Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2018, Vol. 54, No. 1

Interview with a Kenyan Miner and Dealer

Tsavorite garnet and red spinel from Miriam Kamau’s mining operation in Kenya
Figure 1. Left: These faceted tsavorites were extracted from Miriam Kamau’s mining operation in northern Kenya. Right: Kamau also brought Kenyan red spinel to Tucson. Photos by Kevin Schumacher.

Miriam Kamau, owner of Mimo Gems Traders Ltd. in Nairobi, transformed from an office assistant to a dealer and miner to a representative of her country on the international stage of the colored gemstone trade. Her career has not only changed her life but also inspired many women in Kenya to pursue their dreams in the gem and jewelry industry.

Born and raised in Nairobi, she entered the trade working for an American gem dealer in her hometown. In the beginning, she greeted the clients and took care of errands for her boss. She gradually realized the big fortune these small stones can carry as she passed the stones and money between the dealer and his clients. Kamau started to pay more attention to trading activities in the office and ask more questions. Luckily enough, her boss generously shared his knowledge of the gems he dealt and did not mind her interacting with his clientele and even doing business with them. When he was away and the rest of the office staff was gone for the day, Kamau visited the mining area to talk to the clients, generally women, who brought stones to the office. She learned a lot from these female miners. She also realized she needed to go back to school for a formal education on gemstones. This led her to enroll in courses in Nairobi and Johannesburg to systematically study diamond and colored gemstone identification.

After returning to Kenya, Kamau started her own gem business in Nairobi, buying from the miners and selling wholesale and retail. During this time, she got to know many important people in the industry, including the late Campbell Bridges. Finally, an opportunity came to represent a Kenyan woman dealer who exported stones to Thailand. Kamau, who wanted to travel overseas, did not let this opportunity go. This trip opened her eyes to the world outside of Africa. Her trade contacts then introduced her to the International Colored Gemstone Association, and she became the ICA ambassador to Kenya. In that role, she gained the trust of Kenyan local miners to represent their interests.

Miriam Kamau Looks Back
Miner and dealer Miriam Kamau discusses her entry into the gem trade and her current mining activities in Kenya.

As she seeks to bring added value to the local miners, her own business has expanded. She now has her own tsavorite mine in Kenya. She informed us that the mine’s operation tunnel is about 90 feet deep, and the first extractions have been quite exciting (figure 1, left).

Kamau admits that when she started her own business, she experienced prejudice in the Kenyan trade, which has traditionally been dominated by men. Only very recently did Kenya begin to grant mining licenses to women, which allowed her to own an operation. While it is often considered unsafe for women to work in remote mining areas in Africa, Kamau readily adapted to the bush life and built a thriving business. She now works with her brother and other male miners in the mining operation.

As more women in Kenya learn about Miriam Kamau, many of them ask her for career advice. Kamau is now a key member of a Kenyan association dedicated to empowering women in mining. Kamau helped organize the first gem and jewelry show devoted to Kenyan women in the trade. The second show will take place in July 2018. Kamau is very optimistic about Kenya’s future as a gem trading hub in Africa. She says the government is very supportive, and she sees a lot of positive changes happening in the mining sector. Kamau also brought with her some spinel (figure 1, right) and fancy sapphire from the same area where she mines tsavorite.

Tao Hsu is a technical editor of Gems & Gemology. Andrew Lucas is manager of field gemology at GIA in Carlsbad, California.