A journey through Africa.
On Sunday the 7th of November 2010 we took an evening flight from London to Johannesburg. I was travelling with my eldest son Matt who had volunteered to be the cameraman on our Emerald sourcing trip to Zambia. After 12 hours we touched down in South Africa and with just enough time to grab a coffee, we jumped on a very small plane which took us two hours back in the direction we had already travelled, landing at a small airport in the North of Zambia known as Ndola.
As we stepped off the plane I was a little apprehensive. Whilst I knew quite a lot about Zambian Emeralds, I had touched down in a country that I knew little about. All I had managed to glean from the travel guide I had bought at the last airport was that Zambia was poverty stricken - and with 1 in 7 people in the country suffering from HIV/AIDS, the life expectancy of a Zambian was a mere 40 years. The guide also warned that malaria and TB were a real issue and travellers should take every precaution possible. After travelling for 24 hours and reading this travel overview, you will understand that I was not in high spirits.
At the airport we were met by IanHarebottle. Ian is the CEO of a company called Gemfields, the largest Emerald mining company in Zambia. Ian is a real guru on gemstones and before joining Gemfields he was the CEO of Tanzanite One (the largest mining company for Tanzanite). Ian informed us that the trip to the mine would take around two and half hours and he started to give us some background to the country.
We were travelling through the north of the country in an area know as The Copperbelt. The area has mainly copper mines which contribute to around 70% of the nation’s exports. Ian explained how the 11 million population was spread across 72 different tribes, but unlike other tribal countries I have visited in the past there was little to no friction between these different ways of life. Ian put this down to the fact that in the 1970s president Kenneth Kaunda, insisted the country should be harmonised with the national language becoming English. This made sense as until 1964 Zambia had been a British colony which was previously known as Northern Rhodesia.
Ian told us that we were travelling in an area that was very far removed from the tourist areas of the south. There, the Victoria Falls (named by the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in the 1850’s after his beloved queen) attracts visitors from all over the world. To the north of the falls are numerous game parks where elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, antelopes, and even the odd fish eagle can be seen. One of the national parks, Kafue, is even bigger then the size of Belgium.
Whilst we are talking about size, geographically speaking Zambia roughly covers the same area as the UK, France and Ireland combined. The country is land locked and has one of the most interesting borders I have ever seen. To the north it neighbours The Democratic Republic of Congo, then moving clockwise it borders Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and finally Angola.
However, unlike many of it neighbours who have a treasure chest of different gemstones lying below their soil, Zambia only has Emeralds (some of the best on the planet as I discover later) and a small quantity of Amethyst and Tourmaline deposits.
As we drove along I commented to Ian how unusually green the landscape appeared for Africa. He explained that the country is situated just below the equator and above the latitude of Capricorn and that it is a very tropical country with not just an abundance of wildlife, but also a diverse range of both vegetation and fruit. The amazing thing was that we had arrived just before the rainy season had started (it normally runs from November to March) and the scenery that we were witnessing would only get better and better.
We travelled along a well-tarmaced road until we hit the town of Kitwe. From here the road turned into a very wide (almost motorway width) dirt track, with vehicles coming from all directions, bouncing up and down on the pot holes like peas on a trampoline! After another 10 or 15km, we arrived at a remote village called Kalulushi. Ian told us to prepare for an even longer, even bumpier journey from here to the Kagem Emerald mines.
What an understatement! For 35km we travelled away from Kalulushi, and the more we drove, the more the small houses along the side of the road changed from small unpainted breezed blocked abodes to mud huts with thatched roofs, with the whole hut being about half the size of an average sized UK living room.
As we travelled, I started to get a sore backside from constantly bouncing up and down in the back seat! However, as our vehicle collapsed down another pot hole and then rose above another boulder, I started to forget about the image I had conjured up after reading the travel guide. Every corner we turned people were coming out of their small dwellings and, almost without exception, they had a smile and a waving hand.Eventually we arrived at a barrier which announced we had arrived at the mining area. To my amazement we were stopped by a very smart security guard who spoke impeccable English and who was carrying an AK47 rifle. After getting through the gate I asked Ian why the guard was carrying such a powerful weapon. In all my time visiting mines around the world I had not seen one secured by an armed gunman. Having said that, I have been held at gun point on two occasions - both by young men - once trying to take the cash that we were carrying to buy gems and another one who claimed to be a policeman who tried to take our cameras, claiming we could not film in his valley, but I digress. Ian informed me that the government owned 25% of the Gemfields Emerald mine and they were so precious about their Emeralds that they did not want to see a single piece leaving the complex without it going through the proper routes. For this reason they had assigned several armed guards to the mine.
After another kilometre or so we came to a steel gate. This time, the security was even tighter, with more forms to fill in and barbed wire fences stretching both left and right as far the eye could see. After four security checks and what seemed like endless form filling and bag checks we finally arrived at the site.
One of Ian’s team led us to the onsite accommodation. As the mine is in such a remote location, both the management and miners (some 400 or so) all live on the site from Monday to Friday. On entering our room I was delighted to find a mosquito net, spray and running water. We even had electricity until 11pm each night courtesy of a high powered generator.
After unpacking our gear and testing whether the camera equipment had survived the long and bumpy journey, we went to the miner’s canteen for some dinner. The first thing that struck me was how happy everybody seemed.
They had a pool table, and those that still had energy from the full day of mining were playing a game of badminton. I spoke to one of the team and he said, “Of course we are happy, we have the best job in the world. We wake up every day with the hope of finding a beautiful Emerald in the ground and when the day is finished, we are well fed and have a roof over head. What more could a man want than dreams and comfort?”
After dinner we went to bed, covered with mosquito cream and with our mosquito nets firmly tucked in around our beds. We awoke at around 5am to the sound of heavy machinery on its way to the mining area. Our first meeting of the morning was with Ian and Gemfields head geologist Rob, who gave us an in-depth guide to the geographical area and how Emeralds were formed.
Even though Zambia is becoming world famous for its incredibly beautiful Emeralds, the vast majority of them are only unearthed in a small area no more than a couple of kilometres long, know as the Fwaya Fwaya Emerald belt. Translated from the local language into English, this means “Look Look”. I can only assume this was the phrase used by the first miner in the area to unearth an Emerald. You see, with this gemstone its colour is not enhanced by any treatments whatsoever, and the first miner must have almost fainted at the natural beauty he had unknowingly unearthed.
Rob began to explain how Emeralds in the area were uniquely formed. One and a half billion years ago, a layer of earth was formed which today is known as the TMS (Talc Magmatic Schist). This layer was rich in chromium, which is the element that often turns Emerald green. Over the next billion years this TMS became covered by more layers of new rock formation. Then, 500 million years ago, molten magma started to seep through cracks and crevices in the various layers of rocks, and as the magma passed through the TMS layer it intermingled with some of its chemical elements. The magma carried with it Feldspar, Tourmaline, Quartz but, most important of all, it was rich in Beryllium. Now Beryllium is the building block for all gemstones in the Beryl family, including Aquamarine, Morganite and most importantly of all, the King of Beryl - the Emerald. As the molten cooled at this junction where the pegmatite crosses the TMS layer, there became an environment where Emeralds had the potential to grow.
Rob and his team’s job is to track these junctions and to start exploratory mining. They call these small areas, where the potential of discovering Emerald is at its highest, the reaction zones. Rob had previously worked with Ian at Tanzanite One and explained to me the differences between the two environments in which these two world renowned gemstones had grown. In Tanzania, gems were formed in spacious holes created when two continental plates collided with each other, with one rolling over the other. Then, after being bent under immense pressure, they created these voids. It was the coming together of these two different plates, each with their own cocktail of chemical elements that leads experts to believe that Tanzanite will not be found in any other area. Rob then explained that the environment needed to grow an Emerald could not be more different than that required for Tanzanite.
During their crystallisation, the Emeralds went through periods of immense pressure. In fact without this incredible pressure, which was 100 times greater than the pressure in a car tyre, Emeralds could not form. But pressure is not the whole story. The reason why Emeralds are one of the rarest gemstones on the planet is that four things all had to happen at the same time - 500 million years ago - in order for beautiful Emerald crystals to grow. Not only did the pressure have to be precise, but the temperature had to remain at 700 to 900 degrees for the required period of time and even then the crystal would only grow if the magna cooled at exactly the right speed. In the vast majority of the region it cooled too quickly and no crystallisation took place. Next, the cocktail of elements had to be perfectly blended. The right amount of Beryllium mixed with the Chromium gained from the TMS layer along with other elements all had to be present in the correct proportions, all forced into the crack or crevice in the rock and all exposed to the aforementioned conditions.
As we left our meeting room I was starting to realise why this gemstone is so rare. I also left with an increased appreciation of how the inclusions within every Emerald simply tell a unique story of how each piece was individually formed in its very hostile and very lengthy incubation period.As we drove down into the mine I was amazed by its vastness. This was not like any other coloured gemstone mine I had ever seen before. Its scale looked more like a Diamond mine or a precious metal mine. In terms of length, the mine was approaching 1km but as we drove down into the mine it was not the length that surprised me but the depth. As we reached 100 metres below ground level Rob informed me that the MTS (Magnesite-Talc Schist) layer of the rock was not level with the surface but dipped at quite a steep angle. This meant that as the years have rolled by at the mine, they have had to chase the reaction zone further and further below ground level.
As we left our vehicle and stepped out into the mine I was met by the company’s main gemmologist, whose nickname was CV. I have never seen any adult in my whole life look so excited. He told me that the team chiselling away at the rock face that morning had had the best find of Emeralds since June. He was simply beside himself. He quickly took us to where the miners were working and at the feet of another armed security guard was a tin box the size of a small microwave oven secured by multiple padlocks. As he instructed the guards to open it he was almost trembling with excitement. As the lid finally came open after the guard fumbled about with 10 different keys, I fell speechless.
Amongst the black schist and lumps of host rock lay the most breathtaking glow I had ever seen. I honestly could not speak. My brain started racing with all sorts of thoughts. Firstly, I was looking at a gemstone that just the miner and I had had the privilege of seeing in the last 500 million years. I could not get over how, even while it was covered in dirt and not yet faceted, how staggeringly beautiful it was. My mind flashed to an image of Cleopatra in her own Emerald mines and I started to wonder if her love and fascination for the gemstone first occurred whilst she was standing in a similar position. A tear appeared in my eye (and it wasn’t the last on my trip to Zambia). I had fulfilled one of my personal ambitions. Even though I have been in different gem mines all over the world, I have never been present when a gem has been unearthed. That feeling when they opened the metal box will stay with me for the rest of my life. I can only imagine that it is how divers must feel as they open treasure chests at the bottom of oceans that had disappeared hundreds of years before.
After the excitement had died down, CV said to me, “I have something else to show you”. He walked me over to the rock face that formed the side wall of the mine and showed me an Emerald just above head height that was still embedded in the host rock.
I couldn’t believe my luck. This Emerald was about an inch in diameter. After about five minutes of me taking dozens of photos and waxing lyrical to my son on film about how good luck can strike twice in a day, CV said, “We are only pulling your leg, we did not find this one this morning, but ten days ago. But as we knew you were visiting we wanted to leave it in its complete natural position, as we wanted to show it to you, little did we know we would also find Emeralds on the day you arrived!”.
The gem was amazing. In the end, after it is carefully extracted with the skill of a top archaeologist, it might not weigh more than half a carat. That said, it was truly amazing. Eventually Rob had to drag me out of the mine. I just didn’t want to leave - I was having an experience that dreams are made of. Rob promised me that he had a real treat in store for me. As we drove out of the pit he asked if I was impressed. “Impressed! I think I have just died and gone to heaven”, I said. In my mind, Emeralds at this point had just been elevated from a gorgeous gemstone to possibly my favourite! I wish I could change my loyalty to my football team that easily!
“Come on Rob, where are we going?” I asked. Rob started to inform me of the growing costs of having to chase the reaction zone further and further underground. He said in a few years they may need to dig to levels of 150 to 200 metres to find where the Emeralds are likely to be found. He explained that with the current open pit mine it was now necessary to excavate 12 million grams just to unearth one gram of rough Emerald, and as you go deeper that ratio obviously increases. Gemfields already spends around £150,000 a month on diesel for their JCBs and house-sized dumper trucks. These vehicles themselves are not cheap, with an annual investment of around £1.5 million needed to repair and replace them.
“So what’s your solution?” I asked Rob. “We are going underground,” he informed me. “We are taking all of our experience that we gained at Tanzanite One, where we had to go to a depth of hundreds of metres to find more Tanzanite, and we are going to hunt for this rare green treasure below ground.” Basically speaking they had got to a depth where the costs of mining underground was expected to be less than excavating thousands and thousands of tonnes in the open pit mine.
To help with this project they hired Kevin. Kevin also played a big part in the successful Tanzanite One mine. He’s a great guy who has four generations of mining in his blood. That evening, over a cold beer, Kevin explained to me how he and his wife had bought a farm in South Africa and when he retires he would like to start future generations of his family off in farming.
Back to the mine: we put on our overalls, hard hat and torch and started the long and steep trek underground. Kevin explained how one of the biggest challenges facing anyone who wants to mine underground in the Fwaya Fwaya Emerald belt is that many of the layers of rock you have to blast through are soft - especially in the rainy season when they soak up a lot of water, making them both heavy and unstable. In these areas a strong expertise in holding up your mine shaft roof is essential. Normally a comment like this as we descend down a deep mine shaft would unnerve me, but with Kevin I knew we were in the hands of an expert miner.
Unlike many of the mines I have descended in Madagascar, where they are made of compressed sandstone, many of these layers we were travelling through were dense, tough igneous rock. I was amazed when Kevin informed me that his small team of about 10 miners were able on average to progress a metre everyday. That’s amazing for a mine shaft that’s around 4 metres in diameter. When I asked how well the shaft was doing in terms of yield, he only answered with a smile. As I write this diary of events on my plane journey back home, I still don’t know if that meant the underground project was doing really well and he didn’t want anyone to know or that they were yet to find a reaction zone that was providing sufficient gem-quality Emeralds to justify the cost.
That evening we all sat around talking about the day’s events. When I got back to my room, I took out a piece of Zambian Emerald that I had purchased earlier in the year (I had taken it along to use in the filming) and started to stare at it and to really study it to a level I had never done before. I viewed it with the naked eye, I took out my 10x loupe, and I used my dichroscope. I must have spent an hour or so studying it. This was not my usual technical assessment or detailed financial valuation that I would normally carry out on a gemstone, but more of a personal “getting to know you better” type of experience. Eventually, I hid the gem back under the lining of my suitcase and as I turned and saw my son fast asleep - as I could feel the presence of a few feeding beasts flying around the room - I tucked in his mosquito net and turned off the light and lay in my bed in total appreciation of my first experience of seeing Emeralds actually at the mine face.
I stirred at around 5am with my mathematical brain in overdrive. If it takes the excavation of 12 million grams to discover 1 gram of rough Emerald, and then if our yield after cutting and faceting each gemstone is only 7 to 8%, and then if an Emerald weighing over 1ct is only approximately one in a thousand pieces, and then if we are assigning 80% of our Emeralds as bead quality, then a 1ct Emerald with nice transparency is... erm... erm... erm... 90 million to one. No - 180 million to one! No - 70 million to one! I gave up trying to work it out when Matt’s alarm clock went off half scaring me to death.
As a family-owned jewellery business, we have always committed - since the day we started our company - that 15% of any profits we made would go to help community projects in villages in mining areas of Africa. This is the way that we can directly use our success in business to help those who have indirectly helped us. When Ian informed us that his company had been helping the local community for many years I wanted to go and see first-hand what they had managed to achieve and to see if they could provide us with some useful advice.
Our first stop was to a local school that had been built with the help of the company. This was not just a matter of providing funding, but also managing the project both technically speaking and in pulling together all of the local people and farmers, setting up a PTA (parent/teachers association) etc. The school is not quite what you would imagine in the UK. There was no electricity (in fact the nearest electricity is still some 10km away), there is no glass in the windows and even the roof is made of corrugated metal sheets. However, if you ever want to see a group of children (180 in total) singing and smiling and full of enthusiasm and hope, then there is no experience that comes close to visiting schools like this. Their teacher, 33 year old Chola Mondo, told me that prior to the school being built by the Emerald mining company, children had to walk 6km to the nearest school. This long journey meant that attendance was appalling and most children simply stayed at home and helped their family with their sustenance farming.
When the school knew we were coming, the teacher asked for as many parents as possible to turn up and show their appreciation for the Emerald mining company. Over 90 parents left their fields to turn up and meet us. What happened next brought the second tear to my eye during the trip. One little boy called John and a little girl who was too shy to tell me her name read out a poem they had written in English.
Outside the classroom I showed my son one of the methods I had used in Africa many years ago to amuse the children (and a lot of parents too). I took my digital camera out and started taking photos of them, immediately after I clicked the shutter I turned the camera around and showed them their picture on the LED screen. This always without exception sends children into fits of laughter. You see, many of them have never seen a picture of themselves before. The more I click and show, the more they laugh, the more they laugh the more I click and eventually the whole classroom is rolling around with laughter. I promised Chola Mondo that I would send printouts of all the children and he felt they would love it.
Next, we went to a farming area where Gemfields had got 13 farms to come together, and they had funded and educated the community on how to best grow certain grains, fruit and vegetables. Prior to setting up the scheme all the families only farmed to produce food for their own family. Today, the community not only produce their own food but also enough food to feed all of the 400 workers at the mine. Gemfields pay the farms the proper market rates for their produce and with their income (the first cash most of these families have earned) Gemfields then advise them on how to build better homes and how to invest in farming equipment etc. Today the project is going so well that the community also sell their food in the town of Kitwe.
The final project we visited was a medical clinic that was built by and receives ongoing support from the income generated from mining Emeralds. Prior to the clinic opening, people had to wait for a mobile unit to arrive which happened - at best - once a week. The small rural clinic has a maternity ward and offers women a lot of advice on birth control.
Just imagine previously having to give birth in your hut with no one around to offer you proper medical advice. On the steps of the clinic I met a lady holding a two week old baby boy whom she said she had named John. John was actually born in the clinic and is fit and well. The clinic also helps those suffering with AIDS, TB and Malaria. After meeting everyone at the clinic we moved to the building adjacent and here I witnessed some of the smartest charity work I have ever seen. The clinic, with the help of Gemfields and their ability to manage large projects, had recruited and trained over 40 people from the local community to start a Home Base Care Scheme (HBCS), and every single one of its volunteers had turned up to see us. These unpaid workers, when we arrived, started dancing and singing gospel songs and (to the embarrassment of my son) I found myself joining in.
These HBCS volunteers are amazing. They visit every dwelling in the area discussing all sorts of life-saving issues, from avoiding AIDS, to making sure pregnant women have mosquito nets in their home. They inform locals of the availability of medicines and of what help the clinic can provide them.
We said our goodbyes to these amazing people (“shikura” in native tongue) and set off back to the mine. Once back within the secure compound, my son Matt, who was completely taken back by these events, commented how different life was within the compounds of the mine, where the miners had running water, access to food and even electricity until 11pm.
The next day it was time to leave for the UK, we said shikura to all of the management team who had been our hosts for the week. Ian, with his amazing commercial skills and vision for the coloured gemstone industry: Gabriella, for her amazing gemstone knowledge and organising our whole trip and to CV, Rob, Kevin and Adrian whose knowledge and passion of gemstone mining is world-class.
As we drove out of the final security gate, the security guard tapped on the window where my son was sitting, Matt took one look at his AK47 and almost wet his pants! He had no idea what he did wrong, he was petrified because the day before he had filmed the guard in the documentary he had been making for The Genuine Gemstone Company. As he wound down the window the security guard handed Matt a piece of paper and the message said, “I am now on Facebook, here’s my address, please post me copies of my pictures.” We fell about with laughter. Even the security guard must have realised what Matt was thinking as he was instructed by a six foot tall, rifle-bearing guard to wind down the window and he burst out laughing too. As the security barrier opened and we drove off I said “look how the world moves so quick and how imbalanced it is. Here’s a security guard with access to the internet and the school 1km down the road can’t even get electricity.”
What did we learn? We learnt that Zambia is a country full of smiles and warm hearts. It’s the Thailand of Africa in that regard. It’s a country that still needs a lot of help: not just financially, but in terms of professional guidance in all areas of life. But back to what we set out to discover - Emerald’s are an incredible miracle of nature. They bear the battle scars of the difficult environment in which they grew up in 500 million years ago. We learnt that they are beautiful from the moment they are unearthed and we learnt that even in one square foot of one vast mine, no two Emeralds look even remotely the same and are as individual and unique as two people living on the same street.
Rediscover Emeralds: a gem of natural beauty.
Footnote: Two months after returning to the UK, The Genuine Gemstone Company, through its own Colourful Life Foundation and Gemfields, launched a charitable joint venture to build a second classroom at the Lwamisamba School and also to make an extension to the School at Kapila. In addition to the two school projects, The Genuine Gemstone Company and Gemfields will continue to fund the community driven “Blessings Farmers Project”.