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Every now and then we get enquiries from students doing school projects on sapphire mining. We are certainly happy to help out with these enquiries (from the student please – dont make Mum or Dad do your project for you) so in addition to the information already present on our website, here is a collection of useful sites and information that may help.
Sapphires are commercially mined in Queensland and northern NSW. Although Australia once produced up to 70% of the world’s supply of sapphire, market conditions in recent years have been extremely difficult resulting in the closure of many mines. Aussie Sapphire is one of only a few commercial miners left in the Glen Innes/Inverell district now. For this reason, some of the market information and operator details listed in the links below may be out of date. As always, when researching on the internet, you should attempt to double-check your sources and read with a critical eye.
The relevant government authority governing mining in NSW is the Department of Primary Industries – see here for articles containing information on gemstone mining and fossicking in NSW. In Queensland, the mining industry is regulated by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines – see here for information on sapphire mining and fossicking. The Gemmological Association of Australia has produced a useful article giving an overview of Australian Sapphire which may also be of interest.
We have a number of pages on our website which detail the process of commercial mining giving a step-by-step description with photos and short video clips. We are quite happy for these images to be used in projects (with due acknowledgement please). See here to begin the “Virtual Tour of our Mine” or see our photo gallery of images and video clips. For photos of the largest commercial sapphire mine in NSW, see this website – a mine at nearby Kings Plains run by Wilson Gems and Investments – this plant is much larger as the photos indicate and is working a very rich resource of blue sapphire.
The sapphire mining industry in Australia is export-based with almost all production currently being exported as “mine run” to Thailand for further processing and sale. Although a small portion of the best sapphires are cut locally for domestic sale, this does not happen to a large degree. Unfortunately, on the world market, we must compete with other countries where costs of production are much lower. This, combined with low levels of demand in recent years are causing problems for many Australian sapphire miners.
Here at Aussie Sapphire, we value add much of our production and sell direct to wholesalers and retail customers. Currently, over half of our sales are overseas with most of this to the USA – other countries include the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Canada, Japan, South Africa and many more.
Environmental protection is a priority for mining today. In most cases, miners have to pay a deposit or bond to the Mines Department to cover the cost of restoring the land to its original condition. This bond is not returned unless the land is restored properly. There are rules on how and where we can mine so that we do not cause damage to the environment. In our case, as we also use our land for farming as well as mining, this provides a powerful incentive to look after the land as well as we can.
Sapphire mining is a relatively low-impact activity with small strip mining – the cut is backfilled continuously as it moves forward. Top soil is set aside while the small area is mined and then returned when the cut is filled – the area is smoothed and then cropped or planted down to pasture. We expect good agricultural production from our land after mining is completed. It is prohibited for mining activity to impact on water flow or quality. These environmental restrictions are in contrast to the lack of regulation on mining in some of countries which we compete with. Severe negative environmental impacts are common in some of these countries where mining land is not restored to productive condition or mining is carried out directly within the river flow itself – the very low prices paid to the miner for their gems and the lack of government control do not provide much incentive to look after the land.
Although mining is often a dangerous occupation, the particular nature of sapphire mining means it is relatively safe. Safety is governed by Workcover NSW and all workers are covered by workers compensation insurance to cover workplace injuries or accidents. Safety is regarded as a priority at Aussie Sapphire and regular meetings are held with the aim of improving safety. A mine manager must be appointed to oversee all operations and take responsibility for operating a safe worksite. Operators must be qualified to work the excavators. Hearing protection is worn when operating machinery or trucks. Suitable clothing is also worn to prevent snagging on machinery or exposing skin to excess sun. In larger mines where there may be a danger from rocks falling from height, safety helmets are worn for head protection. Safety signs are posted to warn of potential hazards and gates are locked to prevent casual access by visitors who may not be aware of specific dangers on the site. See the NSW DPI website for more information on mine safety.
Jobs within the industry:
Commercial sapphire mining involves the digging of sapphire wash, processing the wash, separating gems from the concentrate, grading of these gems. At this point, gems may be sold in the rough or further processed for sale by cutting or faceting and making into jewellery. Marketing of the gems is an important job – the internet is playing an increasingly important role in this task nowadays. General office administration (record keeping, invoicing, ordering, etc) is another important job. In small mines like ours, the mine operators need to be very multi-skilled – we do most of these jobs ourselves. In larger mines, these jobs might be allocated to a number of different people.
Gem cutting is a very specialised job which takes skill and experience – we have a small number of local people who cut the best of our larger gems while much of the very small sapphire is cut overseas where labour costs are cheaper.
Problems in the sapphire industry
Problems in the sapphire industry generally relate to the difficult market conditions currently being experienced. We are competing in a global market with countries whose costs of production are much lower than ours and where there is significantly less government regulation. To overcome this problem, we need to market our sapphire as being ethically produced in an environmentally responsible manner. See the Ethical Gem Mining page on our website for more on this issue.
Another problem is the poor reputation of Australian sapphire as being over dark and inferior in quality. While it is true that the basaltic type sapphire produced by Australia is generally more saturated in colour than some other resources, it ignores the fact that Australia does produce excellent quality sapphire of very fine colour. Every resource produces a wide range of colour and type – which means both good and bad stone. Unfortunately, Australian sapphire has been marketed in such as way that the fine quality has been mislabelled leading to a unfair perception that we only produce poor quality. Difficult to overcome this attitude but we are trying to educate the buyers – see our Reddestone Sapphire and Sapphire Colour pages for more information on this issue.
The other problem in the gemstone industry is the lack of disclosure of enhancement treatments. Many gems have been treated in some way to enhance their appearance – in the case of sapphire, almost all commercially available gems have been treated in some way. While basic heat treatment is standard within the industry and accepted by buyers, some of the newer treatments have a significant impact on gem value. Difficulty and cost in detecting these treatments have caused problems within the coloured stone market. See the Gem Treatment page on our website for more on this issue.
Hope this information has been of some use – please let us know if there are any other areas which need covering. Remember, Australia still produces very high quality sapphire so support our local industry – “true blue” Aussie Sapphire.
cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire