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  • Writer's pictureTracey Ellison TDG

Visit to Kagem Emerald Mine!

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Hello from the Chama pit, Kagem Mine.

In my job, I get to do lots of lots of things. I'm a photographer, spending my days photographing the worlds rarest and most precious gems. I'm a writer, writing blog posts like this one, and daily social media captions that hopefully catch your attention, enticing you to watch the post! Believe it or not, at my old age, I'm even a part time model, getting to wear and try on the mot fabulous jewels imaginable! But I have discovered that what I love most about my going to the source. The place on the planet where the precious gemstones are formed, knowing that this stone that I am seeing being unearthed, was formed hundreds of millions of years ago, and has never seen the light of day until this exact moment! There is a special kind of romance in that, whether the stone is a diamond, an emerald, or any other natural gemstone, which makes me fall in love with what I do over and over again. So let's dive into the Zambian emerald mine called Kagem - how did I get to go there? What do they do over there in Zambia? Who benefits from the mine, and equally as importantly, who doesn't benefit?

The journey began in Geneva in May 2022, when Bebe and I visited GemGeneve Gem & Jewellery show. The Show was buzzing with the unveiling of a 7,525 carat uncut emerald by Eshed Gemstar.

Upon seeing this phenomenal, Guinness World Record Holder, gemstone, we knew that we absolutely HAD to know more about the source of such a once in a lifetime gem, only to learn that it had been discovered at the Kagem Emerald mine, in Zambia. Kagem is 75% owned by Gemfields, and 25% owned by the Zambian Government.

Eshed kindly made introductions, and soon we were deep in discussions with Gemfields about a potential Kagem mine visit. Before we knew it, flights were booked, bags were packed, and we were Zambia bound!

Let's talk briefly about Gemfields. Gemfields specializes in the mining and marketing of emeralds (Zambia) and rubies (Mozambique) from some of the finest sources in the world. They take great pride in being globally recognized for sustainable mining practices, and for responsiby sourced gemstones. As much as they take out of the land, as focused they are and reinvesting in both the surrounding ecology, as well as the communities. More of that later! They are also the owners of one of my favorite jewelry brands, Fabergè, whose famous bejeweled eggs have featured frequently on TheDiamondsGirl's page. I find the link fascinating - they mine gemstones with a 500,000,000 year old history, and are owners of a jewelry brand with a no less impressive heritage! Fabergè eggs were created by the House of Fabergé, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. As many as 69 were created, of which 57 survive today. Virtually all were manufactured under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé between 1885 and 1917. So to my minds eye, clearly Gemfields is a company that values the past, seeks to preserve it, while bringing it into the the 21st century, and exploring new and innovative ways to add value to it, making it relevant for today's markets.

Now let's talk about Kagem - The world’s single-largest producing emerald mine! The 41 square kilometer license area is located in the Ndola Rural Emerald Restricted Area and lies south of Kitwe and west of Ndola, in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province. The mine comprises three open pits, and we spent time in the largest of the three, Chama, which produces one in four of the worlds emeralds. The numbers are staggering - the amount of ore that has to be processed to produce a single carat of rough gemstone is mind boggling! One ton of ore yields .002 or 50 grams of emerald/beryl mix! The mine produces 37,000,000 (yep, that's 37 Million!) carats annually, and supplies 25-30% of global emerald demand.

Our first day began with a mine briefing regarding the history of the mine, and a safety briefing. From there we began a visit to Chama mine. We drove all the way down to the bottom of the pit, and spent time with the miners, watching how they sift through the ore to identify the emerald containing materials. The process is manual, and laborious. Each piece of material is examined, and the ore is separated into known emerald containing components, and unknown ore components. The known material is sent to the sort house for sorting and grading. The unknown components are sent to the wash house for further examination. This was the next stop for us, and we entered the wash house to see the material being cleaned, and sorted on large conveyor belts. The conveyor belts contain ore of different sizes, and the material is sifted through, to find those elusive emeralds! There was great excitement as Bebe identified two emeralds on the conveyor belt. If she ever decides change careers, she will no doubt be offered a position by Gemfields in the wash house!

This took us to the end of the day, we retired to our rooms dirty, dusty, exhausted, but elated from the day's activities. We showered and went to the lake house for dinner, where we met Gemfields CEO Sean Gilbertson, a fellow South African, and enjoyed a tradition "braai" for dinner, known as a barbecue to my fellow Americans!

Day two began bright and early (have I mentioned how hot it was in Zambia? Soooo hot!) with a trip to the sorting house. There we had the pleasure of meeting Jackson Mtonga, Manager of the sort house, and one of the most knowledgeable emerald experts in the world. We were treated to a feast for our eyes, as tables of incredible quality rough emeralds lay before us. Gemfields do not cut the emeralds - pre graded parcels of the rough go to auction, and from there, the new owners cut the emeralds into the polished gemstones we know and love. There was great excitement at the sort house, as a cluster of 187,775 carats of rough emeralds, the Kafubu emerald cluster, had been discovered at the Kagem Emerald Mine, and was coming up for auction in the weeks ahead. Update - "The 37kg Kafubu Cluster, a special interest piece, set a new record as the most expensive single emerald item ever sold by Gemfields". Source: Richa Goyalsikri.

From there we left the mine to spend the rest of the day visiting local communities, keen to better understand the role Gemfields plays in supporting the local communities. From farms to schools to clinics, Gemfields plays an active role in contributing to the growth, empowerment, and sustainability of the communities in the surrounding areas. Most impressive to me was the contribution made to education. We visited an elementary school and a secondary school. At the elementary school we witnessed the construction of new classrooms, and the upgrading of existing classrooms, thanks to donations by Gemfields. After a game of soccer with the kids, we went to the secondary school ( a beautiful campus!) and saw computer laboratories ( all the computers had been donated by Gemfields), science labs, home economic labs, and more... all facilitated and supported by Gemfields. It's never enough - transport is needed to help the students get to school. Meals are required to feed the students. The list is endless. But it was truly gratifying to see that Gemfields have dedicated employees focused on social responsibility programs, whose sole purpose is to focus on the communities, and improve lives. Apart from the stellar social initiatives, each Gemfields job supports 10 people in the region. So the impact they have is significant, and I was thrilled to see how seriously Gemfields takes this responsibility.

Our last night at the mine was spent again at the Lake House, and this time the whole mine (not really, but it felt like it!) was invited for an awards ceremony, where employees were recognized for their contributions to the safety and well-being of the mine. It was a magical experience seeing people being recognized for their efforts, the joy on their faces at being presented with certificates by Sean, as well as by their direct managers, was priceless.

We were fortunate enough to spend time after our incredible mine experience exploring the beauty of Zambia - seeing Victoria Falls, going on sunset cruise on the Zambezi river among hippo's in the water and elephants on the banks - was a wonderful way to end the week. The hospitality and warmth of the Zambian people blew me away, and I left the country filled with African pride, and immense respect for Gemfields, and the entire Kagem team. Thank you to Gemfields for this wonderful, unforgettable experience, a trip of a lifetime!

Lastly - full disclaimer. While our flights and accommodation was covered by Gemfields, I was not paid to write this article, nor did I receive any compensation for going on the trip. I was given full freedom to record what I wished, and to share what I wished. Gemfields opened their operation to us with no expectation of what we would do with the information we learned while there. For that, I'm enormously grateful, as I am able to deliver an unscripted, unbiased view of my experience.

You can take the girl out of Africa, but you will never take Africa out of the girl!


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