By Brecken Branstrator
When responsible sourcing conversations arise, quite often they focus on the mining end of the supply chain.

So when I attended the recent Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference, I was pleased to listen to a panel session on an area that can often be left out of the responsible conversation even though it’s just as important: cutting.

Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House moderated and participants were: Brandee Dallow of the Responsible Jewellery Council; American diamond cutter Maarten de Witte; Dharmendra Tank of Indian manufacturer Heeralal Chhaganlal Tank; Patricia Mweene of Inonge Zita Zambian Gemstones, which is helping develop the country’s cutting industry; and Rachel Hill of Americut Gems, which has a cutting facility in New Jersey.

Here are just a few of the many great quotations and insights from the conversation.

On realizing the need to build the lapidary sector in Zambia

“I wanted to make jewelry with gemstones from Zambia because I knew there were gemstones from Zambia. So I’d go to Hatton Gardens (in London) and try to buy some gemstones from Zambia for my jewelry. And when I saw the prices there, I thought something was absolutely wrong. No. Everything was fine. Just looking at those prices, I thought, well, if these stones are coming from Zambia and we have a gem cutting school in Zambia, why are we not getting a bit of these profits?”
-- Patricia Mweene

On the challenges faced by Zambian gemstone cutters

“One of the key challenges has been that most of the cutters in Zambia don’t have access to machinery. If they have a machine, it’s probably an old, old machine. In Africa, generally, when you have a machine, like you have a car and it breaks down, you don’t throw it away. You repair it until you cannot repair it anymore. For some of the cutters, it’s just simple things like laps. They’re cutting stones but they can’t afford to buy laps or spare parts.”
-- Mweene

“There are a lot of challenges, but mainly it’s access to machinery and access to the market so we can sell the gemstones at a fair price and cut out all the middle men because there are way too many middle men in the supply chain, the foreign middle men as well as all the local middle men.”
-- Mweene

On similar challenges seen by cutters in Madagascar

“After the first trip (for a World Bank project), all these cutters came to me and said, ‘Can you fill your suitcase up with laps and tweezers and diamond powder next time you come in?’ And I said, ‘Why do I have to do that? You’ve got Rio Grande’s catalog sitting right in front of you.’ And they said, ‘Our currency is not convertible. We can’t order it, so we have to go get foreign currency.’ So I said, ‘Go get foreign currency.’ And they said, ‘Well we can’t do that because the minimum amount is $2,000.’ At the time that was 10 years’ average income for anyone in Madagascar.”
-- Eric Braunwart

On obstacles in India

“The biggest problem for our cutting factories recently is a regular supply of material … I know everyone must [wonder] why India is seeing so few cutters coming up in this business. That’s the reason; there’s no stability for them. We have to find a proper supply chain that we can definitely sustain all those cutters if they want to work with us.”
-- Dharmendra Tank

On Americut’s robotic cutting technology and its role in the sector

“We are trying to produce something that is technically very precise. We’ve started implementing a certification, so to speak, by scanning the gemstones and producing a symmetry grade, which is the exact same one that they use for diamonds with the GIA. This has never been heard of and I don’t know if it could be replicated in the future either, but it certainly creates a fingerprint for the gemstone that you know it’s not from overseas.”
-- Rachel Hill

On the need to tell the story

“If you’ve been to the factories, then you know and you’ve seen probably firsthand the passion and the art of cutting. And those are stories that I think we need to add to our repertoire, whether at the retail level or any level of the supply chain, because these people who are cutting these gemstones will literally tell you that the stones speak to them and tell them how they should be cut and what these stones want to be. There’s another great value-added story that we really should add to our repertoire to help the consumer understand just how many people, and how many passionate people, are involved in our process.”
-- Brandee Dallow

“It is about stories, but it’s also about very succinct stories. It’s about stories that consumers themselves can repeat. Just because you can tell them a good story doesn’t mean it’s a story that they can tell their friends. ‘Oh I bought because I heard about this guy, I met this guy, and he does this and I wanted one and that’s why I bought this.’ That is missing in our trade to a large extent. And even more so because we are so heavily involved in technology and trading information so it becomes ‘I have this, this and this—the same as everybody else—and I can sell it to you cheaper.’ If that is the only story we have to tell people, we’re doomed.”
-- Maarten de Witte

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