Research page

Transparency: Qualities and Technologies of Global Gemstone Trading

Timeline: 2018-2021

Funding organisation: The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) within its Division of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Project Description

In the first decade of this century, diamonds and other conflict-laden gemstones spearheaded a global trend toward transparency. Faced with increasingly knowledgeable consumers, widespread revelations about the social and ecological impact of mining extraction, and the negative reputation of “blood diamonds”, the mining industry adopted new labour and trading standards and imposed dramatic changes to its governing bodies. In the name of social responsibility and accountability, transparency entered the lexicon of the mining industry across the world. These foundational efforts of the extractive industry toward transparency and the growing demand for “ethical” gemstones constitute this project’s entryway to interrogate the construction and public perception of transparency. What makes a mineral transparent and ethical or, by the same token, opaque and unethical? What sustains, or undermines, transparency as a global social and economic value?

Despite the growing pervasiveness of transparency as global construct guiding political and economic life, transparency remains an elusive category that may occlude more than it purports to reveal. Rather than assuming that transparency is the apex of an ethical economy, “Transparency: Qualities and Technologies of the Global Gemstone Industry” interrogates the work played by discourses and practices in the production of transparency in extractive industries and regulatory agencies. Empirically, this study examines how transparency is assessed, enacted, and regimented across the mineral’s lifespan, as well as the regulatory and certification practices enabling the production and trade of gemstones on a global scale.

The project attends to four specific nodes in networks of valuation where technological laboratories, auditors, corporations, and sellers converge to promote and produce transparency:

  1. Certification, tracking, and grading technologies;

  2. Mineral supply chain standards and due diligence;

  3. Monitoring agencies and regulatory authorities;

  4. Commodity markets.

The three-year project is undertaken in collaboration with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and will feature roundtable discussions in Geneva, an online database on transparency, and a series of academic publications. For more information and to access the project website, click here.


Project Partners

Key Events of the Project

  • July 2021: Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão, along with Lindsay Bell, published a special issue entitled "Dis/connection Matters: Natural, Synthetic, Digital" in Tsanta - Journal of the Swiss Anthropological Association. Link here

  • June 2021: Filipe Calvão, along with Lindsay Bell, published an article entitled "From Ashes to Diamonds Making Lab-grown Afterlife" in Tsanta - Journal of the Swiss Anthropological Association. Link here.

  • June 2021: Matthieu Bolay published an article entitled "Fabricating the Integrity of Gold in Refineries Digital Visibility and Divisibility" in Tsanta - Journal of the Swiss Anthropological Association. Link here.

  • May 2021: Filipe Calvão, along with Matthew Archer, published an article entitled "Digital extraction: Blockchain traceability in mineral supply chains" Political Geography. Link here

  • March 2021: Matthieu Bolay published an article entitled "Disentangling Mining and Migratory Routes in West Africa: Decisions to Move in Migranticised Settings" in the journal Social Inclusion. Link here.

  • February 2021: Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão, along with Catherine Erica Alexina Mcdonald, published an article entitled "Cobalt mining and the corporate outsourcing of responsibility in the Democratic Republic of Congo" in The extractive industries and society journal. Link here

  • February 2021: Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão held a roundtable on "Dis/connection Matters: Natural, Synthetic, Digital" at the anual meeting of the Swiss Association for the Studies of Science, Technology and Society (STS-CH). Link here

  • January 2021: Matthieu Bolay and Johannes Knierzinger published an article entitled "Corporate gift or political sacrifice? State-sponsored CSR and electricity provision in Guinean extractive enclaves" in the journal Political Geography. Link here

  • November 2020: Matthieu Bolay, along with Yvan Schulz and Ellen Hertz, published an article entitled "Les limites de l’autoréglementation dans le secteur suisse de l’affinage d’or. Une analyse sous l’angle de l’initiative pour des multinationales responsables" in Penser la Suisse. Link here

  • October 2020: Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão published an article entitled "Seeing inside the stone. Visual refractions and the apprenticeship of evaluation in the global diamond industry" in Revue d'Anthropologie des Connaissances. Link here

  • October 2020: Matthieu Bolay held a talk on "Gold: circulation of people, material and regulations" at the Radboud University, Nijmegen.

  • September 2020: Filipe Calvão, along with Erik Post, published an article entitled "Mythical Islands of Value: Free Ports, Offshore Capitalism, and Art Capital" in the Arts journal. Link here

  • July 2020: Filipe Calvão, Matthieu Bolay and Brian Brazeal hosted the pannel of the Anthropology of Mining Network at the EASA biannual conference in Lisbon on "Futures of mining: Technological frontiers and new extractive and institutional geographies." Link here

  • July 2020: Matthieu Bolay was interviewed at RTS on the issues related to traceability in the gold trade. Link here

  • November 2019: Brian Brazeal and Filipe Calvão hosted a panel on "Gradients of the Illicit: Labor, Mobility, and Futures of Mining and Trading Minerals and Metals" at the 2019 AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting. Matthieu Bolay presented a paper in the panel. Link here

  • September 2019: Matthieu Bolay held a talk on "The Construction of Transparency on Gold Provenance: "Responsible Initiatives" and the Redrawing of a Public Secret's Boundaries" at the University of Luzern. Link here

  • June 2019: Together with Matthew Archer (Copenhagen Business School), Filipe Calvão and Matthieu Bolay hosted a panel on "Ethical certification between traceability and transparency: the future of digital technologies in Africa" at the 8th European Conference on African Studies in Edinburgh. Link here

  • May 2019: Filipe Calvão held a talk on "Digital Work in the Global South: Challenges and Opportunities" at the Graduate Institute, including on digital traceability systems in the artisanal mining sector. Link here

  • January 2019: Matthieu Bolay held a talk on "L’évolution de l’orpaillage en Afrique : de nouvelles dynamiques à l’œuvre" at the workshop "L’évolution de l’orpaillage en Afrique : de nouvelles dynamiques à l’œuvre" organized by GEMDEV at University of Paris 8. Link here

  • December 2018: Filipe Calvão and Matthieu Bolay talked about "African Futures: Digital labor and Blockchain Technology" at the EPFL Digital Futures Network day. Link here

  • November 2018: Brian Brazeal organized a pannel on "Ethical Extraction in Discourse and Practice" at the 117th AAA Annual Meeting.

  • October 2018: Matthieu Bolay participated to the AEGIS CRG Workshop on 'Resource Extraction in Africa'. He talked about "Labour, ownership and transparency from the end-side perspective of the gold supply chain." Link here

  • August 2018: Brian Brazeal presented a paper on "Coercive Expertise and the Paradox of Responsible Extraction in the Global Ruby Trade" at the 15th EASA Biennial Conference. Link here