Rainbow Watches: Are We Turning A Blind Eye To The Provenance Of Colored Gemstones?
Gem-set timepieces are taking the watch industry by storm, but does anyone know where the stones come from?
Rainbow watches are one of the hottest trends in the watch industry right now, with collectors snapping up timepieces featuring bezels and dials adorned with artistic gradients of colored gemstones, starting with red sapphires at the top and following the rainbow clockwise through orange, yellow, green, blue, pink and indigo precious stones.
The Craze For Rainbow Watches
The craze really took off in 2012, when Rolex first released its Rainbow Cosmograph Daytona. The watch sold out in a heartbeat, as have subsequent editions, and now other luxury brands—Audemars Piguet, Chopard, Franck Muller, Hublot, Jacob & Co., and Parmigiani, to name a few—are also offering their spectacular takes on the rainbow.
The Magic Of Colored Gemstones
That these colorful pieces are so coveted should come as no surprise: Gemstones have always been a source of magic. Formed in the ground over millions of years, each has a unique story to tell. But a stone’s origins are rarely the subject of marketing storytelling, maybe because its journey is not always worth boasting about. In fact, it has often been one of the more shameful aspects of the watch industry. A growing cohort of watchmakers and suppliers, however, are determined to change course and bring ethically-mined colored stones into the light.
Blood Diamonds and The Kimberley Process
The diamond industry made worldwide headlines in the 1990s when diamonds mined in war-torn countries were discovered to be funding insurgencies. In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly reacted by establishing the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme to prevent these conflict, or blood, diamonds from entering the world’s marketplaces. The success of the Kimberley Process has often been criticized, but it was a big step in the right direction.
Diamonds are just one gemstone in an array of precious stones now being used by watchmakers, and the rising popularity of timepieces set with colored stones is creating scrutiny in the watch industry as clients begin to raise the question: Have the stones been ethically and sustainably sourced?
Artisanal And Small-Scale Mining
Colored gemstones can be more difficult to track because, unlike diamonds, which are concentrated in southern Africa, Russia, and Canada. They are found in some of the earth's most remote places, in more than 47 countries on six continents. It is estimated that between 75 and 80 percent of colored gemstones are mined in an artisanal, small-scale fashion by small groups of people, making the regulation of this multibillion-dollar industry an almost impossible task.
Unscrupulous Activities Related To Mining
Forced and child labor, environmental damage, health and safety concerns, the financing of terrorist groups, and money laundering are just some of the questionable activities that are known to occur in the colored gemstone trade. Gemstones also frequently change hands before being sold to a jeweler or watchmaker, making their provenance even harder to document. As one gemologist put it: “It is vague!”
A Growing Demand For Transparency And Traceability
But change is happening as consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and aware of the ethical impacts of what they buy, especially millennials. “In recent years, there has been a growing demand for transparency and traceability in the gem and jewelry industry,” says Susan Jacques, President, and CEO of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). “Consumers want to know the origin of products; they want to know more about their gem’s journey and the positive impact it has on the communities in the countries where gems are discovered. The foundation of the relationship between brands and consumers is trust. Ethics is a critical component of our industry; it is imperative that we have transparency with consumers.”
Supplier: In The Shadows Of The Big Brands
In the watch industry, a large portion of this trust lies in the hands of one man, Pierre Salanitro, who works quietly in the shadows of the big watch brands. Salanitro founded his company in Geneva in 1990, specializing in the setting of watches with gemstones. Today, his clients include 40 leading watch brands, and his company has the capabilities of creating the whole watch, from A - Z, except for the movement. He is committed to providing the traceability of the gemstones he buys and is a member of the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC) and has obtained its “Chain of Custody” certification.
“Imagine if we discovered that some of the stones on a particular watch came from a conflict zone, or that they had been extracted from the earth by children. Today, with the speed of the Internet, a brand’s image could be destroyed in five minutes,” says Salanitro.
Gemstones Destined For The Watch Industry
To ensure the traceability of the gemstones he uses, Salanitro buys his stones in the rough, directly from the mines, which he personally inspects, or from the trading markets, where the origins of the stones have been traced. "Recently, we bought the most beautiful colored emeralds from a mine in Pakistan,” he says. “We bought 11 months of the mine’s production of rough emeralds of the finest quality, totaling 1,200 carats. From this lot, we had 2,000 perfect ‘loupe-clean’ gemstones, 2,000 almost perfect stones, and then 2,000 of lesser quality, but great color.” Only the top-quality stones pass the high standards of the watch industry, leaving 4,000 stones to then sell on to the jewelry market. “I have to make sure that I can sell all of it. Otherwise, I will lose money.”
Never Out Of Sight
Working in this way allows Salanitro to guarantee the origins of his stones and also see how the mine operates with his own eyes. He also has gem-cutting and polishing partners in Bangkok and China so that the stones stay in his possession through every stage of their journey to the watch.
Danger Doesn’t Stop At The Mine
Gem cutting and polishing can sometimes be even more dangerous for workers than the mining itself due to the dust that is created during the cutting and polishing process. Cutting often takes place in the workers’ own homes or small workshops, and many suffer from silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. Salanitro can protect the health and safety of his employees by controlling this stage of production as well, making sure that standards are respected.
One Step Further On The Road To Traceability
Salanitro knows that most of his clients prefer to work with him because he can trace the origins of each stone. Still, he wants to take things one step further by setting up his own certification process for an ethical, sustainable mine-to-market supply chain. “For diamonds, we have the Kimberly Process, but for colored gemstones there is nothing. In three to five years, the high-end watch brands will only work with suppliers who can ensure traceability, and this is why I am motivated to be the first. It will be difficult to guarantee 100%, but I want to take colored-gemstone certification as far as I possibly can,” he says.
An Open Invitation
Salanitro is also organizing a trip for his clients this year so he can show them the whole certification process, from the mines and trading places to the cutting workshops, as he feels it is vital for them to see for themselves.
On The Brand Side: Chopard Leads The Charge
On the brand side, jeweler and watchmaker Chopard is also setting an excellent example for positive change in ethical and sustainable mining. In 2013, Chopard partnered with Eco-Age, a sustainable luxury consultancy firm, and began an ambitious multi-year program committed to sourcing responsibly, as well as helping the people in its supply chain who are all too often overlooked. The same year, Chopard started to support the Alliance for Responsible Mining to directly help and enable gold mining communities to reach the alliance’s Fairmined certification by providing training, social welfare, and environmental support. As of 2018, the brand has been committed to making all of its jewelry and watches in 100 percent ethical gold, based on Fairmined certification.
“With the help of Eco-Age, we are constantly searching for new ethical suppliers,” says Caroline Scheufele, co-president and artistic director at Chopard. "We started with gold, and then we found sustainably sourced opals and emeralds. The next step will be encouraging and supporting the Responsible Jewelry Council to create a certification for precious colored stones, which is essential for our industry. We are carefully expanding the list of sustainable materials we can use and are on the right path to more sustainable luxury. As I always say, it is a long journey, but it is the right one.”
Change Needs To Come From Consumers Too
The change also needs to come from consumers, who shouldn't be shy to ask questions about the origin of materials and demand detailed answers from brands and manufacturers. If they start asking, the impact on the industry would be significant. “There is a quote often attributed to Gandhi: ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” says Jacques from the GIA. “If everyone involved in gems and jewelry—miners, those who cut and polish gems, jewelry manufacturers, brands, retailers, and consumers—take small steps together, the progress will be remarkable, and the desired change will occur.”
So, next time you are being mesmerized by a rainbow watch, show your interest, ask about the provenance and ethical mining, because the more people who show interest will send a message right up the supply chain that we are no longer turning a blind eye.