How did you get your start in the gemstone business?
My personal journey into the gemstone business happened out of sheer coincidence. I graduated as a Chartered Accountant in India and moved to the United Kingdom to work for the world’s largest plastic tube manufacturing company. I had by then specialized in business turnaround, project management and start-ups. In 2007, I moved to London with the intention of taking a more stationary job with less travel requirements, and so I joined a start-up private equity house where my journey in colored gemstones really began.
First, I became involved in the acquisition of the once-AIM-listed company Gemfields, which at the time had only one emerald operating mine in Zambia. In 2009, when Gemfields had financial trouble due to heavy losses and share-price had collapsed, the private equity house asked me to help turn around the business. This is really when the colored gemstone sector became an integral part of my life and career. Between the key management team and I, we were not only successful in turning Gemfields’ business around, but we were able to build the world’s largest ruby mine in Mozambique and the world’s largest emerald mine in Zambia.
I moved on from Gemfields in October 2016 and – in association with a Canadian private merchant bank, Forbes and Manhattan – launched Fura Gems. Stan Bharti, Chairman of Forbes and Manhattan wanted to enter the emerald mining business in Colombia and called me up for advice. It was a classic “meeting of minds” and we quickly decided to work together. Thus, Fura was born. Fura Gems Inc eventually became a TSX-V listed company, with the ticker FURA.V.
We have come a long way since January 2017; from acquiring the iconic Coscuez emerald mine in Colombia, to becoming the largest ruby land owner in the main ruby producing belt in Mozambique, to the strengthening of our management team, which has over 75 years of experience in the gemstone mining and marketing sector. Fura now has two solid operating platforms: rubies in Mozambique and emeralds in Colombia.
Fura is going to stick to its core mission and continue to do what it knows best: the mining and marketing of colored gemstones, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. We are not a vertically integrated business; we mine, grade, and sell rough gemstones. We do not and will never cut and polish these gemstones. Above all, we are an employee-friendly, sustainability-driven, community-centered enterprise.
How important is the Coscuez Mine to Colombian culture?
Coscuez has been producing emeralds for over 400 years. The history and the legacy of Coscuez is unparalleled; in a way, Coscuez is to Colombia what Kimberly is to South Africa.
In the 1970s, Coscuez used to produce as much as 90% of all of Colombia’s emeralds, which translates to almost 50% of the world’s emeralds by value. Coscuez has produced some of the most iconic emeralds in Colombia’s history, including the Guinness emerald, a 1758 perfect emerald. Many of the Coscuez emeralds have been used by leading global brands and have been auctioned by some of the most famous auction houses in the world.
What led to the closing of the mine?
The mine was never closed; it was essentially reduced to a small-scale mine as a result of the green war. During this time, people just went and dug tunnels wherever they thought they could smell emeralds. There was no science behind it. People just thought they would dig tunnels and get emeralds. However, this strategy didn’t work; people didn’t find emeralds, and that led to a massive slowdown. At Fura, we saw an opportunity to bring the mine back to its former glory, but in a vastly more organized and ethical manner. We intend to develop this historic mine, and we believe Coscuez will ultimately become one of the world’s largest emerald-producing mines.
Out of the near 50 mines in Colombia, why reopen the Coscuez mine?
As I mentioned, the history of Coscuez is unparalleled. Our chief geologist believes that although the mine has been producing for over 400 years, it has barely been scratched on the surface, and the main resource is still very much there. According to our research, this mine will continue to produce, at a minimum, for the next 25 years, with the potential to extend that time frame much further. It is simply next to impossible to find a colored gemstone mine like Coscuez.
We are very proud to say that we have immense support from the community in which we operate, which provides us the ability to operate in a completely open, transparent environment. Our Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, along with our continuous engagement with the community, provides us a work environment that is thankfully peaceful and supported by community residents. Additionally, the Colombian government and the Mining Agency in Colombia, including local authorities, have been very supportive of the initiatives that we have taken thus far.
Given our emphasis on building an above-all ethical mining and marketing company, we have done comprehensive background checks of our local partners. Also, with our status as a listed company, we are governed by the highest level of corporate governance and we regularly ensure that all statutory requirements are met. As Coscuez has ticked all the boxes that we need to build an ethical, long-term sustainable model, we decided to work with this mine. We acquired 76% interest in the mine, with the balance held by our local partner.
Has the reopening of the mine had an impact on the Columbian workforce at all? If so, how?
It has certainly had a very positive impact. In the short nine months since we concluded the agreement, we have a work force of around 250 people at Coscuez, and 242 of them are local Colombians. Each of our employees has proper work contracts, are paid salaries, and get all employment benefits, including insurance, pensions, and others. We also provide our employees comprehensive training on health and safety and ensure that this training takes place at regular intervals, so that they remain up-to-date with all health and safety rules. As we grow our business, our work force will increase, and we will always strive to retain a large percentage of Colombia employees in our workforce.
How important is tourism for Colombia?
Tourism is important for every country. Happy tourists become de facto brand ambassadors for the counties they visit. Colombia in particular is a blessed country. It is geographically beautiful, of course, with its vast mountains and oceans. But the real strength of the country is its people, who are remarkably welcoming, warm, and friendly.
Unfortunately, there remain some negative attitudes in the West about Colombia regarding its safety, due to its history. However, these attitudes are now false, and misleading. The country is currently going through a highly positive transformation, and we are quite confident that the number of tourists to Colombia will grow rapidly over the coming years.
What sort of decline did Colombia’s emerald trade see due to the war? How do you hope to bring the trade back to prominence?
We understand that Colombia at its peak used to produce about 10 million carats of emeralds, with an export value of about $500 to 600 million. That has dropped to about 2 million carats now, with a value of about $250 million.
We hope with modern, large-scale mining we will be able to increase the production in Coscuez. As production increases, the consumption level will increase as well. We will also be marketing our products both at the trade level and at the consumer level. This will help build up the knowledge of and demand for the category. The demand is already there; we just need the supply. From Hollywood to Bollywood, from business people to corporate executives, the Colombian emerald remains one of the most highly desired products among gemstone collectors and enthusiasts.
Why is it important to you that people experience the beauty of Colombia?
Colombia is the hidden jewel of South America. People have avoided visiting the country because of its past legacy. But that is firmly in the past. We are now seeing the emergence of a new Colombia, which is evolving with each passing day. The country is quickly becoming a center for arts, fashion, artisanal coffee, emeralds, and so much more. Visitors should really come and witness the evolution of the country for themselves.
What steps are you and Fura taking to help Colombia rise as a leader in tourism and business?
Fura’s marketing and public relations campaign will continue to promote its countries of origin in a big way. Fura has already promoted Colombia tourism through its social media platforms, including its local events, people, communities and more. We hope to ramp up our global PR campaign in the months to come. We also plan to bring influential journalists to Colombia to give them a first-hand experience of the country, its people, its culture, its emeralds, and its fantastic tourist destinations.