When I was about fifteen, long before my entry into the gem business I had a dream, probably the only dream I can remember in full color. In my dream I was in a cave finding brightly colored gems in a river running through the cave. Memories of this dream returned as I dug in the soil of the largest sapphire mine in Illakaka, Madagascar, and the feeling of great satisfaction came over me.
I recently spent two weeks in Madagascar, mining for gems in Illakaka, source of some of the finest gems including, sapphire, ruby, garnet, spinel, and alexandrite. Madagascar is the fourth largest island on Earth, located off the southeast coast of Africa. In 1997 sapphire was discovered in the Illakaka River and will go down in gemological history as one of the World’s greatest gem discoveries.
Traveling to Illakaka to purchase sapphire I had the fortunate meeting with the “Big Boss” Jeanoel, owner of one of the largest mines in Illakaka. Illakaka is much like the “Wild West” of the 1800’s. Gun toting criminals abound. Meeting Jeanoel, an influential man in town was a great relief for the only Caucasian in the entire town who by necessity was carrying a large bag of cash.
Although Jeanoels English was poor and my Malagasy was limited to about 50 words, we managed to communicate, often with great humor which seemed to not require elaborate spoken language. He showed me his mines and he thought it odd when I requested to work with his “carriers” who had dug this pit fully 90 deet deep in search of the sapphires, which are located in the lowest meter of the mine.
For the next four days we dug in the red sandy soil in 100 degree heat. The humidity was so low that I never noticed the sweat which evaporated immediately from my brow. The mining was done in bucket brigade fashion with one man throwing his shovel full of soil to the next man up the next step out of the mine. Ten carriers were required to get one shovel full out of the mine.
Once the meter layer is reached where the sapphire is located, Jeanoel now involved himself in the mining to prevent theft. All of the soil from this layer was bagged and carried to the river for separation. Using water the soil and rock are separated and the gems are hand sorted from the bulk rock which was mostly quartz.
Sapphire in Illakaka formed millions of years ago deep within the Earth. Raised by tectonics forming a mountain, the mountain eventually was eroded by weathering and the sapphire from within this mountain was spread across a broad area now known as the town of Illakaka. This is an alluvial deposit. The sapphire was buried more than 100 feet below the surface. Eventually the river Illakaka dug through the soil and exposed the sapphire layer, where local people found the brightly colored pebbles in 1997. Shortly after discovery the mining rush was on and soon the entire World knew of the sapphires of Illakaka.
The sapphires from Illakaka come in wide variety of colors. Fine blue is the most valued, followed by the pinks. The pink colors of sapphire have recently tripled in price, with increased demand for all pink stones influenced dramatically by Jennifer Lopez receiving a large pink diamond as an engagement ring. Other colors include peach, known in the business as padparadscha, yellow, green, violet, and red which we call ruby.
One big benefit of finding sapphire in Illakaka is that these sapphires will not have been heat treated, usually required to improve color and clarity. Fully 95% of all sapphires on the market have been heated often to temperatures close to the melting point. Treatments are important and acceptable in our industry but the benefit of non treated sapphires is that they are less prone to chipping and therefore have increased value of up to 30% over treated sapphires.
Once the sapphires were separated, they are marketed locally to buyers from Sri Lanka and Thailand, who have set up shops which line the streets. Jeanoel then splits the profits, with one third going to the carriers, and two thirds for his company. This month’s production was surprisingly small, 129 grams, which once cut are equivalent to about 200 carats of cut gems. About 75 carats of this would be of fine gem quality. I received a small cut for my labors and also got first selection from all that was mined.
My estimated value for Jeanoels production for one month based on 129 grams at an average of $100 per gram is $12,900. Each of the 10 carriers received $460 for his month’s work, which is very good in a country where the average yearly income is $160. To reach the U.S. retail market the path would pass from Jeanoel to the Sri Lankan dealer who ships or more likely smuggles it to Sri Lanka where it is sold to a cutter, who sells it to a local dealer. From there it is sold to a gem dealer from the U.S. who markets to another wholesale dealer or jewelry manufacturer. Finally it is sold to a retail store and then sold to you the consumer. Once this sapphire reached the retail market I would estimate the value at over $125,000. Occasionally exceptional single stones may exceed the value of this entire production.
This experience of mining fulfilled a life’s dream and added a new perspective to my 30 years as a gem dealer, experiencing first hand the amount of labor required to get a very small amount of gem material out of Mother Earth.
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