First it was organic fruits and vegetables. Then it was clothing manufactured outside of sweatshop conditions. Now, this Valentine's Day, the hottest item for the caring consumer is ethical jewelry -- diamonds, gold and silver that have been mined free of conflict and pollution.
On the heels of the movie "Blood Diamond," several top jewelry retailers have pledged to support more socially responsible mining. A few companies have gone even further, selling recycled stones or diamonds from Canada.
The interest in ethical jewelry has been spurred by people like Elisa Camahort, a San Jose vegan who shops organic in food, clothing and other essentials, and writes a blog about how to be more eco-conscious. She said she was very aware of how she spent her money and didn't want to support "monopolistic" mining practices. She still wanted a diamond though.
"I'm trying to send a message to the market, rather than boycotting it overall," she said. "I want to find the ethical version."
Companies making and selling ethical jewelry have been helped by an increasing number of people who share Camahort's world view.
"There's definitely a trend towards ethical consumerism," said Beth Gerstein, co-founder of San Francisco-based Brilliant Earth, which sells conflict-free jewelry. "People have a greater awareness of where the products they buy originate from."
Gerstein, 31, was shopping for an engagement ring in 2001 when she saw a "Frontline" episode about the diamond industry and was "shocked" by the PBS series' look at the social injustices mining perpetuated. She and her fiance had a difficult time finding a diamond that they could be sure was ethically mined, she said. So she and business partner Eric Grossberg founded Brilliant Earth in 2005, and say that business has tripled since then.
Although many of their customers are environmentally conscious coast-dwellers, Grossberg said their clientele was diverse. They've had older clients and sold to people in Kansas, Arkansas and Alaska.
"People who are getting married or engaged want to make sure that the symbol of their love is not tarnished by dirty gold," said Payal Sampat, director of the No Dirty Gold campaign.
The movement has garnered support from 19 retailers, including Zale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and QVC Inc., making up 22% of the $55-billion U.S. retail jewelry market. The retailers pledge to buy gold produced in a way that meets a set of human rights and environmental criteria called the Golden Rules, although no formal certification process exists for gold or silver. The Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, established in 2002, certifies diamonds that haven't been used to finance wars.
So-called conflict diamonds play a key role in "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which raised questions about how diamonds were used to fund African civil wars in the late 1990s.
The December release caused the $60-billion worldwide diamond industry to redouble its public relations efforts. The World Diamond Council launched a website (Diamond Facts.org) emphasizing that 99% of the world's diamonds come from conflict-free zones, and that diamonds improve the lives of people in the local economies where they are mined.
There is some controversy in policy circles about whether such standards are good for the local communities they are trying to help.
It's difficult to be sure that companies comply with standards once the watchdog group has gone home, said Joost Pauwelyn, a professor of law at Duke University who studies international norms. It's also often cumbersome for developing countries to comply with standards imposed from wealthier nations.
"Many developing countries are very skeptical of all of these good intentions by rich country NGOs," he said, referring to non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, one of the groups behind No Dirty Gold.
Even if they can't be sure the stones they produce are ethically mined, most companies realize that pledging to try is good business.
The diamond and jewelry industries are built on an image of ethics and purity, said Barak Richman, a Duke law professor who has written extensively about the diamond industry. And because image is everything, he said, business could be hurt if that image is tarnished.
The decision to join the No Dirty Gold campaign was "part of the implicit brand contract that we enjoy with customers," said Tiffany & Co. spokeswoman Linda Buckley. Tiffany buys gold from a mine in Utah and diamonds that have been certified by the Kimberly process.
But skepticism remains about the verification process and the motivations behind some big companies' support of the ethical-jewelry movement.
That has pushed some shoppers to recycled jewels. Sites such as GreenKarat.com rework recycled diamonds and gold, and also allow customers to pool unused jewelry from family and friends to make new rings.
For a generation that grew up recycling, reused items aren't necessarily uncool, said Elwin Ong, 27, a Los Angeles resident buying a $9,000 diamond engagement ring from GreenKarat .com. Although his girlfriend was at first lukewarm about the thought of a used diamond, she warmed to the idea, he said.
"I think she gets positive feedback from her friends," he said. "She seems to be happy telling people she's getting a recycled engagement ring."