One of the highlights from my recent trip to Seattle was seeing Monica Stephenson, a dear friend and the founder of ANZA Gems, a truly unique jewelry company. I first met Monica when I was a newbie jewelry blogger. She was a fellow (though very experienced) jewelry blogger, among many other roles in the jewelry industry. Her passion for gems and her philanthropic heart melded in a perfect way when she founded ANZA Gems. Read the interview with Monica below to find out more about this exciting company.
I know you have an extensive background in the jewelry industry the past 20 years. What drew you to East Africa and developing your own jewelry business?
It started with reading a tweet about a documentary film about tracing the journey of a gem beginning in the mines of East Africa, called Sharing the Rough. I was completely intrigued and couldn’t stop thinking about going to Africa for the filming. I have been involved in the jewelry business for many years, but had never visited a mine–this was an opportunity to truly see where these sparkly gems come from. I went on that film trip (and ended up in the film, somehow!), and there was something so captivating about being there and meeting the people involved there.
For months after the trip in 2014, I literally couldn’t stop thinking about how hard people were working, and how little they directly participate in the global gem business. I created ANZA Gems to support artisans, from the miners who dig for gems, to the cutters and designers responsible for the finished jewelry. All of my experience working in various capacities in the industry, plus my relationships from writing about jewelry designers as a blogger, combined to create this circle of development.
I love how you have a very philanthropic aspect to your business. Would you please tell us a bit about that?
From the beginning, I wanted this endeavor to benefit the communities that supply the gems. I was not interested in being a typical gem dealer. I had heard about “triple bottom line” businesses and wanted ANZA Gems to do a greater good. First, I pay fair prices for the rough gems that I purchase directly from licensed miners and dealers in Tanzania and Kenya. Visiting the mines and meeting the people is my favorite part of the business, and ensures I see what people need in the mining communities. When I pay for gems there, the money goes directly to those families and communities. The rough gems that I bring back are faceted by US cutters, which is kind of a rarity. The faceted gems are set into capsule collections by incredible studio jewelers like Jennifer Dawes, Rebecca Overmann, Wendy Brandes, Alexis Kletjian, Erika Winters, Lika Behar, Vicente Agor, and we’re adding more all the time! The final part of the journey is that we contribute 10% back to schools in Tanzania and Kenya at the primary and trade level. We are reinvesting in the people where the gems originate…
When you go to Africa in search of gems, do you go looking for a certain type? Or do you just play it by ear when you get there?
On my first gem buying trip after the documentary and my epiphany, I naively made a list of gems beforehand of gems I wanted to buy. Ha! East Africa is nothing if not humbling! I quickly had to recalibrate and adjust on the fly, purchasing the gem quality rough I could find, with sweaty palms! It can be such a risk to buy rough–you never know what it’s going to actually yield! The next trip, I found very different gems available. Bottom line, I never truly know what I’m going to see or purchase. It’s a great lesson that this is artisanal mining and you never know what is going to come out of the ground there.
When you have a stone all cut and ready to be made into jewelry, how does that process work? Do you and the designer collaborate?
I have to say that I love ALL of the jewelry that has been created so far for ANZA Gems. I give the cutters autonomy to coax the ultimate beauty from each rough gem, even though that means that every gem is truly one-of-a-kind. I give similar freedom to the jewelry designers, though I may give some general guidance on whether it should be a ring, pendant or earrings, or if we need something in rose gold or platinum, or maybe general price range. I might tweak a detail here or there. But I think the beauty of this is how organic the process is and the truly gorgeous finished pieces.
When I was at your studio, I noticed you had a lovely collection featuring rough stones. Please tell us about this group.
I am so excited about the new rough collection, ANZA PURE! Wendy Brandes of Wendy Brandes Jewelry had often played with examples of rough when we have our design meetings over lunch at our favorite cafe in NYC. We both agreed that the rough gems are beautiful straight out of the ground, and she figured out a way to set them simply in 18k gold. The result is a collection of green garnets and pink spinels set into clean, modern designs that show off the pure gems. It’s relatively affordable (starting at $345 for a single stud earring), one-of-a-kind jewelry made in NYC! I love that it’s accessible, and each purchase supports a gem cutting school in Arusha, TZ.
So, my readers, how excited are you about this company?! So amazing, right? I cannot wait to see the latest and greatest pieces that come to fruition. If you’re looking to keep up too, then I highly recommend you follow the ANZA Gems Instagram account.
Monica, thank you for your time, your fierce passion and your entrepreneurship. You are definitely helping make the world a better, and more sparkly, place!