As specialist jewellers working with fine gemstones it is important to us to know exactly where and how the gemstones we use come from.
Guy Clutterbuck, who was recently featured in the GIA Winter Loop Magazine, has been sourcing gemstones in Africa and around the world for decades. His relationships with small scale miners, based on trust, is highly unusual and stands in contrast to the generally toxic relationship between the small scale miners and their typical buyer.
I interviewed Guy after the Tucson Gem Show this past February. I have been purchasing gems from Guy for about fifteen years and generally treated him as a trade secret. But it is important for all of us attempting to develop an ethical sourcing platform to be open about information. We need to share our best suppliers in order to build a strong market based upon a vision of jewellery production from mine to market.
This is not going to come from large scale companies who are wedded to their toxic supply chains as a means of boosting their bottom line, but rather as a grass roots effort, a collaboration of small manufacturers and their suppliers based on “fair trade” economic relationships.
Marc Choyt, Publisher, Fairjewelry.org
Marc: How do you source your aquamarine?
Guy: I’ve built up a trust with two brothers who are from the same Tombuka tribe. Tribal lands stretch from Zambia into Mozambique and into Malawi. On their land is some of the finest spessartite, aquamarine, canary tourmaline and blue green tourmaline found in Africa. The two brothers mentioned have built up an excellent rapport with the chief in an aquamarine producing area. I simply buy the best material from them and the chief. The chief insures that the villages from the area also benefit.
Marc: How does the process work?
Guy: The method of sourcing aquamarine is two tier. I invest money in advance toward paying for the villagers in the Aquamarine area. Then I’ll return in six months. Then they keep all the best material for me. After they payback the advance, they make profit on the stones. I know I pay more than the competition because I see the best pieces. Any experienced buyer worth his salt will know if the cherries are missing from the lot. Good faith is reciprocated in numerous ways through the entire process. This sort of trust in Africa is unheard of.
Marc: Is it all done with hand dug mines?
Guy: Absolutely. The reason for maintaining a hand dug mine as opposed to mechanised is that it supports the local neighbourhood and additionally, maintains some secrecy to discourage outside buyers. Once you are mechanised, everyone and their aunt knows about it through the bush telegraph system. Also, hand digging discourages theft. If you are unwise enough to invest in a mine and then expect to see material without paying for it you will be sadly disappointed.
Marc: What effect does your business have on the local community?
Guy: Before I turned up, the local buyers were thoroughly unpopular because they would screw the miners straight into the ground. The miners were so despondent, because having broken their backs with hard work, they found they were not getting the money they had hoped for, and they just found it easier just to do farming. The local buyers would play games with foreign exchange rates, or sell them dud second hand vehicles, and generally jerk them around. Being totally straightforward opened up enormous possibilities. The two brothers work closely with the chief of the tribe. The tribal system works – the chief has a ‘noblesse oblige’ to take care of his tribes people who are essentially in his parish. So if a chief is dishonorable, he is pretty swiftly impeached and kicked out of office. Dealing with the two brothers, who function in part as the chief’s assistants, you can be sure that cases of hardship for the miners and families are addressed by the chief himself.
Marc: There is still integrity in the tribal system?
Guy: Massive integrity. If you want to look at ecology for example; as an individual you cannot just cut down a tree in the bush. You have to ask the chief and he checks with the locals. In Africa, the further you get away from the urban centres, the more the chiefs word is law.
Marc: You then end up with a bunch of mixed quality aquamarine rough?
Guy: I tend to buy the parcel and not be too picky because I know how much hard work has gone into the mining of it. So if they build a nice parcel with good cherries in the pie I will try to buy the whole lot, using the included material for cabs and carvings, keeping the finest pieces aside for rings, and custom designed pieces. The parcels are always good enough. We have built up an understanding over twenty years. Sometimes I will buy moderate material if they are desperate. Is it middle ground: you have to be compassionate without being a ‘soft touch’.
Marc: What about the cutting?
Guy: The cutting stage—the ones that are good colour and small size, I take to Sri Lanka because they are used to cutting calibrated stones. Special bigger pieces, I get cut in Thailand. In Thailand, my cutter employs his immediate family and good friends. The best cutters are kept employed and not laid off during lean periods. They are also well compensated for their work. If people are not happy they simply leave the factory.
Marc: How are your stones sourced in Sri Lanka?
Guy: I work with one supplier in Sri Lanka and he is a maestro when it comes to sapphires. We also jointly invested in a mine, and share the production evenly with the miners and the foremen when the stones are sold. We have eight miners, a foreman, and the two of us. Consequently, there are eleven shareholders. Working this way discourages theft because the miners get a share of the sale. We also source from other small scale mining operations. This assures that the local economy benefits. The lack of heavy machinery also means that the supply is going to last over generations. We work entirely with small scale production.
Marc: How about the cutting there?
Guy: My contact in Sri Lanka is also my cutter. He began as a stone cutter at an early age, and being a powerhouse of energy has developed a formidable cutting factory employing hundreds from the local community. He has built schools and as a sideline he invests in small scale mines. The Sri Lankan facility—they have really great conditions to work in. In Sri Lanka, to maintain the highest standard, you have to pay well above the going rate. So they really nurture them to be excellent cutters. Additionally my cutter in Sri Lanka pays for the schooling of the employees children, subsidised canteens and also helps with accommodations. No sweat shop. No child labor. To employ high quality cutters you have to treat them well.