Sharing The Rough: An interview with Monica Stephenson

When at Ritani we heard about the filming of new gemstone documentary, Sharing the Rough, we immediately wanted to learn more. Seattle-based jewelry blogger Monica Stephenson, a passionate advocate of the film’s mission, traveled with the crew in Africa and is featured in a number of scenes. We sat down to hear about the experience and listen to her hopes for the gemstone industry’s future in both Africa and the US.

How did you come to be involved in the documentary?

It seems that all roads lead back to social media for me: I saw a very random tweet back in 2013 that said something about a “jewelry documentary.” I was completely intrigued and started communicating with the director, Orin Mazzoni.

What was your experience like as you traveled with the film crew?

Traveling to East Africa was exotic enough, but to layer on the filming was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

We were filming every day. This was an unscripted documentary, unfolding completely organically. I had an opportunity, as part of the film, to see and hear things that would never happen as a tourist: visiting primary schools, climbing down into mines, seeing a dizzying array of rare colored gemstones taken directly from the ground, buying rough gemstones from the dealers there, and meeting incredible people all along the way.

You went into mines and saw rough gemstones being uncovered by the people who work there. What did you learn from that, and how did it feel?

One day, we were at a garnet mine in Kenya, and I overheard the miner’s interviews. It was very moving for me to hear how passionate the miners were about gemstones and mining. They are proud of their careers, and choose to do this over other jobs, like farming. The miners are every bit as enthralled with the rarity and beauty of what they find as a Western gemstone collector would be.

One of the primary reasons I wanted to be involved and travel to East Africa was that I feel a responsibility, as someone who has made a living in the jewelry industry, to truly know where these gemstones come from. When you go to a jewelry show or a gem show such as Tucson, you are surrounded by beauty—it’s easy to take that supposed abundance for granted. Meeting the people who find these gems against all odds and very real hardships made me appreciate gems and the ecosystem of people who find them. I will never take for granted the effort involved to mine, cut, and set a gem again.

gemstone mine

The documentary’s director, Orin Mazzoni, is a trained gemologist and comes from a family of jewelers. What was his vision for Sharing the Rough, and how has that translated into the finished film?

Orin has known the principal character in the film, master gem cutter Roger Dery, for many years, and has always been riveted by stories Roger would tell of his African gem buying adventures. When Orin decided to leave the family business and pursue filmmaking, he thought the story of a gemstone from East Africa, and the tremendous and unlikely journey it makes through faceting and finally ending up in a piece of jewelry, would make a movie that would enthrall an audience. I think the finished film has ended up a remarkable story, beautifully told.

What do you think the documentary will show people about the gemstone mining industry, that they might not already be aware of?

I think people will be surprised at the supreme effort of finding and extracting even one pretty rock from the dirt. But I think the biggest surprise is that gems can do such good in the communities they come from. It’s not just about the movie Blood Diamond and conflict gems. There is hope. There is promise. We just need education in Africa and telling the story to consumers here in the US.

Gemstone cutter Roger Dery is a big supporter of a Maasai primary school, which you visited and called on your blog, ‘the school that gems built’. What responsibilities do you think the wider jewelry industry has to encouraging education and growth in these communities?

I feel that it is imperative for the jewelry community to invest in the source of these minerals. Wealth is generated each time a gem changes hands, and the source, whether it is Africa or Madagascar or Cambodia, rarely extracts significant value. Education is really the key: at a primary level, for the overall benefit of the communities where gems are found, and at a trade level, for evaluating and faceting the gems.

maasai school

There’s a moment in the film where gemstone tour manager Gichuchu Okeno says that what he does is “in my veins, I love it. I love gemstones”, and references his grandfather who had mined for decades. Do you feel that this passion and talent is accurately conveyed to American jewelry customers?

Not currently. That’s the beauty of Sharing the Rough. It can communicate this passion and beauty and perseverance to an audience in a way that only film can accomplish.

Often when people see documentaries like this, they want to take action and become more involved. What would you suggest for jewelry retailers and customers who want to learn more?

Hopefully the film is coming to a city near you, so go see it if you can! You can visit the Facebook page of Sharing the Rough and sign up to receive news about the film and where it is showing at Film Festivals and private screenings around the country. Donations to the schools visited in the film, the Maasai Primary School, and the Arusha Gemmological School, make a huge impact. You can contact myself at monica@idazzle.com or Roger Dery at gemdigital@cs.com to make a donation to the primary school. The Devon Foundation was established by jewelry retailer Nancy Schuring and provides scholarships for the Arusha Gemmological School.

How has being a part of the film changed how you see gemstones and jewelry, both as a customer and person within the industry?

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that being a part of Sharing the Rough has changed my life. I now have a ‘film family’ that communicates frequently. I made a trip back to Tanzania and Kenya last November, and I’m planning another trip for June 2015. I was so inspired by the nascent gem trade there that I have started a responsible gemstone company that connects these gems with US designers who care deeply about the origin of the gems they use. A significant portion of sales will go towards education at the schools mentioned above. It will take a while, but my hope is that ANZA Gems (Anza means begin in Swahili) completes the circle started by the Sharing the Rough story.

gemstone miner

Visit the documentary’s website to learn more.

All photography courtesy of Monica Stephenson and Sharing the Rough