Short History of Lonewood Mine Part 1

June 27, 2006

Further to my last post, I thought I’d just write a few short notes on the history of the Lonewood Mine.

Often I get asked two questions: 1) why do you worry about running the mine when you own such a great property and 2) what makes the most money.

I will answer the second question first (makes sense?).  Neither make much money (worst luck!) but one does prop the other up and vice versa.  The relative profitability changes a bit depending on the market at the time.

The first question is a bit harder to answer, I will go back into some of our past and that should help explain the (at times) madness.

When I was a small boy my Grandfather Frank Lane owned a “bush block” at Bullock Mountain about 5 miles downstream on the Reddestone Creek.  He loved it and spent most winters down there mucking around as it was always warmer.  Quite a bit of the rest of his time was spent fighting sapphire mining companies. Many a battle was played out in the court as at that time the chance of getting an honest royalty out of a miner was about zero.  Another problem was the fact that proper restoration of the land after mining was unheard of. 

I can see why he was frustrated by the invasion of these miners on his peaceful bush block and we need to remember it wasnt just a couple of miners.  This was around the height of the sapphire boom in the area so there were many miners including the daily car loads of mostly no-hopers from town that expected free access to anything they could find.  Anyway it was in these early days that I guess my initial interest was aroused.  The rough minesites and machinery (and people) interested me.  Pretty soon, most of my spare time was spent watching (and probably annoying) these facinating men.

By the age of around 9 I had a Honda postal bike that took me anywhere I was allowed.  Unfortunately, this resulted in the eventual sale of our bush block. It had been for sale for some time when on a weekend visit I caught up with a funny old chap by the name of Arthur Lancaster.  He was a city bloke who bought a mine on the place and came up for extended periods to lose some of his hard earned cash mining.  I didnt know that he wasnt aware that the whole property was for sale but me and my big mouth 😦 – within about 8 weeks our bush block was gone.  Malcolm, my father, kept one lease that he was informed may have some sapphire on it but much to my disappointment, the rest was lost.  However life went on and I kept pestering the miners. 

But I will keep the rest of the story for Part 2.
Cheers from Andrew


Missed our 10th Birthday!

June 15, 2006

This note was prompted by the fact that time flies when you're having fun. On Thursday last week, the day was progressing as normal.  After our normal 7am start in around -8 degrees (fun with water and machinery to start), we just sat down in luxury on our 5 gallon buckets for our 15 minute cup of tea when sudden silence fell over the plant site – no power.  Now this kind of thing is not uncommon.  We are lucky enough to be connected to the mains power, but we do have our share of brownouts and loss of power from time to time. This is a real pain as sapphire is often lost over the jigs when this happens plus there is a big load when starting our gear up again when the trommel has a couple of tonne of wash in it.  Following a normal restart, it's off to work we go.  I was digging in a rocky bit of wash (unusual for our flat) and didnt notice my offsider Phil arrive down at the cut with that telltale sad look on his face that told me all was not right at the plant. Shortly after I had left the main pump stopped again and when Phil investigated he could smell the smoke a hundred yards from the pump shed – that awful burnt wire smell that means you're up for lots of dollars.

Anyway, that's a long way around to explaining the title of this post.  As I mumbled to myself some unrepeatable words while removing the cover of the 40hp electric motor, I made a comment to Phil that "we didnt get much of a run out of that motor". Phil then quietly pointed down to the date scratched into the top of the cover and it all came back to me. Ten years isn't so long I guess but not such a bad run for the motor after all.  I remember it was only a couple of months after we took over the entire operation of the mine that I scratched that date into the rebuilt electric motor.  It hurt paying for it then and it did again this time.  But I cant deny that it has been an interesting 10 years – we certainly didnt think then that we would be sending our sapphires all over the world from our website – in fact we had only just discovered the internet about then. 

But really, my interest in sapphires goes a lot further back than just 10 years.  If you have kept reading up to this point, you might be interested to read a bit more about the history of Lonewood Mine in the next post – will write a bit about this in the next couple of days.

Just installed the new electric motor today – yes, it did cost lots of dollars but we are up and running again. 

cheers for now from Andrew

Expedition Travels

June 11, 2006

Just had a very pleasant, albeit extremely cold (max of 4.7 degrees C), visit from a small group of German tourists visiting Australia to tour our gemstone areas.  This tour was run by Expedition Travels, a small tour company specialising in trips to Australia where small groups can look for gold, sapphires and opals.

German Tourists fossicking for sapphire on the Reddestone Creek

This small group did some fossicking down on the Reddestone Creek and were lucky to find a couple of very nice dog’s tooth crystals along with plenty of lower grades and some nice small blues.  Funny how it was only myself and one of the tour guides that did the sieving 😉   It was very cold ! We just had 63 mm of rain overnight and in fact I think there was a bit of sleet falling when I took this photo.

Hope the visitors enjoyed their visit to our place anyway and hopefully they will have better weather next time they visit Australia.  If you would like to enquire about joining one of the tours, please see their website – very friendly and knowledgeable guides so you are guaranteed of a great trip.

cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire

Lonewood Museum – Part 1

May 8, 2006

Apart from our interest in gems, we have had a long-standing interest in antique machinery. Over the last couple of decades, Andrew has put together an impressive collection of antique tractors and stationary engines. These are currently housed in the Lonewood Museum (aka the Shearing Shed lean-to) although the collection constantly threatens to spill over and encroach into neighbouring shed space.

We thought some of our blog visitors may be interested to see just an overview of some of the collection in these few photographs. Will talk about a few of our favourite pieces in a future article.

Here are some of our old tractors including a Twin City 21-32, Allis Chalmers C35 and a Case. All these tractors are in working order. Unfortunately the Dodge ute (1923 model) will need some work before we can drive it.

This view shows another old Case and a Howard DH-22 – one of the few genuine Australian designed and built tractors.

 The last photo shows a selection of our stationary engines – used for many jobs throughout the last century. Many of these are in working order although they are still in their “working clothes”.

That’s all for now from us at Aussie Sapphire.

Could write pages about our museum but better get back to work on the website re-write. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article some time soon.

Sapphire in conglomerate rock

January 21, 2006

Mysteries of nature never cease to amaze us – this is a case in point from our local area.

These very heavy basalt rocks have large amounts of semi hard conglomerate rock stuck on them with a mixture of black spinel, ironstone and red ochre along with other small rocks. These are often indicators of good sapphire wash. The red ochre being common along our creek as indicated by the name of Reddestone (or Red Stone) Creek given over a century ago. Click on the photo to see a larger version.

Some history to go with this find:

This type of rock has only been found in this very localised area despite over 50 years of commercial mining in the region. This photo shows a much larger waterhole just downstream of this find – now just used for the occasional bit of fossicking and fishing – it is also a great breeding area for native wildlife.

This particular spot was one of the richest deposits of sapphire both in quality and quantity ever reported on the famous Reddestone Creek – nicknamed the “million dollar hole” indicating the richness of the wash. While working this patch, we often had to stop the plant every two to three hours to rob the jigs as the pulsators were overflowing with concentrate. Would love to see that these days !

Wash from this area was was processed through the mine plant 4-5 times and still produced viable results although the remaining stockpile of this wash contains only a small amount of this conglomerate type basalt. This wash is not viable for commercial mining but can offer great reward to the fossicker. We have spent many damp days when our black soil flats were too wet to mine the open cut holes, sitting in the shed with a hammer to break up these rocks looking for sapphire inside.

The find was in one particular hole in the creek (almost like a whirlpool) which was very deep (about 50 foot) with an almost 20 foot deep layer of wash. These particular conglomerate rocks were mainly toward the bottom and around the edge of the hole where the sapphire deposits were the richest.

We assume that the natural whirlpool location must have had a major effect on the accumulation of gems and other rocks which over time has created these basaltic conglomerate type rocks. Not being a geologist or gemmologist, this is a only guess on our part. Please contribute your thoughts as to what might have caused this phenomenon. They certainly are interesting with the added bonus of perhaps containing a valuable sapphire inside.

That is all for now from Aussie Sapphire

Welcome to 2006

January 1, 2006

Our first post for 2006 is to wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. Although our mining operations have closed for the Christmas break, we have not had the chance to enjoy much time off work. After a very pleasant Christmas day celebrating with family, we had to refocus our attention back to the farm for a while as harvesting of cereal crops took priority. Long hot days driving the header and fixing the many breakdowns meant that we didnt exactly see the New Year in but as of this afternoon, the oats crop is now safely stored in the silos.

The oats will be cleaned ,bagged and sold as seed to local farmers planting winter forage crops. The straw is baled and sold to a nearby cattle feedlot. Our summer crop planting has only just been completed after some planting delays caused by heavy rain in December. The last of the soybeans were planted just before Christmas – see photo below with some interested Hereford cattle looking on.

The mine will be closed for another week while our staff enjoy a well-earned break and we attend to a variety of catch-up jobs. We are now going through our current inventory and preparing some great new listings of cut and rough gems so keep an eye on our Ebay Store for lots of great bargains through January.

Cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire

School Project Information on Sapphires

November 21, 2005


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.

General Information:
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.

Commercial Mining:
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:
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.

Workplace Safety:
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