Madagascar: the home of rainbow-coloured sapphires

Discovering the Wennick-Lefèvre responsibly-sourced sapphires: “Every gemstone taken from the ground has the potential to benefit everyone in the supply chain, especially the local communities where it was mined.”

Zafiros responsables de Wennick-Lefèvre

Madagascar supplies at least 40% of the world’s sapphires.

When we think of Madagascar, the images that spring to mind are usually of vast paradisiacal beaches, baobab forests and natural parks where we can find some of the more than one hundred species of lemurs that inhabit the island.  It is undoubtedly one of the most unique places on Earth, with an exceptional biodiversity that holds unique wildlife, 90% of which is found nowhere else on the planet.

Madagascar is also one of the countries with the greatest abundance of gemstones: sapphires of all colours —many of such colours have only been discovered there—, rubies, emeralds, aquamarines, tourmalines, garnets, agates and topaz, among others. In fact, it is estimated that only 10% of the country is not gem-bearing. Since the first “sapphire rush” in Ilakaka in 1998, when the first stones were chanced upon in a rice field, Madagascar has become a major gemstone producer, supplying 40% of the world’s sapphires. An estimated 500,000 people are involved in artisanal and small-scale mining, and 2.5 million are dependent on it (direct and extended family). [1]

The lunar landscape forged in these mines reveals a plethora of holes averaging 20 metres deep. The working conditions are dangerous, as the risk of collapse is high and, with it, the danger of death. All work is undertaken manually by lone miners or small family groups who have their own private mine. A verbal agreement with local authorities is often sufficient to authorise mining, even if there is no official government authorisation. Fear of corruption often means that reporting to the Ministry of Mines is avoided, so many of these mines are considered illegal.

Despite the country’s extraordinary mineral wealth and environmental treasures, Madagascar and Ilakaka remain extremely poor. The country has one of the world’s highest poverty rates: 75% of the Malagasy population lives below the threshold of $1.90 a day. [2] The most absolute poverty is most marred in rural areas, where upwards of 80% of the population lives, far from the already scarce health services available.

A vast asymmetry exists in terms of power, networks and knowledge between the stakeholders in the Malagasy sapphire supply chain, to the detriment of the miners, who comprise the most vulnerable part of the chain. The payment they receive for the rough stones is usually a tiny fraction of their market value (estimates suggest that they are paid only 10% of the value). [3]

Rough gemstones are shipped almost exclusively to Sri Lanka and Thailand, where they are cut and polished prior to being sold. This means that most of the profits and, of course, the profit margins, are made and remain abroad. It is difficult to provide concrete figures, given the poor regulation of the sector, but it is estimated that “70% of its sapphire market was controlled by Sri Lankans, who smuggle the gems back to their country to be cut and exported for sale. About $150m worth of sapphires might leave Madagascar every year”. [4]

Nevertheless, responsible sourcing initiatives are emerging in Madagascar that are of great interest to all those jewellery projects with a vocation to switch towards more ethical and sustainable practices. We describe one such experience below, at the hands of the supplier Wennick-Lefèvre.

Natural sapphires that benefit local communities and respect the planet

Wennick-Lefèvre is a small Danish company specialising in untreated sapphires mined responsibly in artisanal mines in Madagascar and Sri Lanka. “Holding a gemstone is like holding the planet in your hand: with each gemstone comes a responsibility towards the Earth”, says Svend Wennick, the project’s founder.

The gems they offer are sourced from mining communities in carefully targeted locations and go through a fair and transparent supply chain, where workers are afforded decent conditions and operate with minimal environmental impact. It is a business wheel based on personal contact and close relationships with partners built on many years of knowledge and working together.

“Every gemstone taken from the ground has the potential to benefit everyone in the supply chain, especially the local communities where it was mined.”

Most of their rough gemstones come from Madagascar, especially from the Ilakaka region, the largest sapphire deposit on Earth, which they call “the home of the sapphires in colours of the rainbow”. The mine run by Noel, whom Svend met in 2010, is one of the sources they partner with. The land has belonged to his family for generations, and it was previously a farm. Today, it is an open-pit mine employing between 20 and 40 miners, where the only piece of machinery used is a water-pump.

When they buy rough gemstones at source, they pay a 50% premium. They also apply a 50% premium on their cutting price list, based on price lists from similar suppliers, demanding fair and safe working conditions.

The rough stones are dispatched to Sri Lanka to be cut at Nilanthi Thisera’s workshop in Kuruwita, near Rathnapura, a place where the lapidary trade has been practised and honed for centuries. They met Nilanthi more than 20 years ago, but it was not until recently, in 2022, that they jointly set up the Sunrise Facets factory, which today employs 12 people. The standards they required Nilanthi to implement were not only met, but far exceeded previous expectations. Staff salaries were doubled and contracts include provisions such as paid maternity leave for six months. Nilanthi is the first Sri Lankan woman to own and run a cutting factory.

Once cut, the gemstones are shipped to its Copenhagen office, where they are distributed to jewellery brands worldwide. Wennick-Lefèvre offers full traceability and (self-)certifies that the gems are untreated. Only 1% of the sapphires set in jewellery are truly natural; 99% have been treated, largely by heating.

Another inspiring policy adopted by this Danish company is the “one tree for one stone” initiative, which is intended to ensure that the stones mined have a positive impact on the planet. For every gemstone they sell, they plant a tree through a partnership with the Eden Forest Project. Since 2019, they have planted upwards of 100,000 trees in Madagascar.

But their commitment to global justice and sustainability goes beyond that and includes a strand of activism to transform the industry that we believe is important to highlight. In 2021, they launched the Copenhagen Commitment  movement, with the backing of Kira Kampmann & Yianni Melas as co-founders. Its goal is clear: to bring together all stakeholders to work collaboratively towards a more responsible industry and to initiate projects that enhance conditions in supply chains. The endeavour the began in their Copenhagen office is already expanding internationally. In 2022 and 2023 they held two meetings in London, in partnership with The Goldsmiths’ Centre, and today Copenhagen Commitment is an NGO based in The Hague. The next meeting will be on 15 April in London. Tickets will be available soon on The Goldsmiths’ Centre website.

Project Ilakaka: a new initiative to support the community

In recent years, poverty in Ilakaka has increased and the most basic needs, such as food and access to water, are not being met. While it should be a prosperous area, sapphire profits move up the supply chain.

At the end of 2023, Project Ilakaka  was created, a small and independent NGO that seeks to work in the long term to achieve a fairer circuit, in which the local population can benefit from their own natural resources. As a starting point, the project prioritises working together with the community to identify their key needs and provide them with direct support.

Wennick-Lefèvre extends an open invitation to support the Ilakaka community through this new initiative, which has already been granted approval as a 1% for the Planet project. In the first phase, donations go straight to building public drinking water wells, food distribution to the poorest families and medical supplies to create a proper medical clinic.

Article written by the ORIGEN – Gold for Future collective, with the collaboration of Svend Wennick.

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