Why Cartier Owes Africa’s Forgotten Men A Huge “Thank You” Today

Cartier
Artisanal miners pursuing an emerald vein

Imagine…your limousine parks at the front entrance.

You’ve arrived at the world’s biggest night in film – the Academy Awards. Your door swings open. Camera flashes burst. You take a deep breath and take your first step on Hollywood’s red carpet to receive your much rumoured Oscar.

You look fabulous in your gold Elie Saab dress. Bejewelled in the world’s finest creations… a Cartier diamond necklace that you helped design. Your sparkling diamond drop earrings stun the onlookers, but your pièce de résistance? Your Panthère de Cartier; 41.67-carat sugarloaf spessartite garnet ring. Wow! You own the most glamorous event in history!

Your name echoes as you glide through the star-struck crowd, confusing you enough to momentarily forget who has been waiting for hours to interview you first. Was it Cosmo or Vanity Fair?

Yes, tonight, is YOUR night at the Oscars. Can you picture the scene?

Well, this article isn’t about you.

It’s about the forgotten men of Africa.

You know, men who never get invited to the Oscars.

Honest, hardworking, and increasingly vilified men. Men drawing blood today as they split unforgiving rock with skill and care to unearth rare precious gemstones for the world’s leading jewellery brands – Bulgari, Cartier, The House of Boucheron, Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels – and so many others.

Why do these men deserve a huge “thank you”?

Cartier Building

The world’s jewellery brands rely heavily on Africa’s forgotten men to continue producing a steady stream of natural gemstones to meet rising demand from the four corners of the globe. According to TechSci Research, global gems & jewelry market to cross $443 billion by 2022.”

How will the jewellery industry hit that projection without relying on Africa’s vast untapped gem and precious metal deposits? After all, you cannot mount a concrete paving slab in platinum and call it an engagement ring, right? What’s more, synthetic gemstones exist, but ask your partner if she’d want a stone created in a microwave oven as a family heirloom. The fact is, there’s no real alternative to natural earth extracted gemstones – but there is one catch.

Somebody has to get them out of the ground, which begs the question: how will Africa’s buried jewels see the light of day without the muscle of Africa’s 8 million forgotten men and women? Is there anyone better placed? Of course not.

It’s blindly obvious, in more ways than one, the future growth of the global jewellery industry depends on the African Motherland.

The interesting question, though, is who exactly are Africa’s forgotten men?

You may know them as small scale artisanal miners. In Mozambique you’ll hear them called “garimpeiros”, in Ghana they are demonized as “galamseys”. Visit Zambia’s gem rich regions and you’ll discover a nation that cuts straight to the chase, defining them as “illegals.”

Are they really criminals? Who cares? Do we really need to know more about a local community that “apparently” has no legal right to feed off a natural resource in their own backyard? Here is why I say yes.

Are they vermin or underrated artisans?

That’s a serious question because most of the world’s finest jewels discovered in the last 100 years, including many of those that generated record breaking sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and other auctioneers were dug out of the ground by hand. Shake the rough hand of a full-time artisanal gemstone digger and you’ll prove that claim true.

Princess Diana
Diana wearing her stunning aquamarine ring in 1996. Photograph: Getty Images

Instead of using a pneumatic jackhammer, they split rocks with hammers and chisels. Actually, that’s a lie. Over-the-counter chisels are like working with toothpicks, far too fragile for this work. These men depend on chisels modified from high-tensile steel drive shafts salvaged from scrap cars, trucks, and even armoured tanks. There’s more…

Instead of shifting tons of earth while comfortably perched in an air-conditioned Caterpillar bulldozer, they sing songs, and swing worn-out shovels to move dirt out of the pit in a human conveyor belt run on hope. And in Africa’s searing heat, it’s breathless, back breaking work. Often these machines, sorry I meant to say; these men, work many miles away from home – with no guarantee of striking a gem rich pocket.

A degree in geology? Even though they single-handedly discovered nearly every African gemstone deposit, the only qualification they required was hunger. No government handouts, no union support, no Bill Gates Foundation. Can you begin to see why, for these workers, this is not a greedy gold rush, it is simply survival?

While many artisanal miners work as though they were brothers, in trusted teams, some others prefer to dig alone.

Like one man I’ll never forget.

His name was Moses, but I called him The Leopard, because no man should have been where I found him.

It took 48 hours of hard driving to reach this point and then there was no more road to continue. After abandoning our 4×4 vehicle, we had a six hour bushwhacking trek deep into one of Africa’s wildest national parks. It was then, at our final destination, a remote gem deposit, that we unexpectedly bumped into Moses.

After chatting with him, we discovered he works there alone. No other artisan would have risked this dig.

Sleeping under Africa’s starlit sky is a worthy dream for many, but Moses braved every night alone, fanning a small fire that disturbed his sleep because it needed constant refuelling right through to the crack of dawn. Why?

Moses shared this remote hillside with a full-grown leopard.

Moses mining for fine aquamarine in leopard country

If you heard about Moses’s life of struggle you would understand why even a territorial leopard would think twice before messing with him. But what if this leopard attacked? Forget about an ambulance service, because at this address, vultures are first on the scene. Moses was on his own.

After asking what he ate, I wondered what gave him the energy to dig. He could easily trap a small buck to feed himself, but according to government HQ, that would make him a poacher. Not wanting to be shot as a scumbag poacher, Moses fuelled his engine on a meagre ration of maize and dried vegetables. He said: “I am here because of drought, my family has no maize. When the gods don’t send rain, they send gemstones.”

When I met him, he was already digging for three weeks, but had little to show for his efforts. That said, if he finds a promising vein, it’s almost a curse.

To avoid others coming along and scavenging off of his weeks and even months of hard work, hijacking his gem rich vein, Moses has no choice but to follow it until it produces or reaches a dead end. Which means there’s a chance his food will runout before he can return home for more supplies.

What gem was Moses risking his life for? He didn’t know it, but he was digging for one of late princess Diana’s favourite gemstones: aquamarine.

Part of Diana’s collection included a ring with a very large stone; maybe a 30 carat aquamarine, boasting a unique, deep blue colour, flanked by brilliantly bright diamonds. Her son, Prince Harry recently gifted this very piece to his wife, Meghan, the new Duchess of Sussex.

What’s your favourite gemstone?

Is a diamond still your best friend? Fancy a lush spring-green emerald instead? Maybe you’re the royal blue sapphire type. Then again, have you spent a moment with Mozambique’s pigeon blood rubies? Wow! I dare you not to remortgage the house to own just one.

Gemstones have fascinated man for aeons. They have strengthened kings, beautified queens, and dazzled the common folk from the dawn of time.

Almighty God may have created gemstones for our pleasure, but let’s never forget another divine gift:

Africa’s remarkably special men!

These men are willing to tame the dangers associated with bringing these natural beauties to the earth’s surface.

True, they are not a perfect workforce. But hamper the work of these artisanal men and you break them. You starve families. You split marriages. Divide homes. You burden the next generation.

Isn’t it wiser for governments to find a unique way to harmoniously work with Africa’s hardest working men? Governments that allow artisanal miners to legalise their operations is the only way forward.

Which is why I’d like to officially declare today…

The Day of the African Artisan.

Will you help celebrate it? Shout it out loud and clear – on every rooftop, from every mouthpiece you have at your disposal. Help them to get the recognition they deserve. Will you do it, today? Hooray!

Before you start though, one last humble request to Cartier and all of the world’s major jewellery brands: please thank these men.

Thank these men  — for they  have made an indelible impact on your company, your brand, your clientele, your fortune, your loved ones, and your legacy, as a result of their intelligence, humility, work ethic, self-sacrifice, strength, hope, and, of course, their bravery.

Alvin Sillitoe
Alvin Sillitoe, aka the Wild Jeweller, creates the world's most personalised engagement rings starting with an African sourced rough jewel. He is a gemstone explorer and in his spare time a writer, waging war on any force brave enough to go up against Africa’s artisanal gemstone miners - an underrated workforce that has intrigued him since 1996. He is a former private equity mining representative and a London stockbroker who raised capital for AIM, FTSE 250 and Nasdaq listed companies. Before that, he consulted on African gemstone exploration and mining projects, including leading the team in 2001 that discovered Ethiopia's first commercial sapphire deposit. Born in Lusaka, Zambia and inspired by a fist-sized emerald his late father held up to the sunlight as a boy, he began operating his first gemstone mine in Zambia at the ripe age of 21. Today, with over 20 years’ experience in the complete jewellery cycle… from the mine to the bride, you’ll find him creating bespoke engagement rings in the middle of Hatton Garden, London’s premier jewellery district.