Gemstones are a unique commodity because they never run out. An apt example is diamonds which, as the advertising slogan says, are ‘forever’. Famous gems live on in museums and famous pieces of jewellery change hands at ever-increasing prices. And even though they inspire legends, their origins are often less romantic.
East Africa accounts for half the world’s production of gemstones. However, much of its mining is unregulated, informal, exploitative and even violent. While producing some of the most beautiful gemstones ever found, the industry has more than its fair share of ugly facets.
Many issues are typical of poor countries with relatively weak governments. In Taita-Taveta, a county in Kenya surrounded by some of the most famous game reserves on the continent, artisanal miners work in hot, stuffy and precarious shafts, sometimes hunting for years for the big find that will make it all worthwhile.
The area is known for its rubies, sapphires, tourmaline, red garnet and tsavorite. Formal mines in the area are regulated and pay tax and the Rockland mine produces most of Kenya’s gem quality rubies. However, small-scale miners who operate legally dominate the industry and account for some 60% of official exports. But problems arise in informal or illegal operations.
According to Kenya’s TV network, KTN, the land is owned by ‘foreigners and politicians’. In one case filmed by a KTN documentary maker, artisanal miners said they were only paid commission and received water and ‘one meal a day’.
There are stories of people being driven off their land once a big discovery is made. No security of tenure exists and mining permission from local traditional leaders offers no protection once a stone of real value has been discovered. The gem is usually stolen or confiscated by the local police or, if the miner is very lucky, purchased by a middleman for a small fraction of its real value. The KTN documentary included allegations of murder and noted that ‘few will speak openly’.
One murder did make international news. Campbell Bridges was a Scottish gemologist who was among the first to discover tsavorite in the late 1960s. The grass-green gem is essentially a rare variety of garnet, coloured by the mineral vanadium. In 2013, a one carat tsavorite gem sold from about US$500.
Artisanal miners work in hot, stuffy and precarious shafts, sometimes hunting for years for the big find
Bridges’ Scorpion mine was the only source of these stones. However, the concession was bedevilled by illegal artisanal operations whose operators had heavyweight political protection. Death threats and the abduction of security guards escalated. In 2009, Kenyan politician Naomi Shaban threatened to arrest Bridges for allegedly harassing local miners. ‘I have the right to protect my constituents,’ she said.
On 11 August 2009 Bridges was ambushed and beaten to death by a group of over 20 people. The subsequent trial named senior politicians, but the case proved inconclusive. Bridges had another claim to fame. He was the consultant to Tiffany & Co, the famous jewellers, during their successful campaign to market tanzanite.
Tanzanite is a rare, though not exceptional, gemstone first discovered in the late 1960s and produced mainly at the Merelani mine in Tanzania. The problem with gemstones is getting the market to recognise value – demonstrated by De Beers’ long and successful ‘Diamonds are Forever’ campaign. Tanzanite has been the beneficiary of a similar campaign, facilitated by Tiffany & Co’s long monopoly on its sale.
According to Johannesburg jeweller Kevin Schnetler, tanzanite has now joined the category below diamonds as a gemstone of demand, alongside emeralds, sapphires and rubies.
In 2013, tanzanite sold to the public at about US$400 for one carat. Tanzania exported US$100 million worth in 2011. According to Schnetler, the term ‘semi-precious’ is a misnomer. Traditionally there were four precious gems – rubies, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But this categorisation was based on scarcity in the ancient world and has only a loose relationship with value or rarity today.
He says in the modern jeweller market, ‘there is only one precious stone – the diamond. Diamonds are different’. Trade is heavily regulated, standards are set and efforts to eliminate criminally exploitative mining or ‘blood diamonds’ is extensive.
The Kimberley Process lays down protocols and regulations for the international diamond industry and has the buy-in of all major players from governments and miners to jewellers and consumers. However, the process for ordinary gemstones is completely different.
‘Basically, the tradition is if you pick up a gemstone it’s yours,’ says Schnetler. With diamonds you need all sorts of qualifications and certification.
There are attempts to change this. The Tanzanian government is trying to regularise and control trade in tanzanite. In 2012, it banned all exports without a certificate of origin to try and curb rampant illicit trade that may, in value terms, account for more than half the value of the country’s production.
No security of tenure exists and mining permission from local traditional leaders offers no protection
Trade in the gemstones is now restricted to licenced and registered companies who must export through official channels and have to obtain ‘proper documentation’. These include a permit and receipt for export, company invoice as well as customs clearance and freight forwarding certificates.
The Mozambique metamorphic belt is one of the largest gemstone-yielding geological formations in the world. Spanning 5 000 km from Mozambique’s Zambezia province in the south to Sudan in the north, it also includes Madagascar, which has emerged as a premier source of gemstones. Rubies, garnets, opals, sapphires, tourmaline and emeralds are among the gemstones scattered throughout the belt. In Tanzania (the most important jurisdiction within the belt) an estimated 500 000 artisanal miners are active throughout the country.
All countries in the belt mine gemstones. In Zambia, the Kafubu river’s area deposits are responsible for 20% of the world’s production of gem quality emeralds. In the first half of 2011, the Kagem mine produced 3.74 tons of emeralds. Kenya is known for its rubies and Madagascar for its sapphires. However, all countries in the belt produce most types of gemstones.
The only other substantial producers in Africa outside the Mozambique belt are South Africa (tiger’s eye and garnet), Namibia and Nigeria (both primarily tourmaline). Other African countries are also trying to regulate gemstone production with varying degrees of success. Ethiopia banned the export of unprocessed opals in 2013.
And the Ethiopian government’s concern is shared by its peers. Little value is added to the stones within its jurisdiction. In 2013, Tanzania banned the export of all tanzanite gems valued at more than one carat to boost the local stone-cutting industry. Some estimates state that 98% of African gems are exported in raw form, mostly to India.
However, the real value-addition happens in the cutting, polishing and jewellery setting stages. Add to this the problem that a very large portion of trading is informal, and it becomes clear that African governments are, quite literally, being short-changed.
But gemstone mining seems inherently resistant to regulation. Alluvial deposits in particular are attractive to subsistence artisanal miners, but rarely viable for large-scale companies. With many deposits being small, the market is often ahead of the regulators.
Trade in the gemstones is now restricted to licenced and registered companies who must export through official channels
In 2008, an entirely new variety of ruby was found at Winza, near Dodoma in Tanzania. The entire deposit was mined out within two years by a rush of artisanal miners from across East Africa. Almost none were regulated, no official revenue accrued to the Tanzanian government and almost all the product left the country via illicit means.
Underlying it all is the problem that serious gemstones, those that create legends and exchange hands for millions of dollars, are what dreams are made of. A famous sapphire, the Rockefeller, was sold in 2001 for US$3 million.
Schnetler says gemstone values, even where maintained by artificially restricted supply and mass marketing, is determined by the same four traditional criteria – cut, clarity, colour and carat, known in the industry as the ‘four Cs’. Most stones, especially rubies and emeralds, are flawed.
But to a poor artisanal miner, otherwise doomed to a life of subsistence, the possibility of a once-off find that meets all four Cs provides an irresistible temptation. So long as men dream of easy riches, gemstone mining will occur – rough, informal and resistant to regulation.
A small number of miners will make the find of a lifetime. However, only a minute percentage will successfully negotiate the informality, criminal gangs, corrupt officials, ruthless middlemen and other predators to become wealthy.