Quest for the flawless tanzanite

Philippe Brunot’s insightful documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at Tanzania’s gemstone miners in their search for precious tanzanite.

Filming of Follow the Zebra in Tanzania

Philippe Brunot is fascinated by people, and it is this curiosity that has been a driving force throughout his career as an independent filmmaker. Recently, he has turned this exploration of the human condition to the difficult and secretive world of gemstone mining.

His first film on the subject, Follow the Zebra, is what he hopes will be an ongoing series and is a behind-the-scenes look at Tanzania’s small-scale gemstone miners as they toil and struggle in the hard ground searching for the flawless tanzanite, which will change their lives and provide a new future for themselves and their families.

Read more about tanzanite jewellery

For a month, Brunot followed gemmologists Vincent Pardieu and Richard W. Hughes as they trekked through the mining heartland of Tanzania. Pardieu’s treks to the world’s remote gemstone mines have been well chronicled in articles for the GIA and other publications. He often takes his students on expeditions with him and, on a selective basis, others as well. 

The stories of the gem seekers in the documentary Follow the Zebra explores their hope of eventually unveiling a precious stone that will one day become someone's cherished possession.

Brunot said it was a combination of good luck and the team’s willingness to allow him to follow along as their guest, observing and asking questions, which resulted in the success of the film. “I had no idea what I was getting into except for this gut feeling that it was going to be an extraordinary journey and one worth sharing with the world,” says Brunot. “So in Follow the Zebra I discovered the world of gemstone mining, expressing my thoughts and questions, and sharing the answers I obtained from both miners and gemmologists.”

Through interviews with miners and other key players, Follow the Zebra unfolds into a complex world populated by a wide range of characters. Some are dreamers who have risked everything, while others balance mining with farming or other employment. They all work long hours, and the work is gruelling and hot. And through it all runs the current of excitement and adventure that gemstones embody.

The discovery of tanzanite

Tanzanite is found in a tropical savannah area nestled against the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in the Merelani Foothills of Northern Tanzania. This region is part of a larger geological formation known as the Mozambique Belt or, more recently, as the East African Orogon. The hills are remotely populated and the location of the mines is carefully guarded.

Tanzanite has had an illustrious rise to the top of the gemstone world. Stories about its discovery have morphed into modern legends. One story claims the ground was set ablaze by a bolt of violet lightening and, when the fire subsided, glorious blue crystals remained on the ground. Eventually the stone found its way to a prospector, Manuel de Souza. Whether de Souza found it himself or whether a Masai tribesman gave it to him is unclear. He sent it to a GIA lab for identification and eventually the stone came to the attention of Henry Platt, vice president of Tiffany & Co., where it was given the name tanzanite.

Read more about the bold and fashionable gemstone, Tanzanite

Yet some facts are indisputable. One is the part Tiffany has played in tanzanite’s promotion. There is no doubt that Tiffany’s high evaluation of this exquisite blue gem was instrumental in catapulting it into the realm of high jewellery and the attention of the public. Another is the role of the Masai tribesmen. The Masai are intrinsically wrapped up in both the reality and legend of tanzanite.

Follow the Zebra is a behind-the-scenes look at Tanzania’s small-scale gemstone miners as they toil and struggle in the hard ground searching for the flawless tanzanite.

In Follow the Zebra, Peter Chelwa a miner/farmer from Mbuyini village, insists he is a farmer first, then a miner. Brunot believes it is this down-to-earth attitude that makes the Masai such successful and well-respected gem dealers and miners. They limit their financial risk by not depending entirely on mining. Brunot says, “I feel the Masai exemplify how to manage gemstone fever. It is so wise of them. I have so much respect for their ability to control the extent of this urge to risk it all.”

Three beauties

Brunot mentions that Pardieu said his job is about three beauties: the gems, the place and the people. For Brunot, it’s the third beauty, the people, which intrigues him most, and Follow the Zebra is very much about the people behind tanzanite.

He says, “If you ask yourself why handcrafted products are often valued much higher than machine-made products, I feel it’s because of the humanness behind it, with all of its imperfection and ingenuity. With gemstones, the first craftsman is Mother Nature. These stones would be nothing if never found and revealed to the world. The stories of the gem seekers, these dreamers who dare to hope long enough to eventually unveil a precious stone, which then becomes someone’s engagement ring or a cherished gift from a loved one, is immensely intriguing and beautiful. I feel that it adds great value to a gemstone. The craft of these miners is their tireless search for gemstones with only their hands, a few basic tools, and lots of hope.”

The desire to make a difference

Brunot was born in Madagascar and grew up there and in the United States, where he studied cinema at San Francisco State University. He looks for ideas in people, their struggles and triumphs, and is driven by the desire to make a difference in the world, to share the stories of the voiceless.

“If I sense that one person in one part of the world could be inspired from discovering the story of another person he would otherwise never have heard about, then I know that this subject is worth documenting, and is worth sharing,” he says.

Brunot's second film about gemstone mining in Vietnam, which is currently in post-production, includes ruby mines in Luc Yen and pearls in Halong Bay. Like Follow the Zebra, his new film focuses on the men and women who toil in rice paddies and on mountainous slopes to bring beauty to those of us who love coloured gemstones and high jewellery.

Brunot’s hope is that those who are foreign to the mining world see beyond the material beauty of the gemstone and see the third beauty that Vincent Pardieu speaks of: the people.

Follow the Zebra is available online via Vimeo On-Demand

- English version:

- French version:

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