INSPIRING WOMAN: Monica Stephenson

We are so excited to launch a month of Inspiring Women! Each week in October we’ll be sharing the stories of dedicated women who make the world a better place, whether it be through giving back or adding creative value to the world around them, or both!

We’re happy to start our series with Monica Stephenson, founder and president of Anza Gems. Monica has spent 20 plus years working in various aspects of the jewelry industry. Since 2008, she has been writing about jewelry, designers, and trends on her award-winning jewelry blog, www.idazzle.com. Monica first traveled to East Africa with a jewelry documentary film, Sharing the Rough, in January of 2014. She went out of curiosity and a sense of responsibility to truly see where gemstones originate. What she saw there changed her life. Read on to learn how Monica blazes her own glittering, gem-filled trail while she makes a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

You are a leading woman in the gem industry, shedding light on ethical gem mining and giving back to local mine communities. What got you started in jewelry and how did you find yourself starting ANZA Gems?

MS: As I’m sure you can relate, jewelry has been a lifelong love affair. Over the twenty plus years I’ve been in jewelry, I’ve occupied a number of different roles, including sales, buying, helping Amazon launch their jewelry business, and blogging since 2008 at idazzle.com. In 2013 I saw a tweet about a jewelry documentary that was going to East Africa to tell the story of a gemstone from the dirt to finished piece, and I was totally hooked!  

I traveled with the film, Sharing the Rough, and ended up so moved by the miners and dealers and communities there that I started ANZA Gems in 2015.  I figured there had to be a way to help the people in the gem trade in Tanzania and Kenya participate more in the global gem market. I buy rough gemstones when I travel there several times a year, and have them faceted in the US by artisanal precision cutters. Many of these gems end up in designer fine jewelry, showcasing the beauty of East African gems, and supporting artisans at every level, from mining to faceting to the finished piece.  Ten percent of the purchase of every gemstone goes back to primary and trade schools in the gemstone communities we source from. We’re also working on other initiatives that support Tanzanian cutters to earn a living by faceting to precision standards. 

What were some challenges you faced when starting ANZA Gems? Are any of those challenges posed due to being a woman in the mining industry?

MS: When I thought of this business idea—a completely vertical supply chain based in developing countries with little to no infrastructure—it occurred to me that it was INSANE. Totally bananas. ANZA means “begin” in Swahili, and I figured that it was so crazy, I just had to start somewhere.  

There are major challenges that range from some political instability in the countries where I travel, to shipping and banking issues, to three steps forward then two steps back with some of our philanthropy we provide. Nothing is easy and you cannot take anything for granted. But I will say that many, many things have gone beautifully and there has been such respect and support everywhere, sometimes when I least expect it!  

When I travel to the mines in Tanzania and Kenya, I’m often one the only Western woman they have ever met! But I always feel welcomed, and will sometimes share a cup of tea or a meal out in the bush. And they definitely remember me the next time I visit! I think the potential challenge lies more in dealing with the traditional gemstone community in the United States. I come from a perspective of transparency and support for everyone in the supply chain, and hope that others share that philosophy. I find myself supporting women where I can in every facet of the business, from the Tanzanian Women Miners Association (TaWoMa) to women gem cutters to designers to photographers and more.  If we build a culture of support for women, we all win!

ANZA Gems gives back to the communities where the gems are sourced from by providing meals and opportunities for growth. What has been the most rewarding part of the entire experience and process?

MS: Um, all of it?!  For all the challenges of this business, there are many moments of joy: visiting the Maasai primary school and going to one of the student’s homes; making true friends and visiting their families with my own family, seeing gems faceted by a newly graduated lapidary student…

It’s also rewarding to see gorgeous jewelry created with these spectacular gemstones and Fairmined or recycled gold and platinum. It is jewelry that does so much good, for everyone involved. That’s some good karma.

You’re quite the globe trotter. Can you tell us a little bit about your wildest “gem hunt?”

MS: I’ve had a couple of very interesting gem adventures, but probably the wildest was one of my first gem buying trips. I had just arrived in Tanzania for the Arusha Gem Fair, and saw a Facebook post by my friend Okeno, who has a grossular garnet mine in Kenya. I commented that I would love to see his new mine sometime, and he responded, “how about tomorrow?”

The plan was to leave midday right after the gem show, drive about 4-5 hours across the border to Voi, Kenya, spend the night, drive 3+ hours to the mine after breakfast, visit the mine, then drive the 7 or so hours back across the TZ border to the Kilimanjaro airport for my flight home. There was no time to spare, we would lucky to make the plane, and there was no margin for error, nothing could go wrong…

Of course, I said “twende” (let’s go)!! And Okeno drove like a rally driver over dirt roads (elephant tracks?), we crossed the border into Kenya despite a power outage at the immigration office, and made it to our hotel. The next morning, we drove through increasingly isolated bush to the mine, visited with the miners (and saw the scorpions they had just killed), and got to see their progress tunneling to find the elusive and glorious tsavorite! Then it was back in the car, fishtailing through the red dirt and acacias, Maasai and baobab trees just a blur as we raced through Tsavo park, back across the border, and pulled up at 7:20pm for me to make my 9pm flight back through Amsterdam and on to Seattle. I was filthy and my hair was in dreadlocks, but it was totally worth it!  

What is your favorite gemstone -and why 😉

Oh, this is like the favorite child question for parents!  It’s so impossible!  But, for you, I will try. I find I’m more in love with garnet every day. The variety that comes out of the ground in East Africa is pretty stunning: kiwi to tsavorite green, apricot, rosé, and raspberry, fanta orange spessartite, the list goes on… Garnet polishes beautifully and is relatively affordable.

But then there is spinel….and those unheated natural sapphires from the Umba Valley region of Tanzania…

We are so happy to share Monica’s incredible story with you all and hope you find her as motivating as we do. Sofia will be featuring her gems in some upcoming designs and we couldn’t be more honored to collaborate with such an inspiring woman! Below you can find where to keep up with Monica as her journey continues!

Website: Anza Gems

Blog: idazzle

Instagram: @anzagems @idazzle