Bonds of Gold

Assheton Stewart Carter reports from the Cannes International Film Festival at the launch of the GCC Chopard Sustainable Journey and presentation of the first Fairmined luxury jewellery collection on the Red Carpet

There is nothing unusual about beautiful women admiring jewellery in a boutique of an über luxury brand, even when those women are Academy-award winning actresses Jane Fonda and Marion Cotillard, British model Laura Bailey, and Chinese film and fashion icon Fan Bingbing. This is, after all, the Cannes International Film Festival, where creativity, beauty and business intertwine. But the diamond encrusted gold bracelet and earrings being viewed in the terrace suit of the Hotel Martinez are anything but usual. This is the launch of Chopard’s Green Carpet Collection, an initiative catalysed by Eco-Age’s Livia Firth and the most recent milestone in the Green Carpet Challenge. The gold has been on a unique journey, from South American mine to the French Riviera. The gold and diamonds used are traceable to certified responsible mines and, by sourcing directly, Chopard promises to make a real difference in the lives of some of the most marginalised communities in South America.

Meet Rosa Maria Rosero Mora. Single mother of three, community leader and miner, Rosa is from the small municipality of La Llanada, a village which hugs the hills of the eponymous mountain range in Nariño, South-west Colombia, an area which borders Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place and falls in to the Choco biodiversity hotspot. It is an area accustomed to adventurers seeking gold from pre-Columbian Indian tribes, from the Spanish conqueror Andagoya Pascual to modern day Canadian mining companies, neither of which left the local people any better off. Chopard comes in peace, however, to help Rosa and her community who have formed their own small-scale mining co-operative, to make an independent, safe and dignified living from digging for gold in the network of tunnels that perforate the surrounding cordillera.

“I come from a very humble family,” Rosa says. “My father took me from a very young age to the mines, and ever since I have educated myself and learnt almost entirely from being in the mines. The only job I don’t do is drilling because that is very difficult physically, something that the men do, but all the other jobs I have done; I have had to do. My husband died from a brain tumour caused by mine pollution, but I kept moving forward, kept working. I saw a huge need in La Llanada; women did not have a way of entering the workforce. In the mines they left us women behind and it is for this reason that I entered politics. I established a women’s association in La Llanada and I am the councilwoman for the municipality. The majority of us are widows and single mothers. I want to move things forward for these families and try and help.”

Rosa works in El Canada, a mine 40 minutes walk from the town centre. She leads a group of workers, which includes in its number one of her eight siblings, her cousin, and her son. It’s a family affair that employs seven other contract workers who dig for gold ore in a shaft called ‘El Corte.’ They are determined to end the economically unsustainable and harmful practices that are so often associated with their trade. The group, luminous in the dim light of El Corte from the glow of their orange protective clothing, has invested in a rudimentary mechanised crusher so they don’t have to crush the rock by hand, like many others in the area. The crushed mineral is taken by horse and cart to a central processing area where they pay a fee to have it milled to a finer grade, before it is passed over shaking tables that use water and gravity to separate the heavier gold from its parent material. Any tiny particles of residual gold are captured by hand using a pan and water mixed with Cabuya, a crushed local plant, which attracts the gold and helps to separate it from the waste. Despite the widespread application of mercury and growing use of cyanide in small-scale mining, no chemicals are ever used in the gold processing in Rosa’s community.

Artisanal mining is a physically exacting task and the future harvests Rosa’s group will reap from El Corte are unpredictable, but she says she can’t complain. “I have managed to make a small return on my deposit and I have enough to get by, support my family and send my kids to school.” Her success – to survive on the economic margins of a country that is no stranger to violence and corruption – and her future prospects are in great part made possible by the development charity, the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), led by another remarkable woman, Lina Villa.

Lina, a business graduate born on the right side of Bogota to well-to-do parents, is custodian of ARM’s mission to bring the world’s 10 million artisanal and small scale miners (ASM), and their 50 million family dependents, out of the shadows of illegality into the daylight of legitimacy, as well as connecting the product of these small community organisations with the international market. Lina says it was not a difficult decision in any way to leave her corporate life to support ASM communities that account for twenty percent of the world’s gold production and eighty percent of those employed in the sector. ASM should be an example of sustainable community-based development. Until recently, however, it is an activity and a population that have been considered outlaws and have had to struggle with middlemen, challenges to their ownership of land and minerals, and often appalling environmental and health practices at the mines. Lina and ARM are committed to changing all that, and now with Chopard’s support, they have a powerful partner in their very worthwhile quest.

ARM spotted the opportunity to help artisanal mining communities over a decade ago. They set out to establish a standard for responsible ASM, called Fairmined, and a market-based system to sell the gold from formalised artisanal co-operatives with high standards of environmental, labour and human rights practices, to jewellers in the USA and Europe. The gold in Chopard’s Green Carpet Collection is Fairmined certified, and the premium they pay for the gold goes directly back to the communities to improve their productivity, practices and the lives of the community members. Most of all, it gives Rosa and her family, and other communities like hers all over South America, the time and resources they need to invest in better environmental stewardship and to protect the home that they call a ‘paradise’.

Lina is a bold social-entrepreneur, social activist and leader, and knows that to help Rosa’s community, and others like it she needs to scale up her operation. To do that she needs friends to help her, and no better friend could she have found than Caroline Scheufele, the chief designer and one of the family members that own Chopard, the Swiss luxury watch and jewellery maker. Caroline’s sense of social responsibility propelled her to act to help ARM and ASM communities and she personally designed the GCC bracelet and earrings on show at Cannes. To get to Chopard’s workshops in Geneva, the artisanal gold had to pass through a certified refinery in Paris, which has created a special process to ensure that the gold is not mixed with non-certified metals and is traceable right back to the hills it was mined from. Chopard’s craftsmen, some of whom are the third and fourth generation in their family in the business, transform the gold into jewellery fit for the red carpet . Caroline and Lina, and ARM and Chopard, are now both inextricably linked through the Fairmined gold bracelet and earrings and part of its remarkable journey from La Llanada.

When Marion Cotillard stepped onto the red carpet at Cannes to the premiere of ‘Blood Ties’, the French actress’ choice to accessorise with Chopard’s first Green Carpet Collection jewellery turned heads, but it also more intimately tied her (and hopefully more celebrities in the future) to a movement that supports artisanal mining communities who deserve and are getting a better chance at making a living through producing Fairmined gold. On seeing a photograph of the pieces at Cannes, Rosa seems to grow in height an inch, or maybe two. “If there is a tear on my cheek, it is tear of pride. I am grateful for this chance to share our story with the world. I hope that one day you will have the chance to visit”.