How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

April 05, 2018

How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

It can be a bit daunting to know where to start your fine jewelry search. With all the choices out there I have found there is a lot of misleading info when it comes to designer fine jewelry. This is the whole spark that inspired my ethical and quality jewelry design mission behind Valley Rose Studio, I was once a shopper and felt frustrated with the lack of info and choices for quality and ethical fine jewelry. A lot of times I invested in jewelry I thought was truly special only to be sorely disappointed when the gold wore off and the gemstones fell out.  The gem hunt is especially more difficult if you are looking not only for a quality piece of jewelry but also an ethical, sustainable and conflict free one.

I gathered my expert knowledge and broke it down for you with this helpful how-to guide so you can now make sure you are making the right choice to get the most out of your new piece of fine jewelry.

How To shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

1. The Why
Why do we want fine jewelry anyways? Fine jewelry is typically purchased to mark a special occasion in one’s life like an engagement, wedding, new career, anniversary, birthday or a new baby. Fine jewelry a lot of times has meaning and symbolism to the wearer like including a birthstone, or getting your initials engraved. Fine jewelry can also be an investment, just like buying stocks, it has a great resale value and can be a way to pass on your legacy to your family and loved ones. I also consider fine jewelry, to be generally sustainable when the pieces are truly made to last. Fine jewelry never goes back into the landfill and recycling and salvaging fine jewelry materials is common place in the industry. Which is why I love this medium so much!

Fine jewelry always tells a story, a family legacy, religion, symbol of a loved one, or a cherished moment in your life like the birth of a child, wedding or anniversary. One of the earliest purposes of jewelry was to symbolize spirituality and for that reason jewelry can be a comforting and powerful talisman to emulate your intentions or the values you hold dear. Whatever the purpose the meaning behind the piece will help guide your shopping journey and add symbolic meaning to your life.

Symbolic Details & Customization Ideas

  • Representations of sacred places or things (like my yosemite ring)

  • Birthstones of your birthday 

  • Birthstones of your loved ones birthday 

  • Engraving of a date or initials

2. What are the Materials?

Ethical Precious Metal Types

Certified Fairmined
Fairmined Gold is the leading industry sustainable and ethical gold choice. To be fairmined, the gold should be from responsible Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM). The gold we use is from Hoover & Strong and is backed by a rigorous 3rd party certification and audit system that ensures that small entrepreneurial mining communities meet world leading standards for responsible practices. Fairmined transforms mining into an active force for good, delivering social development and environmental protection, providing everyone with a source of gold they can be proud of. While recycling gold is still a sustainable and ethical option, it doesn't provide a solution for how the majority of the gold in the world is obtained. Buying fairmined gold helps to invest in the social, economic and environmentally sustainable development of miners, their families, workers and the community.

Recycled Metal
Recycling metal requires minimal environmental impact and a lot of times jewelry artists can do it in their own studio. Recycled metal is a great and easy ethical choice because modern mining is taxing on natural resources.
Precious Metals

Fine jewelry is generally made from these precious metals:

  • 10K Gold or 41.7% gold

  • 14K gold or 58.5% gold

  • 18K gold or 75.0% gold

  • 22K gold or 91.6% gold

  • 24K gold or pure solid 99.9% gold. 

  • .999 silver or pure 99.9% silver

  • .925 sterling silver or 92.5% silver alloy

  • Platinum

How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

The gold karat alloys vary in concentration of gold with 10K being the minimum standard for fine jewelry and  24K being pure gold. It is common practice for fine jewelry alloys to have a mix of other metals to make the perfect recipe for affordability, hue, tarnish resistance and durability. Jewelry is typically not made in pure silver or pure gold because those precious metals are very soft and will warp with regular wear. A little bit copper or other metal is needed to make precious metals practical for long term wear.

Gold Plated, Gold-Filled & Vermeil Jewelry
Plating is essentially a thin coat of gold bonded to a cheaper base metal like brass, nickel or sterling. The vermeil technique being the thickest form of plating and is defined as the thickest plating over sterling silver. All plating types will eventually wear off with regular wear. At Valley Rose, we stay away from making any jewelry that has a shortened lifespan from being made with plating techniques. There are environmental issues with planned obsolescence and using these types of processes in jewelry making. Instead we favor pieces that are built to last and handmade with solid gold or other precious metal.

Ethical Gemstone Types

Conflict free or ethical gemstones is a term that refers to gemstones that are obtained through safe environmentally friendly mining and labor practices. The serious issues that plague the gem trade are: slavery, life threatening working conditions, financing civil wars, child labor,  and environmental damage. The supply chain is very corrupt and often times a stone will transfer hands so many times that the origins and sources of the stones are unknown. This is especially true for the precious gemstones like diamonds, rubies, sapphires and garnet. So extra care and research needs to go into sourcing these stones. The demand and awareness for ethical gems will help to eradicate this devastating practice and ensure we know how our gemstones are being mined.  

Natural Gemstone Sourcing Checklist to talk to your jeweler about:

  • They are sourcing from the miner, or know the miner by their first name

  • They are sourcing direct from the cutter, or the vendor knows the cutter by their first name

  • The gemstone seller states that they do not work with companies that use child labor and ensure workers have safe conditions

  • The gems are mined from countries with a good track record for ethical labor and environmental safeguards like: United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Malawi.

  • The gems are not mined or cut in countries with a reputation for slave or child labor like Madagascar, known for child labor practices and Myanmar (Burma) whose forced labor sapphire mining is used to finance their civil war.

Lab-Grown Gemstones
These cultured gemstones are chemically and almost visually the same as naturally created precious gemstones and offer a way smaller impact on the environment with no risk for human endangerment. Cultured gemstones also offer fewer flaws and way smaller carbon footprint than traditionally mined gems. Lab grown gemstones are made by mimicking the process of nature, but instead of taking over millions of years, they can grow a gemstones in a few months.

Vintage Salvaged Gemstones
Natural gems can also be recycled or salvaged from vintage jewelry or of vintage stock from a closed jewelry estate. Vintage diamonds and other precious gemstones are a viable ethical and sustainable alternative when shopping for fine jewelry.

Precious Gemstones
Precious gemstones are typically gems that have a high on MOHs hardness scale and can withstand centuries of wear and are also considered by experts to be very rare with incredible sparkle & clarity. Diamonds are the hardest gemstone and are 10 on the MOHs scale.

  • Diamonds: 10 Mohs
, TIPS: Diamonds are now nearly impossible to guarantee origin so avoid diamonds certified by the Kimberly process, and steer towards diamonds mined from Canada.
 Ethical Alternatives: White Sapphire, Moissanite, Canadian Diamonds, or vintage salvaged. 

  •  Emeralds
: 7.5-8 Mohs
, TIPS: Though rustic emeralds are beautiful and  increasingly popular, watch out for a lot of inclusions as they decrease the strength of the stone and will have a higher chance of cracking with regular wear.  Ethical Alternatives: besides lab created or vintage, look for emeralds from a reputable mine like the Kagem mine in Zambia. 

  • Rubies: 9 Mohs
, TIPS: Avoid rubies from Myanmar (Bruma) where forced and child labor are a huge issue. 
Ethical Alternatives: Lab created rubies, vintage rubies, red sapphire, or rubies mined from Brazil, Australia or Japan.

  • Sapphires
: 9 Mohs
, TIPS: Sapphires are having a moment right now and have even been named by some as the new ethical gemstone alternative (read this) and come in a wide range of vibrant gorgeous hues from blue, ruby red, to diamond white. Avoid sapphires from Myanmar (Bruma) or Madagascar where forced and child labor are a huge issue. 
Ethical Alternatives: Montana Sapphire, Australian sapphire, Sri Lanka sapphire, or Thai sapphire. 

Semi-precious gems are typically not as rare or perceived as valuable as precious gemstones and are generally ethical and are easiest to source conflict free due to the lower demand. These gems vary in structure and hardness, and are typically not as strong as precious gemstones making them a little more delicate and generally not as suitable for long term regular wear when it comes to fine jewelry.

  • Opals: 5.5 - 6.5 Mohs
 TIP: Opals are gorgeous but because they are so delicate make a poor choice for lets say a wedding ring, be prepared to replace the stone multiple times if you intend to wear opal jewelry everyday.

  • Labradorite: 
6.0 - 6.5 Mohs

  • Moonstone: 
6.0 - 6.5 Mohs

  • Amethyst: 7.0 Mohs 

  • Pearl
:  3-4 Mohs
, Tip: there are lots of sustainable opal farms popping up all over including the Sea of Cortez and South pacific. Pearls are better on earrings or necklaces and not a great choice for a ring because they are so easily scratched.

  • Quartz: 7.0 Mohs
. Tip: Sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to diamonds like the Herkimer diamond, and I have seen some beautiful jewelry come out of the quartz family. Just be sure to keep in mind they are still not as sturdy as a diamond and may eventually break with years of wear when used for wedding rings. 

  • Garnet: 6.5 - 7.5 Mohs

  • Zircon: 7.5 Mohs

How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

3. What is your Budget?
These days with all the independent designers out there you do not have to spend thousands of dollars on fine jewelry. The pricing of jewelry can be determined by these factors:

Cost of Materials:

  • Weight of metals, karat of metals, in general thin pieces will cost less, thicker pieces will cost more. But thicker pieces will last longer and be less likely to warp and support gemstones better.

  • Natural gemstones like diamonds are the most expensive with stones like lab grown, vintage or white sapphires being more affordable alternatives

  • Tip: opt for a Sapphire ring or rustic cuts of of diamonds. Make sure your band is in the sweet spot of being thick enough like 1.5mm+ to withstand heavy wear.


  • is it made by skilled artisans in America, or other countries with high cost of living and ethical labor? Or is the labor outsourced to Asia, South America or Africa to cut costs? Ethically it is best to pay and support the costs of labor with in your country with some exceptions to supporting emerging communities that have verified ethical labor wages and conditions.

  • Complexity: A lot of gemstones takes time and precision to set and design. Is the piece carved by hand or is it made with a commercial mold? Generally more by hand labor will raise the costs.

  • Tip: Find beauty in more minimal designs to save money on labor and materials without sacrificing design. 

 Designer markups:

  • Is your designer in demand? Or is your designer under the radar? 

  • Tip: Etsy and indie boutiques are a great way to find emerging designers that will often charge less. Get creative and search for an emerging designer on Instagram, Etsy or Pinterest, chances are you can save a lot of money and get the exact design you are after. 

4. Would you wear it everyday?
I’ve fallen prey to the allure of fast fashion and the latest trends or buying something that looks amazing on in an editorial spread but not so great on myself. The reality is that sometimes the impulse design choices are not practical for fine jewelry.

  • Are the colors of the piece neutral? In general do you gravitate to wearing these colors everyday for a few years at least?

  • Does it fit in with your everyday style?

  • Does the metal color match your skintone? Gold has many shades from white, green, yellow and rose which are flattering for different skin tones.

How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

5. Is it practical?
Some trendy styles like heavily weighted, pointy and sharp corners can be very problematic for wearing everyday. Try on the the pieces you are interested in and think about how they would interfere with putting on a sweater or putting your hand through your hair.

Comfort Factors

  • Does it get snagged on things easily? 

  • Will it scratch you because of sharp corners and overhanging designs?

  • Is is too heavy or clunky?

  • Does it pull on your ears?

  • Tip: avoid designs with anything spiky or extreme asymmetrical parts hanging off the central part of the piece and opt for balanced designs.

6. Is the design built to last?
Sometimes the design of the piece is simply not practical nor is it built to last.
Some issues to look out for include:

  • Thickness of the piece: will the dainty band warp or bend if you wear it often?

  • Is the softer delicate stone properly & securely set with a bezel or sturdy prongs?

  • Are the prongs thick enough to not wear off with regular wear?

  • Are the prongs properly set and don’t snag on things?

In Closing
Jewelry and body adornment is a fascinating practice that has been around for 75,000 years. Once human civilization was satisfied with basic needs like hunger and thirst, people had space to be creative and adorn their bodies with crafted sculptures to signify status, identity, or spirituality. Modern jewelry has much of the same purpose today as did our ancient ancestors and is constantly evolving and reflecting the current human culture. I hope you found my tips to searching for ethical fine jewelry helpful and would love to hear if you have any additions!


How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate GuideHow to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate GuideHow to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate GuideHow to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

How to Shop for Ethical Fine Jewelry: The Ultimate Guide

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