Greg Valerio, 48, is something of a rock star in Britain. He’s been honored by the Queen, and received an honorary doctorate from a public research university, but you’ve probably never heard of him if you’re in the U.S. or Africa.
Unless, that is, you’re one of a tiny group of consumers interested in knowing where the gold comes from when they buy their wedding ring, and who mined the gold, and what conditions the miners worked in.
Artisanal and small-scale mining is the second biggest employer in Africa
after agriculture and a traditional activity for many communities, but one that’s often associated with informality and illegality, according to an earlier AFKInsider report. It offers crucial livelihood to some of the most vulnerable people in the world who are often exploited. Many earn less than $1 a day, according to Fairtrade, a global organization working to secure a better deal for farmers and workers.
The movement for Fairtrade gold started in the U.K. and Colombia. Britain has the most well developed ethical Fairtrade jewelry market in the world, and Valerio is in a highly specialized area of jewelry making based on conflict-free gold. He’s a world pioneer, according to London-based Fairtrade Foundation.
He’s also a businessman, about to launch Valerio Jewellery in the U.S. — his line of ethically mined jewelry.
The Fairtrade Foundation is an independent certification body which licenses the use of the Fairtrade mark on products that meet international standards. This consumer label appears on products to show that disadvantaged producers are getting a better deal from trade.
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Valerio, 48, is the founder of the global Fairtrade gold initiative, the Fairtrade Foundation told AFKInsider.
A high school dropout, Valerio started Cred Jewellery — the world’s first intentionally Fairtrade jewelry business — in 1996. Three years later, he went to India to see for himself where garnets came from. The horror of that experience changed his life, he told AFKInsider. He sold Cred in 2009 and went to work consulting for Fairtrade. U.K.-based Cred is now the largest retailer of Fairtrade gold in the world.
Valerio’s consulting work took him to Africa and South America, where he worked with small scale gold miners to help them get the gold in their land into a fair trade process so their communities could benefit.
In the process he said he discovered that the single biggest source of jobs in the jewelry trade is artisinal mining. “The gold originates in the ground in a country,” he said. “Somebody has to mine that gold. In Africa alone there are 25 million gold miners.”
Valerio launched Valerio Jewellery in 2015. He talked to AFKInsider about how he became a global pioneer with the marketing muscle of the Fairtrade organization behind him to promote his business.
AFKInsider: How did you become the first intentionally Fairtrade jewelry business owner in the world?
Greg Valerio: In 1999 I went to Jaipur trying to find out where the garnets came from. We spent five hours driving out into the Rajisthani desert in the middle of nowhere. The mine owner turned up as if walking out of a mirage. We got to the top of an incline in 100-degree heat and looked down at women and children scrabbling around for garnets. It was beyond horror. I suddenly saw the horror at the source of the jewelry supply chain. As we walked away, an old woman with a face like a shriveled prune grabbed me by the elbow, beckoned me over to a hut which turned out to be her living quarters and said she’d worked there all her life. Her daughter had been born in this mine. Her granddaughter too. She was in debt to the mine — indentured labor. When she went to work in the mine 50 years before, she had to pay rent, buy food and borrow money from the mine owner. When you add interest, you never get ahead of yourself.
I’ve spent most of my working life in Africa working with small scale gold miners to help them get the gold in their land into a fair trade process. I’ve been being doing it 20 years. The second-biggest employer globally is artisinal small-scale mining.
AFKInsider: Where do large-scale mining companies fit in?
Greg Valerio: Seventy-five-to-80 percent of all the gold produced every year comes from 20 companies. They’re stock market-listed transnational mining companies. They’re headquartered offshore and raise their money on stock markets — typically London. London is the mining stock market capital of world. Between them — they couldn’t give an exact figure when I asked them — they employ about a half a million people globally. Large scale mining is the last bastion of colonial empire. Its neo colonialism in its worst and most damaging extreme.
AFKInsider: How does your business work?
Greg Valerio: My business is a Fairtrade brand. It only uses Fairtrade certified gold and silver. We want customers to connect not just through beautiful bridal jewelry. We want our customer to have access to the purest and fairest gold in world. Now I can sell you a wedding ring that I can trace from mine to retail. I know the mine, I know the people, I know the source, I know the husband, the wife, the children, and I now know the customer that ends up wearing that piece of jewelry. That is the true essence and power that jewelry has to change the world. It is not corporate social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility in jewelry is bullshit. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t happen. We need a Fairtrade ethic. The people of the land should have ownership of the resource of the land. It’s their gold. I am their customer.
I’ve sold about 30 pieces of jewelry this year. The website has been live for nine months. My previous company — Cred Jewelry — has two shops (in London and Chichester) and sells online. Valerio is specifically going for the luxury diamond market. Millennials understand that luxury has a price. Very often the price for luxury is somebody else’s misery. We can do luxury. We can do design. We can do fashion but we can do it in a way that leaves a strong social and environmental legacy.
AFKInsider: Where do you get your gold?
Greg Valerio: There are no certified Fairtrade mines in Africa. My gold comes from Peru right now. South America has three certified Fairtrade mines — Aurelsa and Sotrami, both in Peru, and Macdesa.
AFKInsider: How do you develop your supply chain?
Greg Valerio: I’m working in Uganda with a group of miners who are working toward Fairtrade certification. My work there is focused on securing a mercury free gold processing plant for three community groups — SAMA Artisinal Mining Association., Busia United (a cooperative) and Tiira, a womens group. They’re a part of the Fairtrade program in East Africa.
All the gold miners use mercury to process their gold. It’s highly neurotoxic and in order to capture the gold they have to amalgamate it with mercury. They do that by hand. They mush the gold and mercury together. When they burn the amalgam, the liquid mercury burns off leaving the gold.
Valerio (has done work in the past that) impacts small scale mining communities in Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzani, and Madagascar. In Colombia I work with an African-Colombian community.
In the early days I spent many weeks in South America working with small scale mining groups to develop supply chains. I’m doing exactly the same in Africa. I’ll be going to Sierra Leone (for diamonds) and Uganda to do the second phase of the mercury free gold processing.
I don’t have to go to Peru anymore because we built a very robust supply chain. The small scale miners there (Sotrami) sell to the refiner, who batch-refines the gold (they don’t mix it with other sources.) The refiner then sells that gold in a pure form to the manufacturer who makes the rings. I am a pioneer in this. I was the first to do it. It’s being duplicated. I’ve been very generous about the process. We have to be generous. We have to give it away. We have to allow others to get in. Other jewelers ask how does it work. You cannot own justice for the poor. It’s not a commodity to be bought and sold in that way.
AFKInsider: What does “ethical jewelry” mean?
Greg Valerio: Everybody is taking about ethical jewelry now but for a lot of companies, “ethical” means “no change.” When you ask them, they say “we only use recycled metal.” The jewelry profession has been recycling its metal for 5000 years. Nobody throws their gold away. (Recycling) has no impact on child labor issues in mining. It’s the biggest smokescreen out there. I deal with the sources. I take on the responsibility of changing those situations with those communities.
AFKInsider: How do you get the word out about your product?
Greg Valerio: Fairtrade helps get the word out about people like me. I’m very well known in the industry. I’ve won awards. I was twice awarded one of top 100 jewelers in Britain. I’ve been awarded an MBE (Member of Order of the British Empire) from the Queen for my work in Fairtrade gold. I was talking to Human Rights Watch in Germany yesterday. I talked to the State Department in 2014 about child labor in gold and mining as part of a delegation accessing Fair Trade. I’ve spoken to government reps from Kenya and Uganda. I also have a book called “Making Trouble” (Lion Hudson 2013).
AFKInsider: Tell me about your education.
Greg Valerio: I was thrown out of high school at 15. I wasn’t interested. It’s a bit embarrassing. One teacher said to me as he expelled me, “Valerio you are a natural born troublemaker. Just make sure you make trouble for the right reasons.” It was the best piece of career advice I ever had.
This year I received a master of arts from the University of Wales in Celtic studies. I did that for five years part time. Why? because I’m interested in ancient British history. I’m a practicing Christian.
I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Winchester for service to social justice and my work in Fairtrade. I went from being a dropout to having letters and number after my name. It doesn’t mean diddly squat. My core motivation has always been Christian — seek righteousness.
AFKInsider: Are you a trouble maker?
Greg Valerio: I have had opposition. Not so much anymore but certainly in the early days. I was described by one very senior member of the British jewelry industry — the publisher of a jewelry trade magazine — as the most dangerous bastard in the industry. I’ve been called a maverick, a social entrepreneur, scruffy, nonconformist, “looks like a bum.” I use them as compliments on my website.
AFKInsider: How do you think your jewelry will go over in the U.S.?
Greg Valerio: I’ve never consciously looked to really impact the American jewelry market with this Fairtrade ethic. It needs a bit of shaking up. I’ve been to the U.S. State Department, World Bank, and jewelers in the U.S. Elements of jewelry in the U.S. have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Their behavior and narrative is predictable. There are a lot of millennials who get it. They understand luxury has a price. They get that there’s social impact, environmental impact, justice, transparency, and traceability. The American retail jewelry market is the biggest in the world. If we can get the American consumer to switch on to the power of a Fairtrade luxury jewelry purchase we can transform thousands of lives very quickly just by buying Fairtrade gold. The revolution in jewelry is only just starting and the custodians of that revolution are not the biggest companies. They’re custodians of the status quo. They’re not entrepreneurs.
AFKInsider: How do you sell your jewelry?
Greg Valerio: I sell my jewelry online. I have customers from all over world. My last four customers were from the U.S., Netherlands, U.K., and United Arab Emirates.
At the moment its just a bridal collection. I’m introducing three new designers in the next couple of months. There is only one certified U.S. gold license holder for Fairtrade gold in U.S. and that is Reflective Images Jewelry in Santa Fe. Marc Choyt is integrating the pure ethic of the brand into his Santa Fe offering. You can walk into his boutique and buy Valerio wedding rings, only available in Fairtrade gold. My prices are very average. They’re not the cheapest. If I walk into Zales (U.S. jewelry retailer) I can buy rings cheaper. It’s an untraceable supply chain.