By Brecken Branstrator
Yianni Melas, gem explorer and trader, is pictured here in front of the Four Season Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, where he has gone on a hunger strike to protest Christie’s auction of a necklace from De Grisogono.
Geneva--A conversation around a Swiss jewelry brand and its backers has arisen, and one gem trader and explorer has gone on a hunger strike in Geneva to raise awareness and boycott the brand.

Today, Christie’s Geneva will auction off “The Art of De Grisogono, Creation I,” a necklace featuring a 163.41-carat flawless, D color diamond at center that was sourced in Angola.

News that the auction house was putting the piece on the block on behalf of the brand revived a conversation that arose on social media earlier this year and led Yianni Melas, of the popular Instagram @gemexplorer, to go on a hunger strike a week ago.

The Background
Fawaz Gruosi founded De Grisogono in Geneva in 1993 along with two associates and has since taken complete control of the company.

Melas initially began a boycott of the brand this summer, after, he says, an industry colleague gave him some information about investors in the brand at Baselworld.

It was then he says he was told that De Grisogono was partly owned by Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos (he was in the role for 38 years before an election in September named a new president).

There are few articles that have delved into De Grisogono’s ownership in depth, but a 2014 Forbes article helped provide the foundation of Melas’s boycott, building the connection between the brand and Dos Santos. (The article has a shared byline with Rafael Marques de Morais, the Angolan journalist who wrote a book detailing abuses in the diamond fields of Angola and later went on trial for what he wrote).

The New York Times, too, reported in a story it ran in August that the Dos Santos family owns De Grisogono.

According to the Forbes report, a shell company called Victoria Holding Ltd. acquired 75 percent of the De Grisogono brand through a subsidiary in 2012 for more than $100 million. And, according to documents retrieved by the article’s authors, ownership of Victoria Holding Ltd. is split between Angolan state-owned diamond company Sodiam and a Dutch company called Melbourne Investments.

The sole beneficial owner of Melbourne Investments listed is Dos Santos’s husband, Sindika Dokolo.

At the time, the chairman of De Grisogono told Forbes that, “No public funds or resources, namely from the Angolan state or Angolan state-owned companies, have been involved, directly or indirectly.”

National Jeweler has been in touch with De Morais about his Forbes article but wasn’t able to get more information about his investigation and reporting in time for this article.

The Connection
So what exactly was it that led Melas to start his boycott this summer?

He told National Jeweler at the time that he couldn’t believe the topic hadn’t come up in the industry before, or that it was a brand the industry continued to welcome and that celebrities were donning.

Specifically, he wanted to and still wants to bring attention to the lives of the people in Angola and the corruption of its leaders.

Isabel dos Santos is Africa’s richest woman, with a current estimated worth of $3.4 billion, according to Forbes, which noted that, though her representatives deny that her holdings are connected to her father, it found through its research at the time that he transferred stakes in several Angolan companies to her. She has known assets in the oil and gas sectors.

Angola as a country receives an immense wealth from oil and, of course, diamonds. According to the Kimberley Process’s numbers, the country’s diamond production was valued at nearly $1.8 billion in 2016.

Yet it remains an extremely poor country, one of the most dangerous for children due to malnutrition and a lack of medicine and resources that has led to a high infant and under-five mortality rate--a topic covered extensively by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff in 2015--and also has a low life expectancy for its adults.

And though it’s been part of the Kimberley Process since 2003, even serving as chair in 2015, there are some companies and brands that already refuse to buy diamonds sourced from the African country. Tiffany & Co., for example, has said it won’t buy Angolan diamonds and backed journalist De Morais during his trial.

Offah Obale, the conflict minerals researcher at Impact, the NGO formerly known as Partnership Africa Canada, had this to say about Angola: “A large percentage of (Angola’s) output comes from informal alluvial diamond production and relies on the workforce of thousands of artisanal miners. This lack of formalization impacts the traceability of minerals from the mine suite to the point of export. It also contributes to the ability of people to smuggle and take advantage of weak internal controls.”

He added that, “Due to vulnerabilities in the diamond supply chain, it is important for the diamond industry and the Angolan government to add additional due diligence to the diamond supply chain through the adherence of the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. Doing so would foster greater transparency and oversight of diamonds produced in the country.”

The Response
It’s the poor standard of living in a country so vital to the industry--and in which most of the wealth goes to a very small segment--to which Melas has said he wants to bring attention with his boycott of the brand and, now, his hunger strike around the auction.

National Jeweler reached out to Christie’s for comment.

Rahul Kadakia, the auction house’s international head of jewelry, said: “Christie’s is pleased to be working together with De Grisogono to offer this incredible jewel in an innovative way for both brands. The necklace has been made specifically by the highly creative team at De Grisogono for Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction in Geneva, around the largest D Flawless diamond ever to be offered at auction. Each of us is lending our own expertise to the project, and we have been working together since February to present this masterpiece to our top collectors.”

The auction house declined to comment on the alleged connection between the brand and Angolan leadership.

National Jeweler also spoke with De Grisogono Marketing Director Gianluca Maina, who said because they are a Swiss-registered company, and thereby operating in a tight regulatory environment, they won’t comment on the ownership of the brand.

“Our shareholders are, of course, scrutinized and analyzed by the Swiss authorities, because we need to be transparent with regards to Swiss authorities with who our shareholders are. But we don’t publicly comment on that.”

Maina said that De Grisogono emphasizes being transparent on sourcing and compliant with the Kimberley Process, adding: “We are very saddened by the allegations created around the brand, because they don’t correspond to the truth. As a responsible company, we’re doing and we’re trying to do everything possible to be a socially responsible and ethically responsible brand.”

The brand confirmed to National Jeweler that if “The Art of De Grisogono, Creation I” sells, its partner, Dubai-based diamond trading company Nemesis International, will donate a proportion of the proceeds to fund the building of a school and a health center benefitting the local community in the Lulo region, where the 404-carat rough used to create the center stones was uncovered, though it didn’t give details beyond that.

Maina told National Jeweler the donation was agreed to last year--before Melas began his boycott movement--noting that it “supports our belief that it is important to give back directly to the communities from which our stones originated.”

But Melas has told National Jeweler that if De Grisogono doesn’t decide to donate all proceeds of the piece, he will continue his hunger strike after the sale has ended. 

He told National Jeweler this week, “I believe, at least in my opinion, that the people out there need to understand, we as individuals who are a part of the trade are against the corruption.”

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