By Marc Choyt
The land we bought in 1995 was at the southwestern edge of the Rocky Mountains, where the plains meet the mesa and mountains. To the West was the Sangre de Christo range, mountains covered in fur and spruce rising over twelve thousand feet. Eastward, we could look out toward a thousand miles of flat grasslands. In the summer, rain fell in splashes and the winds had a wild fierceness.
We were passionate about deep ecology and sustainability. We envisioned houses with solar panels where we would build a small community, offer programs and perhaps grow some of our own food. Within a year, we had built a small log cabin. We put in a wood stove and set up a basic kitchen. I would call this place my true home.
Our dream would be funded by our jewelry company, Reflective Images, which we started the same year. Previously, I was a high school teacher. My wife was a self-taught designer jeweler. We were hard-working, and restless. We quit our jobs. With no experience in sales or knowledge of business, I took twenty designs on the road, driving across the country, walking into jewelry stores and cold selling.
I imagined that our company would be a metaphoric journey away from our economic flatlands. Instead, we had stepped off the edge of our flat working-for-someone-else job world. Every resource and even our most heartfelt values would be tested.
The jewelry sector is a commodity-based business, just like oil or lumber. Often, the cost of a sparkling beauty is the ravaging of natural and human community. To those who wear an engagement ring, the diamond is a symbol of some of the most noble and heartfelt human values. Gold may represent the radiance of the soul.
Yet while we were attempting to start our company, unbeknownst to us, the purchases diamonds funded wars that would ultimately result in the deaths of over three million people. Perhaps there’s no other thing we buy that has a greater split between symbolism and sourcing. Even today, conflict diamonds and dirty gold continue to be prevalent in the supply chain.
A river snaked through our land, though in parts of the country outside the desert southwest, this “river” would have been called a creek. It was a lifeline for our tiny village. Despite, or perhaps because of, the marginal rains that surrounds creeks in northern New Mexico, the riparian zones can be some of the most bio-diverse in the US.
But, in the case of our river, instead of gently sloping banks sustaining fauna, we had ten-foot deep cuts on both sides of the water course.
Cattle had consumed the vegetation beyond the ecosystem’s capacity to regenerate. Without the natural stabilization, the water cut progressively deeper. A few miles outside our valley, the river pathetically dried out.
As we planned a riparian restoration we began to examine the origin of our supply chain. We realized that whatever we purchased to grow our company would also be perpetuating a resource curse  in some other part of the world. Essentially, we would be restoring our river in Northern New Mexico by destroying a river in Ghana.
In the not so distant historical past, when humans ravaged their local environment, they could leave or go to war with neighbors. But now, with climate change and thirty thousand species going extinct each year, the collective local impacts global. But it was harder to judge the carelessness of ranchers when I realized that to run my business I would be doing the same thing on a more international scale.
At that time, no one in the jewelry trade I knew talked about where materials came from. As a new company, to be competitive meant finding the best price and ignoring externalities—focusing on the true cost of the product we were creating. The goal was strong growth: business is all about growth.
Yet we never lost ourselves entirely. For the past eighteen years, aligning economy with our values has been a step-by-step process of looking for opportunities while trying to prosper.
The real issue is an expansion of consciousness—not into some blissful state, but rather, into physicality, the rock and grit of the earth. Foundational, ethical jewelry rests upon two principles: traceability and transparency in the supply chain and fair and equitable relationship with human communities and the ecosystem. We have to consider our business in context to a circle of connections.
We started using recycled metals to make our entire jewelry line and sourcing ethical, fair gemstones as they became available. We soon learned that if the piece was not well designed and competitively priced, it would not sell. Recognizing that gold will continue to be mined regardless of how our using recycle metal, we looked for opportunities to support radical solutions.
The most genuine initiatives for ethical sourcing were taking place among a few under the radar small jewelers and suppliers. There was no organization to connect diverse voices. In 2007, I started a blog about Fair Jewelry that has morphed into Fair Jewelry Action, www.fairjewelry.org a human rights and environmental justice network which provides insider opinions, launches campaigns, endorses producers and provides a place for a community of people who share values.
My company was among the first in North American to make fair trade gold wedding rings. There are over twenty million artisan small scale miners (ASM) supporting over a hundred million people. Much ASM is done illegally in poor regions and is terribly damaging. Fair trade gold (www.fairtrade.org.uk/gold ) supports best practices: third party verified, ecologically responsible producer communities.
Most recently, with our Ethical Metalsmith (www.ethicalmetalsmiths.org) colleagues, we are facilitating the broad distribution of fair trade gold into the North American market. Our effectiveness rests upon our ability to prove concept in our business. To pioneer new market ideas with limited resources has challenging. With our successful river restoration, we had the support of nearly a million acres of wild lands surrounding our river. Our economic ecology has no such nurturing environment.
For our movement to succeed, a circle of relationships to be firmly in place: suppliers, designers, jewelers. But the most important and challenging ingredient is market support. Few consider sourcing when they purchase jewelry. Much progress has been made, but we are just starting out, driven by passion—like where fair trade coffee was in the seventies.
Honoring The Inner River
For many years, I was on the road. In the evenings, I would check into cheap hotels. The roar of the cars and trucks on the interstate. Television and sex leaching through the walls. Acid hours unable to sleep thinking and thinking… No matter how much I sell, never enough money. In the mornings, skin soaked in old cigarette smoke, I would gaze out the dirty metal-framed windows toward the freeway wondering what I was doing with my life.
I want to be in the Odyssey (the journey), I would tell myself. Instead, the business story is the Iliad (the war). Can I find the Odyssey in the Iliad?
Doing the trade shows, being in a business world contrary to many of my personal values, taking people with whom I had little connection out for dinner in order to get sales—all felt like a moderate form of prostitution that was channeling a gash in my own heart’s ecology. When I dared to think of what my own inner river might look like, I saw an image of the Rio Grande flowing through El Paso: straight as an arrow, its banks made into concrete.
Working with the truth: if Gaia is being raped by human activities, then I am being raped too is a horrific reality to grapple with. The evidence of separation and disconnection, the destruction of life support systems, indigenous communities and beauty often fills me with rage and demands action.
I navigated through this ever-widening permutation of gray—the changing ground between profound acceptance, compromise and this is unacceptable , is a deeply intimate, process. Do I find the radical center or draw the line in the sand? How do I use my inner rage, my “Swamp Man,” to create positive social change? These quandaries are razor sharp edges of my own learning, or sacred pilgrims that wonder through my mind.
Even as I staunchly oppose the collective trance of many practices in the jewelry sector, I also recognize that we are part of a greater circle. We are deeply connected even if we stand in staunch opposition to each other.
We must recognize that it is too late to be sustainable. The triple bottom line is only a start—it is way too anthropocentric. We must have planet, planet, planet and see ourselves as an equal part of the whole in circle-based approaches to business . The only profit (excess) that is useful is that which is beneficial to human and ecological communities.
What is our five hundred year plan? How can we increase regenerative activities so that our economy actually rebuilds ecological and human community diversity? If fair trade gold captured just a small percentage of the North American market, the lives hundreds of thousands of small scale miners living in Africa and South America would be improved. Are you willing to spend an extra ten percent on a wedding ring to make it happen?
Earth will survive and transform regardless of whether or not human beings begin to understand that we are part of a circle of interconnectedness. This is all part of a great journey that we walk on together. This work, this service, these activities of the “blessed unrest” must be done regardless of what we might imagine the future to be.
The time is now. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Collectively, we are will determine whether humanity is in a death throw or a birth canal.
Article by Marc Choyt, Director of Fair Jewelry Action ( www.fairjewelry.org ) and President of Reflective Images, an ethical jewelry company that sells designer Celtic jewelry (www.celticjewelry.com ) as well as unique and unusual wedding rings and engagement rings with ethically sourced diamonds.
Parts of this article were taken from the book in progress, “The Circle Manifesto: The Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read About Life, Business and Blessing.” The author is seeking a publisher and can be reached by email at- firstname.lastname@example.org