I’m just back from my latest trip to Africa. I wish that I could post relatively live from Tanzania and Kenya, but it turns out that WIFI there is short for “Works In-Frequently and Intermittently”. I have some souvenirs: Maasai beadwork and some impressive bug bites. Despite rough roads, lukewarm trickles of “showers”, and no kale for 2 weeks, part of my heart is still in East Africa.
My first trip to Africa, with the jewelry documentary Sharing the Rough, felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the gem trade at the source in Tanzania and Kenya. It turned out to be life-changing. Maybe life-affirming? It opened my eyes–and heart–to a part of the jewelry business I didn’t know much about, despite over 20 years working in many facets of the industry. I’ve since made two more trips, meeting the people in the gem business: mine owners, gem dealers, and the miners themselves. With the help of experienced gem buyer and faceter Roger Dery, and Gichuchu Okeno, an excellent guide from Kenya, I literally crawl into mines, dig in the dirt, and shake the hands that find the gems.
This trip, my third trip to Africa in 16 months, I went almost directly from Las Vegas Jewelry Week to three degrees south of the Equator. The distance is more than the 9,000 miles each way suggests–it’s a big leap going from the glitz of Vegas to nascent East Africa. So what makes me trade cocktail dresses for cargo pants (stuffed with toilet paper)?
This world in East Africa connects me to meaning in jewelry. It’s easy to take beauty for granted, to get a little jaded. The realities of THIS world of jewelry–dirt, unyielding rock, rifts, hard stones that don’t reveal themselves easily, remote rawness, lack of comforts–all combine to make me realize that this is where jewelry begins. And that there are a million small ways to measure happiness, progress, success. It gets in your blood; this red, red dirt.
East Africa, and other source communities like it, is the very beginning of the journey a piece of jewelry makes to market. Making, buying, collecting jewelry is all about the story. Seeing the origin of jewelry like this means that I see the WHOLE story. I see the faces and souls involved. It is an essential anecdote, and one that the ultimate consumers of fine gemstone jewelry want to hear, particularly millennials.
Before my first trip, I was a little concerned about what I would find, to be brutally honest. The diamond trade, particularly artisanal mining by individuals, has been plagued by smuggling and major conflict over the past couple of decades. Countries like Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are still struggling and fragile, climbing out of the darkness of the recent past. Organizations like the Diamond Development Initiative are helping to register, educate, and generally help the people who mine alluvial (surface) diamonds, but there is a long way to go.
Would there be parallels in the artisanal gemstone trade in Kenya and Tanzania to the diamond miners elsewhere in Africa? What are the miner’s living and working conditions like? And the big, looming question: are Africans being left out of the value equation for gemstones found and mined in their own countries? Is everyone else who touches that stone making substantially more than the one who discovered it?
The answers I found are, as in a lot of thing in life, complicated. East Africans are still navigating the road to receiving more value from their indigenous treasures. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a vibrant ecosystem at work in Tanzania and Kenya where I visited. From the landowners that lease their dirt, to mine owners who prospect and take the risk, the mine managers who take care of the daily exigencies of the mine, the miners themselves, and the gem dealers who broker the deals, they all get some portion of the per gram price that international gem cutters and resellers lay down. This community of gem miners and dealers work together more symbiotically than you would think. Sure, there is healthy competition, but I also personally witnessed an example of one dealer helping another who was having a dry spell.
There is a huge need for more education in gemology and gem cutting that can take East Africa to the next level. If a Kenyan gem dealer knows what the market should bear in the US or Asian markets for their goods, he won’t sell for too little. If a skilled local lapidary can facet a Tanzanite gemstone with the same skill as a gem cutter in Thailand, Africans net more of the value from their own natural resource.
But the most compelling story comes from the miners—the ones with a flashlight and bare feet—who extract the gems from their rocky matrix. I was able to witness interviews that the Sharing the Rough movie conducted for the film. I was standing just outside the periphery of the camera and crew, and could literally look into their eyes as they shared their stories.
The miners in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya are determined, tough, and choose to live a life of promise and expectation. They are passionate and dogged in their pursuit of something precious. It’s funny: they should see those pretty rocks as dollar signs, a means to an end. But instead, they value the gems for their rarity and beauty, every bit as much as an American customer buying at a retail jeweler. They LOVE the gems they find. Tanzanian and Kenyan miners know the geology, the science behind the stones. It’s in their bones. Their anticipation, when they discover the indicator mineral that tells them they are on track to hit something good, is palpable. They are happy to be miners, and choose to do it over farming or other choices. They are proud–fiercely so–for being able to send their children to school.
In my journeys, I have seen progress in small ways. Safety vests and hard hats at the Tsavorite garnet mine owned by my friend, Okeno. Vegetables planted in the tailings piled around a Community Based Organization mine, providing slope stability and helping to feed the 1700 miners that make up the cooperative. A new library at the Maasai Kitarini primary school near a ruby mine. The beginnings of a jewelry trade school, the first of its kind in Kenya. Increases in the prices of certain gems–mainly tsavorite, spinel, zircon, and green grossular garnet–even since last November. Mostly I see generous, friendly, gentle people that just want a good life for their family. It’s an honor to meet and know them.
So yes, I love to travel to Africa for the wildlife, the wind in my hair as we pass the flash of red and blue of the Maasai in impossibly beautiful scenery. But ultimately, I travel to Africa to find not where these gemstones come from, but whom they come from. When I look at a gem now, instead of hue, tone and saturation, I see faces, and geologic wonder, and the herculean effort to get it into my waiting hands. It turns out that this is just the beginning of my journey. It has opened my eyes to the possibility of making a difference in these communities I am getting to know. There is much more to come.