A world tour of color

The Mogok mine is 150 kilometers from Mandalay, the old Burmese capital. It can take anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to drive on the unpaved road to get to the site, where the population varies from 50,000 to 200,000 depending on the weather and what the mines are producing. Edward Boehm has been there, and he was here to talk about the most important world gemstone mining sites during the educational session Thursday at the JCK Show ~ Las Vegas 2005.

Boehm, the grandson of the late Dr. Eduard Gubelin, is a geologist, gemologist, and owner of JOEB Enterprises and Laboratory Services in Solana Beach, Calif., specializing in high-end and collectable gems. Boehm highlighted his trips to Burma, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Colombia, giving attendees a virtual tour of the important gem sites, focusing on mining conditions, gemstones, and politics.

Much of the mining in Mogok is alluvial, that is, surface digging of ancient river beds and finding gem concentrate—byon in the Burmese language—of ruby and sapphire, said Boehm. Lesser tunneling into marble calcite produces magnificent spinel, along with classic Burmese sapphires and rubies.

Artisanal mining, locals who dig a hole straight down and tunnel out in all directions, is very efficient, and important for the local economy. For the uninitiated, it may appear that the conditions are quite harsh. No electricity, no batteries or flashlights, and bare feet are the norm. Using oil lamps in mining reminds us of what we have forgotten, noted Boehm. Oil is available and lasts longer than battery-driven lights, and if the lamp goes out, the miner knows oxygen in the hole is in short supply. Miners go barefoot because they believe gems are a gift from God, and so it is with respect that they go without shoes.

Namya is the new ruby and spinel mining site, located 315 km north of Mogok. Boehm pointed out that because the color is so good, like that of Mogok stones, very few are enhanced. Show attendees should be seeing these gems here at the show.

Sri Lanka gem cutting has improved immensely, notes Boehm. While mining is still important—there is a new sapphire mining site in Kolane, south of Ratnapura—imports from Madagascar to Sri Lanka have become even more important than mining.

Flexing his geological knowledge, Boehm reminded us that Madagascar, the large island off the coast of Mozambique, was once connected to the African continent. Therefore, gems found on the continent are also found on the island, including tsavorite. Madagascar produces garnets, sapphires, rubies, chrysoberyls including alexandrites, sphenes, and a multitude of other gem materials. Boehm touched on the relatively new Pezzottaite, pink beryl.

In Tanzania there’s the obvious tanzanite, but also located nearby are tsavorites and other garnets, a new find of moonstones, and sunstones with hematite inclusions.

Boehm toured Colombian emerald mines with Ron Ringsrud, emerald expert from California and Bogotá. Like most third world countries, Colombia is becoming more cellular and road accessible. When an emerald crystal is found in Cosquez, one cell phone call to Bogotá will result in numerous Bogotá dealers at the mine within a half day. Boehm predicts that this will not only help get goods into the market quicker but also increase competition, which should drive prices upwards.

Caveat: If you want to travel to a mining area, go with the idea of not buying there. Boehm’s advice is that unless you are very knowledgeable about buying rough, buy from the dealers who have been going there and have the experience. They have learned how to buy right by making big, expensive mistakes, said Boehm. That’s a learning curve that you don’t need or want to go through.