An organization called Gem Legacy is doing a world of good, a world away. Supporting education, vocational training and local economies in East African colored-gemstone mining communities, the nonprofit recognizes that retail jewelers can play a role in “taking care of the shoulders that our businesses stand on.”
Gem Legacy was founded in 2018, though the work it does began about a decade ago by its founder, Roger Dery, a Michigan gem cutter and designer. As a colored-gemstone dealer, he has spent significant amounts of time in the mining communities in East Africa and saw firsthand their needs and challenges.
“He has always made it his personal mission to give back when and where he could, but Gem Legacy didn’t begin until fellow members of the jewelry industry encouraged him to create an official charity so that the whole industry could be part of it,” says Roger’s daughter, Rachel, who works alongside Gem Legacy’s beneficiaries on the ground in Tanzania and Kenya.
Roger’s words on Gem Legacy’s website go to the heart of the mission:
“In 36 trips to Africa, I have met thousands of people in East Africa’s remote villages and bush mines. Gems have a remarkable power to change the trajectory of the lives they touch. Gems are a beacon of light for those who find them: second chances, new beginnings, and security to struggling families. It is time to raise up an army to support the husbands, wives, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, granddaughters, and grandsons of gemstones. They are the pioneers, the unsung heroes who walk a long, arduous journey filled with days, weeks, months, and even years to bring gems to light. Our legacy is to thank them for their life’s work.”
Partnerships of Trust
Gem Legacy is focused in East Africa simply because so many colored gemstones come from the region, and it is where Roger and his wife, Ginger, have the most connections. “To have the maximum impact, it is imperative that Gem Legacy leverage the areas of the world where we have the highest concentration of relationships,” Roger says. “East Africa is where our circle of influence resides, and so this is where we can be the most effective and use donations with the greatest confidence because of partnerships of trust going back a decade or more. We are excited to expand to other parts of the world in the future as we expand our Leadership Council.
“It is gratifying to know that all of my experiences in the gem trade were not just for commercial purposes, but have created this unique situation where we can support people in the most desperate of circumstances in the mining communities of East Africa,” says Roger, who owns Roger Dery Gem Design in Royal Oak, Mich. “Gem Legacy was founded with the goal of expanding that bridge to giving back for everyone in the industry. For most people, there may only be one or two times in one’s lifetime that you have the experience of having impacted another person’s life trajectory. Gem Legacy’s mission is to provide the opportunity for everyone to do that.”
Rachel, a GIA Graduate Gemologist and Gem Legacy’s Director of Communication and Outreach, is the family member with boots on the East Africa ground most often. “I love it here,” she says. “The people are wonderfully friendly, the land is beautiful, and the pace here is delightfully slow and steady. My parents are usually in East Africa two to three times per year. The reason Gem Legacy can actually function is because we are on the ground for our business, and so we can be constantly checking in on initiatives and be hands-on to supervise the use of funds. This is also how 100 percent of donations are given directly to initiatives.”
If a gem is going to be faceted inside the country, most are not going to be faceted at the mine, but in the local town or city. This supply chain created itself naturally so that more people get jobs: the miners, mine owners, those who take the rough gems to the local town or gem center, and the gem dealer or broker, who will then sell to the buyer. It’s
important for gems to be faceted inside the countries where they’re mined because they add jobs to the economy, leave more value inside the country because they are sold at a higher price, and are exported at a higher value, allowing the government to retain more taxes on it.
Kids, Education, Entrepreneurship
To ensure that gems have a positive impact on East African communities, Gem Legacy focuses its initiatives on three areas: kids, education and entrepreneurship.
Asked about the single most important impact of Gem Legacy, Roger says: “For me, it is clearly the children. It isn’t just keeping them alive, which may be happening with some of our initiatives, it is providing them the opportunity to experience hope, have education, and believe in their dreams. With that hope they can dream about their future, not just their needs for today.”
Gem Legacy doesn’t employ anyone, Rachel says, adding that “100 percent of all of our donations go directly back to the initiatives, and any administrative charges are covered by a fund from our Advisory Board. Any training done is also pro-bono. Trainers pay their own way, and we pay expenses on the ground.”
While Roger serves as Gem Legacy’s Executive Director, the nonprofit’s Advisory Board serves as the guide for the strategy, initiatives and public relations.
“Finally, our Leadership Council is comprised of gem dealers and industry members,” Rachel says. “They are the pathfinders for the rest of the industry. They have committed to bringing on other industry members to be Gem Legacy partners and act as Gem Legacy ambassadors. The goal of the Leadership Council is to form a coalition of gemstone industry members who are committed to giving back.”
Jonathan and Brecken Farnsworth, owners of Parlé Jewelry Designs, and Niveet Nagpal, President and Head Designer of Omi Gems and Omi Privé, sit on that Leadership Council, and five other industry professionals serve on Gem Legacy’s Advisory Board.
“In late 2015, we began selling a wide range of East African gemstones, which prompted a trip to Tanzania to visit mines,” Brecken and Jonathan recall. “While there, we were able to visit the Kitarini School, a school built by gem dealers. There we saw the difference that could be made when we, as an industry, focused on projects together. When we later were approached by Rachel to be a part of the Leadership Council, it was an easy decision. We wanted to see what our industry could do and the difference that we could make.
“Gem Legacy is unique because it is the first nonprofit that focuses on artisan color-gemstone miners and localities. It allows all gem dealers, jewelers and jewelry lovers to band together and supply mining communities with education, food and equipment. It is the hope that through these efforts we can improve the lives of those closest to the beautiful gemstones that are the heart of our businesses. We also have great peace of mind that 100 percent of all donations go to the cause and that we know all those on the ground in these communities that are handling the donations. Our involvement with Gem Legacy has been truly rewarding, and we encourage anyone interested to reach out and see how you or your business can make a difference.
“We believe that we have a responsibility to give back, and our hope moving forward is that Gem Legacy can be used as a tool throughout our industry to facilitate our corporate responsibility of helping others.”
Niveet Nagpal says it has always been important “to give back to the jewelry industry that has provided so much for our family. Our industry is full of small family-owned businesses, and it’s important that we work together to strengthen our industry and support one another. The reason I am involved with Gem Legacy is because it creates a platform for those of us in the jewelry industry to understand the challenges faced in mining communities, and also support them directly. Not only are we able to support these communities that could really use our help, but we are also directly involved in their stories and able to share them with our retail community and consumers. My hope is that we can get more people involved in supporting Gem Legacy and its mission so we can effect real change and replicate that throughout other mining communities around the world. The benefit will carry through from the mining areas all the way through to consumers.”
Ben Smithee, CEO of The Smithee Group, serves on the Advisory Board, along with Peggy Jo Donahue, Monica Stephenson, Christina Clover and Craig Selimotic Danforth. Ben sees Gem Legacy as “the most efficient and direct way for consumers, retailers, designers and manufacturers to make a tangible difference on the ground. The organization and its team have such a level of experience and empathy in the culture and needs of the areas they serve, so when we donate money, you really see the impact. I love that Gem Legacy provides the professional development opportunities in the communities, but they also understand that in order for professional performance to be unlocked, the basic personal needs of a community must be met. So, they provide opportunities for both! Whether it is providing beds for orphanages, books for children, functional toilets or best-in-class gem faceting education, each piece is crucial in stimulating these communities.”
Craig Selimotic Danforth, Vice President, Client Solutions for Jewelers Mutual Insurance Group, adds: “As the current pandemic ripples around the globe, our beloved gem and jewelry industry is suffering in ways few could imagine. That’s what makes organizations like Gem Legacy and its mission even more crucial. While many are experiencing economic hardships, those people without means are most vulnerable. When you consider the lack of basic sanitation many people living in East Africa endure on a daily basis, you understand how fragile life is for the artisanal miner. Day in and day out, these people provide back-breaking work to supply the stones for the creation of beautiful jewelry that brings joy to our customers. Please keep Gem Legacy in your thoughts during these challenging times. Whether you’re able to make a donation or simply share their story, you could inspire more people to give back and support Gem Legacy’s mission.”
Monica Stephenson, Founder of ANZAGems.com and idazzle.com, has been involved since the early days, traveling with the Dery family to gem mining communities in East Africa.
“I became involved with Gem Legacy because I also visit and purchase gems from that region, and I feel very strongly that we need to give back to those communities,” Monica says. “The artisanal gemstone miners that the industry depends on work disproportionately hard, in difficult conditions, with little access to education or resources. I’m pretty passionate about Gem Legacy because their initiatives target specific marginalized mining communities and help in immediately impactful ways.
“You can’t just send a check to Africa. There needs to be strong, local partners and contacts on the ground (literally) to identify, and then execute projects. This is a particular strength of Gem Legacy, where there is already extensive knowledge and support of the villages and families involved, and there is oversight and accountability when we go back and visit. There are longer-term initiatives that support vocational training, kids and women, but when we see a need, we can also respond nimbly. As an example, there is a brand-new initiative to help feed school kids a nutritious lunch in Tanzania, where schools have closed now due to the coronavirus. Rachel is in Tanzania right now, and is overseeing this need for these at-risk kids who might not eat since school is shuttered indefinitely. Gem Legacy can act quickly, effectively and sensitively to the culture there.”
The COVID-19 virus did prompt an immediate need for assistance, which was met expediently. “Our current needs for the kids’ lunches have been taken care of,” Rachel says. “This is a great example of Gem Legacy’s ability to be relevant and in touch with the current needs of its initiatives. In East African schools, lunch is almost universally provided as part of the government-funded education. The school suspension in Tanzania and Kenya due to COVID-19 concerns meant that there are many children at serious risk of malnutrition or even starvation. Most of the children we have identified and been supporting through this emergency funding are orphans, have only one parent, or have extreme poverty issues at home.”
2020 Health Initiative
At the moment, Gem Legacy is focused on its 2020 Health Initiative which includes two different initiatives:
- Toilets for the Sanawari Primary School in Arusha Tanzania
- Solar panel for the Mwatate Children’s Home in Mwatate, Kenya
“Even small contributions go a long way,” Rachel says. “Ten dollars per kid would sponsor all the current kids at the school to have a toilet to use.” The $14,000 initiative is aimed at increased sanitation and privacy for girls.
The $5,120 solar panel initiative is easy to sponsor, as well: $170 sponsors an orphan’s bath and light forever. Benefits include hot water for bathing, increased sanitation and light for reading and homework. The Mwatate Children’s Home currently houses more than 30 children, all orphans, ages 5-18.
So far, Gem Legacy has not actually founded any of its initiatives. “We are looking at that currently in a few situations where there’s an immense need that is not being served,” Rachel says. “Generally, through business and travels, we’ve discovered places like the Mwatate Children’s Home that need assistance to continue and expand the good work they are doing. Mwatate was founded by a group of Kenyan gem dealers who felt that they had been given so much from the gem mining industry and so they wanted to contribute back to their community and founded the home.”
Gem Legacy also sponsors school scholarships and ongoing needs. Most of its ongoing “forever” commitments are as follows:
- School fee support for Mwatate Children’s Home ($550 per child, usually 10-15 need to be covered)
- Scholarships to attend Gem Faceting School ($750 per student, usually 15 per year)
- Scholarships for uniforms and school supplies for Sanawari Primary School ($75 per student). This is a new initiative.
“Gem Legacy is uniquely positioned to see the marginalized in gem mining communities and to expand the natural beneficiation of gemstones in the mining regions,” Rachel says. “Gem Legacy makes it a goal to seek out those who do not have access to other funding, work with them to find a tangible, quantifiable solution, and ensure that our support is helpful and sustainable. We’re giving in communities and in ways that support people to improve what they were already doing and increase their chance of thriving. Gem Legacy’s goal is to launch them to success.”
Other Gem Legacy initiatives include:
- The Kitarini Primary School, where Gem Legacy sponsors new buildings and teacher housing, along with toys and games for recess. Gem Legacy has also sponsored book drives for the school. In partnership with the Devon Foundation, Gem Legacy donates to the Kitarini School Lunch Program.
- The Precious Women, whose mine benefitted from a compressor delivered by Gem Legacy to enable use of power tools
- Gemological training in Malawi and Kenya including gem identification, evaluation and pricing
- Providing equipment and tools to East Africa’s artisanal, small-scale miners
How Retail Jewelers Can Help
Gem Legacy is “so incredibly overwhelmed by the response of the retail jewelers,” Rachel says. “Jewelers are so grateful for the work, passion and livelihood they have from their business and are so eager to contribute back to those who give them the gems to sell! As the industry becomes more and more aware of mining and sourcing, the industry seems more and more eager to contribute back.”
A retail jeweler who gives back to the specific places and needs where their resources come from is viewed positively by consumers, she adds. “Jewelers who can confidently assure their clients that they are contributing back directly, and with 100 percent confidence, give their client increased pleasure in their purchase. Everyone likes to feel good about purchasing!”
Here are a few key ways jewelers can help:
- Become a partner. With a $200 donation per year, a company can be an official Gem Legacy partner and receive all the storytelling and marketing resources available to share their commitment to giving back with their clients. Partners receive monthly updated resources as well. The most effective fundraisers may not be the biggest donors, but the best storytellers who call others to contribute.
- Share the story. It’s one of the most needed ways of contributing. Clients are excited to know that gems are naturally benefitting local communities and Gem Legacy, a partner of their local jeweler, is expanding that beneficiation.
- Fundraise. Gem Legacy has created many fun, templated, easy ways to fundraise. “We love when jewelers get excited about fundraising and make it their own,” Rachel says. “Gem Legacy is always open to new ideas!”
Retailers interested in helping should check out the nonprofit’s website, which offers a wide range of ways to help, such as selling African handicrafts, event collaboration, jewelry raffles, and book, toy and pajama drives. Volunteer opportunities include a calling campaign, graphic designing, and becoming a Gem Legacy ambassador.
“I love that our industry, our business, our avenue for income, is also changing lives around the world and positively impacting communities for generations,” Rachel says. “What an incredible legacy to leave as an industry, all by taking care of the shoulders that our businesses stand on.”