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.