New York—Since launching as a marketplace to connect ASM miners with buyers
during the pandemic, Virtu Gem has expanded its efforts to bring equity to the colored stone sector.
It has already created a few gem cutting programs designed to help women in the trade learn the skill.
Now, it’s again targeting faceting with an online course to design specialty gemstone cuts for Virtu Gem partner countries.
The aim is to create more jobs as well as provide a value-add proposition for these countries through an innovative product unlike others found on the market.
The Nomad Jeweler’s Jessica Hudson and Susan Wheeler, designer and founder of The Responsible Jewelry Transformative, said they already enlisted Adriano Mol, head of the Center for Gemstone and Jewelry Design at the University of Minas Gerais State, for workshops to encourage more diverse cuts.
After an initial positive response, they decided to expand it to create the National Gem Cut Course.
Supported by the World Bank, the new class sets a unique goal: to collaboratively create a national gemstone cut for the three countries where Virtu Gem
operates: Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya.
The inspiration for developing a national gem cut stemmed from a piece created by Mol and Fernando Maculan
that features Brazilian amethysts carved in formation of the topographic view of the country’s Itaimbezinho canyon.
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The goal is to have one fully developed cut for each country and several design concepts the students can follow up on later.
“By doing so we hope to contribute to product innovation, and improve the production and market sustainability of the associated artisans,” Mol told National Jeweler over email.
They are focusing on one gem variety per country so they can optimize cuts to each. Amethyst will be used for the Zambian cut and pink garnet for Malawi. As of press time, the project was still deciding between yellow tourmaline and green garnet for Kenya.
The online class is open to anyone in the gemstone trade at all skill levels. So far it includes more than 50 people.
“Since the objective of the training is creative problem solving, everyone can contribute, from the beginner students to the 30-plus-years experienced cutters,” Mol said.
“Based on my experience with gemstone producing communities in Brazil, every initiative has to start from the bottom up, to adapt for the environment and to promote instruments to reinforce the uniqueness of the local production. It makes no sense for me to import gemstone cutting know-how from Brazil, the U.S., Germany, or China to the cutters in East Africa, but to respect their own.”
The students have taken inspiration from culturally significant aspects of their country to develop their ideas for a national gem cut.
The Malawi National Gem Cut, for example, will be based on colorful fish called cichlids, found in Lake Malawi.
The class holds weekly meetings, in which the students are mostly separated according to country of residence.
Before advancing each step, the whole group is asked to bring forth their opinions so everyone has a say. When a consensus is reached, they move on to the next phase.
They are now in the final phase, which includes assisting in the production and marketing of stones, gathering feedback, and more. They are also fine-tuning the cut for Zambia and for Malawi, as well as weighing three options in Kenya before choosing the final.
Virtu Gem has also involved schools and groups in each country, which support the project, engage the students, and allocate professionals, materials, and a place for gem cutting.
They are the Gemstone Processing & Lapidary Training Centre in Ndola, Zambia; the Voi Gemstone Cutting and Value Addition Centre in Kenya; Nyasa Lapidary & ASM Training Centre in Lilongwe, Malawi; and the Mzimba Gemstone Mining Cooperative in Malawi.
“The gem cutting program is a great initiative which seeks to empower gem cutters in source countries with advanced innovative cutting skills. For a very long time, gems from source countries are being cut elsewhere, which has always deprived skills development and revenue,” Chiko Manda, Virtu Gem’s country coordinator for Malawi said.
“Therefore, this program intends to reverse the current trend by promoting in-country gem cutting through skills development by developing the national cuts attributed to the source country’s national heritage. The cutters will collectively develop a cut association with their countries. By doing this, they are contributing towards something big and a national pride.”
Wheeler confirmed they plan to expand the program but noted they can’t yet divulge which countries will be on board next.
In the meantime, Virtu Gem will have a display of the cut prototypes from each country at the upcoming Ethical Gem Fair, scheduled for Jan. 29-Feb. 1 at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.
“Besides the fact that students can think outside the box in terms of cuts, the vital lesson to many is that one must learn to do several sketches or pencil drawing of designs before arriving at the ultimate cut. They have also realized that branding is beneficial when it comes to marketing,” said Lameck Thole, head of skills training at the Gemstone Processing and Lapidary Training Centre in Zambia.
“It is a welcome initiative. All believe that it will help in improving the quality of cutting and boost business for the locals, especially [since] Virtu Gem is now standing in as a front to market the capabilities of Zambian Cutters as well as Zambian gemstones.”