Madagascar sapphires: a blessing for Swiss jewellers, but a curse for miners

Madagascar is today the main source of sapphires for Swiss jewellery and watch brands, such as Bucherer, Richemont or Gübelin. But the Malagasy state and the tens of thousands of small-scale miners who extract them, at great risk to their lives, hardly benefit from this precious resource. Meagre wages, child labour and illegal exports: a field report funded by the Public Eye Investigation Award tells the story of the sapphire curse on Madagascar, as well as of the lacking due diligence on the part of Swiss and international companies.

For several months, freelance journalist Julie Zaugg has been investigating the trails of Madagascar’s sapphires, which delight jewellers and watchmakers in Switzerland. A world away from the splendour of luxury jewellery stores, her journey took her to the small-scale mines of Ilakaka, an area covering 4000 km2, which is home to one of the largest deposits in the world, discovered in 1998. In a Martian landscape, tens of thousands of men explore the bowels of the Earth every day in the hope of finding a gem and escaping poverty. Children help their parents sort and wash the rubble collected from the mines from the age of five. From the age of 15, they go down into the makeshift tunnels. The multitude of testimonies and the powerful images tell the story behind the scenes of this "sapphire rush" in Madagascar, where 70 percent of the population lives on less than USD 2 a day.

In 2022, Madagascar exported USD 60,179 worth of gems (rubies, emeralds and sapphires) according to United Nations statistics. In reality, Madagascar ships about USD 150 million worth of sapphires a year, according to various estimates. This is all down to a parallel export system, used by most foreign buyers. These intermediaries export the rough stones, while circumventing official formalities and using bribes, to Sri Lanka and Thailand, where they are cut and resold for a large profit. The gems then end up in the hands of luxury giants, such as the Geneva-based Richemont group (owner of the Cartier brand), Lucerne-based Bucherer (recently acquired by Rolex), Harry Winston (which belongs to the Swatch group) and Lucerne-based jeweller Gübelin.

This research, which was financed by the Investigation Award presented by Public Eye for the third time, also highlights the challenges in terms of traceability, as well as the inadequacy of the voluntary initiatives and measures taken by Swiss jewellery and watch companies to guarantee gems mined with respect for human beings and the environment. When questioned about it, most brands acknowledge supply-chain issues, while also referring to their internal monitoring procedures.

For more information click here or contact: 

Julie Zaugg, Freelance Journalist, +44 757 69 344
Oliver Classen, Media Director and Award Coordinator, +41 44 277 79 06,

Photos are available for media use.