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.
Janaka and my friend on the soon-to-be roof top cutting factory.
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: