February 27, 2019
By Cynthia Unninayar
These days, we often hear lip service paid to the need for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethics in the gemstone industry. During the Second World Emerald Symposium (2WES), however, the focus was on concrete actions being taken in Colombia and around the world to improve the lives of those in mining communities.
On October 12, 2018, the symposium kicked off in Bogotà, Colombia, three years after its very successful predecessor. It was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from participants. This year, the recurrent theme was ethics and corporate social responsibility, but many speakers also discussed different challenges facing the emerald industry, along with offering talks on industrial and artisanal mining, geology, gemmology, origin, treatments, new technologies, jewellery, and more.
Featuring 75 presentations, the three-day event attracted more than 200 people from overseas and some 300 from Colombia. Organized by the Colombian Emerald Federation (Fedesmeraldas), the 2WES brought together key players in the world’s emerald industry, including representatives of the Colombian government and emerald trade associations (e.g. the Emerald Producers Association [Aprecol], Emerald Exporters Association [Acodes], and Emerald Dealers Association [Asocoesmeraldas]), brokers, dealers, gemmologists, laboratories, miners, and jewellers.
Oscar Baquero, president of Fedesmeraldas, explained the federation prioritizes the needs of the emerald industry and works with the government to ensure best practices and promote Colombian emeralds abroad. He noted it also conducts research at the mines to expand knowledge of the nation’s green gem, all while promoting projects for sustainable and responsible sourcing.
The main takeaway from the Second World Emerald Symposium was the need for industry players to focus on ethics, with an emphasis on responsible sourcing, transparency, sustainability, and an ethical supply chain. Illustrating the importance the Colombian government places on these best practices, a number of high-level officials spoke at the symposium. Among them was vice-minister Caroline Rojas Hayes of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, whose keynote address opened the event with a welcome to the delegates. Rojas Hayes then discussed Colombian emerald mining in general, along with specific issues related to formalizing the small-scale and artisanal sector (mining regulations, taxation, licensing, and social responsibility).
Colombia’s minister of foreign affairs, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, continued the discussion on responsible sourcing when he outlined policies intended to help the entire emerald industry supply chain, including local communities as well as the environment. These include licensing, protecting the forests and rivers, and transparency, as well as education and retraining to allow some ‘guaqueros’ (artisanal miners) to move into other, more lucrative activities. Monica Maria Grand Marin (directorate of mine formalization, Ministry of Mines and Energy) also explained how the government co-ordinates with unlicensed miners to help them acquire legal status and work in accordance with national standards.
“We also provide assistance to firms to secure financing and check to ensure that they are following safety procedures,” she said.
Among the other keynote speakers was Edwin Molina, president of Aprecol, which groups emerald producers and promotes established best practices, sustainable development initiatives, and social responsibility. Founded in 2002, Aprecol works alongside the Colombian government to help set policy and support sustainable emerald production. It recently established a secondary emerald recovery plant, working with artisanal miners to dispose of mining waste in an environmentally responsible manner. Aprecol also works with the private sector to improve the quality of life in mining communities.
“We aim to create more plants with the help of the local firms throughout the region,” said Molina. “We believe emeralds should really be green—from every point of view.”
This green effort also extends to improving infrastructure, helping local farmers, driving tourism, and even offering cultural programs (such as promoting community art classes for adults and children).
Keynote speaker Guillermo Galvis, president of Acodes and chair of the symposium, noted responsibly sourced gems build confidence for consumers who are concerned about their purchases, while reiterating how important it is for the private sector to work with the government and local communities to achieve lasting social solutions for sustainability in the mining areas.
“It’s up to us to have a better industry,” he said.
Under the skillful gavel of moderator Anthony Brooke, representatives from the major trade organizations also spoke on a variety of ethics-related issues. These individuals included:
Discussing ethical supply chains, Charles Chaussepied of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) stressed the need for companies to be proactive in ensuring their products are sourced in a responsible manner. Following up on this theme, Cathelijne Klomp, environmental project manager at the luxury group, LVMH, reiterated companies must take the initiative to ensure all elements of their products—metals and gemstones—are ethically sourced.
Edward Mendelson, sustainable supply chain project manager at Everledger, elaborated on how blockchain technology can be used to trace gems from mine to market.
“As assets move along the supply chain, the use of blockchain allows them to be tracked permanently and for the transactional data to be accessible to all relevant parties,” he said. “A visible and auditable trail is created, ensuring full transparency to create an ecosystem of trust among stakeholders.”
Continuing the traceability theme, Daniel Nyfeler, managing director of Gubelin Gem Lab, explained the lab’s Emerald Paternity Test (EPT) project, which was recently initiated with a few industrial miners. EPT is an example of a physical tracer applied on the rough gemstone directly at the mine, containing information specific to the mine and enabling the testing of the exact source at any later stage in the supply chain. It makes use of the latest generation of nanolabels, custom-built for a specific mining operation. Nyfeler indicated this technique might not, however, be suitable for small-scale miners unless a structure could be put into place to organize them into a larger group.
A somewhat different approach to traceability was provided by Gloria Prieto from Colombia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. She unveiled the government’s plan for a five-year ‘Mineral Digital Fingerprint’ project, which started in 2018. The goal of the project is to provide an understanding of the particular conditions and physical/chemical characteristics that were present at the time of a mineral’s geological formation, which then gives a specific geochemical DNA. This ‘fingerprint’ can also be traced at the different stages of exploitation, refinement, and commercialization of the mineral.
Traceability was also the subject of a panel moderated by Michelou. Seven members (including Nyfeler, Klomp, Mendelson, Chaussepied, Molina, and Charles Burgess of MTC Muzo) offered their outlook for the necessity of responsible industry practices and traceability. The takeaway was traceability and responsibility not only are good for the industry, but also generate goodwill with the consumer.
On the mining side, speakers representing three of the largest mines in Colombia related their activities.
“There is a reticence about Colombia and its past, but this must be the past. We work with communities now that are established and reliable,” said Rosey Perkins, manager of new projects and corporate communication for Canada-listed Fura Gems (owner of the iconic and recently acquired Coscuez Mine). “In the last nine months, we have employed 270 local people with experience in mining and we are also committed to working with 70 local suppliers in Coscuez.”
Among its community-oriented activities, Fura supports a health clinic, bakery, and sewing centre, and recently formed a women-only washing plant for mine waste.
“We even teach English to the workers because that is what they have asked for,” said Perkins.
Later, during my visit to the Coscuez Mine in Boyacá State, Dev Shetty (CEO of Fura Gems) explained the operation has produced fine emeralds for more than 400 years.
“Our strategy is very clear,” he explained. “We are going to understand the geological science, because we want to have large-scale projects that we believe will produce for 20 years or more.”
Similarly, MTC Muzo’s Burgess detailed the transformation of the Colombian emerald industry over the last few years, including MTC’s purchase in 2009 of one of the region’s most important mines, Puerto Arturo in Muzo. MTC soon introduced modern mining methods and technology and today has numerous social and health programs for the local community. One of MTC’s non-mine community projects is Furatena Cacao, which promotes sustainable cocoa cultivation by farming communities.
“There can be no growth in this industry without bringing in local communities,” Burgess said, adding MTC has also established a cutting facility in Bogotá for its emeralds, which brings added value and employment to the local population.
German Forero, director of Esmeraldas Santa Rosa (owner of the large Cunas Mine), also spoke about his company’s socially and environmentally responsible mining projects in the Boyacá region, where most of Colombia’s emerald mines are located.
“Our country, despite violence in the past, has a great deal to offer due to the national development plans that include mining, housing, and education,” he said. “The mining industry is an example of development in Colombia that includes good social practices, the promotion of employment, and working with the environmental authorities to improve standards in the region. We are also committed to community projects such as raising literacy rates.”
Emerald mines in other countries—including Canada, Brazil, and Zambia—were also on the agenda at the event. Dr. Lee Groat, a professor of earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Colombia (UBC), offered an overview of the emerald occurrences in Canada—specifically, in the Northwest Territories. He explained the Canadian model, which uses geological data to analyze terrain for chromium and vanadium (minerals associated with emerald deposits). He concluded by noting there are many challenges to exploration, including inclement weather and sparse infrastructure, to name a few.
Canadian gemmologist and geologist Warren F. Boyd, president of supplier R.T. Boyd, explained the various modes of gemstone formation and mine types (e.g. hard rock, alluvial, etc.), along with some financing options and the need for regulations in Canada. The latter was highlighted with his discussion of a major scandal that rocked the Canadian mining industry two decades ago, when Bre-X Minerals, a Canadian group of companies, salted a mine in Indonesia. When the fraud was discovered, the stock price collapsed and thousands of shareholders lost their investments.
The rather thorny topic of where emeralds originate (i.e. which mine, country, or region produced them) was discussed at length in a panel discussion led by GIA’s McClure. Members included Milisenda (DSEF), Lu (NGTC), and Scarratt (DANAT). While the panelists generally agreed origin determination is important to today’s consumer, the reality is it is not always straightforward or simple.
Scarratt summed up the problem by saying, “You need hundreds of thousands of specimens, and that’s the easy part. The difficult part is having the instrumentation and the people with the right training to create databases that people can use around the world. This is a phenomenal task that no single lab has ever been able to achieve. The enormity of this task is mind-boggling.”
On a more cultural note, the symposium participants were treated to a gala dinner and a fashion show of traditional costume-clad models showcasing some of Colombia’s most precious emerald jewellery.
The Second World Emerald Symposium was informative, constructive, and reflective of an industry that knows where it is going. This is a strong contrast to the first symposium in 2015, when the emerald industry was in a state of flux. As noted by this year’s speakers, the stability, investments, and technologies international companies bring to Colombia are moving the industry into the future. Additionally, the notion of corporate social responsibility is being taken very seriously, which helps the local communities in mining areas and the country as a whole.
A 20-year veteran of the jewellery and watch industry, Cynthia Unninayar travels the world reporting on the latest trends, promising new designers, global brands, and market conditions. Her interviews with some of the industry’s top players offer insight into what’s new and what’s happening on the global jewellery stage. Unninayar can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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