Gold has helped to fund wars and treat miners inhumanely. Barley clothed workers dig into the mud panning for gold, sometimes the workers can be children as young as five years old. Extraction of the gold often uses chemicals that can be dangerous for the workers and the environment.
The problem for the industry is that it is very difficult to track if the gold was brought in from a humane mine or one not-so humane. With Fair-trade gold, the company selling it will know exactly who mined the metal and how those workers were treated.
From the Guardian, writer Kate Carter takes a look at the new product.
"You are selling a high-value, aesthetic, aspirational, emotional product, which is pitched as the epitome of luxury, but the source is butt-ugly," says Greg Valerio, a jeweller who has spent more than a decade energetically haranguing his industry to focus more on human rights. "It's brutish, it's horrible. The gold you are buying could be from a completely reputable mine - or it could be from one whose security guards are institutionally raping local people. You just don't know."
Gold is one of the most potent symbols of wealth, power, glamour and - today of all days - of romance. But the industry is often secretive, exploitative and highly unregulated. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gold and other minerals are funding a war where five million people have died since 1996, yet there is no global campaign to ban trafficking of blood gold. It is often extracted by the most vulnerable and disenfranchised - in Ivory Coast, for instance, the UN has reported how five-year-old girls are sent down pits - yet few seem to realise. It causes enormous environmental damage, with mercury and cyanide often used in the extraction process, but these issues are rarely thrust into the spotlight.
And then there's the issue of traceability. Talk to anyone about ethical gold, and the first thing that will be mentioned is traceability. Gold comes out of mines, goes through the hands of middle men and melts magically away into a refinery. Try and trace this back, and a stumbling block immediately appears.
"There's no international legislation which compels mining companies to disclose their source," says Valerio. "That's how it works. The jeweller is put into an untenable position. They just don't know. I think that is morally unacceptable. There is legislation coming into place in America, in particular, looking at minerals from eastern Congo and eastern Africa. But lots of mining companies are resisting - they don't want traceability. They don't want people knowing what they are doing."
Today something will change, as the world's first Fairtrade and Fairmined hallmark for gold is launched in the UK. This will ensure customers buying jewellery can, for the first time, know exactly where it came from. Like other hallmarks, this mark will be a physical stamp, and each piece will be fully traceable and come with its own certification.
It's only a start, but it already has the support of some influential players in the industry, including Stephen Webster, who has created one-off pieces for the likes of Madonna, Kate Moss and Jennifer Lopez, and is now the creative director at the world's oldest jewellery firm, Garrard. "We intend to quickly grow the volume of business we conduct using Fairtrade gold," he says. "One day I want it to be 100% of the gold we sell. Even though the cost to us for such gold is over 10% higher we will be absorbing this premium. We don't want price to be the reason not to choose a more responsible product."
The response from Signet, the company behind H Samuel and Ernest Jones, has been more cautious. "Signet takes great interest in opportunities to improve our operational business, product offering and customer-facing reputation," it told the Guardian. "We are fully aware of Fairtrade gold and our membership of the Responsible Jewellery Council means that we subscribe to making all parts of our business and supply chain conform to and develop ethical standards.
"As a major retailer who does not manufacture our own jewellery products, we are several stages removed from stocking bullion which is one of the initial basic stages of the supply chain. However, when the supply of Fairtrade gold can meet the demands required by our business and we are presented with appropriate products at prices suitable for our customers, we may consider selling a range."
Signet's approach is not untypical. Most jewellers make a nod to the social and environmental issues around gold - Cartier and Tiffany, for instance, are supporting members of the No Dirty Gold campaign - but without traceability in the supply chain, all sorts of nefarious practices continue despite the industry's best intentions.