The La Pita Mine of Colombia

Since the late 16th century, one country, Colombia, has produced most of the world’s finest emeralds. Today, two mines – Muzo and La Pita – account for 90% of the country’s emerald exports. While everyone has heard of Muzo, few know about La Pita.

Here’s a detailed report on this major unknown mine.

A $50,000 emerald crystal.

Boyaca, Colombia

It is the end of my first week in Bogota, Colombia. I have come with two objectives, first, to buy emeralds and, second, to visit the mines. In the course of writing my book, Secrets of the Gem Trade, I visited most of the major gem producing areas in the world, but here in Colombia, with its history of violence, gaining access to its mines is exceedingly difficult. Indeed, an invitation is required. After five days of waiting for one, it arrives on Friday afternoon. I leave for the Consorcio Mine the following morning.

The La Pita Shaft

Consorcio is one of five separately owned mines that make up a complex of shafts that comprise what is known collectively as La Pita. The others aRe: Cunas, Totumos, Polveros, and of course, La Pita – the original mine which opened in 1997 and the one for which the area is named. Though accurate production figures are impossible to come by, in ten years of operation, the La Pita complex has produced a multi-million dollar bonanza.

There is only one way to the mines – a leisurely two-hour drive over four-lane paved roads from Bogota, followed by an hour’s descent over barely paved roads, then three hours of bone-grinding four-wheel travel up and down steep, deeply rutted mountain roads into deep valley and across gushing streams. The landscape is spectacular with high mountain crags and deep valleys carpeted in green. It is hot, too. The Colombian capital is at 9,000 feet, and it was barely 69 degrees when we left Bogota. Four hours later, it’s in the high 80s.

Our driver stops in front of a steel gate, gets out, and approaches a guard. He is well known; the man nods, holsters his pistol, and we are waved through a steel gate. We pass through a camp where many of the miners live. Small plywood and bamboo shacks, tin-roofed restaurants, bars, and a laundry line the rutted one-lane muddy track. We pass a cantina where three men in dirty pants and rubber boots sit on stools sipping whiskey and stare vacantly at us as we drive by. We ford a stream and pass through another high chain link fence. The steel gate opens, and we enter the Consorcio mine.

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The Descent

“How far in is it?” I ask the mine supervisor as I work my foot into a rubber boot. “Half a mile straight into the heart of the mountain, then 100 meters straight down,” he answers, smiling indulgently at the stupid gringo. He reminds me of Clint Eastwood: “One thing you got to ask yourself, do you feel lucky?” We trudge along a dark tunnel and through the cold swift stream that runs along its bottom and tugs at our ankles. Finally, we reach our first goal. A hot breath comes from the throat of the vertical shaft. I look far down a rickety ladder. The supervisor has a Cheshire-cat smile, white teeth gleaming in the murky half-light.

A miner with handcart brings the tailings to the surface.
Deep in the Consorcio Shaft, La Pita complex, Boyaca’, Colombia.

At the bottom of the shaft another tunnel; this one is narrow, barely wide enough for two men. I have to duck my head to avoid sharp contact with the crossbeams that shore up the roof. I follow the guide several hundred yards through a series of twists and turns. Overhead, there are two pipes – one carries power, the other breathable air – a literal lifeline to the world outside.

I watch transfixed as shovel after shovel of coal-black shale is spread gently atop a growing mound; a shovel or two of water is added to wash away the dirt, the most ancient method of sorting for gemstones. The mine-shaft is a sauna. The temperature hovers above 110°F, and water drips from the roof-beams like warm summer rain. Several miners squat around the mound, their rough blackened hands eagerly turning over handfuls of clinker. Another miner, hammer in hand, gently breaks up the larger clods. All eyes search for the telltale glimmer of green.

A half mile in then 100 meters down, the Consorcio shaft.

“You can tell when they find a good emerald; watch how the hands move,” says Henry Carranza, mine owner and nephew of the famous Victor Carranza, the man who stood toe to toe against Pablo Escobar when the feared narco-terrorist, looking for investment opportunities came calling. The miners fought him to a draw in the famous Guerra, the Emerald Wars of the 1980s.

“Do they always put the emeralds in their mouths?” I ask Don Henry. “Yes,” he replies. “You see these two guys; they have just finished their shift. It is their turn. They share the smaller fragments. They get to pick the tailings for an hour and a half, and then two more take their turn.” Don Henry and another shareholder carefully watch as the miners pick. They ultimately decide which fragments the miners get to keep as a bonus.

Henry Carranza is a big man with dark eyes and a black mustache. His smile shows even white teeth. “When they see a good emerald, the hands move very quickly.” Patron or not, he takes his turn with the shovel. It comes down to this: after the expenditure of millions of dollars and a half-mile stroll down a dark tunnel carved deep into the living mountain, one man with a shovel!

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Emerald Bonanza

Last week, they hit a big strike. “Right where you are standing, a vein of snowy white calcite running through the shale containing 10,000 carats of emerald crystal,” Carranza tells me. “Can I see it?” “No”, he shakes his head. “It is gone; we sold it.” We had heard about the strike. Such news has always traveled quickly but now travels even faster by cell phone. My guide, American Emeraldero Ron Ringsrud, got a cell call on Tuesday from a friend who holds a ten percent share in the mine, telling of a 30,000 carat strike and urging us to come out to the mine immediately. Such things are often exaggerated. On Thursday, two days before we arrived, the partners held a rema’te, a closed auction that only shareholders may attend. A price was set for the parcel. By custom, the partners are given the first chance to bid. Payment must be immediate, cash on the nail.

[Back in Bogota, later in the week, we will get a pretty good idea of the quality of that 30,000-carat strike when we are shown a million dollar parcel of emerald crystals that glow a rich verdant green in the afternoon light. “Are these from the recent strike?” I ask. The dealer shakes his head no. They were mined at the La Pita Mine, one shaft over from Consorcio, less than a month ago. About half the crystals are perfectly beautifully formed. It’s difficult to believe they were not cut by a precision machine – perfect hexagons with flat beveled caps. Two show the rare perfect double terminations.]

Cutting: Back in Bogota, master lapidary Carlos Argotti puts the crystal on the wheel.
Some emerald cutters will tell you there is a 50/50 chance of breaking the stone during cutting.
Dopping: A mixture of shellac and resin is heated and the partly fashioned (preformed) emerald is stuck table down onto a “dop” stick in preparation for cutting facets the pavilion (back side) of the gem.

The scene in the narrow shaft is like a Boston construction site – one miner breaking rock, another shoveling the sorted tailings into a mine cart, and five others standing around watching. But, other than me and Ron, these are not casual gawkers. There are the two owners and a mine engineer, one of four employed by the Consorcio Minero. We are at the end of the workings, digging into unknown and the as-yet unreinforced mine extension. This is the most dangerous part of the mine. While I watch, there is a minor cave-in. Several yards of shale fall from the hollowed out top of the shaft. The engineer will decide where and when to shore up.

Consorcio is a thoroughly professional operation. The mine works three shifts, 24/7. With all the talk of blood diamonds and gem boycotts, I see no sign of any sort of forced labor, adult or child. The miners receive no pay, only room and board plus first pick of the tailings and ten percent of the mine’s profits. They work twenty days on and ten off.

Outside the shaft, a crowd of quaqueros – independent miners – eagerly await each loaded cart, hoping to find something in the ground black shale that the sharp-eyed miners have missed. It is free enterprise in its most primitive form. Outside of mining, the people who inhabit this part of the State of Boyaca’ live mainly as farmers. The soil is rich but a few pieces of emerald rough will make the difference between subsistence and something a bit better.

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El Chacaro, the Market

As in most parts of the world, the emerald market is multi-leveled. Most gems are traded along a two square block area that surrounds The Emerald Trade Center, a modern building set in downtown Bogota. Inside the building, larger dealers occupy booths and offices; outside a crowd of small time comisionistas buy and sell. But before they arrive in the capital city, business takes place closer to the source.

On the way to the El Charcaro market:
Our jeep passes a waterfall that flows over the road then down 1500 feet to the valley floor.

The sun is just creeping over the ridge. After an uneasy night’s sleep in a roach-ridden “hotel” in the small town of Borbur, breakfast is a honey roll, washed down with a tiny cup of black coffee. We are off to Chacaro, a small outdoor country market located about a two-hour ride from La Pita. This market is where the miner’s sell their tailings. The route is two hours over dirt road that cling by its black broken fingernails to the side of the mountain. We pass a waterfall that cascades down on the narrow track. I dismount to take a photo. Once it clears the road, the stream cascades 1,500 feet to the valley floor.

We arrive at 8:00am. The sun is shining and 50 or so dealers have gathered on a ridge overlooking a deep green valley. Mist rises in curtains from the valley floor; the Coscuez mine cuts a black scar on the opposite hillside.

Ron and I are both a bit peckish, and it’s rarely a good idea to buy on an empty stomach. We make our way toward one of the food shacks that hug the cliff; but before we can order breakfast, we are accosted by several comisionistas, each with a small parcel or just a single fragment to sell. Some of these men wear miner’s boots. Perhaps the rough emerald we are seeing this morning may have been plucked from the tailings at Consorcio while we watched the day before.

I am looking for specimens; nicely formed emerald crystals that are still imbedded in the native calcite or shale. As we sit down to breakfast of plantains and eggs, a grizzled old comisionistas, wearing a straw hat and sporting a two-day beard, sets one down in front of me – a cluster of several small medium toned limpid crystals imbedded in calcite. I ask the source. I am told Coscuez. My guide nods and points out that the color and terminations are typical of crystals from that mine.

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I am introduced to a young dealer who has attended the Tucson Gem Shows. We spend a couple of hours and find a few good deals in the Chacaro Market, mostly small fragments of rough emerald that will cut into stones of one carat or less. Several of the pieces we reject will appear in the Bogota market within the week. An hour later, we get into the jeep and hunker down for the long road trip back to the capital.

Emerald Prices & Supply

Mirroring the decline of the U. S. dollar, emerald prices rose about 30 percent between 2005 and 2007. Today, the dollar is doing better now – rising from 1,900 last December to 2,300 to the dollar as of December 2008.

A multi-million dollar horde of natural emerald crystals found at the La Pita Mine.

Despite – or perhaps because of – this steep price increase, emerald supplies seem good, especially in finer qualities, my particular interest. I see lots of moderately enhanced fine color in the market. Enhancement is a way of life. In Columbia, cedar oil is the medium of choice. I must have seen two hundred emeralds, and not one was without surface breaking crevices.

The La Pita complex produces about 40 percent of Colombia’s emeralds. The other big producer is Muzo, is Colombia’s oldest mine. It was originally discovered – or rather stolen from its native owners – by Spanish conquistadors in 1560. The other “old mine” – Chivor – is not presently being worked.

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