Ethiopia - The People and Their Opals

| 29 min read

There are still five or six countries that I would love to travel to in order to tell the story of the people and their gemstones. But as you can imagine, our adventures to-date have been in the easier to reach countries, in safer places, or those with governments that are happy to grant filming licenses.

I had been desperate to film in Ethiopia for many years. Over the past ten years I have visited all the other east coast African countries and have become fascinated by both their culture and love for nature’s gems. Through South Africa into Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya, I have always been greeted with incredible warmth and friendliness; with huge smiles that seem to mask the hardship that many of these communities face. Intriguingly, even in these distant lands, Mother Nature never buried her treasures near the bigger cities and towns, but always in the most remote of locations. It’s as if she sprinkled her treasure in areas where they could only be discovered by farmers, goat herders and nomadic travellers. Maybe in an attempt to spread wealth to the furthest corners of the planet, Mother Nature inadvertently made her gems extremely difficult for us gem explorers to visit and to tell the story. But we all have a purpose in life and I believe one of mine is to travel to these distant and often inhospitable sources and share the true story of the gem and its people.

I have always been greeted with incredible warmth and friendliness; with huge smiles that seem to mask the hardship that many of these communities face.

Over the past four years we had made numerous attempts to get official filming permits from the Ethiopian government. On many occasions promises got broken and last October when we were told a permit had been granted, I booked my flights only to find, days before departing, that there had been a hitch and we would have to either fly without a permit and hope to get one when we landed, or delay our flights. With my newborn son only two months old, I decided I was not in a position to waste days in a country arguing with officials, so I asked the airline to move my tickets to a date in the future. I had totally forgotten about the rescheduled flights when my assistant Barry walked into my office on the 6th of March and told me everything was sorted. The filming rights had been granted and I was to fly in four days’ time. The only slight issue was that my original Ethiopian Business Visa had elapsed and we would have to apply to the Embassy in London to get one couriered to us. The visa finally arrived on the 10th and we flew out on the 11th. The only other drama was at the airport. I went to open the boot of my car and the catch would not release. All of our camera equipment was in the boot, without which the visit would be a disaster. My car is eleven years old and whilst the engine is sound, the electrics are failing and the computer (no matter how many times I flicked the switch!) would not release the boot. Eventually in a panic I jumped up and down on the boot whilst my cameraman Michael repeatedly flicked the switch. Just as I was about to give up, the catch gave way; we extracted the cameras and ran to the terminal.

Cattle on Road

We touched down just as the sun was rising on a hot and sunny spring morning. The airport in the capital city Addis Ababa is extremely modern and looks a little out of place in its surroundings. Having said that, it is nothing compared to Mumbai’s new multibillion dollar airport, where the contrast of the world’s inequality is shockingly visible for all to see, since on touchdown you realise the majority of the runway perimeter is surrounded by slums.

We cleared customs and entered the arrivals lounge looking for the traditional handmade whiteboard with our names on them, but the lounge was deserted. As it was early morning, I decided to grab a coffee and just wait. I pulled out my travel documents and reread the itinerary. In all of the last minute panic planning back in the UK, I hadn’t even got a phone number for our Ethiopian contacts. I circled the arrivals lounge several times becoming increasingly concerned that maybe we hadn’t organised everything properly when my actions caught the eye of a security guard. He laughed when I told him I might be stranded and he then explained that nobody is allowed into the terminal from outside and that I would most likely find who I was looking for in the car park outside. We eventually found Abay, who was going to escort us to the mines. Abay is a driver by trade, but is really passionate about gemstones, particularly Ethiopian Opals. We would also be travelling with Hailu, who worked for the government as a Geologist.

Ethiopia Landscape

Back in the UK it was impossible to get hold of any Ethiopian currency and as it was so early, none of the Exchange desks at the airport were open. Luckily the banks in the capital opened at 8am, so we dropped into one just before we left the city. Hailu explained that I would need to pay cash for everything during our trip and that it was unlikely over the next five days that we would be able to pay by credit card anywhere. So we estimated I would need around 2000 American dollars’ worth of local currency, so duly handed over the cash to the bank teller and to my surprise a tower of notes some ten inches high was returned.

About ten minutes after getting the mountain of currency, Hailu got a call from the bank and was told that they hadn’t checked the new exchange rate for the day and that there was an error and we needed to return. So we duly turned round the car and went back. To my amazement, it wasn’t that we hadn’t paid enough, but the exchange rate had shifted in our favour and the bank owed us another $17! This really made me smile. It was a degree of honesty that few in the West would envisage of Africa, but in my experience over the years, this is the real African culture. I laughed with the team about how the cost of the lost hour at the bank was far more than $17, but how delighted I was that it had happened. It had put me completely at ease with my journey and had released a little of the tension you always feel when travelling in an unknown country. Especially after the day before I set off, my accountant John Winspear had come into my office and pleaded with me not to go, as the province of Wollo that the mine was situated in was (according to our insurers) deemed not safe for foreign travel.

It was a degree of honesty that few in the West would envisage of Africa, but in my experience over the years, this is the real African culture.

As we drove I asked Abay to tell me a little about the capital Addis Ababa. He explained how its name meant “new flower”, how the city’s population in recent years had rapidly grown to over five million people and how the lifestyle in the city was in stark contrast with the rest of the country. I then asked Hailu about his government office and was surprised to learn that in a country that has over 100 million inhabitants, the government – whilst it had several geologists – didn’t employ a single gemmologist. Any GIA graduates reading this, there is a real opening here! Whilst today in the West we know only of the wonderful Ethiopian Opals, I leaned as we drove that there are also Sapphires, Aquamarines and a discovery of some one hundred million year old natural green Amber. Sadly all of these are currently being exported to China; but I made a note as later in the week I would be meeting my export contact Yonus.

Ethiopian Village

Next Abay told me all about the local discovery of the oldest human on the planet. He explained in great detail about the discovery. “Do you know why in 1974 they named the fossilised remains Lucy?”, Abay asked. I confessed that I didn’t. He explained that whilst the Archaeologists were digging, the airwaves of the radio were repeatedly playing “Lucy in the sky with Diamonds”. The discovery dated the beginning of mankind to 3.3 million years ago. A few years later a second discovery led to the more precise dating of 3.6 million years ago.

Earlier in the bank, I heard Hailu deliver an extremely long word, or a string of words, that seemed to represent a thank you. He told me that the Amharic (the Ethiopian national language) was ameseginalehu, which is pronounced amasir- gurnar-low. This was going to take some getting used to! Whilst there is a national language, in such a diverse country, with so many different cultures, different terrains and ways of life, there were now over eighty recognised languages.

In such a diverse country, with so many different cultures, different terrains and ways of life, there were now over eighty recognised languages.

The seasons in Ethiopia are the same as in Europe and America. Whilst to the East of Ethiopia there is the Danakil Desert which sits below sea level and is possibly the hottest terrain on the planet, we were travelling in the middle of the country and on this Spring morning in March the temperature was pleasantly in the late twenties. Ten minutes or so out of the city and we were in the rolling green countryside. Here nature’s landscape was extremely beautiful, but within earshot of the sprawling city, the way of life for its rural inhabitants was extremely different. Gone were the tower blocks, glass windows, street lights, hot and cold tap water; in no distance at all they were replaced by mud huts, communal water wells and open windows.

Ethiopian Opals

Literally every mile or two along the road we would pass by a settlement and everyone shared strikingly similar characteristics. There seemed to always be someone ploughing a field, not with a modern tractor, but by two cows pulling a wooden plough. There was always at least one or two ladies carrying bales of firewood on their heads and for entertainment it appeared as if each settlement had at least one table football either under a tarpaulin cover or in an open sided small shack. There always seemed to be a small boy of four or five years old herding half a dozen goats, whilst other young children sat on the step of their homes frantically waving at these two strange white characters hanging out of a car window with their strange camera equipment. There would always be children carrying bright yellow containers of water in each hand, or some leading a donkey with up to a dozen containers tied to its back.

In every settlement there were many donkeys and Abay explained that other than China, Ethiopia has the world’s largest number of donkeys.

In every settlement there were many donkeys and Abay explained that other than China, Ethiopia has the world’s largest number of donkeys. And when it comes to donkeys per square mile, not even China comes close. “Whilst I am boasting about our donkeys, we also have more cattle than any other country in Africa,” Abay told me.

Ethiopia Mine

I asked Abay “With so many donkeys, why is there a need for children to carry the heavy water containers and ladies to have to carry so much firewood?” He explained that you couldn’t just claim a wild donkey you had to buy it from the government. Each donkey cost $100 (£60) and that was a huge amount for these rural settlers. Even if you could afford it, you would also have to make sure you could feed it and that would take extra land and more time maintaining it. I explained to Abay that I have spent much time over the years with the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and had expected these remote areas of Ethiopia to be similarly nomadic. Abay explained that in the south of Ethiopia, the Hamar tribe were similar to the Maasai and constantly travelled with their cattle from area to area, but here in middle of the country, everyone tended to settle.

As we drove further north, there was a new addition to the settlements – camels! Hundreds of them! In these communities, the lighter loads such as sacks of grain, firewood and water were being carried by the donkeys, whilst the heavier loads for constructing dwellings or fences were either being carried or towed by camels. Interestingly, every settlement had horses too, but during the entire drive, I never once saw them working or being ridden. We must have passed through two to three hundred settlements on our drive. Without exception, none had what you or I would class as a shop, none had a single pane of glass in their windows or a car or motorbike on a driveway. All of the water for washing and drinking was collected from wells or streams and was carried to the home. While you or I might desperately spend two minutes in a supermarket car park, driving endlessly around and around battling for a parking space as close to the entrance as possible, everything that is consumed here in rural Ethiopia is grown in the community and then carried to the home by donkey or on foot.

After twelve hours on the road, we decided to spend the night in a small town called Dessie. This, as it turns out, was a great place to split up the journey. All of the first day was spent driving on a well constructed road built by the government and tomorrow, the second we left the town, we would immediately hit a gravel and dirt track for seventy miles to the Opal mines of Wegeltena. Before sunrise, we crept out of bed and jumped into our 4x4 and set off continuing in a northerly direction. The first thing that struck me was that there was a chill in the air. Abay explained that Dessie was located well above sea level and that especially in December and January it could get very cold here. But as the sun began to rise I could see we were again passing lots of remote settlements with houses that looked more like the tree houses we might build for our kids, rather than somewhere to live in during these cold months. I asked Abay, “How do people keep warm?” He simply replied “They don’t, it’s damn cold at night”.

Today’s journey would follow the floor of the Ziya Valley for over thirty miles, and then we would twist and turn around several mountains before eventually climbing a dirt/gravel road to an altitude of over 3000 metres to reach Wegeltena.

During the entire drive, we were following the course of a new road construction. This road was being built by the Ethiopian government, with the aid of a huge Chinese company, and would stretch over 90 miles north of Dessie. This construction was the biggest project I have ever witnessed. As we drove, the old gravel track we were travelling on repeatedly crossed backwards and forwards over the unopened new construction. The old road was in the bottom of the valley and during the rainy season in June, July and August, it was completely covered by a river. The new road was being built on higher ground so that the northern region was not cut off for an entire season.

Abay asked Michael and I if we were enjoying our African massage. It certainly felt like one and by the time we arrived at Wegeltena I felt as if I had just spent three hours in a boxing ring. But let me backtrack to the ascent of the mountain. As you leave the riverbed on the valley floor, you start to ascend one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. It’s a cross between the Grand Canyon and the Swiss Alps in the summer.

By the time we arrived at Wegeltena I felt as if I had just spent three hours in a boxing ring.

The only difference is you are about to travel 14 miles up a continuous ascent, on a gravelly road, constantly on a cliff edge without any safety barriers. Now I might be known for my adventures in Africa, for walking to the North Pole and sailing a small boat across the Atlantic, but one thing that I don’t like is heights and being close to an edge with a vertical drop scared the living daylights out of me!

Travelling across Ethiopia

The road was so treacherous and broken in places that the ascent took almost an hour. As we turned the last corner at the very top, the road flattened and in front of us was the most magical and unusual geological scene I had ever witnessed.

Unlike the peaks of Mont Blanc, Everest and Kilimanjaro, here the tip flattened out into a ridge. The ridge varies from 200 to 400 yards wide in places and is around two miles long. It is just surreal. As we drove, we saw dozens and dozens of families walking in the same direction on their way to the Saturday market. I struggled to take it all in. We had just climbed 3000 metres (that’s higher than most of the mountains in the Alps) and at 3000 metres in Europe there is snow on the ground all year round. But here, the daytime temperature is still in the 20s and we were about to arrive at a village of over 7000 inhabitants, all living at more than 3000 metres! It's just incredible. As if life couldn’t get any stranger, I looked out of the car window and saw hundreds of baboons sitting on the edge of the cliff, looking out and admiring the view across the valley. It almost felt like they were saying to me, “This is the best view on the planet – and we love Opals too.”

We had just driven for one and a half days and been bumped, shaken and at times almost scared to death. But as we entered Wegeltena, all of that was instantly forgotten and the excitement of arriving at a place I had longed to visit kicked in. The settlement in appearance was like all the others we had driven through during the preceding two days, but on arrival I immediately noticed something different. Here there were many motorbikes, a few cars and lots of people on mobile phones. There were still no glass windows, but everywhere I looked the main street was full of smiles and an atmosphere of prosperity and adventure.

We stopped at the government's mining office, which was little more than a nicely painted shack. Here, we were introduced to Berhun, the Mining Officer for the town. I have met a lot of mining officials over the years, but Berhun was so different. His smile extended from ear to ear, he was delighted to welcome us and was constantly thanking us for travelling all this way to tell the story of the Wegeltena people and their magical discovery. Berhun jumped into his 4x4 and sped off to the local police station, where he went to get an armed guard to accompany us. I tried to tell him at length that I felt this was absolutely not necessary, but he insisted and said that because security was so tight and many of the miners would never have seen Europeans before (not to mention how unusual it would be for there to be camera crew documenting everything) he thought it was best to play safe, so we reluctantly conceded this disagreement. He had also been informed that we were bringing with us a drone (a kind of small helicopter with a camera attached to it that we use for aerial shots) and he was worried that people might climb aboard! Something obviously had been lost in translation at this point, as the drone fits into a family sized suitcase!

Berhun jumped into his 4x4 and sped off to the local police station, where he went to get an armed guard to accompany us.

So we picked up the policeman, armed with an AK-47 and a smile that could win a national award. He was so lovely and kind, and he spoke broken English that he had taught himself at home. I asked him his name, but I couldn’t quite understand it, so instead I started referring to him as Policeman, which he seemed to really like. We set off for the mine but within moments again we had come to a stop. Policeman jumped out and went into a painted bright blue home and shortly after came back out with two young men. He opened up the back of the 4x4 and they jumped in. I asked Policeman if we were just giving them a lift, but he laughed and explained that as the walk was going to be around two hours, he had asked them to come along and carry our camera equipment for us. This incredible act of thoughtfulness made me feel like a real adventurer!

I had waited for years to come to this mine, was I really going to let my small fear of heights (especially on cliff edges) get the better of me?

In the now very crowded 4x4, with four of us and an AK-47 squeezed on the back seat and our two porters sitting on all our camera equipment in the boot, we travelled out of the village for about one mile and descended around 400 metres. We parked up our vehicle, literally fell out of the doors and set off on foot. We first walked through a wooded area where the trees protected us from the now searing heat, and arrived at the cliff edge. I asked if we could stop so that I could take some photos, but really this was a cover-up so I could calm my nerves. I had waited for years to come to this mine, was I really going to let my small fear of heights (especially on cliff edges) get the better of me? I started to get the feeling that Hailu was on to my weakness and had cottoned on as to why I had stood there almost motionless for a few minutes. So in fear of being uncovered I began to slowly put one foot in front of the other and carry on. My cameraman Michael then decided he wanted to film me walking along the ridge and descending down a small rock face. As his camera started to roll, he stepped backwards, lost his footing and went head over heels. I was so worried about him, but he soon stood back up and shouted, “Don’t worry, I'm still filming!” Tragedy averted, I now felt more at ease and the rest of the walk went without incident. Well, other than it was now baking hot and the thin air at this high altitude was starting to burn us both. I had also accidently left the sun cream in the 4x4. After about an hour we arrived at the depleted main seam, which was mined for around 10 years. I had studied, in great detail, the only two photographs of the Opal mining area that have been widely circulated, so the rock face looked very familiar to me. But the photos (that I am sure many reading this may have seen on our TV shows) were taken from across the valley and did not tell the whole story. In the trade we had learned all our information about the Wegeltena deposit third hand. As far as I am a ware, nobody before had come to Wegeltena to meet the people and tell their story.

Steve with the Miners

In the trade, we have always believed that the gem-bearing seam was one metre high and only a few metres deep. Whilst it is true that the seam is only one metre in height, many of the mines go up to 100 metres deep into the mountain. Now that’s really impressive. Why? Well, they don’t use any explosives and when you come out of the mining shaft, within a couple of metres you are on the cliff edge. One misplaced footing here and there’s a vertical drop so high that you would certainly meet the maker of our gemstones if you fell.

As he was so excited to show us the new mining area to the west of the old deposit, Berhun tried to hurry us along. Whilst Michael and I continued to take the odd photograph, we were moving along quite slowly so as to be sure not to lose our balance. The policeman and the porters were taking it in turns carrying our camera equipment and even with the extra load they seemed twice as quick as us and almost oblivious to the sheer drop we were walking along. I guess if you have lived on a plateau, with vertical drops all around you for your entire life, you probably don’t even think about them.

Eventually, with our backs to the wall, we traversed around a steep and narrow corner. I had one eye looking down to the valley floor some 3000 metres below us, and with the other eye I spotted a nearby hive of activity. We sat down, took a deep breath, and through Hailu’s translation started to fire question after question at several artisanal miners, all of whom were bemused to see two severely sunburned foreigners yielding weird looking objects for their documentary. After an hour or so of making lots of acquaintances and venturing deep into several mine shafts, I leaned to Michael and said, “Come on let's get the drone in the sky.”

As soon as he opened up the suitcase carrying our small helicopter, virtually the entire mining community came to a halt and a large group of intrigued gem explorers encircled Michael as he started to rev up the propeller blades. As it took off from the ground, rising from the middle of a group of excited locals, the roar of laughter and look of astonishment on everyone’s face was one of the most wonderful shared experiences I have ever had. As the drone rose high into the sky, everyone was jumping up and down with uncontrollable excitement and not a single miner took their eyes off the drone for the entire 10 minutes it was flying in the sky. Even the two donkeys on the cliff edge seemed to gaze in disbelief !

After landing the drone, any remaining unease in the atmosphere seemed to completely evaporate and we no longer felt like strangers. Miners were literally begging us to come into their small tunnels to see what gems they had unearthed. Even Policeman relaxed and propped his AK-47 up against a rock. Berhun seemed really delighted that everything had gone so smoothly too.

What did we discover? Firstly, the people of Wegeltena love their Opals. This love affair seems to run deeper than the wealth it has ultimately brought to their community. Up here the altitude makes the air thin, but the air is full of joyful optimism. Of the hundreds of settlements we had driven through to get here, Wegeltena felt different. The Opals here seem to have spread hope, happiness and above all, heart.

Wegeltena felt different. The Opals here seem to have spread hope, happiness and above all, heart.

One miner insisted I called him Rooney. I am sure that was not his real name, as the village, with their new satellite dishes on many bars, seems to be obsessed with the English Premiership. I thought to myself that he is most likely a (very) remote Manchester United fan. Rooney began to tell me about mining the Opals. He explained how in the beginning, to avoid the three hour walk down the main road from the village and then onwards on the descending route which we had just done, he and many of his friends would instead abseil down the cliff face early in the morning. They would then work all day and walk back in the evening. But, with a knowing glance at Berhun, he told us the authorities eventually stopped them from doing that. “Several of my friends now have cars, so we drive to where you got out of your car and we walk the same path every day," he said. I explained to Rooney that I was once told that miners drove four hours to get to the mine every day, but Rooney explained, “Maybe that’s because nobody had visited the plateau before and did not know about Wegeltena, so maybe they thought the miners travelled daily from Dessie”.

Let me explain the current mining operation. On the far side of the mountain, which we did not visit, they’re effectively mining the opposite side of the same gem bearing seam. Apparently, this is a similar sized operation, but the play of colour is said to be not quite as impressive as that which is coming out of the face at which we were stood. Plus, sadly, they believe there is still a lot of illegal mining activity on that side. I did ask if we could visit there, but Hailu said, “Steve, you really struggled to get to this site. No disrespect, but you just couldn’t get down the other side.” That was enough for me! If this was the better Opal, then I was more interested to stay on this side and to tell the story of this amazing group of men. Rooney explained how they all worked as a co-operative. They divided into small teams of about five to six people and each team worked a different mine shaft. The shafts all ran horizontally into the mountain and I was told they all varied between 100 and 200 ar ms in length.

Steve, it’s like this. In the West you have watches, but here in Ethiopia we have time.

I asked what an arm was. Hailu explained to me what Rooney was trying to say. “Steve, it’s like this. In the West you have watches, but here in Ethiopia we have time. Likewise we don’t measure distance in metres, any such measurement means nothing. When we are mining we measure in arms. Interestingly, from the tip of the finger to the elbow, that’s about half a metre. So when Rooney says two arms, he means one metre. If he says he has now mined a tunnel 200 arms long, it is about 100 metres. They also have no clue about carats, grams and kilos, so ask him how much he has found this week,” Hailu said. So I did, and Rooney cupped his hands to explain that he had found a handful of pieces that, as they looked very beautiful, would fetch a good price, and that five pieces were sent by God, and that he would make extremely good money from them. He went on to show me a few pieces that, even in this rough state straight out of the ground, I knew were pieces that in five or six months’ time would most likely be cut by one of my lapidarist teams in Jaipur.

In all I counted 80 to 90 artisanal miners in the cooperative. It would have been impossible to count this if it wasn’t for our filming with the drone. For that 10 minute period, everyone was outside of their tunnels watching this very novel event. Rooney later explained that other than birds, he had never seen anything else fly in the sky.

When the miners divide themselves into small teams of five or six, they take it in turns to do the three main mining tasks. The first, with a small hammer and a pick, will work on chipping away at the rock face looking for Opals, whilst at the same time extending the tunnel further into the mountain. He does this under torchlight, all the time diligently searching for any sign of Opal. The next task is to take the rubble back out of the tunnel. This is done by putting big yellow containers on their sides and slicing them in half. The halves then act as a bucket and the miner will drag them out of the tunnel. At the tunnel face, the third separate task would be to search through the rubble to see if the sunlight reveals any more pieces that the miner may have missed at the rock face. The tunnels are really tiny though. At most they are a metre high. I asked Rooney why they didn’t make them higher and he told me in no uncertain words that it would be a waste of energy and time. He explained that the height was exactly the same height as the Opal seam.

I wanted to find out what the miners truly thought of the Opal, and if there was any spiritual connection between them and this treasure of nature. Rooney explained that the Opal was from God. It had transformed his family life. He said it was hard work and on some days when he found nothing, it could be soul destroying. But every day he started out hopeful that today will be the day he finds the finest piece of his life. That hope, he explained, made his life truly exciting. He loved Opal, he loved his community and Rooney thanked us repeatedly for bringing the gemstone to others.

All over Africa, in every remote gem mining village, you can see the effect that the discovery has had on the community. These communities are always those in the most inhospitable areas of all. Here at Wegeltena, they are on a remote plateau 3000 metres above sea level. On top of this, Policeman explained to me that the village is not just about gemstones, people up here also find the altitude very fresh and extremely spiritual. Another thing I always observe in these communities is, as Rooney says, hope.

The village is not just about gemstones, people up here also find the altitude very fresh and extremely spiritual.

One of the problems for other rural communities in Africa is that it's almost impossible for them to dream. It must seem like there’s no way out of their lifestyle of subsistence farming. If the entire family is not attending to livestock, working the fields and fetching water, how can they survive? Breaking that never-ending circle of daily survival is why the West, over the last 20 or so generations, has developed at a rapid pace, whilst in rural settlements of Africa, life is little different to the way we all lived 1000 years ago in England.

In gem mining communities, the wealth from the gems is a life changer. All of a sudden, a portion of the village is not focusing on subsistence farming for survival, but on creating wealth instead. This not only generates funds for themselves, but at the same time means someone else can open a store to sell goods to those involved with the gems, hence also moving their families away from subsistence farming and so on and so on.

Two days later, back in the capital Addis Ababa, I met back up with Yonus, who is a licensed exporter for Opal. As with all developing countries, I need someone like Yonus in every one as governments are constantly changing the laws on both exporting and taxes. One of the things that the Ethiopian government have done is to keep changing the rules on the export of gemstone rough. Quite rightly, they believe if the export is banned and the gems are cut in Ethiopia, more of the wealth stays in Ethiopia, and I applaud them for this. In fact, my good friend Yianni Melas and I are always working with governments to help them set up in-country cutting. Yianni has named it the CATS project, which stands for Cut At The Source. Whilst we completely support gems being cut at the source, it should only ever become law once there is sufficient capacity of well-trained lapidarists that can offer the same quality as cutting houses abroad. Sadly, in Ethiopia this is not yet the case. If governments try and do it too early, then the poor quality cutting actually lowers the value of the gem and everyone loses out. I explained to Yonus that three years ago, I worked with the Pakistan government and took 20 female lapidarists to Jaipur and for one year we trained them to cut beautiful gemstones. Now they are back in Pakistan cutting to a fantastic standard that we are more than happy to import. We truly want to support cutting at source where there are sufficient gemstones to warrant the investment. Our vision would be that our own cutting houses only cut gems that are from places where the quantity is so small that it's not feasible to cut locally. As we finished our meeting, Yonus showed me some examples of the local Aquamarine and Ruby and whilst they were opaque, I felt they would look really nice in the Sarah Bennett collection and he agreed to send us some samples. It was an amazing adventure. The people of Wegeltena were a delight to spend time with and I will never forget the trek to the mine, the faces of the gem miners as we launched our drone, or the wonderful stories the miners shared with us on that very high and spiritual rock face.


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