It’s been a little over two years since my last update on ethical sourcing. My focus has been on “walking the walk” and for various reasons I haven’t taken the time to sit down and just talk about it. It feels like a good moment to pause and share some of the triumphs and challenges of my journey.
Adjusting to the Pandemic
In 2021, the covid pandemic crippled the world and for me, it was a year without gem shows. All the normal ways of doing business were suddenly gone. I was fortunate because I have unusual relationships with my suppliers. Normally the only time we do business is at the gem shows in Tucson and Denver, but since I have cultivated personal relationships, they were willing to ship crystals directly to me. Normally crystals travel in large shipping containers by boat which helps keep the price down. Since I’m a small-scale buyer my heavy boxes of rocks had to fly half-way around the world. I also took a road trip to visit the home of a US supplier, whom I normally meet with at gem shows. He and his wife were kind enough to let me shop for crystals out of their garage. Afterwards, we drank wine together from a local Californian winery and I gave them a gift of Hawaiian-grown coffee, and said “thank you” about a million times.
I also met a new supplier online. Originally from Germany, he spent his first career as a biologist fighting to protect Amazon River Dolphins. He now lives in Peru and has a second career as the owner and operator of a stone polishing factory. With most people I discuss ethics tactfully, but with him I can be as blunt as a hammer. We are both passionate activists so we regularly call and message each other to share news and support. A few months after we met, he told me he was thinking about starting a mine designed with ethics at its heart. He cautiously asked me if I thought anyone would be willing to invest in something like that. I told him, “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would invest.” I am proud to say that I am the first venture capitalist investor in an ethical crystal mine for Black Tourmaline and Epidote.
All of these supplier interactions were a lesson in patience. I could wire money abroad and then wait six months before seeing any stones. Sometimes it took me months or even a full year to get those stones listed online so my customers could buy them. Oh well. We were all doing our best to handle a world turned upside down.
A Shiny New Idea
Because the world was topsy-turvy, it presented a unique opportunity for me. It gave me the freedom to truly think outside-of-the-box. Like so many good ideas, it began with sharing a bottle of wine. I had reached out to one of the top coral reef experts in the world, who happens to live on my island. He agreed to show me his coral farm and discuss the environmental impacts of wild-harvested and farmed coral. In return for the tour, he asked for a nice bottle of shiraz. After the tour, he pointed out that I was treating ethical crystal sourcing like someone with a humanities degree. That’s fair and I’m guilty as charged, I love my history degrees. He proposed that I tackle the subject more scientifically. I immediately offered a second bottle of wine and gourmet ice cream if he could show me how he judges human impact on coral reefs. He agreed to the exchange and was very generous with his time.
For the next six months, I compiled data like a scientist and turned a philosophical question of ethics into a mathematical equation. I analyzed statistics on topics as diverse as child labor and ecosystem health. I began to see it: an answer to ethical sourcing that is fact-based, not opinion-based. I also see how easy it could be to share it with others so they could see it too.
I told a childhood friend about it, because I thought she’d enjoy my new obsession with math. That had always been her area of expertise while I dominated the humanities. She is a chemical engineer who works for big manufacturing corporations so she lives in a very different world than me. She asked me if I had spoken to a lawyer yet, and then advised me to stop talking until after I had. I shrugged, but I listened. I called my business lawyer and told him what I was up to. He got excited, which surprised me. He told me to stop talking and find a patent lawyer. I laughed, but I listened. I reached out to a patent lawyer and he got REALLY excited and told me I absolutely couldn’t talk about it. A patent had never been on my radar. That’s the sort of fancy certificate that belongs to scientists and inventors. I’ve always been a historian. We publish, we don’t patent, and we never stop talking! Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to file for a patent and was strongly encouraged to do so.
Did you know that only 3% of patents are ever brought to market? The other 97% of patents are ideas on paper that never see the light of day. Most patents are granted to big corporations and research universities. They exist only to prove that the organization is INNOVATIVE. But there is no obligation to actually do anything with the idea besides brag about it.
I have never aspired to belong to the 1% but, I feel a strong pull to belong to the 3% of real inventors. The Wright Brothers immediately became my inventor-heroes. They got a patent for their “flying machine,” the first airplane, in 1906. Prior to that, they were the humble owners of a small bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio. They learned how to run a successful business and earned enough money from tinkering with bicycles to build the Wright Flyer. That little bicycle shop gave the world FLIGHT. Now, let’s be realistic here. I’m not trying to make man fly, but I would like to leave the world a little better than I found it and I think my invention just might do that. Moonrise Crystals is my “bicycle shop” that funds my research, pays for a patent, and gives me the opportunity to see where this winding road is taking me.
I was so excited to bring my invention to the world. So very, very, excited. Then came the crash.
A Frustrating Roadblock
Months earlier, I had invested quite a bit of money into the Moonrise Crystals website for tech improvements. I thought I was paying for the equivalent of hand-carved mahogany furniture. I was wrong. I had paid top dollar for the equivalent of mass-produced plywood. Worse than that, it was plywood next to a termite nest. The Moonrise Crystals website was crashing. By Thanksgiving 2021, I had lost ½ of my web traffic with a similar drop in sales. I had been so distracted and enchanted with my new invention that I hadn’t realized what was happening. Once I saw the problem, it had my full and undivided attention. Within a few days, I realized the enormous scope of the nightmare. I could try to fix it. Or I could completely tear down my website and rebuild.
Sometimes we have to tear down the old in order to make way for the new.
I was resentful. I wanted to work on my invention and bring it to the world. I didn’t want to spend all my money and time building another website for Moonrise Crystals. I didn’t want to accept the reality of my situation. My lover told me, “My Warrior Queen, you can’t fight your battles abroad when the home castle is besieged. Turn the army around.” I grumbled, but I listened and adjusted my priorities.
During the winter of 2021-2022, I worked around the clock to help build the new website. If you think a website is easy or cheap, you are thinking of a simple one-size-fits-all website. I customize everything and that’s not easy, cheap, or fast. It required many long hours of tedious work.
In the middle of the build, the Tucson Gem Show rolled back onto the scene just as Omicron was spiking. A flurry of emails and WhatsApp messages went back and forth between me and my suppliers, “Are you coming?” “I don’t know, are you coming?” “Maybe if you go, I will go.” Normally, my suppliers make their plans six months or more in advance. For Tucson 2022, many of them made their final decision the two weeks before the show opened. I did too.
I planned an incredibly short and tight trip to Tucson. I gave myself two days to do the work I usually do in a week. On the first day, I worked 18 hours straight and walked 20,000 steps (around 12 miles), most of that distance carrying boxes of rocks. On the second day, I delivered my purchases to the post office five minutes before they closed. I walked out and threw my fists in the air like Rocky at the top of the staircase. I DID IT!! It was insane. I did it, but I wouldn’t do a trip like that again by choice.
After I mailed everything, I treated myself to dinner with one of my suppliers, a woman who owns a stone polishing factory in India. During dinner, we forgot about business and the pandemic. Her daughter was getting married that summer so the conversation centered on The Dress and Mr. Wonderful. I collapsed into bed, but woke a few hours later for another social call, 4 am coffee and muffins in a hotel lobby. One of my favorite people at the gem show is from Germany and he was wide awake because of the time zone difference. We don’t buy or sell to each other, we’re connected because we both do some social work in Madagascar. We met early before my flight home, just to talk. He told me he hated covid. He said no one can shake hands or hug anymore or even talk without a mask. He said everyone is depressed and scared and it’s never ever going to get better. We took off our masks, we held hands, and we hugged for a long time.
I returned home and without missing a beat, went back to work on the website. Finally, it was complete. Over-schedule and over-budget, but COMPLETE. Or so I thought…
Within two weeks, I realized that my team had made a mistake. I swore in every language I could think of and then invented a few new swear words just for good measure. Then, I gritted my teeth and sat down to fix it. It’s been nine months since then and I’m still not done. I’m close! I can see the finish line.
In 2021, I made leaps and bounds forward towards making ethical sourcing more accessible for everyone. In 2022, I had to defend and rebuild. It feels like I’m dancing the cha cha, one step forward, then two steps back, but I keep dancing. I keep twirling. I keep my feet moving.
Now at the Beginning of 2023
The Tucson Gem Show, Denver Gem Show, and the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference are all back to normal. I’m able to buy, learn, and network in person again. When I’m buying, I find myself thinking a bit like a humanities major (philosophical questions and opinion answers) and a scientist (data-informed probabilities). For example, at the 2023 Tucson Show, I made several buying choices based on black-market animal and human trafficking and the legal and illegal trade of stones. There’s too much that can go wrong if a stone is mined in Africa and then polished in Hong Kong. By contrast, Amethyst mined in Brazil, but polished in Hong Kong doesn’t create the same level of concern.
This year I deliberate chose not to restock Shungite, even though this stone sells very well and it was widely available at the gem shows. The mines are in Russia, near Ukraine. Because of the war and the location of the mine, I won’t resupply Shungite until after the war is over. Is Charoite different? It’s another popular stone that is mined only in Russia, but the mine is thousands of miles away from the war front. Is it okay to buy Charoite? Is it okay to buy Charoite if it was mined and polished before the war? If my supplier bought the Charoite 3 years before the war, can I buy it? Maybe? I bought a little. I don’t know if that was “right” or “wrong.” It’s something I will continue to mull over and ponder. I’m trying to be conscious of my biases as an American.
In a similar vein, I had a great conversation with one of my suppliers about Lapis Lazuli. We both believe most people hate the Taliban and miners in Afghanistan are just doing their best to survive. He buys Lapis because it supports the miners. I refused to buy Lapis because this stone directly funds the Taliban. He says to think of the miners’ families. I say we have to look at the bigger picture. Which of us is right? It’s conversations like this that make ethics so tricky.
My journey in ethical sourcing is definitely not a straight line. It’s full of twists and turns, sometimes doubling back, then charging forward again. I see some challenges ahead of me. I see opportunities too. Now that my patent is pending, my lawyer says I’m allowed to talk about it a little. Maybe by the end of this year, I’ll be able to show you my invention.
To all my customers who love crystals and who care about ethical sourcing – THANK YOU for supporting Moonrise Crystals. It is a constant work-in-progress and my great labor-of-love. Your purchases here directly fund my research and together we are going to give ethical sourcing its wings.
The journey continues…