Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category
In this article, I document my second visit to the gemstone mines of Sri Lanka and some cutting factories. In a recent article, which you can read here, I wrote about my first visit to Rapnapura, home of the gemstone mining industry in Sri Lanka.
Invited for the second time by Stuart Pool from Nineteen48, I was doubly keen to see these mines and their associated cutting factories and learn more about what it takes to make gemstones ‘ethical’. It was fascinating to be shown around some typical mines by Stuart and quiz him on the technicalities of artisanal mining. What struck me immediately, was how surprisingly minimal the environmental impact of the mines is by nature.
Shaft mines as they are known in the industry, are essentially 20 foot by 10 foot holes in the ground.
The gemstones really do sit this close to the surface. When the gemstones are extracted, the land is filled back in and after a short amount of time; the land grows back to how it was before.
The gems are taken from the ground by men using simple hand tools; shovels, pick axes and baskets.The only chemical used in the process is diesel for a machine that pumps water from the mines.
At the time of this particular visit, unfortunately, the Nineteen48 mines were waterlogged. Despite this, Stuart and his Sri Lankan business partner Janaka very kindly took the time to show me some neighbouring mines. Stuart explained that all of the mines in the area are fundamentally very similar, but the important difference between the Nineteen48 mines and the neighbouring mines is that the mine workers are paid a base wage of the equivalent of around fifty pounds a month. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but compared to neighbouring mines, where workers are paid solely in commission from the gemstones they find, it is something towards living expenses. Stuart explained that further complications arise when a mine gets waterlogged, as it is very expensive to irrigate and if there is a lot of rainfall, it can be pointless, as it may rain again the next day.
From my understanding, Stuart also buys and sells gemstones from partner mines. I understand that when there is not enough supply from the Nineteen48 mines to meet the demand from customers, they will call upon a small, trusted network of other mine owners. to meet demand.
The cutting factories
How gemstones are cut is not something I have ever given much thought to until visiting the gemstone cutting factories of Sri Lanka. I imagined they were cut with a high tech laser device, but here I learned that workers sit and grind each facet (each flat twinkling surface) of a gemstone on a grindstone.
Stuart and Janaka very kindly took me to visit a typical Sri Lankan cutting factory.
What immediately struck me was how female dominated the cutting is in comparison to the mining. It also looked like hard work. It didn’t look particularly comfortable and the cutting is very intricate, fast paced and repetitive. Despite this, the workers seemed happy, perhaps the work is meditative; it has inspired me to learn more about cutting and even try some myself.
It was interesting to be shown around by Stuart and to hear his concerns about their health and safety. This concern highlighted Stuart’s ongoing concerns for the welfare of the workers. When I visited, Stuart and Janaka were in the process of setting up a small cutting factory on the roof of Janaka’s home. They very kindly took us to see the factory equipment and to tell us about their plans.
Having a cutting factory that they can oversee will be a crucial component to complete their fully traceable supply chain.
When the factory is up and running, they will be able to take their gemstones from their mines straight to be cut. This process is about as close as it is possible to get to a completely transparent gemstone supply chain.
Since my visit, Stuart tells me that the rooftop cutting factory is now up and running. Here are some pics…
I was impressed with the working environment up on the roof, with breezy views of terracotta rooftops and palm trees. I feel confident that workers will be comfortable and looked after here.
Arguably, gemstones will never be able to be labeled as fully traceable, as even if the latest technology is used; branding gemstones using laser etching technology, it could be argued that a worker or a mine owner could simply take gemstones from one mine and brand them as being from another mine.
Gemstone mining in general is notoriously an exploitative industry. As jewelers, however small an independent we are, we have an opportunity when sourcing the materials that we use in our jewellery, to chose where to spend our money.
By simply enquiring about where materials come from and asking a few questions about social and environmental standards we can start to find suppliers we trust and prompt others to consider changes that could be made to create new standards.
I believe it is important to support suppliers like Nineteen48 who are willing to have conversations, rather then being closed off to the subject. Buying from such suppliers helps them to invest in their vision of what an ethical gemstone supply chain could look like.Some pics of some rough cut sapphire and some unique hexaganol cuts from the Nineteen48 mines:
For years I avoided using gemstones in my work because I have been suspicious of the exploitative nature of the industry, but recently I have discovered companies such as RubyFair, Fairtrade Gemstones and Nineteen48 and I am keen to learn more.
Last year I met with Stuart Pool. Stuart co – owns Nineteen48 and RubyFair; two mining companies in Sri Lanka and Tanzania respectively. Alongside trading gemstones, Stuart is working to set a new working standard for miners.
I met with Stuart to talk more about his work and his mines. The first thing that sets Nineteen48 apart is that they pay their workers the living wage plus commission, unlike mines across the world that solely pay commission.
They also contribute a percentage of their profits to community projects surrounding the mine.
Stuart is also very active in co organising annual Flux (Fair Luxury) conferences. The conferences are a coming together of jewellery industry professionals interested in ‘Fair Luxury’.
After chatting for a while Stuart invited me to visit the mine in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the dates that I could travel didn’t match with Stuarts, so I liaised with his Sri Lankan business partner Janaka and arranged a time. I set out to visit the Nineteen48 mine with my tour guide Amara. I had gotten to know Amara over the course of a 10 day tour with Toucan Travel prior to the mine visit. Amara was coincidentally from Rapnapura, the same mining town.
Amara offered to accompany me, which was ideal, as I could ask him lots of questions and I felt extra safe.
It is important to mention that mines can be very dangerous places and nobody should ever visit a mine on their own unless they are an expert.
Unfortunately due to a completely understandable miscommunication with Janaka, he thought I wanted to visit the HQ in the capital city rather than the mine site.
All was not lost, and in actual fact what happened instead was equally valuable…
Amara called a family friend who also owned a mine in Rapnapura. Within five minutes, the mine owner appeared on his motorbike and we followed him to his mine.
As we were approaching the site, before the men were aware of our presence, there was something quite magical about the scene. It was a riverbed mine. The men were working peacefully at a distance and I could hear them laughing and chatting as they worked.
I was told that our timing could not have been better, as they were washing the gemstones they had found in the riverbed. I got to see them picking out rough gems fresh from amongst the riverbed pebbles.
Sorting out rough gemstones from riverbed pebbles
Right to left: A rough garnet, a rough yellow sapphire and a handful of rough sapphires
One thing that became apparent was that there was no use of chemicals in this mining process. I found this surprising, as in gold mining they use a lot of mercury and cyanide to extract the raw material and children are often the ones using these chemicals with their bare hands.
As I peered into the pit I could see two men at the bottom completely covered in mud. They were collecting gemstones from the pit and sending them up in a basket on a pulley.
Unlike the Nineteen48 mine, these miners are not paid a living wage. My understanding is that they are not even paid a base wage, which is reflective of the wider mining industry. They are just paid commission, which can vary from the equivalent of as little as £2.50 a week for them and their family, up to thousands of pounds.
The justification for this is that if the miners were paid a base wage, there would be no incentive not to pocket and smuggle their findings and sell them on the black market.
After visiting the mine I was invited back to the mine owner’s house and offered tea with his wife. She didn’t speak a word of English, but I showed her photos of my day.
I enquired about buying gem or two as a thank you, but this mine owner sells his rough gems in job lots to Thai dealers for a minimum of £5000. The fact that they never had any intention of selling anything to me was testament to their unwavering hospitality and readiness to show me around. I will always remember that.
Visiting this mine was such an incredible experience. I got to see a world that tourists never see, completely off the cuff.
Since returning I have been speaking to Stuart and he revealed that riverbed mining is usually illegal in Sri Lanka because it destroys natural habitats on the surface of the riverbed that are essential for the food chain.
The Gem Authority does issue liscences for riverbed mining, so I assume that this one must be legal, otherwise I’m sure they would have discouraged me taking photos.
It has inspired me to organize more visits so that I can keep learning about the mining industry and report back to my customers. I would love to try again to visit the Nineteen48 mine. Next year maybe!