Jewel of an Idea: Helping Tanzania’s Gems Benefit Tanzanians

There are areas of Tanzania where some people live on less than one dollar a day. Yet one area where the country has great potential for wealth: gemstones. East Africa’s geology has made Tanzania one of the best places in the world to find rare gems, especially opals, sapphires, and rubies.

Much of that wealth, however, leaves Tanzania when the gems are shipped overseas to Asia to be cut, which means that Tanzania doesn’t see the full value of its lucrative resources. Before leaving Tanzania, we caught up with Charles Carmona, a U.S.-based gemologist working to change that. Along with an initiative from the Tanzanian government and the World Bank, Carmona is helping to set up what will be called the Tanzania Gemological Centre to train Tanzanian people how to cut and carve gems, and even how to produce jewelry. We asked Carmona how a country like Tanzania can see more value from its resources. The good new is that it seems to be on its way. Excerpts:

What’s so unique about Tanzania’s geology that has made it so fertile with gemstones?
Tanzania’s gems are a result of billions of years of interactions between the various tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust that come together under the region. It’s called the Great African Rift Valley and is very geologically unique. Few places on earth have as great a concentration of gem resources as Tanzania.

What are some of the more exotic types?
Tanzanite, the eponymous blue and purple mineral of Tanzania, is found no where else in the world. There are also unusual colors of sapphires, garnets and spinels, beryls, and zircons.

Why are so many gemstones shipped overseas to be cut?
The country has incredible gemstone resources. Even more have been discovered over the last 50 years. But the local cutting industry has not grown at the same rate. The stones are more frequently shipped to places like India and further east in Asia that have the know-how and economic incentives to cut the stones. That means that the greatest value in jobs and taxation are not seen in Tanzania, the country of origin.

How much value is lost when Tanzania exports those stones to be cut?
Well it depends on size and quality, but a large high-quality gem crystal that sells for $100 per gram could be worth $500 per gram after cutting. That is why it is so important that these gems be processed in Tanzania, rather than outside.

Does the mining of gemstones contribute to conflict and poor working conditions in Tanzania as we’ve seen with diamonds and other rare materials in other parts of Africa?
Unfortunately, yes, this has been the case in some gem-producing countries. But responsible authorities in Tanzania have been working to improve the lot of these artisan miners. Those effects of mining can change though if more of the wealth that the mines produce stays in their local communities. Also, authorities are trying to minimize the environmental impact that is part of the extractive industries.

What do the Tanzanian people need to know in order to domesticate more of their market? What are you trying to teach them?
The training center has been conceived to help create the infrastructure for a wholesale gemstone industry in the country.  We’re trying to train thousands of gem cutters and carvers, jewelers and gemologists to bring the local industry into competition with the rest of the world. I think within five years, Tanzania will be a much greater force in the gemstone industry.