Susan Wheeler Talks Virtu Gem and supply-chain ethics
Susan Wheeler is on a mission, a mission to bring transparency, clarity, and ethics to the gem and jewelry industry. Starting out her professional career as a writer of fiction, the young woman soon turned to jewelry design, but soon learned the dark reality that enveloped this glamorous industry. To learn more about her story and that of Virtu Gem, which she co-founded, we spoke with this very busy lady in her office in Chicago.
Interview by Cynthia Unninayar
These earrings by Susan Wheeler feature rainbow moonstone and fire opal set in 18K FairMined Gold. They are sculpted from clay and hand cast in gold. The opals are fair trade from Mexico and have an untreated naturally fiery red radiance. The moonstone studs can be worn alone by detaching the opal flames.
Pendant by Susan Wheeler featuring a 1.2-ct Umba unheated sapphire surrounded by antique diamonds (0.33 ctw), set in 18K FairMined gold. ANZA Gems, the sapphire's source, supports education in Tanzania and Kenya. Each gem purchase funds schools in East African communities where the gems are mined. They support education at the primary level and at the jewelry trade level with vocational schools that teach marketable skills of gem cutting, grading and sorting.
Q: Tell us a little about your background and how you started in the gem and jewelry industry.
I was an art major in college and then wrote fiction, including an adult parody on the Grimm fairy tales, as part of a Master’s Degree program at Columbia College in Chicago. Slowly, I gravitated to wearable art--jewelry in this case—in my early thirties. I was able to take classes locally and soon was sculpting the designs out of clay, which then were used to make the molds. In the beginning, I created jewels for myself but then friends asked me to make pieces for them. It all grew from there.
For me, jewelry design is about the entire piece of jewelry—from mine to market—as a piece of art created for a cause. Every piece that I create consciously uses gold and gemstones that benefit the mining communities of origin. My jewelry has a following of collectors who appreciate the time, care, and commitment of custom jewelry that has a deep connection to—and significance of—the materials, which makes them even more precious.
Q: Sustainability is talked about by many people, but you have really taken it to heart. Tell us about this journey.
My journey towards sustainability began early in my career. As a designer exhibiting at the JCK Design Center, I was approached by representatives of FairMined Gold, who were just launching this program. From them, I learned about the opportunity to support artisanal miners through the gold that I purchased while ensuring that the gold met careful environmental standards.
Sometime afterwards, at one of the Las Vegas shows, I met the late Dana Schorr who told me about the circumstances of artisanal miners and the inequities in the jewelry supply chain. People and conversations can act as seeds for our beliefs and our mission in life. I began to realize the impact that I could make as a jewelry designer to benefit many people other than the clients who would purchase my jewels. I understood that to create beautiful pieces of jewelry I had to learn everything that I could about my own supply chain along with the impact of the global jewelry industry.
As a result, I started The Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference in 2017. It has turned into a global conference that draws attendees and speakers from across our supply chain—miners, gem cutters, jewelry designers, retailers, the leading major jewelry companies, national governments, NGOs and others—who addressed issues relating to gold, diamonds, and colored gemstones. Since then, I have had many conversations with leaders in their fields, environmentalists, human-rights experts, and jewelry professionals who focus on what we can—and must—do to make the jewelry industry more responsible. Adding to these conversations are the voices of those most vulnerable in our supply chain. It has all fueled my journey and actions in responsible jewelry.
Consequently, in 2020, I launched The Responsible Jewelry Transformative, a nonprofit whose mission is to “Facilitate equity, transparency, and knowledge throughout the jewelry industry supply chain and elevate those voices in the mining communities through action, initiatives, and education.”
Q: What is Virtu Gem? When and why was it formed?
Virtu gem is not-for-profit initiative to sell gems, sourced from artisanal miners, to jewelers and thus help the mining community. Prior to Covid-19, I was working with two colleagues, Monica Gichuhi and Jessica Hudson on our second collaboration, which was supposed to be AGEC Africa’s conference in Zambia during the Summer of 2020. When the pandemic hit, we had to cancel the conference. Thanks to our existing relationships with mining and trade organizations, people who were going to exhibit gems at the conference could now show them online, thus we were able to quickly transform the planning of this physical event into the beginning stages of the Virtu Gem project as a timely response to a call to action from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): Emergency Action Needed for Vulnerable Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining Communities & Supply Chains. Virtu Gem addressed the following aspects of this call, i.e. “to improve on the carrying out and reporting on supply chain due diligence, and make every effort not to disengage during the current Covid-19 crisis as access to legal markets is needed more than ever.”
Virtu Gem received funding from The Extractives Global Programmatic Support (EGPS), which is a Multi-Donor Trust Fund seeking to build extractives sectors in developing countries that drive inclusive, sustainable growth and development, and, ultimately, poverty reduction. The World Bank is the administrator of the EGPS fund.
Q: Who are some of your other partners in Virtu Gem?
Virtu Gem is growing rapidly and with the support of the EGPS from the World Bank, our goal is to make the program sustainable and to improve the conditions for the participating mines. We are thrilled to announce that we brought on two incredible experts to propel Virtu Gem forward. Patience Singo, who has a background of working with OECD and BMW, comes to the program to implement Craft Code (see description below).
We also welcome the support and expertise of noted gem dealer and expert Joe Menzie, who will be working to open gemstone markets in Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. Menzie’s holistic approach comes from his extensive experience in assisting emerging gem markets when he was president of ICA. He has already started baseline assessments of the gemstone landscape in these countries through meetings with the Virtu Gem country coordinators.
By looking at where the producer countries are in terms of mining, gemstone equipment, and skills, Menzie can ascertain the gaps to be addressed to bring equity to the trade. He is engaging gem traders, mining associations, and governments to implement measures that will make the countries viable players in today’s global markets.
Menzie's understanding of expanding markets is paired with his current work for online gem-selling platforms such as Gembridge that focuses on the future of the industry as it moves more online. The knowledge and transparency that he brings to all of VG’s professional team members is invaluable.
The gems below are examples of the many faceted and rough gemstones, as well as jewelry, offered for sale on Virtu Gem.
Q: How does Virtu Gem work?
Virtu Gem (VG) is a platform offering mine-to-market sales—or as we like to say, a person-to-person gem selling organization—offering miners, cutters, and traders, in country, access to international markets.
VG partners with the Federation of Artisanal and Small-Scale Miners in Zambia (FESSMAZ), the Association of Zambian Women in Mining (AZWIM), the Gemstone Association of Malawi and the Malawi Women in Mining Association (MAWIMA), and in Kenya, the Pamoja Gemstone Network.
The working relationship between mining associations and VG creates a conduit for a new supply-chain infrastructure model that offers access to gemstones that are trackable. This traceability from the mine is offered by Provenance Proof Blockchain. Recognizing the importance of keeping value-add in the producer country means that local gem businesses can be developed at greater levels. All areas of the gemstone business, including marketing, cutting, supply management, operations, product processes, and customer management are business skills that need to begin in a gem’s country of origin.
In addition to the sales platform, VG seeks to advance the success of the gem trade by having many educational workshops over Zoom. We connect gem miners, traders, and cutters to the jewelry industry though these workshops. Some of the workshops are restricted to the trade in a source country as seen in the upcoming pricing workshop with Gemworld’s Stuart Robertson and Marvin Wambui. Other workshops include Virtu Gem’s network of buyers and sellers, and offer the opportunity for both ends of the supply chain to connect, engage, and learn together as exemplified by the Provenance Proof blockchain workshop.
Q: How does Virtu Gem provide market access?
Virtu Gem works to provide market access for gemstones from Artisanal and Small-Scale Miners (ASM) that are brought to the program through mining associations that partner with the project. Our mission is to ensure that producer countries have equitable market opportunities via VG’s gemstone trading hub in order to compete with other dealers and their platforms. This access is made possible because of technologies such as online platforms, blockchain, imaging technology, and computer programs.
With VG, miners learn what is needed to market their gemstones and why. We help them upload photos of their gems to the VG platform. Having good quality photos is important if they want to compete. In this vein, one example of sharing technology to level the playing field was the donation of a gemlightbox, allowing traders to suitably showcase the gems for sale. With good photos, the VG trader can also hold the stones until they sell, without having to export them on consignment.
Once the gem is sold, then Virtu Gem's country coordinators arrange for processing the export fees, packaging, and shipping to the buyer.
Q: How does Virtu Gem benefit miners and others?
Miners and others benefit because they get access to global markets and the opportunity to sell their stones at a fair price. As part of this fair price, Virtu Gem places a 20% premium (10% from seller, 10% from buyer) over the cost of the gemstones. This premium is then returned to the mining association, which provides assistance and benefits to the gemstone communities and trade. During Covid, the premiums have been used for food drives and PPE.
Zambia’s FESSMAZ and AZWIM carried out one of the food drives benefiting miners at an emerald mine in the Zambian concession. The food made it possible for the mine to sustain its work force and continue production. In Malawi, for example, premiums helped a miner and single mother pay school fees for her teenage son who is attending geology school. Kenya is planning on implementing training programs for miners.
Virtu Gem is also implementing the Craft Code at four mines sites in Zambia, two mine sites in Malawi and two mine sites in Kenya. This is a certification program geared towards ASM mines, whose goal is to raise the safety, labor, and pay conditions through education.
I would like to stress, however, that Virtu Gem is not solely about miners. Their communities and, indeed, their countries benefit by keeping a greater portion of their supply chain within their own borders. This includes those working in the many fields involved in processing and selling gemstones: traders, cutters, marketers, IT specialists, and social media.
Q: Where do you see Virtu Gem going in the future?
Virtu Gem’s long-term mission is to be a self-sustaining program operating in countries wherever ASM gemstones are mined, working in collaboration with local mining associations. The goal of growth and sustainability will always have a focus on gender equality and the strengthening of beginning of the supply chain. Transparency, traceability, economic benefit, and an ethos of person-to-person over mine-to-market are pillars of the program. Pillars that are an integral part of Susan Wheeler’s mission. (susanwheelerdesign.com)