Spotlight on Coloured Gemstones
Valued for their role in fine jewellery and for their intrinsic beauty, coloured gemstones – sapphires, rubies, emeralds and more – are universally beloved and desired, the object of an appreciation that cuts across cultures, continents and generations.
All the more precious because of their scarcity, coloured gemstones are the product of complex geological processes. Each is uniquely formed and each brings distinctive and special character to wherever it is placed. But while gemstones are a luxury product, their origin often makes for a rather different story.
The challenges of coloured gemstone mining
The market for coloured gemstones is huge, with over 200 types of gemstones being used in jewellery. The majority of gemstones – as many as 80% of the worlds sapphires, for example – are recovered through artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).
Unlike other forms of ASM, like gold mining, artisanal gemstone mining is almost always small scale – and poorly paid.
The gemstone deposits are not suitable for large-scale commercial exploitation, and significantly more value is created during the cutting and polishing processes than during the mining process. Despite labouring in often dangerous conditions, artisanal gemstone miners are seldom compensated for their hard work. The sector is ripe for development and offers wide-ranging opportunities for improvement, especially as it employs many women.
Three Fundamental Problems
A fragmented collection of individuals and small family businesses.Unlike any other mineral supply chains, the coloured gemstone mining industry is almost entirely made up of independent miners, small groups and family businesses. These mines are often solitary explorers, individual diggers and small businesses collaborating together in worker cooperatives. While it may be described as fragmented and decentralised, this industry comprises many resourceful and resilient community businesses, often generations old, that sustain the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in over 50 countries.
Lack of mechanisationMining for many metals and commodities is now mostly a modern, mechanised and internationally-regulated business dominated by large-scale producers. The recovery of coloured gemstones, however, has remained the domain of artisanal and small-scale mines. Historically, finding, extracting and selling rough coloured gemstones in large volumes has not been considered sufficiently profitable to interest the commercial businesses or investors that might otherwise drive mechanisation.
Unrealistic responsible sourcing standards.The responsible sourcing movement has shifted its gaze from diamonds, gold and conflict minerals to coloured gemstones. Regulators and luxury brands, increasingly aware of the negative environmental and social impacts of irresponsible operators, want to know how their gemstones are mined. Buyers, retailers and standards-setting organisations, too, demand that producers meet ever more stringent standards. They expect transparency at mine sites and traceability of materials’ origins. While large companies can respond to these requirements, artisanal mines lack the resources and the organisation to comply.
Our Solutions Focussed Approach
There is a fine line between coloured gemstone mining being viable and being uneconomic. This reality opens the door to a compelling community development opportunity and the potential to sustain the livelihood of millions.