Decoding Sustainable Engagement Rings, From Ethical Stones To Upcycled Metals

Going beyond the buzzword.

Sustainable engagement rings by Valerie Madison.

The term “sustainable” has become a veritable buzzword used very broadly, including references to engagement rings. However, with so much information to decipher, from mining and stone sourcing to labor and production, you might wonder what genuinely qualifies a diamond or non-diamond engagement ring as sustainable.

As the desire to make a well-informed, sustainable purchase increases, genuine transparency from companies communicating about their sustainability efforts is an important factor for consumers shopping for engagement rings. Stanley Mathuram, executive vice president of SCS Global Services, Inc. (SCS) — an internationally recognized neutral third-party certifier and standards developer — points to recent data from Tracemark’s Sustainable Luxury Consumer Report 2021. Key takeaways include how 94% of consumers believe jewelry brands should be more transparent about the origin of the raw materials they use, like gold and diamonds. Additionally, 71% would choose a piece of jewelry for its traceability, and up to 77.5% of consumers would pay more for a traceable product.

Verified stone origins and fairmined or recycled metals are traits to seek out when shopping for a new sustainable ring made with mined stones. On the lab-grown front, buying from companies that achieve or are working toward carbon-neutral emissions is the best choice. Then, there’s second-hand jewelry that can be bought as-is or repurposed into a modern design. All qualify as sustainable engagement ring options with antique or recycled materials being the most ethical choice. However, it’s up to the consumer to decide what’s most important to them. After all, an engagement ring is a hugely personal decision while being one of the most significant investments one ever makes.

Ahead, discover an expert-guided breakdown of sustainable engagement rings, including definitions of sustainable jewelry design and how you can identify a sustainably sourced stone — spoiler: it’s not a perfect science. Plus, a deeper look at the current demand for transparency in the sustainable jewelry space, the significance of repurposed antique and vintage jewelry’s in the cycle, and an edit of rings to shop or get inspired by if you’re in the market.

Defining Sustainable Engagement Rings

When you think of sustainable engagement rings, designs featuring an ethically sourced stone and fair-trade or recycled precious metal likely come to mind. That’s indeed true, but there’s a more significant global and human meaning behind such a ring.

According to Gemological Institute of America (GIA) president and chief executive officer Susan Jacques, “We think of ‘sustainable’ as meaning that the materials are sourced in a responsible way that provides benefits to the people, communities, and countries that produce these materials while also protecting the environment and respecting the needs of future generations.” This includes naturally mined stones, lab-grown diamonds and gems, and fair-mined metals.

Engagement rings made from pre-existing materials like pre-owned or antique jewelry are also sustainable. According to Deirdre Clark, a geochemist at Iceland GeoSurvey (ÍSOR), second-hand jewelry and materials are the most sustainable option because of the environmental and social effects of mining and lab-created products. “We live in a consumer society; buying new things perpetuates this,” she tells TZR. “Therefore, reusing is an important method we can do to minimize this behavior.”

Shopping locally and supporting small businesses and craftsmanship is another component of sustainable engagement rings. Clark says local materials help reduce a brand’s carbon footprint by cutting out “middlemen” while stimulating local economies through prices that reflect fair labor costs.

Identifying A Sustainable Engagement Ring

Due diligence is key when looking for a sustainable engagement ring, whether you’re shopping second-hand, through a mass-market brand, or an independent designer. All are legitimate options; it’s simply about preference. The biggest challenge is deducing the necessary information, which isn’t always straightforward.

Ideally, to identify a sustainable stone, a seller can provide an independent certification that details sustainable traits. Mathuram says these include verified stone origin (meaning the country if not the specific mine), ethical stewardship, climate neutrality, sustainable production practices, and sustainability investments. Additionally, Iris Van der Veken, executive director of The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), says consumers should look for information regarding whether treatments may have been applied to a stone, detailed information on the 4Cs (carat, cut, color, and clarity) for diamonds and 3Cs for colored gemstones (carat, cut, color). Additionally, the RJC executive director suggests looking for information on whether or not a stone has been screened to confirm if it’s natural or lab-grown.

“Until now, it’s been exceedingly difficult for consumers to have confidence that the diamonds they purchase have been sustainably sourced,” says Mathuram. “Real proof of a diamond’s origin has been hard to come by, despite claims to the contrary, and ethical sourcing claims have been hampered by lack of clear definitions and transparency.”

To overcome these obstacles, SCS recently launched SCS-007 Jewelry Sustainability Standard – Sustainability Rated Diamonds to serve as a new benchmark of accountability, transparency, and provenance assurance for natural and lab-grown diamonds and gemstones. “Every diamond now comes with a unique certificate that explains all the sustainability achievements,” Mathuram says. These certificates cover the entire spectrum of social, ethical, and environmental issues associated with diamonds, including a stone’s entire chain of custody tracing back to its origin site.

“SCS-007 also sets the diamond sector’s most aggressive climate neutrality requirements, establishes unprecedented accountability for environmental and human health impacts, and incorporates sustainability investments aimed at supporting vulnerable artisanal mining communities,” adds the SCS executive vice president.

Other organizations like the GIA and Kimberley Process — an international initiative created to increase transparency and oversight in the diamond industry — can help point to sustainable attributes, but not always with as much detail. For example, according to GIA, the company’s diamond origin reports provide information such as how diamonds mined from particular countries support jobs, education, and health care and, in many cases, how they help protect the environment in and around local mining communities.

According to John Pollard, senior director of education for the International Gemological Institute (IGI), the Kimberley Process’s 85 member nations, including South Africa, Canada, the US, and Australia, are all producers of ethically minded diamonds. However, the roughs — diamond rock that has not been cut or processed — are often sent to hubs and categorically sorted, and as a result, a stone’s origin site may not be provided on grading reports or certificates. “Programs designed to identify origin do exist, most notably for Canadian diamonds,” Pollard tells TZR. “As demand for origin information continues to increase among consumers, we expect more traceability solutions to evolve.”

Natural Diamonds & Gemstones Vs. Lab-Grown

From an environmental standpoint, Mathuram says, “every single diamond production operation, whether lab-grown or mined, has environmental impacts.” The SCS executive vice president says these impacts — varying from the type of operation to where one is located and how it’s managed — are more complicated than the assumption that one is better or worse.

“Our view is that each producer should be evaluated against a full list of environmental, social, and governance criteria, and their impacts should be measured,” Mathuram says. “Then, the producer should be responsible for reducing or eliminating these impacts over time.” The SCS-007 certification process comes into play by providing certificates that address these issues, regardless of whether a diamond is mined or lab-grown.

Environmental impacts such as excessive water use, waste rock management, and land deterioration are among the biggest sustainability concerns surrounding mined diamonds. In an ideal scenario, a diamond mine will use recycled water as much as possible and have an environmental protection or rehabilitation plan in place. In addition, Van der Veken says diamond companies are audited with resulting data published in sustainability reports and covered in the RJC 2019 Code of Practices Standard.

Pollard points to the indigenous people who benefit from diamond revenues, telling TZR, “[this] might be part of the ‘impact’ equation for some. Customers who value supporting a mining community in geographically diverse locations like Botswana and Canada can, directly and indirectly, support their livelihoods through local employment, education, taxes and royalties, social programs, and infrastructure investment.

On the lab-grown front, manufactured diamonds and gemstones offer an alternative to their natural counterparts. Van der Veken says they’ve become an important segment of the jewelry industry due to the use of renewable electricity to reduce the footprint of an electricity-intensive manufacturing process.

Carbon neutral emissions are the most significant sustainable achievement within the lab-grown jewelry space, while other pros include reduced carbon dioxide, air pollution, and rock waste. Additionally, according to Clark, creating diamonds in a lab is more ethical by omitting the effects mines have on landscapes worldwide and the work conditions of miners. “Ideally, the people working in the lab have better work conditions and pay,” she says.

Mathuram points to Brilliant Earth as a big online retailer selling lab-grown diamonds and using the SCS-007 certification. Then there’s California-based label, Vrai, which is at the forefront of ethical lab-grown stones and has been certified as a carbon-neutral business since 2017. The company creates diamonds in a zero-emission foundry using renewable energy with 100 percent hydropower. In addition, Vrai diamonds are set in recycled solid gold and shipped in recyclable, compostable, and reusable packaging. “We also participate in an annual audit with Natural Capital Partners for our Carbon Neutral certification, which looks at everything from everyday operations to how employees travel to the office,” Mona Akhavi, Vrai’s chief executive officer, tells TZR.

Not all lab-grown stones are created the same, however. Power consumption through fossil fuel and excessive water usage are two concerns surrounding lab-grown stone’s sustainability. Pollard says there are lab-grown diamond producers who burn fossil fuels and don’t share their power consumption data, making general comparisons challenging to make. However, he notes, “There are lab-grown diamond producers with output certified to be sustainable by third-party auditors.” When supplied, IGI includes this information for sustainability verification on grading reports.

What’s more, there are no rigorous regulations in place for lab-grown diamonds as there are for natural diamonds. For this reason, the RJC is currently developing guidelines for lab-grown material standards, which will be completed in 2022 after a wide-ranging consultation process, says Van der Veken.

Antique Stones & Upcycled Materials

Pre-owned and recycled jewelry has rapidly gained momentum due to supply chain issues and a shift in mindset to shop for existing items. This extends to engagement rings, which Clark says are the most sustainable option, ranging from buying antique and vintage designs to custom creations made with existing materials.

The latter has spurred designers, including Valerie Madison and the LA-based label Kinn, to offer recycling and repurposing programs if it wasn’t already part of their repertoire. Madison’s Heirloom Diamond Rework service accepts pre-existing pieces, including antique diamonds, on a case-by-case basis with guidelines to ensure the best experience for customers and outcome for diamonds and gemstones. “Clients will get their original setting back and get the chance to design their inherited diamond into a fresh ring with renewed life and a signature VM design,” she shares.

The designer also employs an on-staff gemologist to assess repurposed diamonds based on criteria to ensure stones can be safely unset and reset. “This is the most sustainable option we offer because the diamond is already out of the earth and will be set into recycled solid gold to last another lifetime or more,” she tells TZR.

Van der Veken also says recycling is inherently a good idea and that jewelry has always been reused because its materials are precious and rare. “Antique jewelry often has historical, cultural, design, and aesthetic values,” she tells TZR.

Buckley Kayel also highlights how most diamonds and fine jewelry last a lifetime and beyond. “The fact that natural diamonds set hundreds of years ago can be repurposed in a new piece of jewelry speaks to their longevity and value retention,” the NDC managing director says. Adding, “The key to buying sustainably is supporting the right company working with sustainable raw materials, and producing in an ethical way.”

Brands Driving & Making Change

When researching a brand’s sustainability, Van der Veken says to look for decent operations practices like fair labor regulations, the health and safety of employees, product integrity (including accurate disclosure), and climate action. “The more a designer understands its supply chain, the more it can ensure that its products are produced responsibly and in a way that respects the rights of workers, communities, and the environment,” she tells TZR. “It’s all about a company having a positive impact on the livelihoods of people and communities.”

Fortunately, the growing demand for sustainable engagement rings propels brands like Madison’s. “More and more people come to us as the source for sustainable heirloom-quality pieces,” the Seattle-based jeweler tells TZR. “[I founded my] company with a perspective shaped by my degree in environmental science and resource management from the University of Washington,” she continues. “We use recycled metals where possible in all of our products, so our pieces will be making use of gold already mined from the earth, [and] we’re continuing to evolve in this space by researching how we can reduce our production footprint.”

Madison also focuses on educating customers to make the fine jewelry shopping experience an easier one to navigate. “We’re transparent about known stone origin wherever possible,” the designer shares. Adding, “We work with vendors we have trusted, personal relationships to ensure we are not investing in shady dealings.”

Legacy brands that are synonymous with “I do’s” are also evolving in the sustainability engagement ring space, like Tiffany & Co. — “a leader in diamond traceability,” says the Natural Diamond Council (NDC) managing director, Kristina Buckley Kayel. In 2020, the company became the first global luxury jeweler to disclose the country origin for newly sourced and individually registered diamonds of .18 carats and larger. On the same token, Van der Veken points to Cartier and Kering Group’s current Jewelry and Watch initiative aiming to unite global brands committed to ambitious sustainability goals through strategic projects and collaborations that deliver impact along the value chain.

De Beers Jewellers and De Beers Forevermark is a company with a unique position in the diamond industry. It maintains a global partnership with the people of Botswana, who own a part of the business worldwide. The company’s chief executive officer, Céline Assimon, says lasting positive impacts for the people and places where diamonds are discovered are of equal focus to the standards for recovering and handling stones responsibly.

Sustainability Looking Forward

The engagement ring industry has made giant leaps forward in the last few decades, but many opportunities remain to achieve a more sustainable future. “The conscious consumer is leading the way, and this movement will continue,” says Van der Veken.

Last year, the RJC released a framework titled Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond as a pathway for the company to achieve over the next ten years. “We want to help companies understand how to report on progress,” the RJC director shares. Similarly, De Beers Group has set forth a carbon-neutral goal across all operations by 2030 and appointed a head of carbon neutrality to steer the company’s focused strategy known as the “3Rs” — reduce, replace, and recover. This includes a nature-based recovery initiative, the CarbonVault research program, currently led by Dr. Alison Shaw. It investigates the potential of kimberlite — the rocks in which diamonds are found — to capture and store carbon through a process called “mineral carbonation,” preserving it for millions of years.

Gender equality is another focus as women drive 90 percent of the jewelry demand globally, according to Van der Veken, yet are under-represented in the global supply chain. “We’re launching practical toolkits for companies to build strong management systems to integrate gender equality as part of their business strategy,” says the RJC director. Additionally, Assimon says De Beers Group aims to support 10,000 women entrepreneurs and 10,000 women and girls in STEM.

The artisanal and small-scale diamond mining (ASM) sector also demands greater attention. These communities are vulnerable to exploitation due to not being regarded as legitimate or legal because they function as an informal industry, says Van der Veken. The RJC works together with organizations such as the Swiss Better Gold Association (SBGA), the Better Gold Initiative (BGI), and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), who work closely with small-scale miners to achieve greater global exposure.

Ahead, discover 26 sustainable engagement rings to shop now.

We at TZR only include products that have been independently selected by our editors. We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article