For as long as humans have existed, we have been drawn to precious gemstones. They glimmer and call to us from under the Earth’s surface, promising beauty, healing, and mystical powers.
From Stone Age communities to the ancient Chinese, Europeans, and Egyptians, humans carved jewels into weapons, jewellery, ritual objects, and other ornaments to protect, repel, identify, or simply adorn. More than 300 gemstones have been documented, each with rich cultural and spiritual significance.
In modern cultures, gemstones are no longer used medicinally, but they are still valuable to many people. Green jade is prized by older Chinese for its beauty and virtues, whereas Hindus use sapphires in worship. Meanwhile, New Age culture in the West has made the healing power of gems and crystals trendy, drawing from old traditions that still exist around the world.
But what is less known is where the gems we admire and depend on come from—and the processes that get them from mine to market.
If you’ve watched the 2006 thriller Blood Diamond, you’d know that the much-coveted diamond is tainted by violent conflict and heinous human rights abuses. In Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Congo, miners work in slavery-like conditions from morning to evening in illegal mines run by soldiers and armed insurgents.
Yet, diamonds are far from the only gem marred by crippling criminality. Following the journey of other commercial gemstones often reveals similar stories. Largely informal and poorly understood, the gem trade conceals horrific conditions of violence, enslavement, and trauma that trap the very people who mine its riches.
Gemstones often bring to mind luxury—and romance. We associate jewels with wealth, if not healing powers, even though their origins tell a rather different tale.
Wrestling rough gems from the Earth is an extremely tough and dangerous job. But it is one that millions of impoverished labourers take up as an immediate source of income or to earn a quick buck. Most of these artisanal, or small-scale, miners hail from emerging or developing countries in the Global South. Their work makes up more than 80 percent of global gemstone production.
Imagine toiling through dirt and rock in the blazing heat, with little to no protection from sharp tools, falling rocks, and the occasional landslide. Accidents and floods are common on steep, overexcavated hills, and these poorly paid workers often pay a high price for the stones they dig for.
Once miners find their treasure, they sell them to intermediaries, who often trick them into accepting low rates. The high illiteracy rate among miners means that they are easily swindled by exploitative middlemen. The hard truth is that the people who risk these dangerous conditions rarely get their fair share of profits from the trade. In fact, they earn on average less than nine percent of the retail price of the stones they extract.
Miners are just the first cogs in a vast and complex network. Due to the nature of the gemstone trade, gems are transported farther to processing centres and wholesalers in other parts of the world. Key source countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania are rich in gem minerals, but wealthier countries in Asia, the United States, and Europe often dominate the gemstone export market.
Despite the uncertainty and dangers of the trade, millions in Africa and Asia still rely on this work to lift their families out of poverty. But the rise of mechanised mining through large-scale concessions threatens this important source of income.
Because gem deposits are usually small and unpredictable, as compared to coal or metal, large pits are largely seen as impractical. These newer, large-scale industrial mines rapidly exhaust existing gemstone reserves and do more damage to the surrounding environment, all while channelling money to big companies.
In comparison, artisanal mining with rudimentary tools and little to no machinery goes way back, having historically supported the livelihoods of millions. Small-scale miners have expressed that the turn towards mechanisation and company concessions leads to greater inequality, exploitation, and ultimately, a loss of their livelihood.
Little is known about the networks that link gem sources to destinations, and the various transactions that occur on each node. The story begins with millions of informal miners searching for their golden ticket—but once treasure is found, who controls where it goes?
In a traditional gemstone supply chain, rough gemstones are passed from miners to local and foreign traders, collectors, and dealers at low profit margins, before the gems reach retailers. Because it is difficult to determine the value of rough stones on site, criminal and corrupt actors take the opportunity to exploit miners while raking in profits further down the supply chain.
In many cases, buyers and traders collude to fix prices and spread misinformation as well as restrict funding to smaller fry. Foreigners such as Thai, Chinese, and Sri Lankan traders exploit miners across Asia and Africa by encouraging patterns of clientelism, funnelling the riches into their own networks.
Traders can be predatory and are known to skirt the law to benefit from the trade, particularly through smuggling, money laundering, and under-declaring the value of stones to avoid paying taxes. More gemstones are moved clandestinely through informal channels than are not, resulting in substantial losses to state revenue.
The trade thrives under the shadows, generating billions more than official statistics on the value of gemstone flows show. In major processing countries such as Thailand, officials turn a blind eye to illicit activities because of the importance of coloured gemstone imports to the economy.
What complicates matters is that traders and other middlemen along the gem supply chain do both: they perpetuate a cycle of illegality, while also keeping the lights on for vulnerable mining communities.
We now know that the gem trade’s business-as-usual leaves miners shortchanged, sometimes even in peril, while those down the supply chain exploit conditions enabled by a largely unregulated industry. It's bad enough that traders cheat miners in dealings that are often corrupt. Still, the gem trade conceals even darker, horrific truths beneath its shiny surface.
Did you know, for example, that Asia’s most prized stone, the imperial jadeite, has been locked in violent conflict for decades? Hailing from the hills of Kachin Province in Northern Myanmar, jade sits at the heart of the war between the military, state, and non-state groups vying for control of the mines. Here, poor miners are exploited by mafia operations, while drug addiction and prostitution plague remote and underdeveloped mining towns.
Military control of Hpakant, Myanmar’s largest jade mining region, since 1994 started a pattern of cronyism now deeply entrenched in the country’s gem industry. The junta expands its control by handing out mining licences to influential friends and allies. Even with the victory of the National League for Democracy in 2015 and the party’s efforts to reform the industry, armed groups maintain control over the jade mines in Kachin State, funnelling money into their own coffers.
After the 2021 coup, Global Witness warned that Myanmar’s jade mines risk becoming a slush fund for military repression as the junta regained control of the country’s government. The state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which is both an overseer of all gemstone activities and a business with several lucrative mines, is currently under U.S. sanctions.
The intertwining of military conflict, corruption, and domestic gem trade is also playing out in Afghanistan, where gem mines directly fund violent groups like the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s mines should be its national treasure. Sitting in the depths of its mountainous terrain, rich deposits of lapis lazuli could generate substantial wealth to tackle domestic poverty and spur development. But in Badakhshan, an area famous for its concentration of the blue rock, ancient mines supply millions of dollars to armed insurgents. Local leaders who control some of the mines also tend to be corrupt, with links to national politicians and the Taliban.
According to reports by Global Witness, Badakhshan’s production of lapis lazuli fuelled US$12 million in revenue for armed groups in 2015, with an estimated US$4 million going to the Taliban. Mining in general forms the group’s second largest source of revenue, while contributing less than 1 percent to state income.
Over 106 million people have been displaced by decades of conflict in Afghanistan, with 710,000 Afghanis internally displaced in 2021 alone. For many of us, the tragedy in Afghanistan feels distant, detached from our everyday lives. But if we stop to think about how our jewellery buys are contributing to the suffering of millions elsewhere, we would realise that others are paying a much dearer cost for our luxury.
It might be depressing to find out that the shiny, beautiful gems we enjoy admiring through a glass case—or on our fingers—rarely carry the story of romance sold to us on screen and in magazines. Healing stones promise us comfort, confidence, and other emotional benefits, but these betray the violence and suffering that underlies their production.
While there are currently no established bodies that can trace the entire gemstone supply chain from mine to market, consumers and businesses can now find better alternatives in ground-up ethical sourcing, blockchain-verification, and sustainable “lab-grown” production. Many small and independent retailers are also forging direct relationships with miners, cutters, and processors in remote areas, cutting off opportunities for corruption and exploitation down the line.
The perils of the gem trade are hard to ignore—but they are equally hard, if not harder, to solve. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for an industry so vast, complex, and borderless, encompassing diverse countries with their own geographies, politics, and levels of development. Still, we can take steps to make sure gem mining remains a source of livelihood for many while ensuring their lives are not the price we pay for our precious stones.