The term “blood diamond” has been a part of modern day lexicon since 2006 when the box office smash hit of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio, helped to raise awareness of how rough diamonds in Africa are used to fund rebel violence and war crimes. The spotlight on the issue has since waned but the challenge of sourcing gemstones that haven’t been tarnished by bloodshed and violence still remains.
There is of course the international Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a self-regulated and voluntary system launched to help stop the trade of conflict diamonds, but this process has been ineffective, drawing heavy criticism from human rights activists for being largely tokenistic on the part of industry. In addition, the scheme doesn’t address environmental issues or social injustice.
Curious about the lack of gemstone traceability, and general lack of transparency that can be a slippery slope towards corruption within the jewelry industry, pediatrician and amateur gemology aficionado Cate Claus launched fine jewelry brand Thesis Gems & Jewelry. Turning her own frustrating customer experience into something positive, her business is driven by a simple mission: to offer clients guilt-free heirloom jewelry made from responsibly-sourced gemstones and minerals that empowers people and minimizes harm to the planet.
“The more I learned, the more challenging it became to find gems and jewelry that I felt proud to buy and wear. I wanted to know where my gems came from, how they were mined, and how the miners and environment were treated. But the journey of each gem was rarely traceable.” – Cate Claus, founder of Thesis Gems
It’s not every day a practicing pediatrician launches an ethical jewelry business, but to understand Cate’s fascination for gemstones, one only needs to peer into her childhood. At an early age, encouraged by her physician father who collected gems as a hobby, Cate too began collecting quartz and other minerals, dazzled by their brilliant colours and aesthetics. This geological passion would later merge with her anthropological interests and she went on to explore the role of gems and jewelry within culture, art and history. Cate began to value them not just as personal ornaments, but as a powerful means of self-expression. “Jewelry doesn’t have to be purchased for special occasions or moments. I think jewelry is symbolic; it can represent growth and self understanding.”
The word ’Thesis’ was carefully chosen as it encapsulated the idea of women, and men, putting forward their own identity theory and making a claim about themselves. An ideal name for sophisticated jewelry that makes a bold statement about the wearer.
A firm nod to slow fashion
Upon viewing her first collection of fine jewelry, it’s clear that Thesis Gems isn’t your run-of-the-mill brand. These mesmerizing pieces are the kind to be passed on as heirlooms. The designs have a distinctive, almost majestic quality with circular pendants and patterned gems, reminiscent of ancient times when pieces were lavishly adorned and worn with pride. The use of gold and the intricate display of gemstones is also striking, making them seem like historical artifacts. “My jewelry is a little like ancient Roman jewelry in that I use substantial, high karat gold materal. I try to reference that kind of jewelry when I’m designing,” Cate explains. “I’m also inspired by jewelry in museums – and art of any kind, including sculpture and paintings.”
Customers can shop one-of-a-kind pendants, ruby necklaces, cuffs, diamond rings as well as drop and stud earrings. Each design is also somewhat customizable, encouraging a co-creation process that allows the client to actively contribute unique ideas, leading to an enriching experience and a product that will be highly-valued and loved. Once designed, the piece of jewelry is then meticulously constructed by highly-skilled fairly-compensated local artisans; master goldsmiths and a French-trained stonesetter based in Berkeley and San Francisco respectively. Their technical abilities help to bring Cate’s jewelry vision to life. From concept to final product, it takes two to three months to complete, the antithesis of fast fashion. The creation of a piece of jewelry involves time-honored processes and superior skilled craftsmanship that is a far cry from modern manufacturing’s obsession with speed and cheap.
The challenges of gemstone traceability
In fashion, to trace a garment from seed to store is incredibly difficult, but in the jewellery industry, it’s near impossible. The Fashion Revolution movement may have initiated the global conversation about fast fashion, shining the light on unethical fashion practices in the rag trade and encouraging shoppers to demand transparency, but an equivalent effort in the jewellery trade is just emerging. Cate is hoping to be a part of this change. “I really would like to question and push the industry in my own very small way towards transparency.” She’s upfront about the challenges though, given that gems are mined from many different countries each with its own governmental processes and regulations. ”Building trusting relationships is key,” she says.
However, the foundations of lasting positive change lies in persistent action from individuals and businesses willing to lead by example. This is exactly what Thesis Gems & Jewelry is doing. Instead of sourcing new gold and supporting unnecessary gold mining, the business has opted to use recycled gold from green-minded businesses such as Hoover and Strong. The high karat gold is 100% recycled and is certified by SCS Global Services.
The business also sources responsibly-extracted gems from partners committed to sustainability practices and upholding fair-labor laws, including:
- Canadian-certified diamonds sourced from Canadian mines that comply with strict codes of conduct and tight regulations around worker safety and environmental protection
- recycled pre-1940s diamonds from Perpetuum Jewels, a wholesaler of precious stones that holds a Certified Responsible Source accreditation
- sustainably-mined tsavorite from a family in Kenya committed to ethical extraction, water conservation and waste minimization
- Australian opals from a multi-generational family business who is also a member of Lightning Ridge Miners Association and complies with Australian environmental conservation guidelines including land restoration requirements
- sapphires from Sri Lanka, from a GIA-educator who uses alluvial mining on his land to minimize environmental impact and sends Cate photographic evidence of mining processes
- sustainably-farmed pearls from small producers in both the Gulf of California and in Japan, where pearl farmers also spearhead marine habitat restoration and rehabilitation projects.
Despite how it may appear, tracing precious metals and gems isn’t a straightforward exercise. It was only after conducting extensive research, reading up on suppliers, reviewing external third-party audits and asking lots of questions that Cate was able to forge relationships with suppliers that shared her ethical and environmental philosophy. “Because I’m not able to travel to the mines, I have to rely on other people,” she admits. “I conduct extensive research to validate what’s happening before making a decision. In some situations, it’s very well-described and published and I can look at different sources and can confirm the information being put forward.” Cate acknowledges that without seeing the mining processes for herself, her ethical verification process is limited, but she has plans to visit her sources in the near future. “My next goal is to be able to travel to the different sites, but for now I can’t, which is why I only have seven sources.”
The brand is already doing so much to put ethics and environmental sustainability on the industry discussion table, but if all this wasn’t enough, Thesis has also followed the steps of pioneering sustainable apparel company Patagonia to become a member of 1% For The Planet, donating one percent of gross sales to environmental non-profits fighting for a cleaner planet.
Some reading this may be thinking Thesis Gems & Jewelry is undertaking a Mission Impossible journey. To row against the current in an industry rife with corruption and environmental destruction may seem unsurmountable to a small ethical label. But big waves of change have to start somewhere. We need more Cates willing to throw stones and create ripples.
To browse the brand’s elaborate jewelry designs, visit thesisgems.com.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Thesis Gems & Jewelry. EWP strives only to work with businesses the meet our high ethical standards. All monies received helps cover operating expenses. For more information about our policies, click here.