Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Faces of the Green Pages

Conversations with Today's Green Business Leaders

Beth Gerstein
February 2014 —
Brilliant Earth; San Francisco, CA

Just in time for Valentine's Day, we'd like to introduce you to Beth Gerstein, co-founder of the green jewelery company Brilliant Earth. Her company helps couples find a ring they can feel good about, knowing their dollars are supporting a company that does good for people and the planet.

"We’re in the business of helping couples at the happiest time of their lives," says Beth. "We’re constantly getting feedback from customers who tell us that a Brilliant Earth ring made an engagement proposal or a wedding feel more special and amazing. Many Brilliant Earth couples say they wouldn’t have purchased an engagement ring if they hadn’t found a company that reflected their values."

Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?

Chamise Diamond Ring.
Willow Diamond Ring.

Beth Gerstein: Brilliant Earth is an eco-friendly jeweler offering luxury wedding and engagement rings, vintage jewelry, and earrings and pendants. Our jewelry is made using recycled precious metals and beyond-conflict-free diamonds.  Although we’re based in San Francisco, we’re an online company with customers worldwide. In 2013, we saw a surge in popularity in engagement rings with a very delicate, nature-inspired design aesthetic, such as our Willow Diamond Ring and Chamise Diamond Ring.

What makes Brilliant Earth green?  

Beth: Being a green business has been a major part of our identity since the time of our founding. One of the green issues we’re passionate about is the environmental devastation caused by gold mining. In addition to being the leading cause of mercury pollution, gold mining generates 20 tons of waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring.
Most gold is used to make jewelry, so the jewelry industry bears a lot of the responsibility for this pollution. We help to reduce the jewelry industry’s impact by offering fine jewelry handcrafted from 100-percent recycled precious metals. We are also proud to be among the first American jewelers to offer a collection of Fairmined gold jewelry, which is independently certified as environmentally responsible.

We incorporate green principles throughout our business too. One example is our handcrafted Rimu wood jewelry boxes. Rimu wood is harvested from a New Zealand forest that preserves biodiversity and soil, water, and air quality.

What were you doing before you started your green business?  

Beth: Brilliant Earth was founded to resolve a paradox. Wedding and engagement rings are exchanged as symbols of love and commitment and shared values between two people. But most rings today aren’t sourced or produced in a responsible way. Very few diamonds—less than one percent—are traceable to a country of origin.

I’ve always loved jewelry, but the seeds of my interest in starting a jewelry company began when I was about to get engaged myself. My fiancé (and now husband) Alex, and I went shopping for engagement ring. We had recently heard about the horrors of blood diamonds, and so we wanted to find an engagement ring that we knew was responsibly sourced.  But we had difficulty finding a ring with reliably ethical origins – in fact, most jewelers couldn’t answer our questions about where their diamonds were from and the conditions in which they were mined. That was an eye-opening experience.

Then it turned out that Eric, a friend of mine from Stanford Business School, had been researching the jewelry industry on his own. He had found evidence that confirmed my impression: most jewelers didn’t make ethical sourcing a priority. Plus his research showed that a lot of other people, like me, wanted jewelry free of violence, human rights abuses, and environmental devastation. We decided to team up and, in 2005, we founded Brilliant Earth.  

What have been the biggest challenges to social and environmental responsibility?  

Beth: We’ve always wanted to provide our customers with gems and precious metals that meet the highest labor and environmental standards. At the same time, we’ve wanted to produce jewelry of the very highest quality and offer it to as many customers as possible. If we’re going to influence the jewelry industry, we need to have a broad customer base.

It was with these considerations in mind that we initially asked the question: can we fulfill our social mission without relying on mining? No mining process, no matter how responsible, is completely without environmental impact.

When it came to sourcing our precious metals, the choice was easy. Gold and platinum can be recycled with no degradation in quality. We decided to use recycled precious metals. With diamonds, the choice was more nuanced. We found that to appeal to our customer base and be competitive, we’d need to offer natural diamonds from mined sources. Part of the romance of diamonds is the idea that they were formed in the earth hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of years ago. Couples are attracted to the timeless quality of natural diamonds. We also found that diamond mining is much less environmentally harmful than gold mining.

We decided to offer diamonds from mined sources, but to do it in our own way. We began by offering diamonds only from the more rare selection that are traceable to a country of origin. Within that pool, we selected diamonds from sources, like Canada, that were carefully vetted to be free of human rights abuses and meet the highest standard of social and environmental responsibility.

We then decided to be as transparent as possible. Our customers can view the country of origin for each and every one of our loose diamonds, and view details about the labor and environmental conditions at the mines we source from. That level of transparency was unprecedented in the diamond industry and key to our mission.

Finally, we added alternatives to our collection for customers that didn’t want a mined gem, or even a diamond: lab-created diamonds, antique jewelry, and colored gemstones.

We’re proud of our sourcing. Our product selection has enabled us to compete, to grow, and to stay true to our values.

The Brilliant Earth showroom.

What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?

Beth: The biggest piece of good news for us now is the possible slowdown of a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mining for gold and other metals has been financing the war, and we’re cautiously optimistic that an end could be in sight.

What's the next green step you're working on right now?  

Beth: We’re very excited to be working closely with the leadership of two innovative certification programs: Fairmined gold and the Diamond Development Initiative.

Both these programs, relying on Fair Trade principles, aim to empower a category of independent miners known as artisanal miners. Most artisanal miners use simple techniques like panning for gold or digging for diamonds, and they often work in difficult conditions for as little as a dollar a day. The idea of both initiatives is to ensure that artisanal miners who use responsible, eco-friendly mining practices are paid fairly and that their gems and metals are recognized through certification.

The Fairmined gold label has been launched already and in 2013, Brilliant Earth became one of the first US jewelers to offer Fairmined gold jewelry. The Diamond Development Initiative, which is working to create a similar certification system for diamonds, is still in the pilot stages. We’ve been supporting it through our non-profit fund, which we use to invest in communities harmed by the jewelry trade.

We believe we have a responsibility to help create the ethical mining industry of the future. We’re happy to be directly involved in the launch of programs that could fight poverty, reduce pollution, and build a brighter future for developing countries. 

What advice would you give to other social and environmental entrepreneurs just starting out?

Beth: We’re passionate about educating people about conflict diamonds and other ethical issues. So when we were starting out, one of the first sections we added to our web site was an “Education” section chock full of information.

That section remains one of the best information sources on the Internet for people interested in ethical jewelry issues. Do a search on “gold mining” and “environment” and our site pops up. But we’ve realized that most customers probably don’t have time to soak in all the detail we provide and that facts and statistics aren’t always emotionally powerful. We’ve therefore started to make our education section more visual and accessible. Through our blog, we tell the stories of people harmed by the jewelry industry. We’ve also brought our marketing to the personal level of the customer: we communicate the simple idea that jewelry is more beautiful when it’s ethical.

Lots of environmentally conscious entrepreneurs want to educate their customers. My advice to those entrepreneurs would be this: don’t forget to appeal to your customers on a personal and emotional level too. Capture your customers’ hearts by connecting your social mission with your product.

What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?  

Beth: I’m actually a big fan of minimizing my use of products wherever possible and walking whenever I can (the beauty of living in San Francisco). But, if I had to choose, I love (and can’t live without) Toms and Seventh Generation.


Read more interviews in the Archives »


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