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Far from home: Mining for sapphire in Madagascar

Far from home: Mining for sapphire in Madagascar

By Lauriane Lognay

In December 2019—during the ‘before times,’ back when COVID-19 was yet to be a concept in our minds in this part of the world—I had the golden opportunity to join a small group of competent people heading to Madagascar on what would soon become one of my favourite gemmological trips.

To begin with, field gemmology and travelling to mines directly is a great learning opportunity: you can see the sites and the people you want to work with, observe the conditions, build relationships and contacts, and meet amazing individuals with infinite stories they can share with you over a good drink.

There are dangers, of course—armed thieves, fake/synthetic gemstones, and more. For the most part, though, the gains outweigh the risks. (This doesn’t mean you don’t have to be prepared when it comes to this kind of travel. Indeed, you should be ready for anything that comes your way!)

Flashback to 2019

After several days of travelling, we arrive at Ilakaka, one of the numerous places in Madagascar that has good gemstone productions.

First thing to know: when it comes to gemstones, Madagascar is one of the richest countries in the world. One can find rubies, sapphires of all colours, emeralds, aquamarines, citrine, amethyst, garnet, and topaz, along with some rare gemstones, like jeremejevite, cordierite, and grandidierite (the latter of which is among the most expensive out there).

On the scene, the locals do not immediately trust us—this is to be expected, as we’ve arrived in their territory as tourists.

One of the first mines we visit is called the ‘Swiss Bank.’ Local residents often christen mining sites with bank names as a sign of good luck for money and prosperity. This particular mine, which is known for its production of pink sapphires, is owned by a company; it’s not artisanal like a lot of the mines we will eventually see in Ilakaka.

The Swiss Bank is impressive for a first visit. The bigger holes were mostly dug with the help of excavators, but the brunt of the work was completed by the miners—forming a line from the top to the bottom of the hole, the miners make a chain to bring the dirt out and into the bags without having to move up and down.

The second mine we are lucky enough to visit has a more ‘local’ moniker: Ambovonahomby. It’s smaller than the Swiss Bank, but no less impressive to observe in a 35 C environment. This site is less localized and less specialized; you can find sapphires of all colours, as well as some other gemstones, like chrysoberyl.

Indeed, each mine we visit throughout our trip offers more answers, serving as a piece of the giant puzzle that is the Madagascar gem-hunt. I could name all of them and describe them, but it would not help you understand the environment; just the mechanics of it.