IBM blockchain alliance tracks jewelry from the mine to the mall
TrustChain links suppliers with manufacturing and retail so you can be sure that engagement ring came from where the store says it did.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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If you're checking out engagement rings or earrings in one of Helzberg Diamonds' 200 stores later this year, your phone should be able to tell you exactly where that jewelry came from.
Through an alliance called TrustChain, IBM, Helzberg and companies involved with mining and refining will be able to track gems and precious metals from their origins all the way to the mall. It's based on a technology called blockchain that's outgrown its origin -- the way to record transactions with the bitcoin cryptocurrency -- into a tool to cement all kinds of transactions and digital data into a shared, tamperproof, permanent record.
The result in the case is a way that a host of companies can track finished jewelry in a store back through its entire history, said Jason Kelley, IBM's general manager of blockchain services. That'll let you be sure an item has the history and value you think it has -- particularly important if you want to sell it yourself. You and law enforcement also can have some faith that your necklace isn't tied to sordid aspects of the trade such as corruption, terrorist financing, slavery and other human rights abuses.
"We have a need in our industry for truth and greater trust," Kelley tells me.
Blockchain, designed to hard-wire that trust into digital records of what's going on, has the potential to revolutionize not just commerce but also voting, home buying, hiring, online advertising and other fields. But there's a long way between today's reality and that promise. Blockchain is more likely to be seen in pilot projects than the actual systems that govern our lives, and integrating it isn't simple.
Watch this: What the heck is blockchain?
The TrustChain alliance includes Asahi Refining and LeachGarner, which refine and supply precious metals; Richline Group, which makes jewelry; and Helzberg Diamonds, which sells the products. Blockchain networks offer more utility with more members in an alliance, though, so Kelley says alliance members plan to expand.
TrustChain has graduated from its pilot stage, but getting it to work isn't simple. At Richline, more than 100 people from accounting, information technology and business operations were involved, according to Kelley.
The hard part of blockchain
"The technology is pretty easy," Kelley says. "What's tough is getting the businesses and the business processes, the different players and personalities, together to execute in a single consortium."
A lot of blockchain work involves digital assets -- data that can be recorded directly on a blockchain. It's trickier with physical assets like diamonds, pharmaceuticals, high-end fashion products and jewelry, though. There have to be procedures to ensure nobody switches out genuine article and switches in a fake that assumes its identity on the blockchain.
Molecular verification for blockchain
Authentication options are an active area of improvement, though, for example with a "molecular watermark in a certain place" in a product, Kelley says. Naturally, IBM is working on this verification technology.
"Blockchain doesn't solve that -- the original recording of the physical asset," Kelley says. "We can take a picture at molecular level to verify an object is what we think it is. That is then put into the blockchain."
So the trust isn't perfect. But to be useful, blockchain doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be better.
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