Sunday, 31 May 2009

Fair Trade Gems

Columbia Gem House Inc. is the principle force behind the Quality Assurance and Fair Trade Gems Protocols, more commonly referred to as 'Fair Trade Gems'. This is the standard by which the gemstone industry is measured and has tangible, lasting implications that benefit the global community at large.

Fair Trade Gems are closely tracked from mine to market to ensure that every gem has been handled according to these strict protocols. These protocols include environmental protection, fair labour practices, health and safety standards, and a tight chain of custody that eliminates the possibility of treated gems or synthetics being introduced into the supply chain. At the same time, Fair Trade Gems promote cultural diversity, public education and industry accountability.

The end result will:

1. Demonstrate to the customer where the gemstones originated.

2.Identify what,if any, treatments have been done to the gemstone.

3.Determine that the gemstone is of natural origin and not synthetic or imitation.

4. Confirm that the gemstone was obtained legally.

5. Not support those who utilise business practices such as; employing child labour or slave labour, demanding employees to work exorbitant hours, paying below the standard or minimum wages, destroying the environment, smuggling, or supporting terrorist groups.

6. Not support those who are unethical or non-transparent in any manner.

7. Create desire and instill confidence in the consumer.

8. Help others achieve a higher standard of living.

A Chain of Gold

The Oro Verde ® gold for the Green Gold exhibition was collected by the Community Council from a certified productive family unit. Purchases of gold and platinum occur both at the mines and at the urban centre of the municipality, depending on the local dynamics of each community.

Luis Alfredo Hurtado is the man in charge of buying and selling Oro Verde ® gold.

Cleaned and prepared locally, the gold and platinum is sent to Medellín, where the gold is refined by a local refinery. For transport purposes, Oro Verde ® has established an alliance with a national refinery who, as part of their social responsibility policy, offers the Programme its transport, security and refining platform. At all times the traceability of Oro Verde ® is respected. Oro Verde ® is packed, stored and refined apart from other metals.

The programme then sells and ships the metals to final clients. Receiving the 40g of gold from Oro Verde ®, the question was now what to alloy it with. 24ct gold is very soft and malleable, so for jewellery purposes it is often mixed with silver and copper to make it more durable. The 24ct fair trade and ecological gold from Oro Verde® deserved to be alloyed with metals of a similar integrity. As certified, responsibly mined silver and copper is not yet available on the market, recycled or ‘renewed’ metals proved to be the answer. I approached UK company Cred Sources, who are the first to supply recycled silver and fair trade gold to jewellers. They added their recycled fine silver to my high quality copper wire and created a sheet of 18ct yellow gold for us to work with.

A Lace-like Cuff

Stacey is creating a lace-like cuff from the Oro Verde ® gold, imbued with fair trade gems from Columbia Gem House, for the Green Gold exhibition. The gems are a rainbow palette of pinks, oranges, yellows, blues and greens. Kindly donated by Colombia Gem House, and selected by C.E.O Eric Braunwart personally, we have emeralds from Zambia, aquamarines from Mozambique and rubies & cognac, purple and orange sapphires from Malawi. For good measure we have yellow sapphires from Australia. They are exquisite.

Detail of the trompe l'oeil painting by artist Francis Martin, featuring designs by jeweller Stacey Whale.

Apeiba, Sida Glutinosa and Malachra Rudis

Over time, the Oro Verde ® mining community has identified three plants that work in the opposite way to mercury and cyanide. The local names of the plants are Peine Mono, Escoba Babosa and Malva. Peine Mono (Apeiba) is a tree, while Malva (Malachra Rudis) and Escoba Babosa (Sida Glutinosa) are weedy herbs. The clue is in the name, as the plants are glutinous and the juice from the plants binds the soil, thus separating and extracting the gold from the gravel.

Peine Mono (Apeiba)

Malva (Malachra Rudis)

Escoba Babosa (Sida Glutinosa)

Mercury & Cyanide

When not used responsibly, mercury and cyanide are highly toxic.

Cyanide leaching is used by large mining operations to separate gold from ore. This is done by leaching the rock on engineered, lined pads or by crushing the rock to the consistency of sand, then adding water to form a slurry that is mixed with a cyanide solution. Gold particles bond with the cyanide in solution and are extracted from the slurry. Cyanide pollution is a major concern. A rice-grain sized dose of cyanide can be fatal to humans and concentrations of 1 microgram (one-millionth of a gram) per litre of water can be fatal to fish.

While the wide sale use of cyanide is a relatively recent development, mercury has been used for centuries as a cheap and easy method to extract gold. Like cyanide, it is a deadly toxin. Once mercury enters the environment, its vapors become trapped in the atmosphere, precipitate onto the ground, and run into the water supply. When exposed to organic matter, methyl mercury is formed. This compound is stored in animal fat and accumulates over time, reaching levels in fish that can be thousands or millions of times higher than in the river.

Mercury is still used by small scale artisanal miners because it can extract as much as 60% of the gold. It is mixed with gold bearing mud and gravel into an “amalgam,” which is then burned out with a torch or even over an open fire, releasing mercury vapor into the atmosphere and exposing miners and bystanders to toxic fumes.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Environmental Criteria

In the first instance, families interested in being part of the Oro Verde ® programme contact the Community Councils. The Community Councils, with support from Las Mojarras Foundation, identify the miners that have the potential to be certified and visit them while they are working at their mines. The programme then produces a list of productive family units who comply with the 10 environmental criteria, which is handed over to the independent certifier, IIAP. Currently 7% of the mining families of the two municipalities are part of the programme.


Oro Verde ® precious metal meets the following certification criteria:

1. There is no massive ecological destruction. This state being defined by changes to an ecosystem that places it beyond a possibility of recovery.

2. No toxic chemicals like mercury and cyanide are used in the extraction process.

3. The mined areas gain ecological stability within three years.

4. Topsoil removed from the site is replaced during the exploitation process.

5.Tailings and poolings do not exceed the local ecosystem capacity for rehabilitation.

6.The silt load into stream, river or lake system will be controlled in quantity and frequency, such that the native aquatic ecosystem is not disrupted.

7. The mining operations are conducted with the agreement of the local Community Councils.

8. The origin of gold and platinum (for royalty purposes) is declared in favour of the corresponding municipality.

9. In forested areas mining activities must not exceed 10% of a hectare during rotation periods of two years.

10. Local, regional and national regulations are followed.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Perea Family

In stark contrast to the uncontrolled, mechanised mining, the certified families of the Oro Verde ® programme employ a method of extracting the gold that does not involve the use of mercury, cyanide or machinery and in return receive a direct economic incentive in the form of a premium for their metals. Using traditional, ancestral mining techniques, the miners pan for gold using round, shallow wooden plates and separate the gold from the soil using juice extracted from three different types of plants that grow locally. By extracting the gold in this method, the Oro Verde ® programme is protecting more than 7900 hectares of tropical rainforest. I met with three generations of the Perea family, a certified Oro Verde ® productive family unit.

Gualdino Perea

Eneida Perea.

Gualdino Perea's daughter and son, Juan and Eneida Perea.

Eneida Perea.

Juan Andres, Gualdino's Grandson

Eneida's green gold.

Uncontrolled, mechanised mining

The gold mining development programme is based in an eco-region called the Chocó Bioregion. One of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, this region goes all the way from Panama to Ecuador and from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes mountain range, larger than Costa Rica and second only in size to the Amazon. The verdant rainforest is home to approximately 2750 endemic species.

Uncontrolled, mechanised large-scale mining and logging have destroyed vast swathes of the region, causing devastation of strategic ecosystems, loss of fertile lands and water and soil pollution from mercury.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Community Councils & Las Mojarras Foundation,

The Community Council of Tadó and the Community Council of Condoto are representative figures created in 1993 by a law which gave collective property rights to Afro descendant communities of the Colombian Pacific region over the land they have ancestrally inhabited.

Community Leader Aristarco Mosquera

Along with Las Mojarras Foundation, these community based organisations promote the appropriation and sustainable use of their collective territory and the improvement of the livelihoods of the communities who have been historically excluded from social, political and economic process in the region and the country.

Flight to Quibdó

I joined Guillaume and Sebastion, a photographer and journalist from Paris, and David, a translater from Medellin, on a flight (with propellers) to Quibdó , the capital of the department of Chocó. From here it was a one and a half hour bus journey to the town of Tadó, my base for a few days. The Oro Verde ® programme operates in the two municipalities of Tadó and Condoto, working with 194 certified family units (around 1300 miners).

Detail of the trompe l'oeil painting by Francis Martin of Oro Verde ® miner, Catalina Mosquera. The original photograph was taken by Ronald de Hommel.

The Amigos del Chocó Foundation (AMICHOCO) & the Oro Verde ® programme

The offices of the Amigos del Chocó Foundation (AMICHOCO) and Oro Verde ® are based in Medellin, and it was to here that I travelled to next. I met with Sandra, with whom I had been talking to about the Green Gold exhibition, and watched a presentation about the Certified Oro Verde ® (green gold) programme.

The Oro Verde ® (green gold) Programme in Chocó ( Colombia ) is the first initiative of its kind in the world. It seeks to reverse the devastating damages caused to this unique ecosystem (a biodiversity Hotspot) by out-of-control large scale mining. Currently the initiative is being implemented in co-operation with 12 Afro-Colombian communities, in the municipalities of Condoto and Tadó. The project seeks an active participation from the communities, which are represented by the community councils.
The Oro Verde ® Corporation, which leads this programme, was created in 2000 as an alliance between 2 community councils in Chocó (the Community Council of Alto San Juan - ASOCASAN - and the Community Council of Condoto - CCMC -), a local NGO (Las Mojarras Foundation - Fundamojarras -) and an NGO based in Medellín (Amigos del Chocó Foundation - Amichocó -). The Oro Verde ® programme seeks to promote sustainable development and to support the communities of the Bio-geographic region of Chocó in improving their living conditions. This is done through the implementation of productive projects (forest, mining and livestock), environmental education and capacity building, linking local communities with the national and international community. The main concern has always been for the communities to become empowered and to have them appropriate the projects they undertake with the Oro Verde ® Programme. The projects, which respond to the local reality, always address social, ecological and economical issues.
To present, the work has been focused on the Oro Verde ® Programme and previously on the Analogue Forestry Programme (Analogue Forestry is an alternative method of rehabilitating the forest and restoring the biodiversity of the region, by using species that are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally compatible with the environment).
The Oro Verde ® metals (gold and platinum) are bought from certified miners, who receive a fair price for it and benefit from the programmes that are established to improve their living conditions and foster food security. The gold is then sold to jewellers in Colombia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and other countries. A premium of 15% is charged over the international price of gold and platinum, which is used to finance social and environmental programmes in the region. Each jeweller receives a certificate which attests to the origin and method of extraction of the material they are acquiring, and each end customer receives an informative flyer which differentiates their jewellery from the rest. These flyers inform the end customer about the social and environmental aspects that he/she is promoting through the purchase of a piece of jewellery crafted from Oro Verde ® gold or platinum.
Based on the success of this experience and the need to expand it to other regions, the Alliance of Responsible Mining (ARM) was created. This is a network of independent organizations working in a global-scale effort to promote responsible standards and criteria for artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Saturday, 23 May 2009

La Candelaria Bogotá

La Candelaria is the historical and cultural heart of Bogotá and a great place to wander. I spent two days here, and visited the Museo Botero, which houses paintings, drawings and sculptures donated by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Botero's paintings and sculptures are of exaggerated proportions, informed by a Colombian upbringing and woven with a social commentary.

Next door I visited the Museo Arte Banco de la Republica, the bank's art collection, and admired another Olga de Amaral wall hanging.

Bogotá Botanical Garden

We decided to go to the Bogotá Botanical Garden before Stacey left for London. The Colombian national tree, the Palma de cera or Wax Palm and the Colombian national flower, the Orchid, are found in the Botanical Garden as well as plants from every Colombian region, altitude, and climate.

The heavy rainfall left drops of water on the foliage, which reminded me of the gems set in Stacey's Raindrop jewellery collection.

Market Day

Market day in Villa de Leiva, held on Saturday, is a profusion of colours and scents, as people arrive from the surrounding area to sell their wares.

A local wearing the sombrero vueltiao or sombrero vueltiado (Colombian Spanish for hat with laps), a traditional hat from Colombia and one of its symbols.

Vegetables for sale include onions, garlic, peppers, potatoes, beans, corn, carrots, cauliflowers and leeks. More exotic are the fruits and include feijoa, cherimoya, mora (a type of blackberry), lulo, guanábana (soursop), tree tomato, cape gooseberry (physalis), and my favourite, sweet granadilla.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Muisca Raft

It was gold that brought the Europeans to the New World. When they arrived the Muisca Indians of the Boyacá region were modelling figures in wax and covering them with clay. They then fired them, removed the melted wax and filled the mould with gold. This is known as the lost wax method. Virtually all of today's techniques of the goldsmith were known by the Muisca Indians.

One of the legends of the time was that of El Dorado, a ceremony where a great chieftain covered in gold dust threw large quantities of gold and emeralds to the bottom of a lake. The lake was believed to be Guatavita, which Stacey and I passed on our way to Villa de Leiva.

The Muiscas had been making offerings for a very long time, not only at Guatavita, but at other lakes as well. These ceremonies were governed by sowing and harvest times, and possibly by the movement of stars. The Spaniards misinterpreted the meaning of the offerings however, relating them to a dynastic succession ceremony. For them untold riches of the El Dorado legend could be on the beds of the lakes, and an aggressive exploitation began not unlike the uncontrolled large-scale gold mining in Chocó today. Guatavita lake was virtually destroyed and other lakes seriously affected. Many offerings were recovered during these looting activities but El Dorado was never found.

This golden raft was found inside a large clay container in 1969. The 'Muisca Raft' was made by casting using the lost wax method in a single operation, including the ornaments and hanging plates of the different figures. It is made from a copper and gold alloy, but one where gold is the main element.

My Favourite Blouse

I was to leave my favourite blouse in Villa de Leiva, as I had managed to rip it and it was beyond repair. All was not lost however, as we began to see a link with fabric and the weave, the hidden thread and the filigree work of the Zenú Indians.

I kept the 'gems' and brought them back to London.

Inspirational Images

Stacey delves into the depths of the natural and microscopic world to find inspiration for her creations. These fragments of hidden detail provide a platform from which Stacey creates her award winning, innovative and original pieces of jewellery.

Using a variety of precious stones and lenses, Stacey creates a wide range of high quality sculptural male and female jewellery, handcrafted in gold. Stacey's variety of techniques with a distinct style of craftsmanship, provides a refined balance of strong architectural lines and soft organic shapes and textures, to create a piece of art that is beautiful, functional and visually intriguing.

Below are some of Stacey's inspirational images from Colombia.

Gold artefact from the Gold Museum

Gold artefact from the Gold Museum

Colombian Flora

Lulo Fruit

Detail, La Casa de Terracota


Villa de Leiva surrounds

The countryside surrounding Villa de Leiva is varied, with semi desert to the west, moorland to the east, and a national park that is mainly high cloudforest. Over the course of a few days, we were to be inspired by art and nature, the pale, green landscape taking on a painterly quality.

Stacey and I passed many locals along the way, and were always met with a 'buenos dias'.

Stacey with a friendly local.

Of interest was La Casa de Terracota, a Gaudi-esque construction built entirely out of ceramic tiles extracted from the local area and worked directly onto the building. Practically everything is made of terracotta, including the furniture, and there are interesting mosaics and homewares.

Mawasi Finca

After leaving Bogotá, Stacey and I headed to the artistic community of Villa de Leiva, a colonial town in the department of Boyacá. We stayed with wonderful hosts, Bonnie and William, in a house that they have built with friends, 'Mawasi Finca', Mawasi meaning 'to have found a home from the earth'.

View to the guest cabin from the kitchen

A beautiful setting lit by fireflies at night, Mawasi Finca was a great base from which to explore the surrounding area. Beginning the day with William's breakfasts and ending it with an outdoor shower under the stars was the perfect antidote to the city.

A Mawasi Finca Breakfast

William is also a jeweller and creates pieces of jewellery using the lost wax technique.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Gold Museum of Colombia

I met Stacey Whale, the jeweller attached to the Green Gold exhibition, in Bogotá and together we visited the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, one of the most important collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy in the world. The collection began when the Banco de la República acquired a Quimbaya lime container or poporo, made of gold. Today the collection comprises of 50,000 objects made of metal, ceramic, stone, wood and textiles, of which 35,000 are pieces of pre-Colombian gold work, most of which are found at the Museo del Oro.

Detail of the painting by Francis Martin featuring the Quimbaya lime container or Poporo.

On display is the work of the pre-Colombian indigenous groups that have been identified in Colombian territory, and how they found and worked gold. Each culture had distinctive characteristics which set them apart, and this is presented within a geographical and historical framework. The centrepiece of the museum is the Salon Dorado, a dazzling display of 8000 pieces inside an inner vault.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Colombian Connection Project

In Cartagena I met Kay, a travel writer who introduced me to the rest of the group she was travelling with in Colombia. Led by Alan, and called the Colombian Connection Project, the concept of the journey was to change people’s perception of Colombia whilst acting as a catalyst for change. I joined the group on one of their journeys, exploring the island of Isla Grande. which forms part of the National Park of Corales del Rosario. This reserve comprises of a group of 30 coral islets, 45km southwest of the Bay of Cartegena. Kay and I decided to explore the island by canoe and glided pass red mangrove trees and into mangrove swamps. The trees are known as walking trees due to their long roots. It was very peaceful and idyllic.

Travelling back we journeyed via the Canal del Dique, built by the Spaniards in 1650 as a connection to the Magdalena River, which served as a route to the interior of the continent. The evening was spent in the stylish surrounds of the Santa Clara Hotel, a former church and monastery, and the setting of the story ‘Of Love and Other Demons’ by Gabriel García Márquez. A gold, shimmering wall hanging entranced us, the artist of the work being Olga de Amaral. I was to encounter other pieces of her work during my travels and each piece was as beautiful as the last, very textural and woven.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


In Cartagena, I visited another wonderful museum, the Museo de la Esmeralda, a museum dedicated to the study, gathering and conservation of emeralds. It took a few times to find the ‘real’ Emerald Museum, with a jewellery shop on the same street proudly displaying the sign ‘museo’, and a taxi driver who took me to an emerald factory instead.
The museum has a fantastic array of emeralds in their natural state, some very rare, including the trapiche, which apparently has a waiting list of potential buyers including Spanish royalty. The museum, however, will not part with their prized emerald.

A trapiche emerald exhibits a star pattern, having ray-like spokes of dark carbon impurities that give the emerald a six-pointed radial pattern. It is named after the grinding wheel used to process sugarcane in the region. Colombian emeralds are generally the most prized due to their transparency and fire. Some of the most rare emeralds come from three main emerald mining areas in Colombia, which are Muzo, Coscuez and Chivor in the department of Boyacá.

Colombian emeralds may be highly sought after, but are they ethical. Privatised in 1973, the mines have often been the preserve of cartels and prospectors, with dangerous working conditions being the norm. The work of emerald dealer Ronald Ringsrud is seeking to reverse this trend by introducing the concept of fair trade emeralds in Colombia, working with small-scale, artisanal emerald miners to create safe and fair working conditions, whilst reducing poverty and strenthening communities.

Museo de La Esmeralda - Calle Don Sancho #36-75, Cartagena de Indias

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Cartagena - Museo del Oro Zenú

Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast was my first destination. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena's walled city is an architectural delight, bathed in colour and light. Founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, the city served as Colonial Spain's storage point for treasure, which was collected from the Americas before being shipped to Spain.

First stop was the Museo del Oro Zenú, the Cartagena branch of the Gold Museum in Bogotá. Specialising in gold artifacts from the Caribbean coast of Colombia and the coastal plains, the well-displayed pieces are primarily from the Zenú people and are all between 500 to 2000 years old.

Detail of painting by Francis Martin featuring Filigree earring, Zenú tradition. 200 B.C.-1600 A.D.

Fabrics and the weave played an essential role in the daily and religious life of the Zenúes, the weaving and basketwork industries influencing pottery and metalwork styles. Metalsmiths used the cast filigree technique to make earrings, by weaving or imitating fabrics and plaits in wax threads, which they transformed into metal. They lived amidst a maze of streams, rivers and marshes, and wove together a waterway system made up of an intricate network of canals.