In an age of glitter tears and unicorn trends, it seems like we are all longing for some sparkle these days. And yet, not all that glitters is gold. How do we dig out something beautiful from dark places? I sat down with Beth Gerstein, co-founder of ethical jewelry brand Brilliant Earth, to talk about diamonds, love in the 21st century, and how doing business with a social mission can help improve the human condition.
After getting an MBA from Stanford, it was your own experience as a young woman shopping for an engagement ring that led you to co-found Brilliant Earth in 2005. Can you share your story with us?
When I was searching for an engagement ring with my then-fiancé, it was very important to me to find a conflict-free diamond that I could really feel good about wearing. We went to numerous jewelers to find a ring, and I always made a point to ask about the origin of the diamonds they offered. None of the jewelers could tell me about where their diamonds came from. I knew other couples who also wanted to find a diamond that supported responsible practices and were untouched by human rights abuses. We founded Brilliant Earth to help cultivate a more transparent and compassionate jewelry industry.
No one wants their expression of love to create harm. Can you explain what conflict diamonds are, the impact of mining abuses on communities, and how you are working to change this global market?
Conflict diamonds have funded devastating civil wars in Africa in the past, and still contribute to violence, exploitation and environmental devastation. The Kimberley Process was created by the diamond industry as a response to this to certify diamonds as conflict free. Unfortunately, conflict diamonds are narrowly defined by the Kimberley Process as diamonds that are used to fund rebel attacks against established governments. There are also other human rights violations that it does not take into account. We go beyond the usual standard to offer diamonds that are not tainted by human rights abuses or environmental degradation.
Our beyond conflict free diamonds come from mines that follow strict labor, trade and environmental standards. We work with a third party auditor, SCS Global Services, that independently verifies that our natural diamonds are traceable to their origins and confirms our chain of custody protocols. We also offer lab-created and recycled diamonds, both of which are eco-friendly alternatives. We believe that it’s important to be a force for change in the diamond industry and that beautiful jewelry need not come at a high human and environmental cost.
Millennials are known for being more conscious consumers and this industry seems ripe for disruption as a new generation comes of age. How has the appeal of ethical jewelry impacted your growth?
We have found that millennials are very interested in ethical sourcing. In fact, our survey on engagement ring preferences found that 80 percent of millennials believe that ethical sourcing is an important consideration when buying an engagement ring. Millennials have been an important source of growth for us, since these couples are really interested in knowing where their purchases come from and how they’re made. This is true of everything from coffee to t-shirts, so it only makes sense that customers care about the ethical origins of a purchase as large and emotionally important as an engagement ring.
One advantage we’ve seen as an ecommerce brand that’s popular with millennials is the opportunity to expand our brick and mortar presence in areas where we already have a strong online presence. This allows us to be a truly omnichannel retailer and gives customers in those areas the option of a personalized in-person experience. We recently opened showrooms in San Diego and D.C. and have another showroom on the way in Denver.
Brilliant Earth Rings
Many jewelry brands traditionally market engagement rings to men, while Brilliant Earth seems much more focused on marketing to women. Can you explain this strategy and how it might reflect the more active roles of women today in romantic relationships and planning for their own futures?
We market to both women and men because we know that many couples make engagement ring decisions together. Even in cases where the engagement is a complete surprise and one partner purchases the engagement ring alone, we know how important the other partner’s input is in the purchase.
For example, our customers tag their partners in our Instagram posts and create Pinterest boards of ring ideas to let their partner know what kind of rings they like. We also get many couples who shop for an engagement ring together.
From vintage Art Nouveau to modern rose gold, I think the artistry of your rings appeals to this generation’s creative nature. How has inviting people into the design experience resonated?
We find that customers love using our create-your-own-ring process because it gives them a chance to create a piece that reflects their own unique style. Customers can choose their ideal ring setting, whether they’re drawn to classic solitaires, distinctive halo designs, or delicate nature or vintage inspired styles. Then, customers can choose the center diamond they want from our wide selection. The ability to filter diamonds by metrics like shape, carat weight, price, origin, clarity, cut, and color really allows customers to get exactly the diamond they want. Customers also have the option of choosing a unique colored gemstone such as a sapphire, emerald, or aquamarine through our create-your-own-gemstone ring process. We believe the process of creating your ring should be a special, unique experience you can feel good about.
Thank you Beth! Your commitment to forging a business model that combats human suffering is inspiring. As the words of J.R.R. Tolkien remind us, while all that glitters is not gold, we can be the ones to unearth something brilliant and hopeful. Let us all believe in our power to bring light to dark places.
THE QUICK 10
1. What app do you most use?
PocketCast to listen to podcasts.
2. What's the first thing you do in the morning?
Check my email.
3. Name a business mogul you admire.
4. What product do you wish you had invented?
5. What is your spirit animal?
6. What is your life motto?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
7. Name your favorite work day snack.
Whatever is in the break room.
8. What's something that's always in your bag?
A handwritten note from my kids.
9. What’s the most inspiring place you’ve traveled to?
10. Desert Island. Three things, go.
Fully loaded Kindle, my husband, fruity cocktail.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.