When Beth Gerstein got engaged, like many brides-to-be, she had thoughts about “the ring.” She and her fiance had recently watched a PBS special on “conflict diamonds” in Sierra Leone, and how directly connected the diamond trade was to the civil war there. Resolved not to support that war, when they went ring shopping, the couple asked jewelers where the diamonds came from.
Though she asked — repeatedly, in fact — Gerstein was not confident that they could get a diamond “consistent with our values,” she said. “I didn’t want one associated with such a tragic history. For something with so much emotional value, it was surprising to me that none of the jewelers we visited were vetting their stones and no one could give us peace of mind.”
At Stanford Business School at the time, Gerstein talked about her dilemma with her friend Eric Grossberg.
Grossberg had other friends who had “misgivings about buying a ring,” he said. “It’s expensive, of course, but then beyond that, someone might have been hurt by this diamond. That seemed antithetical to the idea of getting engaged.”
Gerstein and Grossberg overlapped for one year at Stanford Business School, and the company’s business plan began with a class there. They were looking to be entrepreneurs, and both wanted a company with a social impact. They founded Brilliant Earth together in 2005, even though neither of them had any family background in the diamond industry.
Brilliant Earth (www.brilliantearth.com) requires its diamond suppliers to adhere to strict labor and environmental standards. In addition, the company requires a complete chain of custody for the gems, to ensure that they originate from ethical sources.
Gerstein and Grossberg are in their late 30s, and both now live in San Francisco, where Brilliant Earth is based. They both grew up in Conservative Jewish families on the East Coast; he on Long Island, N.Y., she in Silver Spring, Md. Grossberg spent a few years working in venture capital in Israel before he and Gerstein started Brilliant Earth.
According to the duo, many jewelers will say their diamonds are conflict-free and sourced according to the Kimberly Process, the international diamond certification system. Under that process, diamonds are certified “conflict-free” or not “blood diamonds” if they are not being used by rebel groups to fund civil wars.
However, Gerstein said, not only is there criticism about how the process is implemented, but “it does nothing to address most of the human rights abuses or violence perpetrated by the governments themselves, or the poverty and environmental issues in these countries.”
Furthermore, she said, the process is challenging to govern, and some of its early supporters have pulled out, recognizing its failure to reflect what’s actually happening where the diamonds originate.
In Brilliant Earth’s showroom at 26 O’Farrell St. (near Union Square), diamonds on display include those from Canada, Namibia, Botswana and Russia, as well as some lab-created diamonds.
Brilliant Earth also offers recycled or re-refined gold and platinum, since 30 to 40 percent of manmade mercury pollution comes from gold mining.
“It’s extremely destructive, historically polluting water supplies of the surrounding areas,” said Gerstein. “It takes 20 tons of ore for one ring.”
While many brides-to-be are more excited about a rock than knowing about who suffered to produce it, that is slowly changing, Grossberg and Gerstein believe.
“Most customers have an awareness that there are problems but don’t know specifics,” said Grossberg. “They want to source something consistent with their values even if they can’t articulate it.”
Added Gerstein: “A key characteristic of the younger generation is that they care about the products they buy. They want to feel good about the decisions they make as consumers.”
Brilliant Earth does most of its business online; it’s now the third-largest online bridal jewelry retailer. Not only has it earned profits since its inception, but the company donates 5 percent of its earnings to nonprofits in countries that have been adversely affected by diamond mining.
The concept of tzedakah was a driving force for Brilliant Earth, Grossberg said. “That was a core reason why we started the company from the early days.”
Gerstein said they’ve contributed to NGOs working on raising wages for miners, as well as improving education in mining areas, so communities can better support themselves.
Part of their business is to educate the public about ethical issues involved in diamond mining, so they blog on their website to keep their customers updated.
For instance, they recently wrote to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to suggest he take the college student winner of his annual “win a trip” contest on a tour to see diamond mining practices in Angola and Zimbabwe.
Their message may be getting out: Gerstein was invited to participate in a round-table discussion at the State Department in Washington, D.C., last year, discussing how to increase transparency in the diamond trade. She found herself sitting with representatives from Angola and Zimbabwe, two of the biggest current “blood diamond” offenders.
“There’s an increased awareness that this is where the future is heading,” she said, “and there are various levels of acceptance on how to get there.”