Happy Pride Month! To celebrate, we created a collection of one-of-a-kind rainbow hued rings. The majority of which feature ethically sourced, mine-to-market sapphires cut into stunning geometric shapes by a master artisan in Sri Lanka.
We set these incredible stones as solitaires to showcase their unique cuts and colors as a special celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community. Seven one-of-a-kind designs honor the individuality and irreplaceability of every human on this planet. They're a symbol of our hope for an unapologetically colorful world where every individual is seen, celebrated, and accepted.
Gem Breakfast supports LGBTQTIA+ rights and recognizes there is a lot more work to be done. This month, we are proud to have made a $1,000 donation to the ACLU to help further equal rights for all. We hope you enjoy this collection which is a celebration of pride but also is a vechile for us to showcase our work around transparent soucring and ethics.
To learn more about these incredible stones, we sat down with Johannes Orstadius, founder of Gem Group Sweden, who procured these special sapphires. We appreciate his partnership to help us bring this collection to life.
Our interview dives deep into into the ethics and traceability of sourcing sapphires in Sri Lanka, what makes these stones truly one-of-a-kind, and how Johannes and team help create stability and sustainability for partner miners.
Tell us about the sapphires used in the Pride Collection
These sapphires are from a special project we started in December 2020. Every piece is a unique geometric cut, many of them are shield-shaped. To me, a shield has powerful symbolism; I imagine people could use them as personal protection amulets.
These stones are impossible to reproduce. They are cut by a master cutter who intuitively decides on symmetry and angles “on the fly” after looking at the rough sapphire crystal. He has a gift for cutting each stone to maximize its unique beauty.
Can you share a little backstory to help understand us how special they are?
For 14 years, I’ve searched for the most skilled cutters in Sri Lanka and India. Early on, I vetoed India since they are more industrialized, whereas Sri Lankan cutters are usually smaller-scale artisans with family-run operations.
I noticed there was incredible skill hiding among Sri Lankan cutters. My breakthrough came where I offered to pay double the price to a promising Sri Lankan lapidary, but only if they always used ”ideal angles” when cutting. Previously, cutters were making the bottom of the stones bigger to retain more weight. They did this to maximize income, because the cutters were paid per carat. Our new agreement solved this issue and guaranteed us only premium cuts.
When I found an independent stone cutter in the town of Nivithigala name Sampath, I was astonished (as was my extremely picky Cutting Manager here in Sweden). He was using a home-built machine which probably cost about $200 to make (compared to our $5,000+ machine here in Sweden) and his cutting was magnificent.
I have worked for years with many skilled cutters. I am still completely stunned by this man’s ability to realize highly complex geometric shapes with a very high level of accuracy. He does it without ever taking notes or sketching. Normally with complicated or unique shapes, the cutter would - at minimum - take notes of what index and angles are used on one side of the stone, so that he remembers to use the exact set of specs on the other side.
How do you ensure traceability?
When we started this project, we didn’t know that our cutter in Nivitihigala was such an impressing cutting artist. We originally collaborated with him because he knew numerous miners in the area and could ensure traceability. He would source the rough sapphires from mines in the area, and later transfer the rough sapphires to our regular lapidary closer to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.
Upon discovering this man’s unparalleled cutting skill, our project turned out even better than we dreamt. Now, both the mining and cutting happen locally in Nivithigala. Even the heat treatments (in the cases where they’re applied) are done by traditional “burners” locally in Nivitihigala. They use old blow-pipe and fire techniques, rather than the electrical furnaces used in the larger processing centers in nearby Rathnapura and Thailand.
HOW SOURCING WORKS:
- We set a monthly budget, which we aim to keep consistent from month to month.
- Our cutter uses these funds to purchase rough sapphires from the same local small-scale miners again and again. Right now, we’re working with a core group of around 12-14 miners who tend to visit us every time they find a sapphire.
- Every rough stone gets a note containing detailed origin information when our cutter purchases it from a local miner.
- Our cutter himself also keeps a share of the budget. Last summer, he used it to buy a brand new cutting machine for himself.
Untreated Nivitihigala-mined rough and cut sapphires
What does ethical sourcing look like in Sri Lanka?
I want to start by saying, I would not want to go to Sri Lanka and change how they work. Often, western people arrive in gem-producing regions with a mindset to “streamline the industry” and to help miners “scale up.”
To illustrate the mismatch in local and Western perspectives, imagine this scenario of a Western buyer approaching a small-scale miner:
Western buyer: Is your production conflict free?
Sri Lankan miner: “Huh??”
Westerner: Is there any risk that some of the funds may end up creating violence?”
Miner: If I don’t sell this handful of stones before Wednesday, my wife may complain that we’ll need to buy lower quality seeds for the next rainy season. But I don’t see any violence happening.
I’m not saying that the buyer’s question is invalid, but there is often a vast mismatch in perspectives when it comes to small-scale colored gemstone mining, and the Western buyers don’t understand the true picture.
A rainbow of rough (uncut) sapphires
What are the challenges of small-scale mining?
The small-scale miners of Sri Lanka share the challenges of small-scale businesses anywhere: economic security and predictability. Mining for sapphires is a very luck-based and unpredictable business.
One week, a miner may find a beautiful pink sapphire and a buyer offers a good price for it. Another week, they may find 10 stones but due to market conditions, or the color of the stones, they find no one willing to turn their hard work into income (and food on the table). This is not a good position for investing in better tools, setting aside savings, and planning for the future. Our wish for a miner facing this unpredictability is for quick, reliable, predictable, fair sales. From that starting point, he can improve all other areas of production.
One of the largest issues in small-scale mining communities is buyers pick only the best pieces, and refuse to to buy anything other than the most popular colors.
This puts miners in a complicated position. It adds signficant unpredictability. One stone helps them put food on the table for a full month while a similar stone won’t pay for even a meal. Even worse, when buyers pick only the most popular colors, leaving the other 90%, other potential buyers are uninterested in even looking at the remaining stones.
What do you do to support small-scale miners?
We work with the same small-scale miners every month and every day, and buy not only the top blue and pink sapphire crystals, but the full range of colors. We take pale yellows, odd grays, and silky whites. The miners we work with want to come back to us whenever they find something; their finds are rarely rejected unless there have features that would impair the stone’s durability.
Why doesn’t everybody do this? You would think earning trust from the miners with consistent business would be a dream scenario at first glance. The catch: it means saying "yes" almost every time. If they bring us milky white, we say yes. If they show us a strange shape, we say yes. Others have tried this, but few stick to it because itt can result in a buildup of “unsellable goods." Milky-white stones aren’t very popular at the moment.
This is the real purpose of our unique cuts. When we buy a flat white sapphire crystal that other buyers may claim is unsellable, we cut it into an amazing flat portrait or stunning geometric rose cut. We see the unique magic in these stones and maximize their beauty with highly skilled cutting.
By using unique, high-precision geometric cuts, we can showcase the beauty in slightly odd colors and shapes of sapphires. That allows us to pay small-scale miners for stones they wouldn't normally be able to sell. That is how we support them and help them build a sustainable, predictable business.
How do miners protect the environment?
Sri Lanka is the world’s oldest and most fabled source of sapphires. In 2000 years of mining, they have developed a system to work with the environment and not against it:
- They have learned exactly which plants and wood can be used for building fully water-resistant support for the mine pits. They've perfected this niche of engineering.
- Sri Lankan mining has never ruined large areas of rainforest or other valuable biotopes. Instead they dig small pits, oftentimes in rice paddy fields. The idea of massive open-pit mines that scar the land is madness to most Sri Lankans, including the miners themselves.
A paddy field sapphire mine
- The land owners are usually deeply involved in the mining operations occurring on their paddy field (traditionally, they’re entitled to a share of the profits). Many of the miners have two jobs. They're farmers during the rainy season and join a mining team during the dry season. Some land owners are even miners themselves. This means they are invested in keeping the land in good condition for their farming operations.
- Several of the miners in our particular project are farmers that dig for sapphires using shallow pits on their own property.
Sri Lankan sapphire mining is one of the gentlest types of gemstone mining in the world.
Sri Lankan mining authorities have even figured out a way to solve one of their few environmental issues. Previously, the unfilled mining pits were a prime spot for mosquitoes and thus contributed to Malaria. Today, mine owners are required to get a mining license for around $100. The miners get part of this fee back when they refill the pits and restore the land. I've seen for myself that the policies are working because nowadays it’s very rare to see unfilled mining pits in Sri Lanka. Most importantly, the country has now been declared a Malaria free zone.
There's an interesting fact about Sri Lankan environmental policies: a year ago they shocked the world by banning synthetic fertilizers for farming. They basically moved all farming in the country strictly organic procedures.
How does mining benefit the miners and communities?
The traditional practice in Sri Lankan is profit sharing. Typically, the profits from rough sapphires are split fairly between the members of each mining team. Alternatively, the miners will divide up the stones and sell them on their own rather than selling all stones together.
During the last 50 years, the Sri Lankan authorities have implemented a series of progressive mining policies. While most other countries are encouraging mechanization, industrialization, and foreign investment, Sri Lanka has stood their ground and done the opposite. They’ve banned foreign ownership of sapphire mines to ensure that proceeds would benefit the local communities and to protect against foreigners that may not care about protecting their environment. During the last decade, Gem Fields, one of the world’s largest mining companies for colored gemstones, tried to enter Sri Lankan sapphire mining. They eventually gave up when Sri Lankan authorities were adamant in preserving local ownership and a limited scale of operations.
I think Sri Lankan mining is a good example of how small-scale sapphire mining can be environmentally and socioeconomically sustainable. I admire how strongly they defend their artisanal ways.
Why do you love these sapphires and what makes them unique?
I love that the unique shapes and cutting is also what helps us make the collaboration more sustainable to the miners. Because we can create beautiful gemstones out of rough crystals of non-standard color and non-standard shape, they can make a sustainable, predictable living.