfields is not a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council.
There is no obligation for it to be so.
In 2013 Gemfields acquired Fabergé, a famous historical brand known for its gemstone-encrusted eggs. Fabergé joined the RJC in April 2018 and is currently certified until February 2024.
Fabergé’s About page on the company’s website states: “2013 – Gemfields, a world leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones, acquires Fabergé with the aim to create a globally recognised coloured gemstone champion, building on Fabergé’s status as a global brand with an exceptional heritage”.
The website goes on to state: “Gemfields specialises in the mining and marketing of emeralds and rubies from some of the finest sources in the world. They are proud of their leadership position and continually work to improve the awareness and delivery of sustainability within the industry all the way through to the end consumer.”
While the information about Gemfields appears on Fabergé’s “About” page in a historical timeline of the company dating back to 1882, there is a separate and individual page specifically dedicated to Gemfields Group, as the parent company.
The first words appearing on the Gemfields page are: “A world-leading supplier of responsibly sourced, coloured gemstones” and it goes on to explain that, “Today, Fabergé is a member of the Gemfields Group – a world leading supplier of responsibly-sourced gemstones”.
The term ‘responsibly-sourced’ forms a significant part of the company’s marketing, and it’s important to reiterate here that the Gemfields Group is not a member of the RJC.
While this might be intriguing in itself, given the company’s persistent promotion of the responsible sourcing concept, it should raise a question for the RJC: Is it appropriate for one RJC member company – which has been successful in gaining responsible sourcing Certification – to promote another (non-member) company’s claims of responsible sourcing?
A different definition of ‘transparency’
Under the heading on the Fabergé website, ‘Gemfields gemstones are mined with transparency, legitimacy and integrity’ the page explains that the Gemfields’ mining operation at “Montepuez mine in Mozambique covers 33,600 hectares and is one of the most significant ruby deposits in the world”.
The Montepuez mine has been the subject of international controversy for many years.
Mining.com published an article in February 2018 titled ‘Gemfields reveals and denies fresh human rights abuse claims in Mozambique’ while The Guardian carried an article in September 2020 titled ‘How did a cocktail of violence engulf Mozambique’s gemstone El Dorado?’
In addition, Miningmx.com reported ‘Artisanal mining violence flares again at Gemfields’ Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique’ in February 2020 and as far back as 2016 an article was published about ‘The Blood Rubies of Montepuez’.
There have also been news reports and allegations of torture, beatings and murder of local villagers and miners working on and around the Montepuez operation.
Rather than apply to join the RJC, in April 2020, and only two months after the February report on violence flaring at its Montepuez mine, Gemfields joined the Voluntary Principles Initiative (VPI), a body that claims to be “dedicated to sharing best practices”.
The Gemfields’ website states that it had been “accepted as member of world-leading Voluntary Human Rights Initiative’ after a ‘long, thorough process’” and that Gemfields was “the first pure gemstone mining company to have been accepted as a corporate member”.
It is unclear how many company members the VPI had in 2020, however, at the time of publication its website lists only 31, compared to the RJC’s 1,463.
In 2018 Reuters reported that the Faberge owner, Gemfields was taken to court by a UK legal firm – Leigh Day – over alleged human rights abuses in Mozambique.
In January 2019 Leigh Day announced it had settled the case “on behalf of 273 Claimants from around the Montepuez area in northern Mozambique. The Claimant group consisted of artisanal ruby miners and local villagers from the communities in the vicinity of the Montepuez Ruby Mine.”
The Gemfields Group issued a press statement on 29 January acknowledging that it had “agreed, on a no-admission-of-liability basis, the settlement of all claims brought by English law firm Leigh Day on behalf of individuals living in the vicinity of Montepuez Ruby Mining Limitada’s (MRM) mining concession in northern Mozambique.”
In an out-of-court settlement, Gemfields paid out £5.8 million ($US7.8 million) “to be distributed to the claimants by Leigh Day and their legal expenses”.
This has led industry commentators to question how a company that has been involved in a highly controversial mining project, and which has agreed to pay $US7.8 million in compensation to the local people, can claim to offer ‘responsibly-sourced’ gemstones?
Ruling with a velvet glove
This issue aside, the more salient question to ask the RJC, given its brouhaha over Alrosa, is whether it is appropriate for Fabergé to spruik and promote its parent as a company that offers responsibly sourced product?
It could be argued that Gemfields is attempting to benefit from the imprimatur and/or warrant of the RJC Certification held by its subsidiary, Fabergé.
And if it is, how is it acceptable for one company to trade-off, and benefit from, another company’s certification for responsibly sourced gemstones? If the RJC is not aware of the actions and activities by its member – Fabergé – then one must ask, why?
Hall was a founding member of the RJC in 2005 and has previously worked with mining company Rio Tinto in London as general manager of external affairs.
At the time of publication Hall had not acknowledged or responded to our email.
In 2019 both Hall and Van der Veken remained silent concerning questions about RJC membership. Over the course of 18 emails across 18 days, we sought clarification on three basic questions:
- Since the foundation of the RJC, have any members been found to have been in breach of RJC Code of Practices?
- If yes, how many?
- Of those, did any lose their membership?
While Hall responded to the questions, he did not answer them; instead his response was a lesson in obfuscation. More than two years later, the industry is none the wiser on these issues.
This seems to fly in the face of the RJC’s own statement on governance: “Our world is changing at a rapid pace. So, as the leading standards authority for responsible jewellery, the RJC seeks to ensure transparent, representative and appropriate governance for its entire membership.”
A new beginning?
Corporate transparency is about the extent to which an organisation’s decision-making, operations and actions are observable by external parties, including the general public. It can be as simple as the perceived worth and accuracy of intentionally shared information.
To date, the RJC has ‘shared’ nothing at all and it continues to be silent on membership issues.
If the RJC staff and board refuse to be transparent on simple and basic matters, how can it claim – in any way – to be ‘responsible’?
The RJC is now in search for a new executive director. If a prospective leader thinks that the Alrosa membership is the major problem to work through on accepting the position, then they should think again.
Given that the likes of Pandora, Richemont, Kering, Watches of Switzerland and other international brands have quit the not-for-profit association, in order to restore faith in the RJC a new executive director would be well advised to consider his or her predecessors’ inability to be clear-cut and unequivocal.
Responsible Jewellery Council’s ‘missing’ members
How responsible is the Responsible Jewellery Council?
Responsible Jewellery Council appoints temporary leader
Russia causes turmoil at RJC; Executive director resigns
Exodus from Responsible Jewellery Council over Russian inaction
Alrosa steps down from NDC and RJC; assures India business as usual
Pandora pulls out of Russia and Belarus, donates $1 million to UNICEF
Screenshots taken from Fabergé’s Website (18th April 2022)
Screenshots taken from Gemfield’s Website (18th April 2022)
Yellow highlight emphasis added by Jeweller.