When travelling around South America a couple of years ago I, like most backpackers, loved collecting gorgeous and unusual trinkets along the way – even better if they were gorgeous and dirt cheap. Before I reached Bolivia I’d heard stories about how cheap the silver was and how beautiful jewellery could be picked up for less than a cup of coffee, and when I reached La Paz I wondered through the markets and shops in awe, picking up ornate earrings and huge statement necklaces with change left over from a tenner.
But, whether it’s the cocaine you shove up your nose in Peru or the shells you buy from a child in Thailand, it’s all too easy as a tourist to just see the smiling local’s face as you hand them the money and not think about where your purchases have come from. And when I reached the mineral mines in the town of Potosi I witnessed what my jewellerey was really made of. Children as young as eight work for up to 14 hours with little or no health and safety systems, equipment form the dark ages and no breathing aparatus – meaning many workers die from lung cancer in their 20s after years of breathing in the toxic fumes. As our guide took us through the honeycomb structure, my breathing tight and my eyes prickling at the fumes and dynamite smoke, he showed us a mural to the thousands who had perished in the mines over the years. Later that evening I tried one of my necklaces on with a new dress and it fell against my chest heavy like lead, it’s cold touch making me feel sick. I put it back in my rucksack pocket and didn’t take it out.
Around the globe it gets worse. As well as the staggering numbers of mining deaths, diamonds and other precious minerals have funded wars and genocide in Africa, as shown in popular culture by the film ‘Blood Diamond’ and Kanye West’s ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’.
So how can you be sure that the jewels you want to treat yourself to are not tainted with blood? Well, there has been a huge surge in the number of fair trade and ethical jewellery companies in the past few years, many selling funky and unusual pieces – I particularly like MADE boutique’s collection, which includes a range by Alexa Chung. And Fifi Bijoux has some super-cute pieces adorned with kitsch bird and acorn figurines.
Even though they may be out of my student budget at the moment, it’s good to know there are guilt-free trinkets out there!