...“Super guy. They wired the funds on the basis of a telephone call.”
A new fund structure was created, without Vekselberg, and it closed the Fabergé deal. Vekselberg was fuming, legal action was launched and Brian was booted out of the posts he held in Russia.
With Russian diamonds off limits, Sean turned to a new niche, rolling-up emerald and ruby assets. He swallowed a failing emerald mine in Zambia, a listing in London, a marketing team from tanzanite and a huge ruby license in Mozambique, using the new company, Gemfields, to buy Fabergé, leaving the Gilbertsons' fund as the largest investor.
Coloured gemstones are rarer than diamonds, yet cheaper, having never previously benefited from a concerted marketing push. “The big theory and the big gamble,” Sean says, now drinking mint tea, was that Gemfields could push up prices by upping production, defying basic economics. “The laws of supply and demand only work in an efficient market. And emeralds, rubies and sapphires are so far from efficient it ain't funny.”
It was a culmination of all Sean's prior experiments in liquidity. “It's like a car engine. A car engine runs on fuel. Ten years ago, the coloured gemstone car engine, it didn't have fuel to run. Somebody in Zambia would get a couple of litres of fuel, gemstones, you put the gemstones into the engine, the engine runs for half an hour, and then it splutters and dies. A month later, somebody in Mozambique finds a bunch of gemstones and they put it into the engine. The engine runs for a couple of hours, splutters and dies.”
“The moment you can keep the fuel supply constant, and even increase it by putting your foot on the accelerator, the engine can not only run properly, but it's going to go from idle speed to 1,500 RPM. If you put more fuel in it's going to go to 2,000 RPM. At some point the industry will hit let's say 4,000 RPM, at which point you've got
an efficient market. We're nowhere near that yet.”
Output has gone up and down, chief executives have come and gone and stock market listings have flipped around, but Gemfields' overall group sales have risen from zero in 2008 to $193m last year.
Its new Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique and its Kagem emerald mine in Zambia have pumped nearly $700m of coloured gemstones into the market in the last ten years, at steadily increasing per carat prices, sucking previously marginal assets into production. Gemfields is opening new emerald pits in Zambia and has 75 people on the ground in Ethiopia, digging gemstones out of the country's south.
A reshuffle earlier this year, however, left funds in London looking cross and flat-footed: Pallinghurst reabsorbed Gemfields in a nil-premium, all-stock takeover and Sean stepped out from the background to become group CEO. Investors were “legged over”, one broker says.
“We've got businesses to run and it's very easy for people to speak and puff stuff up,” Sean says, “but there's no substitute, as the years go by, for the numbers, and ultimately those have got to do the talking for you. I'm still responsible for Gemfields and Fabergé, which I primarily have been for the past ten years, and we continue to build it as best we can. I think we've proven the theory, but there's obviously a lot of work to do to get the business to scale.”
He has retrenched the group, pulling it out of deals in Colombia and Sri Lanka to focus primarily on Africa, but believes emeralds and rubies are still heavily undervalued versus diamonds and wants to add sapphires to the mix, either in Madagascar or Mozambique. Pallinghurst, which is listed in Johannesburg and counts Brian as its chairman, is separately eyeing deals in manganese and is considering a new listing in London in 2018.
With emeralds and rubies now prominent on
the high-street and in the fashion press, other mining companies are diving into the market that Sean Gilbertson has created.
Diamond billionaire Lev Leviev, who has large investments in Angola, recently bought an emerald mine in Zambia, whilst shares in ASX-listed Mustang were pumped higher after it forayed into African rubies. Gemfields' former chief operating officer, Dev Shetty, meanwhile left last year to run his own Toronto-listed vehicle, Fura Gems, which has picked-up assets in Colombia that Gemfields relinquished. “Dev is a very bright, capable and ambitious guy,” Sean says. “Quote me. And so I'm sure he will build an interesting organisation.”
There are rumours that Shetty's new firm is a front for the Gilbertsons, who are using it as an arms-length entity to isolate the risk of operating in Colombia. Are the rumours true?
“Absolute fiction,” Sean says, with the amusement of someone who will always know more than whoever's across the table. “One of the great things about this industry is that there are two sides to every story. But in the gemstone business, there is a side for every facet on the gemstone. It's so easy to throw a new thing into the industry that gets people all excited.”