It's engagement season, and three out of four brides receive diamond engagement rings. Soon-to-be-engaged couples are likely thinking about the four's, but few may realize that, no matter the color, cut, clarity or carats, every diamond carries a social and environmental cost.

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Since engagement rings symbolize the starting point of a lifelong union and are a visible testament to a couple's commitment, we'd like to introduce you to a fifth: conflict-free. As more couples come to learn about the environmental and human damage caused by destructive mining practices and the gem trade, they are choosing to begin their journey together with the more sustainable and appropriate choice: conflict-free diamonds.

So, what is the conflic associated with diamonds?
Conflict diamonds, also known as blood diamonds, are those mined in unstable regions of Africa and used to finance civil war and widespread brutality. Dangerous, unjust labor practices employed by large-scale mining operations often go unregulated, and mines have historically been breeding grounds for harsh conditions where workers are beaten and tortured, and child labor is common. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for smaller and less destructive mines to compete. In addition, diamond and metal mines are notorious for environmental damage such as soil erosion, flooding, and water pollution.

No matter how gorgeous these diamonds are on a bride's finger, the horrific history of most diamonds is not likely to be a fitting heritage to represent a lifetime of love.

What's being done?
In 2000, the global diamond industry began to crack down after a decade of extreme brutality in Sierra Leone and announced a zero tolerance policy on conflict diamonds. The new focus on socially responsible mining gave rise to a system called the Kimberly Process, developed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the legitimate diamond supply chain.

The Kimberly Process is a system of mine-to-market documentation for each stone to ensure that from the point of extraction to the point of sale it follows legal, traceable channels. Today, most of the global production of rough diamonds occurs in nations certified by the Kimberly Process.

It can still be extremely difficult to know the exact origins of a diamond. While the Kimberly Process has eliminated many of the human rights abuses associated with the diamond industry, some conflict diamonds still enter the market through a loophole that allows rough conflict stones to be certified from the conflict-free country that cuts and polishes them.

The Kimberly process also does not take into consideration the environmental impact of mining. Canadian diamonds, for example, have become the conflict-free choice for many, but it's important to remember that every newly mined diamond carries a cost.

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So What Can Couples Do?

Look for Certifications
When Ashlee Simpson and Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz announced their engagement, Wentz made a point of saying that her ring did not contain conflict diamonds. How could he be sure? Different certifications, such as conflict-free, fair trade, and Kimberly, document diamonds from mine to jeweler to help consumers know what they are buying. Any reputable jeweler should know where their diamonds come from, and knowing the facts helps couples ask the right questions when they are shopping.

Consider Heirloom Diamonds
Longtime animal rights and environmental advocate Alicia Silverstone has an engagement ring that belonged to her husband's grandmother. Wearing a ring or stone that's already in the family is an environmentally friendly choice that adds a personal touch. Family rings can easily be resized, or reset to match the bride's style. Look for a local jeweler who provides these services.

Purchase an Antique Ring
Diamonds that were mined before 1880 predate large-scale mining operations. Purchasing an antique ring is a glamorous way to recycle, and it ensures the bride's ring did not contribute to mining pollution.

Try Synthetic and Cultured Diamonds
Synthetic diamonds like cubic zirconium look like real diamonds but have different compositions. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, who refuse to wear real diamonds, choose synthetics instead. Even though they have celebrity appeal, synthetic diamonds don't cost big bucks; in fact, they will often save money. Man-made, or cultured diamonds, are another eco-friendly option. These are identical in appearance to natural diamonds but are grown in a lab.

Choose Canadian Diamonds
Certified Canadian diamonds are mined, cut, and polished in Canada under strict environmental and working regulations. Many American jewelers and online retailers now offer certified Canadian diamonds.

Think Beyond Diamonds
Not all brides need diamond engagement rings. Lovely natural options include opals, pearls, river stones, or sea glass, all of which make unique focal points for an engagement ring. Gemstones, such as emeralds and rubies, can be another good choice. Although the production of some gemstones can cause the same harmful impacts as diamond mining, there are a number of producers that pride themselves on ethically sourced gems. This means they follow strict labor, trade, and environmental protocols.

More Resources
Knowing this basic information about ethical jewelry can help couples find the ring of their dreams without sacrificing their consciences.

We recommend any of these reputable, conflict-free, recycled and/or fair trade jewelers:
Artisan Wedding Rings
Green Karat
Brilliant Earth
Ruff & Cut
Touch Wood Rings

For more information on responsible and ethical diamond mining, take a look at some of these credible resources:
https://www.kimberleyprocess.com/background/index_en.html
http://www.diamondfacts.org
http://www.danforthdiamond.com/debeers-and-beyond/
www.pridediamonds.com
www.fairjewelry.org

Photo Credits:
Couples with rings: Rebecca Wilkowski
Rings with shoes: Orchard Cove Photography
Three rings on table: Bella Photography
Engagement ring and wedding band with flowers: Luce Bella
Rings on poms: Eclectic Images Photography