You've probably heard about fair trade coffee, or maybe even fair trade handcrafts or cotton. How about fair trade gems?

Eric Braunwart, longtime owner and CEO of Vancouver, Wash.- based Columbia Gem House and its jewelry division, Trigem Designs, started the movement nearly a decade ago, when fair trade was less well-known in any field.

Fair trade is a concept that promotes the payment of a fair price, along with seeking to ensure social and environmental standards for goods and services.

At this time of year, when holiday shoppers worry about whether soccer balls are stitched in a Pakistani sweat shop or toy soldiers are assembled in a Chinese prison, Braunwart says consumers also should ask whether the baubles they buy come from a mine where the average worker dies within 18 to 24 months. Braunwart, a 56-year-old Vancouver native, started thinking about fair trade in 2000 when he took a break from Columbia Gem House to work for the World Bank as a consultant. That job entailed visits to Madagascar and other African countries in hopes of alleviating poverty through the production of gems and jewelry.

When Braunwart returned, he continued his work with Columbia Gem House, which buys gems and resells them to jewelry stores. He developed a 40-page document outlining protocols for engaging in fair trade practices in the gem-buying business. Among the criteria: fair wages, environmental sustainability and knowing where a product comes from and how much it cost in each stage of the supply chain.

"People were thinking: That's not part of this business," he says.

Braunwart says Blood Diamond , a 2006 movie detailing the diamond trade in Africa during the Sierra Leone Civil War, has made jewelry buyers more aware now about their purchases.

"A lot of people are starting to understand that what we do as businesses really is our best or worst foreign policy, depending on how we operate," he says, adding that the film wasn't a completely accurate portrayal of the industry.

According to Braunwart, Trios' Studio in Lake Oswego most closely follows the standards of the Fair Trade Gem Protocol among stores in the Portland-Vancouver area. Trios' Studio has made available the fair trade gems since it opened nearly one year ago.

Mary Wong, one of Trios' Studio's three owners, says customers like the idea that gems they're paying anywhere from $90 to $12,000 per carat for aren't the product of violence, even if the price is 10 percent higher as a result.

(In some instances, Braunwart says, fair trade gems can cost less because his company works with local governments to lower the costs.)

"If this is important to the consumer, if they go in and discuss it with their jewelers," Braunwart says, "then they really are the ones that can help move the industry in this direction."


Aside from promoting fair trade policies, Braunwart has been heavily involved in the communities he buys his gems from. He funded the building of a school in Malawi, and is working on building a health clinic for the mine's workers.