Gem Explorer

Yianni Melas - gemmologist and lecturer at the GIA, designer, artist, consultant for major companies - is a long time, staunch activist in support of artisanal mining and has been fighting against corruption in the sector for years.

He caused a sensation when he went on hunger strike in 2017 to protest against the sale at a Christie’s auction of a 163-carat diamond linked to the family of the former president of Angola, the proceeds of which would have gone to the politician’s daughter instead of being used to build a children’s hospital in the African country. Yianni has also been an advocate of ceaseless struggles for the emancipation of independent miners, their education and the dignity of their families. Yianni Melas’ passion for gems and ancient treasures began at an early age: at the age of four, he would search in his backyard for Napoleon’s sword, as legend has it that it had been given to one of his ancestors… Born in Rhodes, Yianni continued his studies in the United States and enrolled at the Gemological Institute of America where he graduated and became a lecturer. It was at the Institute that he met Helmut Swarovski and began working for him with the responsibility of founding the Natural Gems Division and purchasing rough in the most remote countries and continents. He then became a consultant for Stephen Webster in the search for precious stones and cutters in Asia. Thanks to his work and his passion, Yianni has travelled to the most remote places on various continents, and has had the opportunity to observe work in gemstone mines at first hand, experiencing for himself the excitement of extracting these gems from the ground. In 2009, there was a turning point in his life’s journey: Yianni found a previously undiscovered stone in Africa, Aquaprase™, which was later classified by the GIA as a new stone and consequently accredited under the name of Yianni Melas, becoming part of his legacy for future generations.

Today, Yianni lives in the city of Limassol, Cyprus. With his Gem Explorer account and blog, he is a spokesperson for many battles in favour of artisanal mines and the defence of the rights of small cutters’ workshops against the supremacy of large multinationals. He has often found himself in extremely dangerous areas where the management of mines is in the hands of corrupt politicians who use force and violence to prevent independent miners from digging. He also understood how local people were often prevented from cutting diamonds because they were unaware of how much the rough would increase in value after cutting, and that the lack of training and specialisation would keep local people ignorant of the value of the country’s natural resources. We met him on his return from the Copenhagen Forum, where representatives of the major associations and the industry met to talk about sustainability in the world of jewellery and its supply chain. It was in Copenhagen that the new AMO (Artisanal Miners Organisation) was created to finally give artisanal miners a united voice in the gemstone industry and to provide them with an association that supports them and defends their rights by protecting the work of these small operators against the major multinationals.

He has travelled and spent many years in such “troublesome” countries as Botswana, Burma, Africa, always in contact with miners, following the extraction of minerals and learning the process of cutting. You have worked for so many multinationals and supported so many businesses, what inspired you to become an activist? When I returned from one of my trips to Africa I infected my daughter with whooping cough, she was sick for months and I promised God that if she survived I would spend the rest of my life helping parents with children in need. My daughter recovered and now every day I try to keep that promise. Sometimes I hate being an activist, the responsibility and stress is often overwhelming, but I truly believe that ethos is much more important than ego and through my struggle I can carry on the values my parents’ taught me, and my responsibility to society. As an activist you use social media to carry out your campaigns, how else are you able to be a spokesperson for injustices in the industry? Thanks to my past as a lecturer and researcher at GIA, I have had the opportunity to learn about the sector and become aware of what is happening in the various territories and above all to get to know so many miners and cutters, whom I now see as my family. My struggle is also expressed through constant support for them with their problems, the desire to facilitate synergies and educational projects aimed at giving them visibility but also structure of thought and capacity for emancipation. I have often found myself in uncomfortable situations, at times even risking my life. Yet I have always saved myself, which is why I continue my battle and my work of raising awareness. Yianni, who has spent a lot of time in the mines and been in contact with the local people and the many governments involved, has gained an extraordinary knowledge.

Today, this knowledge allows him to be a spokesperson for how exploitation, corruption and violence are still present in the areas of greatest gem extraction. What have you been most proud of so far? Without a doubt the opening of a school for gem cutters in Botswana in 2005, followed by the creation of projects focusing on training local people and protecting local know-how. It was at the end of last September that AMO (Artisanal Miners Organisations) was founded, whose name already brings to mind the universally known word, in Italian Amore, Love: I hope that there will be a desire to change towards a better future, also thanks to our battles and international visibilityz

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