Category: Blog

Old and New Sapphire Rushes in the Bemainty Mining Area, Madagascar

A “rush” that produced world class sapphires close to the village of Bemainty, in the wet forest in eastern Madagascar, reached it’s peak some time after October 2016. Some of the sapphires were similar to the highly-prized Kashmiri sapphires and laboratories were misreporting their origin (Krzemnicki, 2017). Vincent Pardieu gained access to the site in February 2017 to collect samples and results from his preliminary study show that both high and low iron sapphires can be found in the Bemainty area, and that accurate origin determination for them a is not easy using basic laboratory techniques such as inclusion scenes and trace element chemistry (Pardieu, 2017). From 6/52017-8/5/2017 I gained access to CAZ and revisited the Bemainty mine now known as “Tananarive Carrier”. I documented it’s expansion and evolution, as well as two new sites called Sahambato and Ambodipaiso. I estimated there were 1 000 miners in the Tananarive Carrier area, but there could be tens of thousands in the newer sites. I also collected samples for Lotus Gemology’s research on origin determination.

With thanks to Association Française de Gemmologie & Lotus Gemology for supporting the trip.

For the report click:Old and New Sapphire Rushes in Bemainty Area Madagascar2017

Sapphires in Wild Western Madagascar

The north west of Madagascar is as wild as anywhere I’ve seen. Catapults are shot with stunning accuracy and people live from little more than what’s found around them in nature.

Antsirabe, I was told, is a village deep in the forest in north west Madagascar, where large, clean blue sapphires are occasionally found. Xiang, a Chinese gem trader based in Ambondromifehy (also spelt Ambondrofe) offered to take me there. I spent 3 days in the forest learning about sapphires and while it was an eye-opening expedition into the forest for me, it was also an eye-widening experience for friends and those had heard about where I had gone. I have written about my time to acknowledge and thank those who worried about me. It was a wonderful opportunity as I hope this shows.

Figure 1: Map of north Madagascar (google maps)

What a natural, self sufficient life miners in north west Madagascar lead. How far from the “rat race” of an exploding city it is! For 5 hours, I waited in Ambondromifehy to catch a bus to Ankaramy-Be (also spelt Ankaramibe) which is the closest town to Antsirabe. We arrived there 2 days later and stayed overnight so as to start our 7 hour walk early, minimising hours spent walking in the heat of the sun.

Figure 2: A view towards Antsirabe

At the edge of town, we stopped at the house of a lady who battled with her hungry chickens as she made us “mofo gasy” (Malagasy donuts) and coffee. The first half an hour of our walk was the hardest and at the top of the first hill we took a break. No villages were apparent; only some areas of “Tavy” (slash and burn) broke the texture of the forest. The people who lived there would have seen much more than I did: “chuppa” trees used for roofing, “boa” for the beams of houses and “kutt” which is made into a natural energy drink. In the forest there was a whole high street of building materials, food and medicine. Enroute to Antsirabe, we passed a few huts selling bananas and more “mofo gasy” as well as a couple of villages (one with a school) but there was not much foot traffic between them. Two toddlers on separate occasions caught sight of me and promptly burst into tears.

On the way to Antsirabe. Photo: Rosey Perkins

After about 6 hours walking, we drew closer to the village and on the path we spoke to an old man carrying a glass jar of sapphires in his pocket with a boy holding a catapult and a small bird. It became apparent that he was the son of Xiang’s friend, who welcomed us to the village with a meal of rice and eggs, which we ate overlooking a clearing. The clearing was the size of a football pitch and shafts up to 6m deep and approximately 1m in diameter had been dug into the compact, red ground using metal poles. Miners descended using foot holes (indents) in the sides and oxygen was fed to them via a plastic tube. We were brought sapphires by local miners but most were too included for Xiang to trade.

Figure 4: Lady fixes oxygen tube for a shaft at Antsirabe. Photo: Rosey Perkins

50-60 huts with floors made of woven branches had been built on the edge of a clearing. A whole community lived there, not just men. There were corner stores and off-licences, places where people played chess and cafes where people sat on benches and drank the locally-made herbal stimulants or aphrodisiacs. Chickens strutted about freely until they were picked up, killed, plucked and placed on the fire, in a well-practised series of movements. Prayer music played from one of the huts.

Figure 5: Miner digging at Antsirabe with a foot hole, top right. Photo: Rosey Perkins

As the sunlight faded so did the noises. We got up at 6am to walk to the next mining village, where larger, clearer sapphires could be found. Close to the village, mine shafts dotted their way along the footpath like booby traps and 3km later we appeared in a clearing about 30m x 20m, which had been mined intensively. People wrapped in blankets shouted something to Xiang. They were mining but not much. Sadly, 7 people had died the previous year in a collapsed tunnel, Xiang told me.

Figure 6. Miners in the early morning near Antsirabe. Photo: Rosey Perkins

We continued and 2 km ahead we were at our destination and welcomed with coffee. Xiang had a quick sleep while sapphires were collected by the local brokers and I sat in a cafe where, for lack of conversation, I taught some people there the card game “pelmanism.”

Figure 7: Looking at sapphires north of Antsirabe. Photo: Rosey Perkins

The sapphires were clearer than those we’d seen the previous day. Many were blue and green. Many were more blue, with less green in it than those I’d seen in Ambonfdromifehy but they were also much more expensive. We bought what we could and then made our return journey.

Figure 8: Miner and trader with a sapphire. Photo: Rosey Perkins

At 5:30am the following morning we left with a porter and food for the journey. The porter knew of several sapphire mining villages on the way to Ankaramby-Be and when we spotted one from the footpath he said it would be likely to have sapphires for us. It was an hour extra off our route but there was plenty of daylight left. A lady called Mama Farida welcomed us warmly and when we asked for sapphires she told us a miner had recently found “a good 1 gram sapphire.” The miner was at work about 45 minutes away but once tracked down, the sapphire appeared to be heavily included.

None of the sapphires they had to show us were of fine quality but sales, along with the crops they were able to grow, produced enough for them to live off. Men took parcels to Antananarivo or to Ilakaka to sell. Equally, miners walked in from Ankaramy-Be to work for a few days at a time to mine.

There would have been plenty more villages to look for sapphires in but my eye was on my watch. I had wanted to catch the “taxi-brousse” (public bus) to Antananarivo before dark so I chose to walk back out to Ankarame-Be. Xiang, the porter and I all got on to the last “taxi-brousse” south. They were aiming for Andilamena while I stayed on until Antananarivo, 22 hours later. In that time, worried messages had started between friends who were wondering where I had got to. I am sorry…here I was.

Sapphires and Family Life in Maventibao


Sapphire mining in Madagascar is largely artisanal small scale mining. Hand tools are usually used instead of machinery and much of the activity is unlicensed. Mining for sapphires took off in Madagascar following discoveries of basalt-related deposits in the north and south of the country in the late 1990s. In recent years rushes have occurred relatively frequently in the east of the island but activity and access is complicated by the protected rainforests, where mining is banned.

My interest in Madagascan gems was sparked during a talk Vincent Pardieu gave at GIA Carlsbad, following an expedition he had made to Didy in 2015. In mid September 2016 I arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, with 5 weeks to learn about the country and it’s gem deposits. I would be travelling alone, since GIA’s field expedition, which I had intended to be on, was cancelled. First, I visited the Institute of Gemmology, Madagascar, where Erik, a gemmology teacher there gave me a tour as well as some advice about travelling in Madagascar. I had also contacted MadaClinics, an NGO based in a mining community, which offered to accommodate me.

The “polychrome” sapphires (containing more than one colour) from Northern Madagascar intrigued me. I wanted to see them, where they came from and to compare them with my memory of those from Queensland, Australia. Although the sapphires from these regions are geographically distant today, visually they have similarities.

Figure 1: Map of Ambondrofe(Ambondromifehy) and Surrounds. M=Maventibao X=Makanue A=Anzannako

Sapphires were found in northern Madagascar in 1996 and a rush soon began. They are blue, green and yellow or violet in colour, (BGY) with some containing a mixture of several colours, referred to as “polychrome” sapphire. Ambondromifehy (also spelt Ambondrofe) is a gem trading town about 4 hours south by bus (“taxi brousse”) from the region’s capital, Diego Suarez, also known as Antisaranana. In the late 1990s, it had attracted men from all over Madagascar who were searching for work and hoping for a fortune. When I arrived, that excitement had long dissolved, leaving a quiet trading town surrounded by small scale mines. 

Going North

I flew from Antananarivo to Diego Suarez and caught the “taxi-brousse” to Ambondromifehy with Nono, MadaClinic’s coordinator, who was also my guide and translator. We stopped alongside a row of trader’s huts, homes and informal cafes. A trader emerged with tray of faceted blue sapphires for sale and we witnessed some miners bringing their finds to a female middle man who had set up her trading shop/cafe on the side of Route Nationale 6.

Figure 2: Female middleman sits in her roadside stand, where she sells simple refreshments such as fruit juices and noodles, while she waits for miners to bring their stones to her. I was glad to be met by Rasta, a local and Adrian the school teacher at Maventibao, who helped us carry our many bags up the hill to the village, which we reached 2 hours later after dark.

I was glad to be met by Rasta, a local and Adrian the school teacher at Maventibao, who helped us carry our many bags up the hill to the village, which we reached 2 hours later after dark.

Figure 2: Maventibao and the roof of MadaClinics School looking NorthWest.

Some time after the initial “rush,” Demco Energy and Mining Company LLC company obtained a mining license near Maventibao but left over ten years ago and now the mining is small scale and informal. Ben Shipley, a former Demco security guard returned to set up MadaClinics, which provides free healthcare and education to the mining community. I stayed with them for 5 nights and my donations for accommodation helped fund the project.

Figure 3: Mining Area Around Maventibao


Most, if not all of the village were miners and had families, who lived in huts they had built. They dug pits into the sandstone with hand tools and sometimes they tunnelled from there or went directly into the side of a hill. The surface undulated about 20ft and the area, which I spent 2 days exploring by foot, had been mined fairly extensively. The mines were not covered over when finished and Nono told me that people often return to old sites. Several 15ft “fissures” in the rock floor stretched out to a cliff face near the village. I had hopped over one in the dark but I imagined people could fall into them easily. Nono brushed off my concern and told me that was very rare.

One miner showed me a tunnel that went 18 feet into a sandstone face. He had found a bluish grey clay, which he took as an indicator for sapphires. Nono dug at the surface of the soil near the village with a stick. Sapphires are everywhere, he told me. The soil is rich with them.

Figure 4: Nono and a sapphire sample he found.

Adrian, a teacher at the primary school in Maventibao, took me to see his cousins in the village, who were informal miners and were happy to show me where they were mining. We crawled about 12ft into the tunnel, where his cousin and uncle were digging with spades into the side of a small cave.

Figure 5: A miner at Maventibao showing me rough stones he had found.

They took me from their mine to the river, where his aunt and younger children helped sieve the gravel. They were collecting the sapphires into a small plastic pot, which they took into Ambondromifehy to sell.

Figure 6: Brother washes rough while his sister checks the tailings

It was the school holidays and this little girl had been helping her parents mine for sapphires. 

Figure 7: A young girl shows me her sapphires

She proudly showed me her sapphires, ones she had pick out from her father’s sieve in the river near her home. Her father watched over her and sieved his pan.

Figure 8: Father and miner checks his sieve

Figure 9: A miner checks his stone carefully.

The majority of the sapphires I saw at Maventibao were very small: less than 0.3 carats and was quite “included”. Miners living in Maventibao were not seeking a fortune. It was a simple way of life but with the riches of the ground and the help of MadaClinics they had the basics.

Figure 10: Family portrait at Maventibao


I explored other villages around Ambondromifehy by foot and found one mining village east of the town, called Makanue, particularly interesting. There, shafts were up to 40 meters deep, they told me. I didn’t go down because they were all working. One team of miners had worked around the clock for over a week in shifts, giving oxygen to the miners below via a plastic “air sock” (figure 11) and resting in a make-shift tent when “off duty”. Of the stones I saw at a mine site in the area around Ambondromifehy, the purest and most saturated blue sapphire that cut above 1 carat came from here. 

Figure 11: Nono looking at a shaft mine in Makanue

The hard labour was done by men, while women checked the sieve. Often, it was a family affair but one camp we came across had been set up by a group of boys, who looked like they were in their early 20s.

Figure 12: An encampment at Anzannako

Many traders had set up in Ambondromifehy but some walked towards the mining areas and sat in a hut for the day, waiting for the miners.


Anzhannako is another trading hub along Route Nationale 6, on the edge of Ankarana National Park, where mining was taking place, I was told. I did not visit but I was told that it was tolerated there. Other areas were protected by the Gendarme (military police). In Anzhannako, traders showed us stones, among them were a +10 carat sapphire, some small star sapphire rough and one blue dipyramidal sapphire crystal. 

Figure 14: Stones from traders at Anzannako.

Moving On

I looked for a gem cutter in Ambondromifehy and found one but he was only able to cut cabochons, so it seemed that the faceted stones offered on the road side by traders in Ambondromifehy were likely to have been cut in Diego. Xiang, a Chinese stone dealer, showed me the stones his broker brought him, most of which were garnets and sapphires but I saw a very small trapiche-type blue rough stone among them. He described the sapphire mining areas he had visited in Madagascar and was especially interested in Antsirabe, a small village in the forest of NorthWest Madagascar, near Ankaramy-Be. He offered to take me there if I helped him improve his English and I agreed.


A word of thanks:

Thank you to friends who worried about me on the trip. It was a dream of an expedition to go on and I’m looking forward to more. Many thanks to Vincent Pardieu for his training on previous field expeditions, for his support and for telling me to go north first. Had he not, I may not have seen these places. Andrew Walsh, thank you for your advice and for telling me about MadaClinic and to Nono, Adrian, Mama Flavi and all those who welcomed me. MadaClinics are always looking for volunteers and can be contacted via their website or facebook page. 


This article is about the experiences of the author and the information she gathered on her trip to the mine site. Any views expressed are only the author’s opinions. Her information is dependent on the people she has met – so are the spellings of the village names. If information in this article is proved incorrect, incomplete, biased or offensive it is not the authors intent. The aim of the article is to record and share this personal and unusual experience.


Cook, R., Healy, T., (2012) “Madagascar Case study: Artisanal mining rushes in protected areas and a response toolkit”, Estelle Levin and WWF,

Hughes et al., (2006) “Sorcerers & sapphires: A visit to Madagascar.” The Guide, Vol. 25 (Issue 1, Part 1, Jan–Feb): pp. 1, 4–6.

Pardieu, V. Basic Rules of Field Gemology.

Rakotondrazafy & al. (2008). “Gem Corundum Deposits of Madagascar: A Review.” Ore Geology Reviews (34): 134-154.

Schwartz et al., (2000) Sapphires from Antisarana Province, Northern Madagascar. Gems and Gemology.

Walsh, A., (2012) “Made In Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism and the Global Bazaar.” University of Toronto Press.

Thoughts on a Visit to A Sapphire Rush Near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar

Thoughts On A Visit To A Sapphire Rush

[Click the title above to download this article.]

A “sapphire rush” which has escalated to approximately 45000 people occurred in the east of Madagascar, near Ambatondrazaka, last month. Blue and sought-after orangish-pink sapphires +100 carats (the size of a squash ball) are reported to have been found there. I was one of many, among miners, food sellers and porters to walk 12 hours into the jungle and to live alongside miners in a make-shift tented community. Living conditions were basic and there was no sanitation. I photographed the mining activity but it dawned on me in the throng of people that while my search had been for sapphires, the scene was much more complex than that.

Miner and Tented Community at "rush site" near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016

Miner and a tented community behind her. Photo: Rosey Perkins

This mining site is in an area under international protection for conservation. Madagascar is home to some of the most diverse and rare flora in the world. When the ground is shared with precious stones and poor people, conservation is not a simple formula. “You can’t talk about conservation to hungry people,” said Colleen Begg of Niassa Lion Project…and these people were certainly hungry. I saw toddlers, mothers and grandmothers make their way along the 35 km jungle track in flip flops, jelly shoes or with nothing on their feet at all. Their motivation went deeper than hunger. They do not trust their Government: one miner at the site even told me he was working quickly because the Government would soon take over and then [he believed] they would mine it for themselves and for their own profit.

In 3 days I saw no violence, it was just a hive of industry in one of the World’s last rainforests. Mining in a protected area is an offence that could lead to imprisonment, but in such numbers little could be done to deter the miners. The Gendarme did not have the physical capacity to evict them.

For the miners, sapphires weren’t the end game, they were the facilitator. This was their chance to elevate themselves; everyone had come to this site with a problem to fix. One miner introduced himself as a law student. He told me that for several years he had been unable to pay the bribe his university had asked from him. He needed to find a stone in order to graduate. Another said he wanted a car. The atmosphere was frenzied, as people anticipated a lock-down from the Government, which held a responsibility to protect the land.

There is however, in general, a disconnect between the theoretical penalties of mining in protected areas and reality on the ground. Cheers of self encouragement rose from the miners at work and in them I heard empowerment, there was sense of political populism. In the past, law enforcement has occasionally led to further environmental problems.

Sapphire in front of the rush site. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Sapphire in front of the rush site. Photo: Rosey Perkins

It’s not only the mining that impacts the environment but also the consequences of large numbers of people seeking supplies: wood for building houses and charcoal for cooking as well as food. On my way back to town, I passed several goat herders bringing meat to the miners. If the meat supply had been insufficient, the miners may have turned to bush meat. Madagascar’s rich gem soils are, as if Murphy had planned it, concentrated beneath an area essential for the survival of rare and endangered species. “Why don’t they plant trees on the West of the island where there are no sapphires,” asked a miner in earnest. For local people mining is a much needed source of income and the populist sentiment there says it is their right to mine “their” soil. But Madagascar’s rich biodiversity is one of it’s main attractions for tourists and damaging that would lead to serious economical consequences for the country.

Having visited and spoken to people at Gemfields’ mine in Mozambique and their London HQ, it’s clear the situation isn’t as simple as providing employment or alternatives. Their research into informal miner’s motivation for work suggested that a formalised mining job in a larger mining company would not necessarily satisfy many miners, who may be driven by dreams of finding a fortune, or supplement their main income as subsistence farmers during a period their farmland is unproductive. The demand for traceability is driven by the jewellers, but to formalise such mining is to demand a cultural shift and changes to local mining laws, health, safety and export conditions which only larger producers can currently respond to.

Miners digging at a rush site near Ambatondrazaka. Photo: Rosey Perins

Miners digging at a rush site near Ambatondrazaka. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Rushes in Madagascar occur frequently and in remote areas. “Madagascar is a difficult country with frequent conflict between conservationists and the gem industry. As it is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is a complex problem,” said Vincent Pardieu (GIA) who travels to mining areas across the globe to build a reference collection for the origin determination of ruby and sapphire. If this rush leads to further dialogue between conservationists and gem industry leaders, it would hopefully be positive for Madagascar.

Click here for the full report

Visit to Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar.

“A sapphire rush escalating to approximately 45000 miners has occurred in the Eastern Madagascan rainforest. On 23rd October I gained access from the nearby town Ambatrondrazaka, where I had been shown large sapphires of varied colours by foreign traders. I left the town by motorbike for a nearby village called Ansevabe. It was then a 11 hour walk to the mine site into an area which is in theory protected for conservation. We walked alongside miners and women carrying supplies and food to sell to the miners.

The valley opened to reveal a clearing in which people were building make-shift tents, feeding fires and digging. They collected potentially gem rich earth which they sieved to wash the dirt away and reveal the gravel in which they hoped to see gems. Stones were often large, and traders often took up place on the side of the hill so they could easily spot success. I was in the tents of some traders when they were approached by miners with some sapphires.

Some miners were professional and had travelled across the country to reach the mine site, others local making the most of the opportunity to earn some extra income. They worked together in teams of 4-5, digging several meters to shift the surface soil on order to reach the gem bearing layers further down. The Gendarme were present to oversee the area and keep peace, with such a large gathering, they could do nothing more.

It would be a blessing for the Malagasy gem industry and the local people if the area was not protected but in reality, that region East of Ambatondrazaka is part of a biodiversity conservation corridor, which is vital for the rare and endangered species living there.

It’s a difficult situation in which the interests of the wildlife and local people, the demand for gems compete. In this case, the gendarme have started controlling foreign buyers while also monitoring the mining activity.”

For Full report: Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazka, October 2016

Related Articles:

Boehm E. 2013. Colored Gemstone Ethical Fair Trade & Sustainability. Chubb Collectors Newsletter.

Cook, R., Healy, T., (2012) “Madagascar Case study: Artisanal mining rushes in protected areas and a response toolkit”, Estelle Levin and WWF,

Filou E. (15/11/2015) A Million Artisanal Gold Miners in Madagascar Wait To Come Out Of The Shadows The Guardian.

Pardieu, V., (2012) “Ruby and sapphire rush near Didy, Madagascar (April-June 2012)”,

Pardieu et al., (2014) “Rubies from a new deposit in Zahamena National Park, Madagascar”, Gems & Gemology, Winter 2015, Vol 51, No 4.,

Rakotondrazafy & al. (2008). “Gem Corundum Deposits of Madagascar: A Review.” Ore Geology Reviews (34): 134-154.

Walsh, A., (2012) “Made In Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism and the Global Bazaar.” University of Toronto Press.


Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazaka October 2016

In mid October 2016 a sapphire rush developed east of Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar in a theoretically protected area for conservation. About 45000 people had walked 12 hours into the jungle to dig for sapphires and I joined to find out exactly why.

Each morning I woke to the noise of digging and cheers rising through the morning mist that hung above the valley. Pots and pans clunked together as cooks served the stable: rice, pot noodles and watery haricot beans or coffee and mofo gasy (circular shaped donuts) to hungry people.

Miners, traders and brokers showed me stones they had found and traded: from  “au vive” (a light swimming pool blue with good transparency) to a deep “royal blue”. Some stones had an uneven colour distribution blue/white, many were actually milky and some were “polychrome” meaning that they were several colours but usually contained lots of brown. 

Sapphire at the rush site near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016.

Sapphire at the rush site near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016.

In the 3 days I spent there I didn’t see one sapphire taken directly from the sieve, although foreign traders were flying in to Madagascar having heard of fine +100 carat rough.

A Report on the Sapphire Rush, Mada. Oct 2016. By Rosey Perkins

To read a full account, which contains more details including photos of the stones and describes life at the mining site, please download the pdf by clicking the link above.

Gold Miners Escape

Miners of gold are working without government licenses in old, dry river beds in Niassa Reserve, Northern Mozambique. Dr Coleen Begg, who runs Niassa Carnivore Project explained to us that to separate gold with from other minerals poisonous mercury is used, and some is leaked into the river during the process. The Lugende River provides the local people with their main source of protein and if its fish stock is killed off – or reduced significantly – the local people are likely replace it with bush meat and so turn to poaching. Vincent Pardieu (GIA) wanted to fully understand the role of the miners in the context of conservation. While he was visiting Niassa so he accepted an invitation to join Niassa Carnivore Project’s scouts on patrol. I was fortunate to join them.

We set off by truck and were dropped off near an old dry river bed, which the scouts suspected the gold miners would prospecting. The area is surrounded by relatively thick bush, with paths trodden down between the trees. After walking for several hours we came across mounds of gravel where Fernando, the head scout motioned for us to stop talking and the other scouts dropped their bags and crept forwards. What he heard could have been wildlife, poachers or miners…he moved on and saw a footprint in the sand. He followed it. We hit the ground as the scouts moved on to find two men in tattered clothes, a bag of rice, a pot and some mining equipment including a carpet used to sieve gold, picks and shovels and a small bottle of mercury. It seemed a very humble way to live and a shame for them to face the penalty which can currently be up to 3 years imprisonment.

Unlicensed gold miners carrying their supplies and equipment out. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

Unlicensed gold miners carrying their supplies and equipment out. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

We sat down to interview the miners who admitted to using mercury and that they were aware that gold mining in the reserve was illegal. Both had said they were there because elephants had destroyed their crops and had needed money.for food. Coleen works with the local village to provide crop protection solutions including elephant-proof fences. She installs swinging bee hives which deter elephants from crops and provides pollination as well as alternative sources of income including “elephant friendly honey.” She also provides scholarships for the education of local children. The current high price of gold makes Niassa’s resources a very tempting prospect. The scout team, Vincent and I set up our tents alongside the miners’. The nightly watch didn’t seem too vigilant – no handcuffs were used and there seemed to be good humour between the scouts and the miners. They were treated with nothing but respect.

Mercury used for gold mining in dry riverbeds, Niassa Reserve, Mozambique.

Mercury used for gold mining in dry riverbeds, Niassa Reserve, Mozambique. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA.

Morning came and the miners were still there, just shivering under their blankets. It had been a cold night so we were keen to pack up and move on. We found another miner in the same dry riverbed that morning and he joined our crocodile line, Fernando in front. Soon we heard a shout from a scout at the back. It became apparent that the two miners at the back had escaped. Fernando was bitterly disappointed and sensed disloyalty among his troop. Further down the river bed we came another two miners and chased one down. At his camp the scouts destroyed their equipment by burning their carpet and pick handles. They confiscated the mercury and some poaching tools. The miners had also been hunting the guinea fowl….but the scouts hadn’t finished the job yet. An hours walk later that scout asked to go to the loo. Two walked a short distance to a tree, one gained a few meters and they both fled – one to be caught again. Fernando was livid. Perhaps for a young scout to find and detain a village elder like he had done was too tough a challenge on his sense of loyalty. All of their young scouts were recruited from the village – all except Fernando – and consciously so. But the village is small, the scouts have many relatives there, the penalty for gold mining is high… The challenges Coleen and Keith Begg face to conserve Niassa seem constantly changing and support from locals often hard-won. Alternative sources of employment is something Coleen talked about a lot. Here is an interesting talk about Niassa by Dr Coleen Begg.

Vincent and Coleen discuss conservation. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Vincent and Coleen discuss conservation. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Interesting articles on conservation and gemstones are here.

Melo Pearl

This gem is found in the Melo Shell. I say “found”, but few are lucky enough to do so and Vincent Pardieu (GIA), who took us to meet a dealer had previous spent several days trying to find them, right at the source. He took us to a Melo collector and trader in Hanoi, who estimated that 1 in 10,000 Melo shells may contain pearls. They are often found by fishermen, who catch the large shells to sell the meat but so rare are the pearls, that fishermen seldom recognise them. Many Melo bare the scars of a fisherman’s knife. In order to improve her chances of obtaining these rare pearls, she travels to Ha Long Bay Island to teach the fishermen about them and how to find them. She says that many Melo pearls are taken out of their shell with the meat, and cooked before they are recognised….and tens of thousands of dollars burnt.


A selection of Madam Yen’s Melo Pearls. Photo: Rosey Perkins

One of the most impressive we saw was a pale yellow pearl. We were told that having been bought from the fisherman, it had changed colour over the course of a week. The dealer was rightly dismayed to see it become paler but as it turned out, the pearl had been marinated and cooked in soy sauce for several hours in the shell before it’s discovery. The paling was taking it back to its natural colour rather than a treatment wearing off….but there are treatments to look out for.

Below is a large black pearl, which we saw in the same office and which Michele fell in love with.


Michele Prince with a black pearl Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA


Painting with Gems

A week in a mining area is definitely an education and Yen The, in Northern Vietnam is one town with a lot to teach. Largely small-scale in it’s mining practises and innovative with it’s resources, it is a model mining town. I travelled there with Vincent Pardieu, who makes frequent visits on behalf of Gemological Institute of America (GIA’s) field research department, and he kindly took me with a group of gemologists to the spinel and ruby mines in the area.


A overcast morning in Yen The, Viet Nam.

The dramatic mountains of Northern Vietnam are as impressive to the eye as the gems they hide and in less than 30 years since Yen The’s ruby deposits were discovered in 1987, it seems to have grown into a thriving hub of the Vietnamese gem trade. It produces rubies similar in colour to the Burmese ruby, cobalt (blue) spinel and bright red spinel, as well as tourmaline and (green) pargasite.

What happens to the bottom 98% of rough?

If gems are rare, gems of high enough quality for jewellery must be even rarer….and the vast proportion of stones found in the Yen The area aren’t of high enough quality to be used for jewellery. Lower quality rough can be used for sculptures and lower still can be used for emery paper but Yen The has also developed an art industry to use the low quality stones – i hope at higher profit. Their answer is Gem Painting.


A Gem Painting Closeup







In Yen The low grade rough gemstones are ground into powder, sorted by sieve and arranged on glass or canvas. Colourful canvases depict scenes of Hanoi and symbolic themes reflecting Fung Shue beliefs. The textured patterns of powdered gems are distinctive and are sold to tourists and locals. Gem paintings are hung in many homes and business here to strengthen relationships or stimulate success.


Lady from Yen The making a gem painting Photo: Vincent Pardieu

A Job for Women

Women here play an integral part at every stage of the gem mining process. It is common for women to dig for gems alongside their husbands on their farmland. Women hold the majority of the trading stands at the market, and as for their gem painting, they are the gem grinders and the artists. Gem painting is not a job solely for women but it is a job which is very accessible to females, and this is particularly pertinent parts of the world such as Africa and Sri Lanka, where the gem trade is traditionally male-dominated.

From Mine to Market

Local rough and cut stones are sold in the centre of town square, where any number between 10 and 30 women set up their stands every morning. Through shop windows, local people polish rough stones at cutting wheels, and jewellery shops sell finished pieces to tourists. Here, the gem’s path from mine to market can be condensed into a few kilometers. Gem painting is not a new idea, but it seems like a good idea for towns close to the mines to have developed this, especially since many miners lead a transitory life and often have to leave their families behind…I wonder where these gem paintings will find there homes.