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.
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.
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.
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.