Valentine's Day interview: Bejewel intelligently with Rachel Lichte and the Clarity Project

Clarity Cushion Engagement Ring, 2011

If you're tired of those incessant Valentine's Day ads hawking heart-shaped, diamond-encrusted jewelry for your honey from the nearest chain store, enjoy a breath of fresh air with the Clarity Project. Started by Rachel Lichte, Shane Rogers, and Jesse Finfrock, the social enterprise sells fairly sourced fine jewelry and diamonds, and then invests its profits back into local organizations working in the mining communities to improve the lives of the miners and their families. We spoke with co-founder Rachel Lichte about how the Clarity Project is sourcing gems responsibly and supporting local communities while imbuing your keepsake with even more meaning in the process. We also got some tips on how we can all be savvy consumers when it comes to purchasing fairly sourced jewelry.

PopTech: How did The Clarity Project get its start?
Rachel Lichte: The Clarity Project started as a search for a personal solution to the challenge of finding a diamond engagement ring that we could feel confident about and comfortable with. After research and conversations internationally and industry-wide, we could not find a company out there that shared our belief that the diamond industry has an obligation: the very best diamonds can and must be a powerful tool for community development in historically marginalized mining communities.

Jewelry is a platform for storytelling and self-expression. So often the story of the diamond itself is avoided and unknown. We wanted to make this a story worth sharing. So we decided to do something about it. And we started by making one ring.

In the three years since our founding, the project has developed three interconnected goals: Create beautiful, timeless jewelry to match the top jewelers; improve the quality of life for miners and their communities; and build a new type of sustainable business that can make our first two goals possible. Shane, Jesse, and I each lead the charge on one of these three interconnected goals.

How do you help improve the quality of life for miners and their communities? What has been the impact of your work?
We donate net-profits from the sale of fine jewelry to our non-profit partner Shine On Sierra Leone. With a vision of long term, self-sustaining projects, we see this as an investment in the prosperity in the community. We bundle this into a lump sum that we donate on a quarterly basis. Our most significant social impact has been in supporting primary education and adult literacy programs. We are so proud to support the great work that Shine On Sierra Leone has done. Since our involvement, in 2009, we saw the first graduating class of the adult literacy program last year. In 2010, Muddy Lotus School was ranked number 6 in the country. Teachers at the school are using their salaries to take night classes and do additional training. It’s incredible.

Adult literacy program graduates, Kono, Sierra Leone
Class Three, Muddy Lotus School, Bongema Village, Kono District, Sierra Leone

How does The Clarity Project view sourcing? And how does the organization distinguish itself from other sourcing-related companies or projects?
Beyond giving, The Clarity Project is different than other companies focused on responsible sourcing. Diamonds demand a different approach than coffee or tea, because every diamond is unique and singular for the customer. More, we are trying to create something that doesn’t exist yet – fair trade diamonds. In order to meet the ever-growing demand for top-quality stones, we are currently sourcing from a few different countries. Toward that end, while we purchase conflict-free diamonds from Canada, we prioritize stones from African sources to support economies in developing communities. Our first purchase of diamonds supported a women's coop in Lesotho. In Namibia we work with a cutting and polishing coop. In Sierra Leone, we are starting to work with small-scale miners to create a more complete directly sourced, fair trade diamond.

Small-scale mining operation, Kono, Sierra Leone

As we work toward our ideal sourcing and investing strategy, we have different “levels” that track origin and cutting and polishing. Currently, we have “levels” that range from Canadian sources to co-ops in Africa. We use these levels to openly provide options for our customers and to hold ourselves accountable to ongoing improvement.

We collaborate with other organizations and initiatives to support and scale opportunities for more socially and environmentally responsible mining. We are very excited about the Diamond Development Initiative piloting a fair trade model, and have been honored to brainstorm direct sourcing efforts with the Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development Project (PRADD), a project of the US State Department and USAID.

What’s next for The Clarity Project? If you took this project to scale, what would it look like?
We see this as an ongoing effort. As we move forward, we are beginning to work with like-minded jewelers keen to evolve their sourcing standards. We hope to expand our jewelry options and are already growing beyond bridal. Along with placing jewelry in other stores, we would like to open a shop of our own to drive a movement for responsibly-sourced stones that support the communities from which they came. When we consider scale, we think about impact. We support ongoing efforts to explore pathways for making the Muddy Lotus School self-sustaining, expanding agriculture efforts, rehabilitating abandoned mine land, and promoting adult literacy programs.

What are a few tips for anyone in the market for diamonds or rare gems so that they're savvy  consumers when it comes to purchasing fairly sourced jewelry?
Many people may know about the Kimberley Process and conflict-free diamonds, but may not be as aware that the Kimberley Process is in a challenging situation right now. While the only standard for country of origin tracing and certifying “conflict-free,” the Kimberley Process does not go far enough to ensure social and environmental responsibility. More, in the past few years we have seen some of the primary architects, Global Witness and Ian Smilie, of the Kimberley Process denounce their support for the scheme, citing ongoing violence and corruption.

Whether colored gems or diamonds, if you are looking for responsible jewelry the most important piece is to do some research and ask where it came from. There is not currently a certification for “fair trade” diamonds gems, so when looking for diamonds, key areas to keep in mind are where the diamond was sourced and where it was cut and polished. Seek metals that are reclaimed or recycled, or that are certified fairtrade and fairmined. Of course, the 4Cs (cut, color, carat, and clarity) of the diamond are critical for evaluating the quality of the stone, but they do not include a ranking on the way it was sourced.

Images: The Clarity Project

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