Gem Production Update

Morgan Beard, the editor-in-chief of Colored Stone magazine examines the current world’s mining production of Ruby & Sapphire, Emerald, Tanzanite, Tourmaline, Garnet, Topaz and Opal.

Sapphire

Sapphire has perhaps the most stable production of any gemstone. The two most important sources of sapphire at the moment are Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Sri Lanka, one of the world’s most prolific sources for all types of gemstones, has been producing sapphire for as long as there have been records. Madagascar, by contrast, is fairly recent; deposits have been known for many years, but it didn’t truly explode as a gem source until the vast stone tract centered in Ilakaka, in the south central part of the island, was discovered in the late 1990s.

In 1998 and 1999, the government of Sri Lanka passed legislation encouraging independent prospectors to stake new mining claims. As a result, more new mining areas have opened up, although they are not producing enough material to impact prices.

After a contested election in 2001 that nearly brought Madagascar to civil war in the first six months of 2002, the country’s infrastructure is recovering, and mining is back on track. However, the larger quantities of pink sapphire that Madagascar has contributed to the market over the past seven years hasn’t been enough to keep up with the rise in demand, and prices for those stones are creeping upward.

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Another important source of sapphire is Tanzania, which has deposits of “fancy” (pink, yellow, orange, and purple) sapphire in Tunduru and Umba. Sapphire has been discovered in lesser quantities all over the African continent.

In southeast Asia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) is known for producing spectacularly beautiful blue sapphire, although in very limited quantities. Likewise, the Kashmir region in northern India, near the border with Pakistan, has long been renowned for the cornflower blue of its sapphires, although it’s been about a century since the region produced more than a handful of stones. Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have been sources of blue sapphire, and Vietnam is known for pinks, although none of them are producing large quantities at the moment.

Australia was once one of the world’s major sources of sapphire. The country’s iron-rich sapphire deposits got a bad reputation in the industry because they were said to be too dark, almost inky black. Miners in Australia complain that the reputation was given unfairly by buyers from Thailand, the corundum-trading capital of the world. The Thais would buy the Australian production but sell the most beautiful stones as “Ceylon,” because sapphire from Sri Lanka commands a higher price. Today, many of Australia’s biggest sapphire mines have shut down because of the high cost of mining there.

The United States also has large sapphire deposits in the state of Montana. Attempts in the 1990s to turn these into commercially viable large-scale mining failed. However, the sapphires mined and cut during the marketing process are still on the market, and can be found in a range of colors that favors blues and yellows. The mines are currently either closed or operating on a small scale.

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Ruby

The world’s major source of ruby is Myanmar; an estimated 90 to 95 percent of all the ruby on the market comes from that country. The majority of it makes its way across Myanmar’s eastern border into Thailand, where it is sold to buyers all over the world.

The United States’ ban on Myanmar imports in 2003 — along with declining production in Myanmar — has raised interest in other sources of ruby. There are many, but none of them produce the quantity, or the quality, that Myanmar does.

The chief contender is Madagascar. In 2001, two separate ruby deposits were discovered on the country’s east coast. While most of the material tended toward the brown or purple — rather than the bright, pure red favored by the market — it was and is a viable alternative to Myanmar’s shaky production.

Rubies can be found throughout Africa, notably Kenya, with smaller deposits scattered throughout the nation. Afghanistan is a historical source of ruby that still produces on occasion. In southeast Asia, Thailand and Vietnam both produce small but steady quantities, although Thai ruby tends to be brown and Vietnamese ruby tends to be pink.

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Emerald

The best-known source of emerald in the world for the past 400 years or so has been Colombia. The same mines that drew the conquistadores into the jungles are still producing more emerald by value than anywhere else. The famous trio of Colombian mines, Muzo, Coscuez, and Chivor, were joined in the late 1990s by La Pita. Supply overall, however, has been gradually decreasing in quantity and quality due to the depth of the mines; the best Colombian emeralds to be found today, as one dealer joked, can be mined from the wrecks of the Spanish galleons in the Caribbean Sea. Exploration, for other mining has been hampered by the unstable political and social conditions in Colombia.

The world’s other leading source of emerald is Brazil. The discovery of high-quality emeralds in Itabira in the state of Minas Gerais in the 1970s and the nearby Nova Era in the 1980s boosted Brazil to the status of international player in the emerald market. Today, production of emerald from Brazil is steady as miners gradually transition from the traditional garimpeiro (independent prospector) model of mining to mechanized operations funded by private owners or long-term investors.

A third major source of emerald is Zambia. Most Zambian emerald is bought by the cutters of Israel, and the country continues to produce a steady supply, though not as much as either Colombia or Brazil.

Another famous African deposit was discovered in Sandawana, Zimbabwe, in the 1950s. The mines were known for their deeply saturated emerald, which produced beautiful colors even in small sizes. The deposit passed through a number of hands, including mining conglomerate Rio Tinto; at last report, a local company had gotten the mines up and running, although it contributes very little to the overall world emerald market.

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None of the other world sources of emerald produce large quantities, though there is usually a limited amount coming out. Afghanistan is the source of some very beautiful emerald, although supply is hampered by the political situation there and the difficulty in traveling in and out of the country. The United States’ military overthrow of the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic government that took over the country by force in 1996, has not improved the situation. Neighboring Pakistan occasionally produces emerald; while beautiful, the crystals tend to be small.

Emerald has also been mined in Russia, India, the United States (North Carolina), Australia, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, and the Yukon region of Canada.

Tanzanite

This lovely blue-purple form of zoisite is found in only one place in the world, the mines of Mererani (also spelled Merelani), Tanzania. Discovered in the 1960s, this stone remained a collector’s gem until the early 1990s, when the changing political situation in Tanzania encouraged large-scale mining, and a flood of tanzanite hit the market. Today, tanzanite is one of the most popular gems in the United States, and is slowly catching on elsewhere in the world

Initially touted as a low-cost alternative to sapphire, tanzanite remained plentiful through the mid-1990s. However, a flood at the mines in 1998 killed an estimated 100 miners and shut down the mines for approximately two months. After that, production never quite recovered. High demand has pushed miners to dig deeper and deeper into the ground, and they are finding less and less material. Supply continues to dwindle as prices climb, with no relief in sight.

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Tourmaline

The two most common colors of tourmaline — green and pink — are generally found together, so production goes hand in hand. One notable exception was an explosion of deep pink tourmaline (also known as rubellite) from Nigeria in 1998.

The find followed a typical “gold rush” trajectory. Once discovered, the mine attracted hundreds of local miners — some professionals and some just hoping to make a lucky strike — resulting in a flood of the material on the market. The tourmaline came in large, clean crystals and a saturated, dark pink color that blew its competition from Brazil right out of the water. Prices fell sharply as dealers maneuvered to get in on the action. A year later, however, the deposit was mined out, and prices gradually started to creep back up.

Although tourmaline can be found all over the world, probably the single greatest producing country is Brazil. Pink, green, and bi-color tourmaline can be found all over the country, particularly the state of Minas Gerais. However, stricter environmental regulations combined with a decline in investors who are willing to back gemstone mining have led to a decrease in production, and Brazilian dealers sometimes buy from Africa to supplement their inventory.

Brazil is home to perhaps the most famous tourmaline in the industry, called “Paraíba” tourmaline after the state of Paraíba, in the northeastern part of the country. In that one state, one particular hilltop produces tourmaline that heats to an eye-popping electric blue or green. The gem came on the market in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, and then the mine was shut down for political reasons. Although currently reopened, it produces very little — on the order of a few carats a month — sending prices for the gem soaring up to $10,000 or even $15,000 per carat for the best stones.

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Africa produces tourmaline in various places, although there are few famous deposits. One notable exception is in Namibia, where miners identified a huge tract that produces high-quality, vibrant blue and green tourmaline, sometimes in large sizes. At last report, that mine was tied up in ownership disputes and producing very little. Another exception deposit of blue tourmaline was discovered in Nigeria in 2001. Although the quantities were limited, the tourmaline was an electric blue color reminiscent of Paraíba tourmaline, although not as intense. Both the Paraíba and the Nigerian tourmaline were colored by copper; Nigeria was only the second place in the world where cuprian (colored by copper) tourmaline had been found.

Another important source of tourmaline is Afghanistan, which is known for producing blues and “sea foam” greens. As with any gem from Afghanistan, however, production has been limited by the country’s political situation.

Tourmaline is a very common gemstone — it can be found all over the world — and while its supply is down, it’s still more than enough to keep up with demand. The exception is the very high-quality tourmaline in the best colors, which is getting harder to find.

Garnet

Garnet comes in a variety of different types, from the common to the obscure. The type of garnet seen most frequently in jewelry stores, rhodolite — technically a pyrope-almandine garnet — is the most common. Generally either a brown-red or a purple-red, the stone is found throughout East Africa, including Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Kenya; Sri Lanka; India; and the United States. Supply of rhodolite garnet is steady and plentiful.

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Another garnet that’s garnered attention in recent years is spessartite, which at its best is a bright, vibrant orange. Although it comes from sources as diverse as Namibia, Brazil, and the United States, the country that really put spessartite on the map was Nigeria. Coming on the heels of the flood of pink tourmaline (see above), the spessartite find didn’t have quite the same impact, but there was sufficient quantity to make the industry sit up and take notice. Sadly, the Nigerian spessartite deposit didn’t last any longer than the tourmaline, and supply has dwindled. Prices continue to increase, although some beautiful Nigerian stones are still traded around the world.

Tsavorite, a grass-green grossular garnet found mainly in Kenya and Tanzania, may be the most frustrating of the garnets. Supply is too limited to make it a mainstream gem, but new deposits continue to be discovered that take it just to the brink of widespread popularity. Although supply is never plentiful, it is relatively steady, and tsavorite remains a favorite among designers looking for a bright, untreated green for their one-of-a-kind or limited-production jewelry.

Demantoid garnet, so named because its high refractive index and dispersion give it fire comparable to a diamond, originally became popular at the end of the 19th century with the discovery of a major deposit in the Ural Mountains of Russia. When the mines shut down, the gem faded into almost complete obscurity, only to bounce back in the late 1990s when a fresh vein was found at the original source. Supply of the intense green Russian demantoid remains extremely limited, with prices going into the thousands of dollars per carat, but it is accessible today in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

A far more prolific source of demantoid garnet is Namibia, which came to prominence in the 1990s and continues to produce a steady supply. Although the color is not comparable to the Uralian demantoid — it’s duller and leans more toward the brown — the mines there have yielded some very beautiful gems, including large sizes.

Topaz

The vast majority of topaz on the market has been treated in some way. The most popular type is blue topaz: white topaz that has been irradiated to anything from a light pastel blue to an intense sky blue to a dark “London” blue. In the late 1990s and the early years of this century, technology has produced a range of coated topazes, anything from pink or teal blue-green to the more festive “Mystic Fire” topaz, which sports an iridescent rainbow of colors.

The popularity of such products — particularly blue topaz, which remains solidly in retailers’ top ten in the United States — has put a crimp on the supply of colorless topaz, formerly one of the most common gem materials on the planet. However, that has not yet been reflected in the price.

The natural-color topaz on the market is generally yellow or pink. In particular, Brazil produces what is called “imperial” topaz in the area around Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, which ranges from yellow to orange to pink, and occasionally a mix of those colors. Supply of is imperial topaz is controlled by the owner of the largest mine, and therefore steady but somewhat limited.

Opal

Opal can be found in Africa and Brazil, but without question the most important source of opal in the world is Australia. The island nation produces opal of every description, with body color from white to black and even some opal in its ironstone matrix, what’s called boulder opal.

Unfortunately, the high cost of mining in Australia combined with a depressed world market — the largest market for opal in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Japan, is still stuck in a buying slump — has forced many miners to stop working. There is more to be found, miners say, but it doesn’t pay to look. Dealers are holding firm on prices for their best pieces, which are currently difficult or impossible to replace.

By Morgan Beard, 2004 September
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Colored Stone is a bimonthly, international trade magazine that covers all facets of the colored gemstone industry, including new sources for colored gemstones, mining and processing, manufacturing, retail sales, consumer buying trends, marketing and promotion, gem cutting and jewelry design, and technological developments pertaining to the trade.
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