For those interested in gems from exotic locations, an excellent series of articles have just been published in the online edition of Colored Stone magazine. The three-part series is titled “The Mines of Madagascar” and is by Vincent Pardieu and Richard W Wise – both very highly respected in the field of gemmology.
These articles provide a fascinating glimpse of the gem mining industry of this country – now one of the world’s major suppliers of sapphire. As Vincent points out, Ilakaka is the world’s largest sapphire market; with more than 100,000 people living there and working in the gem industry, it is even bigger than Chanthaburi in Thailand.
Although it has been known that sapphire was present in Madagascar for many years, mining for other gems such as topaz and tourmaline has been more important. Since major discoveries of good quality corundum in the late 1990’s, the main emphasis in Madagascan gemstone mining has switched to sapphire (both blue and fancy colour). The writers report that since the Ilakaka discovery in 1998, sapphire mining in Tanzania has dropped off markedly as many buyers moved their buying offices to Madagascar.
Of course, a mining boom of this size comes at a cost. The huge number of people working in the area with little government regulation creates a number of problems. Lack of effective environmental protection is causing large areas are being damaged with little likelihood of proper restoration. Deforestation and soil erosion caused by forestry, agriculture and mining are two important problems causing significant environmental degradation.
The following links provide some further reading on the subject:
- Criminalisation and the politics of governance: iliicit gem sapphire mining in Madagascar by Dr Rosaleen Duffy of the Centre for International Politics, Manchester University.
- MADAGASCAR: Feature – Gem industry in need of regulation – IRIN.news.org
The other interesting thing about gem trading in places like Madagascar is the practice of gem substitution. Certainly a case of “buyer beware” with cases of synthetic gems being included in parcels right at the mine level. Quoting from the Pardieu and Wise Part 2 article: The World’s Biggest Sapphire Market:
But the Ilakaka gem market is not an easy place to buy and make money…Sapphires that are heated locally at low temperature to improve their color are commonly sold as unheated gemstones. Gemstones are routinely “improved” with ink and added to parcels. Sapphire rough that was heated abroad (and turned out badly) is brought back to Ilakaka to be sold again locally as unheated rough. You will also find broken and tumbled synthetics that look like natural, alluvial crystals; irradiated yellow and orange gemstones which will fade with time; and, of course, the traditional glass and imitation gemstones that are a mainstay of gemstone markets all over the world.
Madagascar would be a fascinating place to visit. In the meantime though, we are happy to dig up our own sapphires in our own little patch of ground. Will have to settle for reading these very entertaining articles – hope you enjoy them too.
cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire