By Vincent Pardieu
In October 2016, a new sapphire rush saw approximately 50,000 miners flocking to an area about 35km south-east of Ambatondrazaka in Madagascar. It was still ongoing in February 2017 when I visited it. According to many Sri Lankan gemstone merchants who have been visiting Madagascar regularly for the past 20 years, the new deposit produced in less than six months more fine large blue sapphires of over 50 carats and padparadschas of over 20 carats than the whole of Madagascar in the last 20 years.
I was informed of the discovery on October 6, 2016 by Marc Noverraz, a Swiss gemstone merchant based in Madagascar. According to Noverraz, some large, highly saturated blue sapphires were found in Bemainty in late September. This attracted miners from all over the island, as well as buyers mainly from Sri Lanka who settled either in Ambatondrazaka or Antananarivo to purchase gemstones.
On October 26, 2016, I was sent a stunning photo of the mining area by Ashkar Ali Mubarak, a gem merchant from Beruwala (Sri Lanka), who shared it on social media. The photo showed thousands of miners working and camping in a narrow valley between two forest-covered hills. Within a few days, that photo was shared by hundreds of people, and the whole gem trade became aware that something serious was happening near Ambatondrazaka.
About the same time, Rosey Perkins, a young British gemmologist, was able to visit the new mining site from October 23 to 26, 2016. Her reports and a short video are available on www.roseyperkins.com.
In December and January 2016, I worked at the GIA laboratory in Bangkok on a preliminary study based on a parcel of blue sapphire samples collected from that new deposit. I visited the new mining site from February 7 to 10, 2017, mapped it and witnessed the evolution of the sapphire rush that had already been ongoing for five months. A complete report about that expedition and a study of the stones are available on www.gia.edu.
To reach the new mining area, we had to travel one day by car from Anatananarivo, capital of Madagascar, to Ambatondrazaka, the main rice-producing centre on the island. This is where most of the buyers settled themselves until November when the local authorities asked them to leave. After spending a few days preparing for our expedition, we then travelled for an hour by car to Ansevabe village where we started to walk. We walked eight hours in the forest-covered hills on the east to reach Bemainty village. From Bemainty, we had to walk another 90 minutes to reach the new mining site in “Tananarivo Carrieres.” When we arrived there, we found a long valley about 2km north to south with thousands of people digging and washing gravels.
The sapphires produced near Bemainty are mainly of two types.
On the north-west of Bemainty, miners worked at “Maladialina” where there was already some mining in 2012 and 2014, and at “Bemainty Carrieres Vovo.” These areas are producing mainly bluish-green and yellowish stones with low saturation that do not excite dealers that much despite the fact that they can be large and clean.
On the other hand, the stones discovered east of Bemainty at a place called “Tananarivo Carrieres” and later at “Milliard 1,” “Milliard 2” and other places in the north (possibly as far as Zahamena National Park) are in very high demand. The sapphires produced east of Bemainty are mainly blue, varying from light to deep blue. Most were milky of the “geuda” type and are in high demand from Sri Lankan burners. Many stones, however, are fine enough to be facetted without heat treatment. Parti-coloured sapphires (locally called polychromes) and pinkish-orange sapphires were also found in large sizes and fine qualities. According to all the Sri Lankan merchants I met in Madagascar, that new deposit produced in the last five months more fine-quality blue and padparadscha-type sapphires weighing over 20 carats than the entire production of Madagascar in the last two decades.
This new sapphire production is clearly coming far from secondary deposits. Miners are digging pits up to 3 metres deep in order to collect potentially gem-rich gravels for washing in the nearby stream using either hand sieves as in the beginning of the rush or increasingly, larger sieves, which are suitable to wash gravels using a water pump and a hose.
Life at the mining sites is basic with some people living in huts but most reside in makeshift tents under plastic roofs. Comfort was minimal but people were smiling and we saw no signs of any security issues. Bottled water, and fresh and canned food were easily available but prices were much higher than in Ambatondrazaka.
In Ambatondrazaka and Antananarivo, we saw blue stones from the rush weighing up to 75 carats. Fine, clean blue stones of over 100 carats and some attractive pinkish-orange stones of more than 50 carats were reported. Most of the stones were milky (geuda type) and reacted well to heat treatment, while others were silky. Some star stones were also found. Many stones were parti-coloured blue and orange, and several fine padparadscha-type stones were also found. If the new material is generally included, many stones are fine enough and clean enough to be facetted without heat treatment.
Search for sapphires
As rubies and sapphires have been discovered fairly regularly in this jungle-covered region since 2000, a new sapphire discovery in that area was not a huge surprise. The issue is that the region is part of the “Ankeniheny-Zahamena-Mantadia Biodiversity Conservation Corridor and Restoration Project,” which consists of Ankeniheny, Zahamena and Mantadia National Parks. The rush site is therefore a protected area administered by “Conservation International” where mining is illegal. So far, the authorities have not closed the illegal mining site; the main issue being that this year the rains were very late in Ambatondrazaka, a small city known to be the rice basket of Madagascar. Rain usually arrives in November, but since the beginning of February, the area was still dry and thousands of people who were usually busy working the paddy fields were jobless and without resources. Most of them found, with the new sapphire deposit, some welcome income. Obviously, a year before the general election, the Malagasy authorities are not showing the political will to stop sapphire mining in Bemainty.
I expect mining activities to slow down with the rainy season. Since 2000 and the discoveries near Andilamena, new discoveries usually occur in the area nearly every two or three years. In the case of Didy (2012), Zahamena (2015) and now Bemainty, some very fine stones were found. It seems that a major ruby and sapphire deposit is hidden under the forest-covered areas of northeast Madagascar and it is likely that Ambatondrazaka could emerge as a major sapphire trading centre in the future. Nevertheless, the issue for the trade is that most of this deposit is located in a protected area where mining is illegal. It is to be expected that in the near future, people in charge of conservation and the gem industry will find a win-win type of solution to deal with this discovery.
About the writer: Vincent Pardieu (BSc, GGA, GG) was a tour guide before becoming a gemmologist. He studied gemmology in Burma (GGA) and at GIA Thailand in 2001. For the past 17 years, he combined his two passions: Studying gemstones and travelling to gem-mining areas around the world. In 2004, he became the director of the AIGS Gemological Laboratory in Thailand where he worked on ruby treatments like lead glass treatment and started a field gemmology programme. For two years (2007-2008), he joined the Gübelin Gem Lab in Switzerland as a gemmologist specialising in the origin determination of gemstones. He then returned to Thailand in December 2008 to create for the GIA Laboratory a “Field Gemology” department. He led for the GIA 85 successful field expeditions to gemstone-producing areas in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, East Africa and Australia.
In January 2017, he left the GIA to start a new career as a consultant and independent researcher. His recent reports have been published on his website, www.fieldgemology.org, and on www.giathai.net and www.gia.edu.