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Tsavorite: The fight to save a legacy

In 2009 Campbell Bridges, a world-renowned gemstone expert and geologist, was murdered. It shocked and horrified the jewellery and gemstone industry – not just because it represented the death of one of the sector’s most famed personalities, but also because of the heartless manner of his assassination.

Bridges, as many in the industry will attest, was both the ‘founder’ of tsavorite and the first person to bring tanzanite to the US market. The impact he had on the gemstone industry led to him becoming a respected figure in the jewellery sector as well as an official consultant geologist for luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co. The legacy he left behind is one his son, Bruce Bridges, is now fighting to preserve.

Discovery of a gemstone

Just as he lived his life, Campbell’s first discovery of tsavorite was full of adventure and intrigue. Working for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in 1961, he was out locating and assessing beryl deposits in what was then Rhodesia. When a rogue buffalo charged out of the bush directly towards him he was forced to dive into a gully: what he found there brought an entirely new gemstone to the world. “It had never been seen in the world before, he literally brought a new gemstone to the market,” comments son Bruce.

What is Tsavorite?

Bridges’ official discovery of tsavorite was in 1967 in Komolo, Tanzania, but when Julius Nyerere became president in 1970 he nationalised the mines, forcing Bridges out. Bridges then retraced the strike of tsavorite from Tanzania into Kenya where he found what is now called the Scorpion Mine, and where the Bridges’ family still mines the gemstone to this day. Tsavorite is part of the garnet family. It is a bright and sparkling green gemstone and despite being the same hardness as emerald – around 7.25 to 7.5 on Mohs scale of hardness – is tougher and more durable.

However, it wasn’t until six years later in 1967 that his official discovery of green garnet would be noted. Hidden in a small valley in a low range of hills just over 100 kilometers southwest of Kilimanjaro in north Tanzania, Campbell made his second discovery of tsavorite. This mine would later go on to yield, for a short time, some of the largest tsavorites ever found in the world, but this was long after Campbell lost the concession after the country’s mines were nationalised by president Julius Nyerere in 1970.

Not one to be deterred, Campbell traced the strike of the mine from Tanzania into southern Kenya, using nothing but colonial maps and his vast knowledge of geology. Once again he discovered tsavorite and in 1979 he narrowed down the most fruitful of all the areas, the Scorpion mine on the edge of the Tsavo National Park – the operation the Bridges’ family is still running to this day.

The discovery put Campbell at the upper echelons of the jewellery industry, and, after having already brought tanzanite to the US market with the company, he sat down with former Tiffany & Co president, Henry Platt, to name the new gemstone after the region in which it was discovered. Platt was a keen admirer of the stone and after being introduced to it he stated: “Tsavorite is everything that a fine gemstone should be, and then some.”

Naming a gemstone

Modern mineralogical nomenclature dictates that the naming of a mineral must end with “ite”, and in 1973 Campbell Bridges and Platt decided that it was time for the gemstone to be given a trade name. Due to it being mined on the edge of Tsavo National Park, the pair decided to name it Tsavorite in honour of its surroundings.

A marketing campaign from Tiffany & Co followed and soon after the tsavorite market was believed to have a wholesale value of around $4m (£3.2m). Although significantly smaller than most gemstone industries, most of this was generated by Bridges alone making it a valuable source of wealth in the local region.

But the Kenya that had previously been so accommodating of Campbell and his business began to change. A country that had been stable was now becoming plagued with political corruption, tribal feuds, tense relationships with its colonial past and, more recently, an increasing problem with Islamic fundamentalism, particularly the Mungiki – an organisation that rejects westernisation and is often referred to as the ‘Kenyan mafia’.

In 2006, the Bridges found out that illegal mining activities were taking place on their concession. Protection notice signs were soon erected on the illegal mines under the name ‘Tia Akilli’, with several members of parliament voicing their support for the illegal mines.

After years of complaints being filed by the Bridges’ to local and governmental authorities, and numerous eviction notices being sent to the illegal miners, the gang became more violent and daring. In July 2009 two of the mine’s security guards were abducted and told to pass a message to Campbell – if the mine wasn’t handed over they would come for his head and leave the area in flames.

It was clear the Bridges wouldn’t be forced out of the area, which was not just a mine to the family but a place they called home. “Eventually they saw that they couldn’t threaten and keep pushing us in order to get rid of us, so they just decided they’d try to kill us,” says Bruce.

On 11 August, 2009, a gang of 20 to 40 people ambushed Bridges on the grounds of his 600-acre property near the Southern Kenyan town of Voi. Driving along his mine road with Bruce and four guards, Campbell found the road was blocked.

The armed gang, wielding spears, daggers and machetes, charged down a hill and attacked Campbell and Bruce. “Tragically the first blow of the attack was the fatal one to my father,” says Bruce. “However, they were a bunch of cowards and when we started to go after them they like didn’t like that much and ran away.” A knife was plunged deep into Campbell’s chest and he was pronounced dead upon arrival at the local hospital.

A five-and-a-half year legal battle ensued, in which time the mine was closed and Bruce’s priority was to bring justice for his family. “We had a strong security force, government and administrative police guard the mine to keep it secure. I didn’t let go of any of my permanent workers and kept them on full salary the entire time,” says Bruce.

Seven defendants were charged with the murder of Campbell Bridges. Yet in December 2014, despite eyewitness accounts placing the defendants at the scene, only four were sentenced to 40 years, the remaining three defendants were acquitted. It wasn’t until three weeks later on 5 January 2015 that the mine reopened.

Protecting a legacy

In the eight years since the mine reopened, it has encountered numerous problems and disturbances that are making it hard for Bruce to run the business, let alone continue to make a success of it. But he’s clearly passionate about the mine, and who wouldn’t be? Fighting for the mine, in part, is a fight to save the legacy of his father and the business he worked so hard to create.

Campbell’s passion and love for the gemstone industry and Kenya itself have always been well publicised, from his love for the nature around the mine to his passion for the country and the people that live there. Campbell planted trees around the mine to preserve habitats and campaigned against poaching. He was particularly fond of tree houses and slept in the trees outside the mine each night. “Being in the tree kept you nice and safe from the animals, except the leopards,” Bruce jokes.

“He wasn’t a man that was just interested in taking from the land and being the wealthiest man on the block,” he adds. “He was much more into the magic, adventure and romance of gemstones. I think that’s what his legacy will always say.”

The man behind the stone

Campbell was born in Scotland to a British father and Scottish mother. However, having spent his childhood growing up in Africa his deep love for the continent was unwavering and he considered himself African. His passion for gemstones and the local area saw him fight against poaching, plant trees to restore habitats and employ local Kenyans as managers at the mine – something not often seen at African mining firms.

The same ethos has been instilled in Bruce, and although his family now lives in the US, he spends about 50% of his time in Kenya in a fight to keep the mine in operation. Fighting for the mine is not only about upholding that family legacy: it’s also an ambition to pay the long term workers – some of which have been with the company since Bruce was a child – and keep the money in an area that is so close to the Bridges’ hearts.

But the company today faces an uphill struggle, whether it is constant battles with local politicians or direct threats from Mungiki which is now attempting to take over Kenya’s gemstone sector. Bruce says that it’s now “very difficult” to run a legal business in Kenyan mining.

Bruce has had continued threats from Mungiki, which last year abducted their head of security and beat him before sending a threat directly to Bruce and his mother. Continued encroachment and threats means operations at the mine are stop-and-start, and the company is unable to get anywhere near as much rough out of the ground as they otherwise would.

“There will come a point where financially it just won’t be feasible anymore, we have a lot more going out than we have coming in,” says Bruce. “My father is basically the father of coloured gemstone mining in East Africa but it’s something we will have to weigh up – you still want to be involved in the sector but it doesn’t seem to have any hope anymore.”

Bruce is quick to point out that his is not the only mine in the local area to have encountered these persistent problems, but it is perhaps the fame surrounding his father that has attracted so much exposure from local and national media alike. “We are not the only ones to have had these issues, it’s not as if we are an isolated incident. We have seen several of our neighbours forced out and murdered over the last seven years,” he laments.

Crossroads

Despite recently welcoming his third child to the world, Bruce will be heading back to Kenya this month to continue fighting for what his family has worked so hard to achieve. But despite the danger involved, Bruce is not nervous about returning to a place he considers his home country: “We take as many precautions as we can, but it’s what we’ve always done – we are a mining family and it’s what we do. There’s a legacy to uphold.”

He believes this year will be crucial for change within the country, and in turn the future of the mine – although he’s not holding out too much hope for either. This year will see a presidential election in the country which Bruce says will either be a “rebirth” or a continuation of its “downward spiral”. “Investment and business in Kenya is very difficult right now, corruption is out of hand and the rule of law is completely abandoned in many sectors. It’s simply stifling and choking the economy and many legitimate businesses. I think it’s very tenuous what Kenya’s future will hold.

“At some point you have to weigh them out but I certainly won’t be deterred by the threats, they don’t worry me.”

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