What happens when you take a self-proclaimed, high-maintenance nightmare out of Dubai and put her down an emerald mine in Africa? Fashion Features Editor Olivia Phillips went with Gemfields to find out…
Finding myself down a mine in central Africa, digging stones out of the earth with my bare hands is not something I ever anticipated would happen to me. And if you’d told me I’d be donning a hard hat and yellow hi-vis vest to do it, I would have assumed it was something to do with Moschino’s S/S16 roadworks collection, not to protect my head from flying bits of debris as I scramble 900 metres underground, at the bottom of the world’s largest emerald mine.
Let me paint a back story for you. Among friends (and the barista I get my latte from every morning) I am known simply as ‘Barbie’; a nod probably not only to my impractically long blonde hair, but also my diva-ish tendencies and shameless love of pink. So when Gemfields, the world’s leading supplier of ethically sourced coloured gemstones, asked me to visit their mine in northern Zambia, I was every bit as concerned as I was excited. Luckily, I like an adventure as much as a manicure Ii’m complex like that), so off i popped, safari-chic outfits neatly packed, ready to face whatever Africa had in store for me. Little did I know that falling head over heels for Zambia – and for the Gemfields family – would be quite so effortless.
Founded in 2005, its main philosophy is to be much more than just a mining company; pioneering a new kind of business model where mining, marketing, exploration and ethics meet. It’s not just about the stones (although they are pretty shiny. I finally understand what Danny DeVito and Michael Douglas were fighting over), they really do seem to care. And in one of the most contentious industries in the world, that’s crucial. For a start, their dedication to a completely transparent route is admirable. From the mine itself to the wash plant, and then the sorting house where the stones are measured, weighed and graded, every step is audited by an independent source, meaning that only after they pass do people begin buying gems from them. Not just any people. Gemfields stones are used by everyone from Cartier to Solange Azagury-Partridge, and from Theo fennell to Fabergé, which Gemfields actually bought in 2013. I’m told that they aim to become the Intel Inside of gemstones – an internal element you trust, and the computer being the piece of jewellery.
The mine, named Kagem after the river Kafubu which runs through the south of the 43 square kilometre license, employs a total of 750 people – 70 expats and the rest Zambians. Despite initial local reticence when Gemfields acquired it in 2007, they’ve done great things for employment, offering fair wages as well as worker benefits like accommodation and healthcare. Driving up to the dump at sunset one evening we saw scores of young locals scatter, running down the steep piles of surplus rock that had been excavated. “We’ve got a problem with people breaking in and looking for gems we might have missed,” the mine’s GM told me. Later at dinner, one of our party said he’d seen two men get caught after climbing over the electric fence. “They just gave them some food and sent them on their way,” he said. “Didn’t even tell them off.”
With a head office in London, it’s easy to wonder about the fairness of a British company mining another country’s resources. But Gemfields only owns 75 per cent, the rest belongs to the Zambian government. On the walls of one of their meeting rooms, they proudly display a picture of the CEO handing over a cheque to the Prime Minister. A rare sight in the African mining world. Add this to the major Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives they operate in the area – sponsoring schools, building clinics and encouraging farming – and it’s hard to not develop a bit of a crush on the brand. “We try to fill our open-pit mines with water once they’re done so that people can fish. And we cover the dumps with soil and plant trees,” Rupak, the cheeky marketing manager tells me. But to be honest, he had me at ‘metasomatic reaction zones’.
Let’s talk about the reason I’m there, though. The emeralds. Before i visited, I could safely say I was a diamond girl. Or at least I had ambitions to be. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down now, but it did pique my interest to know that an emerald is 20 times harder to find. Which, in turn, makes it 20 times rarer. Put it this way, they need to move five million grams of rock to find one gram of emerald. And, as much as my manicure was ruined digging around in the pit, there was something undeniably thrilling about finding a sparkly, 500 million year old rock and pulling it out of the ground. Especially since, one day, no one will be able to anymore. Gems, like so many things, are a finite resource; once they’re mined, they’re mined. “Eventually you won’t be able to buy a first-generation emerald. Just one that’s been handed down,” Rupak says. When you think about it like that, it becomes all the more special. “You’re standing on a 1.8 billion year old rock,” he tells me with the kind of geeky glee that can only come from someone who is truly in awe of the wonder of nature. It’s infectious.
So why is it that we still think of diamonds as more premium? It’s a combination of the murky world of marketing, and the fact that no one ever thought to build an industry around coloured gemstones because of all the supply issues. Historically, coloured stones are connected to location; Columbia for emeralds, Burma for rubies and Kashmir for sapphires. But Columbian gems were linked heavily to drugs and Burma had a military rule – so diamonds had a vey clear advantage. Things could all change now, though, especially since the lack of one clear leader in the diamond industry has meant it has been shaken.
For me, there’s now something a bit more romantic about a coloured gem. More swashbuckling, more exotic, more… Indiana Jones. And if i was a diva before, Gemfields have really only made it worse. If i’m ever bought an emerald, I will insist on knowing it’s from Kagem.