Kashmir Sapphire

November 30, 2006

Came across this interesting snippet of news a few days ago.  If you are interested in mining for the most sought after sapphire in the world, you may be interested in this upcoming tender:

Global tenders for sapphire extraction in Jammu and Kashmir

The problems of mining in such an area are obvious but perhaps the rewards would be very great for someone with the right experience and the ability to work cooperatively with the locals.  Our hope is that the people of the area benefit from these plans rather than see the wealth disappear without consultation or involvement in the scheme.

Genuine Kashmir sapphires are renowned for their beauty and for being very difficult to obtain – perhaps the difficulty of supply might change for the better.

cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire


Opal Mining at Lightning Ridge

August 9, 2006

Part Two of the Lightning Ridge trip (remember to click on any of the photos to see a larger version):

plant.jpgMining techniques are almost as diverse as the people that do it – from full hand work similar to when the mining first started in the area to some very expensive underground gear along with large open cuts. This photo shows a large treatment plant.

open_cut.jpgTraditionally, opals have been mined underground and this is still common in the area. However, open cut mining has also been used. In this photograph, you can see where the open cut has exposed some small mine shafts in the centre-right of the image (visible through the wire fence).

We arranged a visit below ground with an opal mining acquaintance from my home town of Glen Innes. This miner who was kind enough to spare his time on us was up there with good underground gear, although he explained there is much better on the field. His mine was about 20km west of the Ridge – crossing a huge black soil flat I thought we would never find a mine. The flat is called The Lake and although it is farmed, our guides Chris and Bea told us that locals have water skied on the vast open area in wet times. Suddenly the more familiar camps came into view and I was glad I had a guide as, unlike at the Ridge, the car door signs were nowhere to be seen. Just what seemed like hundreds of tracks all leading somewhere no doubt very important to those that use them.

Once we got to the camp, the typical friendly, laidback nature was evident again. After several weeks mining, these hard working folks just wanted to talk – all interesting stuff so we listened and learnt. The camp was very clean and well built with two large caravans joined by a steel shed between them. After a cuppa, it was boots on and get to work which was a couple of miles away.

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These areas have been worked for a long time and as we pulled up at the mine we were shown the basic layout of the underground workings below us. Down below at about 30 feet, there was an area of around 50 x 30 metres (see photo above right) that had been completely removed and propped, with another deeper level below (somewhat unusual as most is just narrow shafts) and tunnels that went all over the place, some linking to each other and some not. It’s quite easy to get lost in some of these networks and Chris told of some areas where you can walk underground for around 2 miles without turning around.

divining.jpgDivining the opal – we do this all the time with our sapphire and it’s got a strong following out there too. Same technique with some using rusty fencing wire like me and others using bought ones (made by a “secret method”). This photo shows David having a go with the divining wires after having been asked by a local to check his claim for him. Chris had painted marks up on top showing where he thinks a run goes and coupled with small pilot test holes to check for the location and more importantly check that the roof area is good and strong for safety.

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Most of the mining is done underground with hydraulic diggers and vacuum pumps or suckers to lift the rock and dirt up to ground level into the trucks. Here Chris is seen scraping the rocks towards the suction pipe – any pieces that wont fit up the 10″ pipe need to be broken and much of the product dragged by hand into the suction. Although this type of mining is mechanised, it still involves very hard work.

truck.jpgagitators.jpgThe rock is loaded into a waiting truck and then taken for processing in an agitator – cement mixing trucks are used for this job. Here is a line up of agitators (this photo shows only half the mixers on this site). Chris aims for one truck load per day which is usually around 4-5hrs digging.

The truck load of rock and dirt are fed up a conveyor (more hand work as although they use tippers, the larger rocks block the trapdoors). This is then agitated for 8 hours on average to break up lumps and wear them away while feeding water into it all the time to remove the silt.  Artesian water is used as the water supply, with an open bath on site for the workers, although there is another hidden bath most use (this is hot and dirty work so an on-site bathtub is handy). On completion of the washing, the ore that remains is fed into a tray where any opal or possible opal bearing pieces are simply hand picked.

The price for Opal is all over the place with small attractive pieces ranging from around $20/ct to tens of thousands per carat for that one special stone. It’s the kind of town that lives on dreams and once someone hears that you are involved with mining (and perhaps a possible buyer), all sorts of people come up to you and produce bags of opal for you to consider.

I recommend anyone interested in a completely different way of life to visit Lightning Ridge one day.  One important local tourist site is the natural Bore Baths where hot water straight from the Great Artesian Basin can soak away your aches and pains – mineral spa baths with hot water at 40 degrees Celcius free of charge anytime.

bottles.jpgcottage.jpgThere are also two houses made from glass bottles and one we didn’t see made from tin cans.  Lightning Ridge can get pretty hot in the summer so drinking all the beer in those bottles was probably not a difficult task for a thirsty miner. The photo on the right is a typical old miners cottage.

Hope you enjoyed this short story and photos about Lightning Ridge – we certainly enjoyed our trip out there.  Back to work now – have just listed some great new sapphire rough and will now spend a little time looking through the opal rough I managed to get my hands on while out west.

cheers for now from Andrew (Aussie Sapphire)


World Mining Report

July 16, 2006

An interesting article in Colored Stone last December 2005 gives a summary of gemstone mining around the world.  As the article points out, accurate figures and information are extremely difficult to obtain in the notoriously secretive industry.  However, it makes interesting reading for those interested in gems and where they come from.

The section on Australian sapphire mining is somewhat incomplete but is excerpted here for your interest (our comments follow):

World Mining Report (December 2005):
“The same difficulties — operating expenses and government regulations — are affecting Australian sapphire mining. One notable exception is the Gloucester corundum deposit in New South Wales, which is producing large quantities of ruby and fancy-colored sapphire, although most are in sub-carat sizes. Reports indicate that 12.5 kilograms of gem-grade ruby and sapphire were recovered during a two-week period in August.
In central Queensland, new regulations have opened up more area for sapphire mining as well as opal mining; as a result, approximately 500 sapphire miners are working throughout the region. Large-scale mechanized mining has been hampered by a continuing drought, and a decrease in local buyers has made funds hard to come by. The future remains uncertain.”

One thing they did get right is the last sentence: “the future is uncertain“.  The Australian sapphire industry is struggling for survival at the moment.  While we have persevered in the hope that market conditions will improve, it has not yet happened.  However, to imply that there is only one sapphire mining operation that is producing good quantity is misleading.

The corundum (ruby and sapphire) mined at Gloucester by Cluff Resources does not represent a major portion of sapphire production in NSW, Australia.  While this mine produces an excellent range of fancy colours, including some that can be classified as ruby, the stones are generally very small.  Company reports released to the market to date indicate weekly production of gem grade ruby/sapphire ranges from about 3 to 6 kg.

kp_truck.jpgIn contrast, sapphire mining in the New England region including the largest sapphire mine in NSW (at Kings Plains) and a smaller mine on the renowned Reddestone Creek provides continuous production in large quantity and good range of size (including large stones exceeding 5 carats).  Current production from this area runs at about 250 kg per month of corundum in all sizes of (about 13 kg/week gem grade sapphire).  There is capacity to double this production at short notice in response to market demand.  Buyers looking for stable and continuous supply are advised to review mine run specifications and contact us or Jack Wilson for more information.

We still have faith in the sapphire industry and hope that more buyers will start to appreciate the advantages of doing business in a safe and stable country where origin and lack of any heat treatment is absolutely guaranteed by the miner.

cheers for now from Andrew (Aussie Sapphire)


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


The Aussie Sapphire mine

September 19, 2005

Aussie Sapphire is one aspect of a family owned business involved in farming and sapphire mining. While sapphires have been mined on our farm for many years, we became directly involved in running a commercial mine in 1998. This was a challenge as we had to learn about many other aspects of the sapphire mining business – being a successful sapphire miner today is not “just digging them up” and hoping someone will buy the rough. This article outlines the process of commercial mining up to the finished product of a faceted gemstone or piece of fine jewellery – we hope you will be as interested to read about it as we have been to learn how to do it.

Where to dig?
The first step of the process is deciding where to start digging! This usually requires a mixture of experience, use of test holes (we use an excavator but others use core test drills), prior knowledge on where the old ground is and inspired guesswork. I also like to add in a bit of divining using 2 bits of old fencing wire and a big chunk of corundum – sounds like moonshine but it works. (see short video clip of working excavator)

Following the wash
Once you have found a promising spot to dig, the first step is to strip off the overburden and start the open cut. To understand the process, let’s explain the soil layers. On top of course is the top soil, in our case around 200mm, then the subsoil which goes down to the depth of the wash which varies considerably from 1m to about 4m. Some wash layers in certain areas are deeper but we’re lucky with relatively shallow wash. Below the subsoil is the all important wash layer this is often only about 100mm thick although it varies greatly.

I am often asked what does wash look like – there is no simple explanation. Our wash changes considerably, it is unusual for us to dig more than a few metres of the same kind of wash; depth and thickness also changes constantly. Our wash layer is also usually very clayey with large lumps of mud mixed with the sapphire bearing gravels. This requires the excavator operator to keep on his toes as money can be lost with an operator who cannot recognise the wash layer properly. As the excavator works along the cut following the wash, it is progressively filled back in with processed gravel returning from the mining plant and subsoil which has been set aside. The final step is to replace the top soil which is spread over the layer of subsoil that has been levelled and rolled with the excavator.

The mining plant
Truckloads of wash are then transported to the plant in tip trucks. To explain the sapphire plant operation I will break the plant operations up.
1. Nozzle box: This consists of a large steel bin big enough to hold at least one truckload of wash – about 10 m3 in our case. At the front of this bin is a large water nozzle, usually in a shed, here a workman spends his day washing the dirt and feeding the plant. This sometimes requires breaking up lumps of mud with a shovel and getting wet with spray – not a pleasant job during cold Glen Innes winters.

2. Trommel: Consisting of a large rotating barrel with paddle structures inside to help break up the wash as it passes through. This also has a series of different size screens sizing the material with large going straight through and small being channelled to the next important part of the plant: the pulsators. (Click here for short video clip of trommel and jigs)

3. Pulsating jigs: These jigs move back and forth (us miners are inventive with names) causing the water to pulse up and down over a stainless steel mesh like base. The jigs are divided into individual sections which trap the heavier material at the bottom (black spinel and the sapphire are heavier than most of other gravel), the lighter material moves across the jigs with any heavier material settling in divided sections. The best sapphire is always in the first couple of bays as it is heavier. These bays are emptied or “robbed” at the end of each day. We look through each bay manually as we remove the concentrate picking out any larger sapphire that we see. This is the best part of the day but can sometimes bring disappointment.

This is a hard game with huge running costs and often poor returns. People who say we’re lucky to be a miner are often threatened with a hypothetical trip to the bottom of the cut but on good days the satisfaction of finding the best sapphire in Australia keeps us going. The concentrate is then sized through another small trommel and taken for further processing. Any solid material which passes through the plant is taken back to the cut. Water is recycled through the plant and slurry (liquid mud) is trapped in a series of settling trenches. These must be regularly pumped out. Everything is recycled and used or returned to the cut.

Separating the concentrate
At this stage of the process, the sapphires are still mixed in with a large amount of other rocks and stones. After drying on trays, the concentrate is sorted using magnetic separation which removes the magnetic ironstone and catches the sapphires and other non-magnetic stones. Usually the concentrate must be passed through the magnetic separator several times to reach the desired level of separation. Even then, much hand sorting and grading is necessary to produce a parcel ready for sale. (Click here for short video clip of magnetic separator)

Hand sorting and grading
Finally, many truckloads of gravel are reduced to just a small container of sapphires and other material. The final step is to manually sort out the other material which has made it through all the automatic separating processes (some ironstone, zircon, black spinel, etc). The final concentrate is washed by tumbling in water and detergent – this removes the reddish colouration on the surface caused by sapphires being mixed in with ironstone and makes it easier to grade up the parcel. If the parcel is being sold as mine run, it is separated into 3 sizes with corundum remaining with the gem grade sapphire. If the parcel is being sold as gem grade only or as individual stones, then further hand grading and sorting is required. This is extremely time consuming. Depending in where the stone is to be marketed, it will be sold as bulk mine run, catalogued and described for sale as individual rough, or sent to our cutters for production of gems and jewellery.

Marketing
Traditionally, almost all our sapphire has been bought and further processed in Thailand. While it is certainly easier to sell mine run parcels to trade buyers, unfortunately this has resulted in our sapphire losing its true identity only to be marketed as whatever is flavour of the month. Unfortunately our better Aussie sapphire is hardly ever sold as such – after many decades of only the inferior grades of sapphire being labelled as Australian, it has been difficult to educate the gem-buying public that Australia can produce very fine blue sapphire.

To try and overcome this problem, many have tried in the past to cut and sell within Australia – unfortunately most have not succeeded. More recently, some like ourselves are successfully selling product to niche markets domestically and overseas (USA,UK, Japan). The growth of the internet is certainly the key to this success now when it hasn’t worked in the past – buyers are increasingly confident about buying online and see value in being able to buy direct from the miner with full information on gem provenance.

Tourism is also a small but important part of the industry although insurance issues and problems with council red tape in some areas limit growth in this area. Certainly we have looked at this issue in some detail but have not been able to come up with a viable plan – until some of these problems can be overcome, those interested in our mine will have to settle for the “virtual tour” on our website (photos and more video clips are available at this link)

Cheers for now from Aussie Sapphire