Magnolia’s Monica Stephenson, who has been involved in the gem and jewelry industry for about 20 years, recently had the chance to get involved unlike ever before — by traveling to Africa and seeing the mines where the gems actually come from.
Stephenson started in the industry in college, working for a designer. Now, she splits her time between gems and words, she said. She writes for her own blog, idazzle.com; writes and edits for the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group; and has a loft space where she can show jewelry, meet with clients and host shows.
“When it’s done well, [jewelry] is emotional and it’s beautiful and it’s lasting, and it’s an art form that I think a lot of people can relate to,” she said. “And it tells a story — I am attracted to all of those things.”
Because she publishes online, Stephenson is active on social media. She first came across the documentary “Sharing the Rough” (“STR”) through Twitter. She contacted the director and wrote a piece about the documentary’s Indiegogo campaign. Indiegogo, like many crowd-funding tools, offers donors rewards for their contribution. Stephenson decided she needed to be more involved, so she donated at the highest reward bracket, getting a trip to Africa in return.
“You had me at Africa,” she said.
Going to the source
The film’s unique premise drew Stephenson in. It follows the journey of a gem, from being discovered in the dirt of an African mine, through the cutting process and the jewelry-design process, until it finds its way to an owner who will wear and cherish it.
“To be involved in this industry for so long and to make my living in it, I felt like I needed to see what the origin of this was,” she said.
At the beginning of January, she left to join the film crew as they traveled to mines in Kenya and Tanzania for two weeks.
One of the film’s main stars, gem cutter Roger Dery, travels directly to the source and has made many trips to Africa. Through those trips, he has an established a relationship with a local Maasai tribe, so on Stephenson’s first day in Africa, she visited a Maasai primary school. The access to the school and its 400 children was kind of unprecedented, she said.
Then the group visited a lapidary and gemology school. This school educates students — with the help of foreign scholarships — to work as gem sorters and cutters. Education like this is “another way for Africans to maybe add value to the gem trade there,” Stephenson said.
Some proceeds from the film will benefit the Maasai school and the gemology school.
From there, the teams spent time in the bush of Africa, visiting mines that were mostly filled with garnets. They would travel along bumpy tracks, spotting wildlife like giraffes and ostriches. And the gems that surface would look like “pretty rocks — something a child might pocket,” Stephenson said.
They also visited gem dealers and purchased rough gems that are indigenous to the area.
“These countries are very rich in gems and very poor in actual GDP (gross domestic product) so the gem industry could be one way out of that cycle, but there needs to be a lot more education involved to make that happen,” Stephenson said.
Behind the scenes
“STR” brings two passions together for director Orin Mazzoni, a third-generation jeweler-turned-filmmaker based out of California. A film that follows the jewelry-making process hasn’t been made before, and his film is not sensationalized in the way that a lot of reality TV around gold and jewelry is now, he said.
When Mazzoni offered the Indiegogo perk, he wasn’t sure anybody would bother to take it. But four people did: Stephenson, a photographer from California and two gem collectors.
“Monica was the person we were looking for,” Mazzoni said. “She loves jewelry, is in the business and wants to go to Africa and see what that’s like. She said herself, she’ll never look at gems the same again.”
Stephenson became a fully entrenched member of the team, Mazzoni said. She continues to support the film through her writing. “She’s actually a documentarian of the documentary,” Mazzoni said.
“You should have seen her in Africa,” he said. “She was at home with the natives, the locals, the kids.”
The most impactful experience for Stephenson was meeting the miners: “the people who literally go in barefoot in these mines and work every day to find these little treasures buried in the dirt,” she said.
The miners were passionate about their work and were able to provide a comparatively better quality of life for their families.
Stephenson was skeptical going in about the types of workers and conditions she’d see. There is a structured gem industry that is monitored by the Ministry of Mines, but there’s still a long way to go before the people there can get the full value out of the gems before they leave the country, she said.
“Don’t expect it to be this sensationalistic; it’s not ‘Blood Diamond’ for gemstones,” she said. “But, at the same time, it’s not this glossed-over love letter to the industry.”
Stephenson recorded her impressions on the trip and has turned them into posts for her various blogs. “I want to see them succeed,” she said.
The film crew is now in Michigan, filming the gem as it’s cut.
The team plans to start submitting to film festivals by June 1. Many of the bigger festivals want to be the ones to premiere the film, so an official release is pending.
Once it’s shown in festivals, Mazzoni plans to premiere the film in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and New Jersey. After that, he’d like to get it syndicated either through a cable network like National Geographic or on an online platform like Netflix or Amazon.
“I’m hoping it reaches the widest audience possible,” Stephenson said. “This is an honest portrayal of the hardworking people who are behind the scenes in the gemstone-jewelry business.”
When she left for Africa, Stephenson assumed this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for her. Now, she says, she underestimated just how much of an impact it would make on her perspective and her work. She looks more critically at the gems, wondering who found them and how much they earned for their work. And she’s more interested in philanthropy now.
“I feel like I have X-ray vision now, that shows me the full picture of what that gem is,” she said. “My takeaway is that I feel like a lot of my other jewelry pursuits are sort of frivolous and maybe there are ways the industry can continue to help expand and enable the gem trade at the source.”
For more information on the documentary, visit www.sharingtherough.com.
To read Stephenson’s stories about the trip, visit www.idazzle.com.
To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.