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MEET KENYAN GEMSTONE ARTISTS KARIUKI AND CHAO

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James Kariuki and Evangeline Chao founders of Kariukichao, a gemstone and art dealer have been in the business for over six years. Their love of art led them to experiment with different gemstones for their pieces and making a kill.

What’s your background?

James: I graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University with a Bachelor’s degree in Telecommunication and It. I used to work for Safaricom in Mpesa sales and distribution department. My dream has always been to create something of my own and hopefully transform lives through it, so I quit my job last year to focus on the gem and art business.

Evangeline: I have a diploma from Mombasa Polytechnic in Hospitality Management I used to work for International Committee of the Red Cross. Due to passion of art and gems I decided to focus on the business after end of a contract.

What motivated you guys to start this unique business?

The mining sector in Kenya, especially in the coloured gemstones dealing being largely done informal, going the formal way for most small dealers and ASMs (Artisanal Small-Scale Miners) prove to be an up-hill task.

We have extensive experience and created a solid network in the sector during the period and due to their love and passion for gemstones, taking the formal route was inevitable thus the birth of Kariukichao Ltd.

Divergent gem art.

How did the idea of making gemstone art pieces come about?

The idea was initiated by Evangeline last year. It originated from the love and passion of the two fields, gemstones and art. We wanted to tell African stories through gemstones art pieces. The whole execution of the idea was actually self-taught, replacing paint with the varying coloured gemstones. We make the arts purely with gemstones with each stone type displaying its distinct colour, ruby for red, sapphire for blue, black tourmaline for black among others giving them a beautiful, exciting and fresh look.

Which gemstones do you use?

Tsavorite, ruby, sapphire, red garnet, aquamarine, amethyst, rhodolite, tourmaline in yellow, black, and green, yellow garnet, spessartite and iolite all sourced from around the East African region.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

The desire to support the Artisanal and Small-scale Miners (ASMs) in the interior mining areas of the country by providing a constant market for their goods.

Tell us about the whole process from sourcing, grounding to finally having a piece of art.

We source the gemstones, sort them carefully to different grades required, grind and finally get down to making an art piece. For the art work you first have to neatly and carefully place the prepared stones on the medium of use using tweezers, and then spray with adhesive for them to stick together.

Who are your clients?

Clients that want to gift their loved ones a personalised gift that will last a lifetime, hotels, corporate gemstones and art lovers, collectors, and government offices.

Turkana Woman gem art.

Which are some of the favourite pieces you have made?

Turkana Woman portrait, the uniqueness of the Turkana culture and practices differ considerably from the Maasai and the Samburu. This inspired us to come up with the piece to show-case one of their many interesting practices. We used sapphire, aquamarine, ruby, yellow garnet, black tourmaline, green tourmaline, green garnet, red garnet, iolite.

The famous Lone Elephant in Tsavo is an actual photograph taken by us. The elephant blocked our path on the way to Mkuki mining area in Tsavo. We definitely had to turn it into a gem art piece. We used red garnet, blue sapphire, aquamarine, green tourmaline, yellow garnet, black tourmaline, all ethically sourced from Tsavo region.

Divergent, the art piece recognizes and appreciates the different and yet similar appearances between women and men. When you look at the art piece closely you’ll not be sure if it’s a woman or a man from the back and we used ruby, sapphire, yellow garnet, black tourmaline, aquamarine 7.

How much would one piece cost?

Gem art pieces range from Sh100,000 and can go up to Sh1,000,000. It depends on the size of the art piece, type of stones used and time taken to do it. We once sold a portrait to a private collector for Sh400,000.

Have you ever had a client request for a custom made art?

Yes. They were personalised gem art gifts for their loved ones.

Where have you showcased your art?

At the Kenya Jewelry and Gem Fair.

Any charity organizations you have been involved with?

We have an initiative, Gem Arts for Africa (GAFA), where 10 percent of the revenue from any art work sold, goes to funding the initiative. To help improve the working and living conditions of the artisanal small-scale miners, their dependent communities and educating their children.

What is the future of the art business?

To take the art work to international platforms in a bid to tell African stories and contribute in preserving the African culture, To transform ASMs and the dependent communities’ lives through GAFA.

Lone Elephant in Tsavo gem art.

What’s your biggest challenge?

Sourcing for gemstones is not easy, finding the top quality it comprises only of 2 percent which is mined on a day to day basis, is even harder. The top quality is what mostly sort after by the high-end and commercial gem market. The remaining 98 percent of the material that often does not have a consistent market value is left for artisanal and small-scale miners who work tirelessly for months or even years, which eventually results to demoralization and frustration. Finances, due to costs Involved in the craft, the process of making an art is q time-consuming. The markets for our art not stable yet.

What advice would you give to fellow artists who would be interested in the craft?

To venture into the craft, one has to first have the passion for it and patience is required in seeing the work through. We would love to see more and more people eventually getting involved in this because it will definitely transform the mining sector especially of coloured gemstones in Kenya and Africa in a very positive way.

Where can we buy your art?

We are currently online based, you can order by visiting our social media pages and on a website.

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I am a journalist, fashion show choreographer, a backstage manager, an actress and the owner of buzzcentral.co.ke. As a journalist, I specifically focus on entertainment and feature writing.

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