Northern artists must organize
Workshop reveals potential and promise for future Northern jewellery manufacturing

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 26/99) - There are 3,500 artists and carvers in the North who will miss the diamond train if they don't organize right now.

Yellowknife jewelry-maker Francois Thibault attended a conference March 14-15 at the Explorer Hotel with a variety of international diamond jewelry manufacturers, including Doug Spence of Spence Diamonds and Norbert Brinkhaus of Brinkhaus Jewellers.

He said he now realizes the enormous value-added opportunity diamonds represent to Northern artists -- an opportunity that will pass them by if they don't have a plan in place.

"I'd like to form an association of interested artists and carvers right away. That way, until more training is done, we'll have a bank of designs that manufacturers can choose from," Thibault said.

"This is the only way to show the production houses that we're professionals, ready to embark on Canada's newest adventure."

Thibault called the 3,500 Northern artists currently producing in the Canadian Arctic the "largest pool of untapped designers in the world."

He points out that a gem-quality diamond on its own isn't much -- it has to be mounted in a unique setting that highlights the natural beauty of the stone. Production houses rely on artists to design those settings.

"It's time for the talent in the North to rise and shine. This is a wake-up call for all Northern Canadian carvers, artists and jewellery makers," Thibault said.

After forming an association, Thibault envisions finding funding to set up small casting operations in Northern communities throughout the Arctic.

"Setting up casting operations across the North would not only be beneficial as an educational tool, but it would create a small cottage industry that the bigger jewellery production houses could use as a design bank for original aboriginal work," Thibault said.

"All you need to capitalize on this is imagination and creativity, which is something the North has ample amounts of."

Diavik vice-president of commercial, Jim Sharpe, was at the symposium mostly as an observer. Diavik is a rough diamond producer, which means they sit on top of the value-added pipeline.

From the rough stage, which is a more than a $7- billion industry, the value-added diamond machine picks up about $50 billion along the way.

"We think it's right to look at the potential for value-added but our own experience is it's pretty hard to break into. In the North, you're starting from zero," Sharpe said from his office in Calgary.

"Each value-added stage represents a big jump, and each jump represents a whole new set of risks and issues. Just having a diamond mine isn't a passport to creating jewelry from the diamonds mined there. There's many stages involved."

That said, Sharpe is cautiously optimistic about the creation of a Northern jewellery manufacturing sector and he agreed that Thibault is on the right track.

"There's a base of creative people up there and a tradition of Northern craftsmanship that companies in the south are aware of. I have no-doubt something will be happening in the manufacturing area," Sharpe said."

Yellowknife's Nexus Group organized the event as an industry building task.

"Participants indicated that it's quite clear we can't go large-scale or compete at the lower end of the jewelry manufacturing market. You'd have to produce large volumes with little lead time," Nexus Group president Peter Allen said.

"The major opportunities lie in the middle and high-end markets. It's an area that relies on world-class designs, low-volume and a high service element."

He said the importance of a Northern jewelry manufacturing sector lies in the fact that a combination of industries can converge together.

"Diamond jewelry is one of the areas that combines the skills of the Northern artist, the product of the mines and the experience of the Northern landscape and people (tourism) into a single, integrated industry," Allen said.