As responsible sourcing becomes a hot topic with global industries, Gemfields makes strides with safety and quality issues and community building at its Kagem emerald mine.
A worker at the Kagem mine in Zambia.
When I step off the plane in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, I’m struck by the stunning terrain of this landlocked country, which includes plateaus, grassy hills, and green valleys studded with waterfalls and tributaries of the Zambezi River, all of it home to an incredible range of wildlife. The area is also rich with copper, the country’s major export. But since the London-based company Gemfields—which supplies some of the most recognizable and respected names in fine jewelry, such as Tiffany & Co. and Fabergé—began operating Zambia’s Kagem emerald mine in 2008, emeralds have become an increasingly important feature of the country’s landscape and economy.
The Kagem mine compound has the buzz of a small city, with quarters for workers and supervisors, dining facilities, gemstone washing and sorting stations, and the formidable security gates leading to the mine itself. As I peer into the pit mine from high above, the sprawling work area looks like a movie set, with trucks hauling tons of earth and rock to the pit’s edges until the stratum where the emeralds formed half a billion years ago is uncovered and handwork takes over. Emeralds are surprisingly brittle, so once the mine workers reach the layer of earth that cradles them, they use pickaxes, hand tools, and their bare hands to carefully break away the black rock until a shimmer of green appears. While I watch, a miner removes a piece of shale, and inside is the most stunning raw emerald I have ever seen. Being one of the first people to touch something 500 million years old, to have the rock crumble away in your hands as you get a closer look at the green it protects, takes your breath away.
The Kagem mine produces roughly 25 percent of the world’s supply of emeralds. That’s approximately 30 million carats of emerald and beryl (the mineral of which emerald is a variety) each year. Just a fraction of that yield—about 5 percent—becomes top-quality finished emeralds.
Because emeralds are so brittle, hand tools are used to remove them from the surrounding rock.
When Gemfields took over operation of the 35-year-old Kagem mine (it owns 75 percent, with the Zambian government owning the rest), the company invested some $60 million in cleanup and safety efforts. According to CEO Ian Harebottle, the goal from the start was to make Kagem a top emerald producer while also establishing a new benchmark for responsible mining practices. “We brought in geology specialists, mining specialists, and sustainability experts,” he says. “We cleaned up the area and proposed a plan to not only make the mine profitable, which is important to the government and the country, but also to set standards for emerald grading, for environmental replenishment, and for ethical, transparent mining.” (It’s a point of pride for Gemfields that no major reportable injury has occurred at the Kagem mine since the company took over.)
To achieve these goals, Gemfields had a three-prong strategy. First was to make a capital investment substantial enough to achieve its lofty ambitions. Second was to develop a grading system for rough stones, with the aim of total transparency about the quality of gems going to market. And third was to make a long-term commitment to ethical and sustainable mining practices.
The Gemfields grading system is the first of its kind in Zambia, where most emerald mining had previously been undertaken by a patchwork of small companies without uniform standards for quality. “By properly sorting and grading rough stones before they’re cut, we help the cutters and polishers in their buying process,” says Harebottle, whose goal is to increase consumer confidence in ethically sourced emeralds. “They can be confident about what they’re getting when they buy their lots at auction.”
To follow through on its commitment to corporate responsibility, Gemfields is working with local organizations on a variety of initiatives. These include building the region’s first maternity hospital; constructing and supporting local elementary and secondary schools, including the area’s first high school; launching a sustainable-farming project to feed local families; and investing in reforestation.
In addition, Gemfields has developed an exit strategy for its mining operations that emphasizes environmental sustainability. In the future, when it closes the Kagem mine (after the supply of emeralds is exhausted), the company plans to convert the deep pits into lakes stocked with fish. “Biodiversity is just as important as social responsibility and transparency,” Harebottle says. “The key is to commit to doing more than you are required and to constantly reassess.” Gemfields’ initiatives come at a time when ethical sourcing and corporate responsibility are buzzwords in many global industries, from agriculture to fossil fuels. “When you’re a large company, you’re under the spotlight,” Harebottle says. “This means we have to do more.” In other words, Gemfields’ focus on ethical emeralds is right on trend.