Purchasing a ring, whether for an engagement or a wedding, is a big step: an age-old symbol of commitment and union. But the commerce of it, the industry, brings with it a heap of considerations.
There’s the classic one from the movies: will your partner like the ring you select for them? You ask their friends, their siblings. You obsess over finding a piece timeless enough for them to wear every day “as long as you both shall live.”
But there are also a number of other considerations to take into account. Ethical atrocities have come to light over the last several decades across the mining and sourcing practices of the diamond and fine jewelry industry. Further, the industry’s marketing has only reinforced regressive conceptions of gender and financial obligation.
Taking everything into account is enough to make your head spin. But it’s also worth putting in the time and concerted effort to ensure that the ring you select for yourself or a partner is a piece that you’re proud of, one that reflects not just style but values. A beautiful symbol of your undying love.
To help guide you in the process, we’ve pulled together the main considerations you should keep in mind as you select a ring to purchase: your how-to guide to picking a more ethical engagement ring.
The global diamond and gold industry generates over $300 Billion annually, a hefty portion of this market claimed by rings purchased for weddings and engagements. Unsurprisingly, given all of that money for the take, there is an immense human cost to the industry. People, often children, are harmed and killed while working in mines; indigenous groups are forcibly displaced for use of their resource-rich land; and violent insurgents have been known to enrich themselves by exploiting the local gold and diamond trade. And because most major jewelers rely on complex global supply chains to source their materials, very little transparency and accountability is available.
The past twenty years (with movies like Blood Diamond and various exposés) have seen a rapid increase in attention paid to ethical sourcing of materials. Many consumers are now demanding that the jewelry they purchase is produced under conditions that honor human rights, and the UN has established an international standard that demands companies account for human rights abuses throughout their supply chain.
Nonetheless, a 2020 report from the Human Rights Watch that tracked the sourcing practices of the 13 largest global jewelers found that none fulfilled all criteria for diligence on responsible sourcing, and only one (Tiffany and Co) had taken “significant steps.”
So what can you do?
There are a number of jewelers and distributors who have taken significant steps towards ensuring their pieces are made without this brutal human cost. Companies around the world, including Fair Trade Jewelry Co and Canada Mark, are offering fully-traceable gold and diamonds, which are tracked from the time they are mined until they appear in store.
Beyond buying traceable, you can look to a few independent commissions who are tracking the practices of various companies. Fairtrade and Fairmined conduct rigorous audits to ensure that “artisanal and small-scale mining organizations meet world leading standards for responsible practices, delivering organizational and social development and environmental protection.” You can start your search with jewelers who advertise themselves as Fairmined certified (or appear on the initiative’s website) to ensure you’re supporting a jeweler with rigorous sourcing standards.
Marketing on this front can be tricky. While many companies advertise their diamonds as “Conflict Free,’” meaning they are verified through the Kimberley Process or the Responsible Jewelry Council to not actively fund wars worldwide, these labels have been criticized as insufficient, given flawed governance and standards. It’s worth researching what language your jeweler uses with regard to their sourcing — looking for companies that track custody of all of their materials, ensuring their mines are following international standards.
The global jewelry supply chain, in addition to its human cost, has serious ecological implications, as mismanaged mines often pollute local waterways with toxic runoff. Mismanaged mines can also lead to soil erosion and deforestation. Areas of nations like Angola and Sierra Leone have been ecologically devastated by the impact of the diamond industry.
One of the most common ways to prioritize sustainability is to purchase from jewelers who exclusively use recycled gold and diamonds. Many smaller boutique jewelers are working in recycled materials, which they melt down and redesign into sustainable engagement rings, ensuring that you aren't contributing to further environmental degradation.
Another, newer tactic is to purchase from jewelers who are using lab-grown diamonds, which are chemically and aesthetically identical to mined diamonds, but grown using cutting-edge tech that mimics the natural pressurizing of carbon that produces diamonds. These are not synthetic, “fake” or cubic zirconia but real diamonds created outside of the dangerous diamond industrial complex.
While it is worth mentioning that the ethical diamond and gold production industries create jobs and support local economies around the globe, purchasing from jewelers who use lab grown diamonds allows you the added assurance that your piece is environmentally sustainable.
The tradition of the engagement ring dates back over 2000 years, to ancient Rome, where rings of gold, flint, and silver would signify that a woman was soon-to-be-married. Changing gender norms in the modern era have encouraged many couples to question this age-old tradition: why should the bride-to-be wear a ring to advertise to everyone she meets that she’s taken, while her fiance does not?
As a result, the market for male engagement rings has seen a surge in recent years, nodding to changing norms around ring exchange and how we think about engagement — not the claiming of a woman, but a mutual acknowledgement and announcement.
The upside of this shift is that more and more jewelers are creating engagement rings that are intended for male wearers, distinct from the simple wedding band, as well as “gender neutral wedding rings” that can be worn by a person of any gender. Some couples are even choosing to purchase matching gender neutral pieces to symbolize their union and mutual promise.
The prevailing wisdom changes but generally encourages the groom to spend anywhere between 2-months and 6-months salary on an engagement ring: often an astronomical sum that has no tangible connection to the actual expression of love. It also communicates a regressive gender norm: that only a man who can afford to forgo several months’ salary is in a financial position to be married, and to “support” his wife-to-be.
It’s a financial imposition that seems to benefit no one, beyond the diamond industry. But many modern couples are calling bullshit. The Brides American Wedding Study reported average engagement ring expenditure in 2020 to be $3,756, down about 50% from the $7,829 reported in 2018.
This downwards trend suggests that more couples are breaking free from the financial expectations imposed by the diamond industry and consumer-capitalist culture at large, opting instead for options that suit them and their budgets. Others are sharing the cost of the ring, selecting it together, or exchanging engagement rings: all compelling ways to shirk rigid expectations in favor of a symbol that more adequately captures their love.