This is the second part of our blog documenting my recent trip to Namibia in southern Africa. I was there on the hunt for Green tourmalines and Garnets to use in my handmade jewellery collections and to learn more about ethical and sustainable mining practises. If you haven’t read the first part you can click here or you can pick up the story in the second week of our trip . . . . . .
The next morning I returned to the market and was met by 3 different groups of miners all of whom had a selection of stones to show me. They had travelled to Swakopmund from various locations in the Erongo region having heard a buyer was in town.
Although I thought I had made it clear that I was looking for Green Tourmaline or garnet something clearly got lost in translation.
English is the official language in Namibia but not necessarily everyone’s first language. If there was one thing that impressed me about almost everyone I met here, it was their ability to speak multiple languages and switch between them at will. One gentleman who we met twice on our trip spoke 9 languages, making this typically English visitor, speaking only English, feel very stupid. Everyone we met spoke English, most spoke Afrikaans, a little German and a plethora of local tribal languages some of which include the clicking sounds the region’s dialects are famous for. My pronunciation of all the non-English words I came across and attempted, was ridiculed by locals and my fellow travellers alike.
The first guys I met presented me with an array of stones, most abundant were mineral samples of aquamarine and black tourmaline. Also in their bag was amethyst, citrine and smoky quartz. Black tourmaline is available by the sack full and for next to nothing, its jet black and indistinguishable from any other black gem material, it is also by far the most common of tourmaline’s many colours.
The aquamarines were interesting and I am sure would have been of interest to a collector or buyer of mineral samples but none were of the quality needed to cut into gemstones, both in terms of colour and clarity.
The guys with these stones were a duo from the town of Usakos, where they had travelled from that day to come and meet me, having got the call from a contact in the market who I had met the previous day. They were obviously disappointed that I wasn’t interested in their wares, however they were keen to help when I asked if I could visit their mine. We got out the map and they showed me where they lived, mined and sites of previous important gemstone finds in the area. We arranged to meet the next day, for when I had arranged to hire a car, so I could give them a lift home and for a tour of the mine.
I also acquired what I thought to be the most interesting of the Aquamarines they had bought along. With current trends and the emergence of the so called ‘fashion fine’ jewellery sector I thought it had the potential to be cut into a large, nicely coloured, if heavily included stone for use in jewellery. German jewellery brand Thomas Sabo has started using what they describe as ‘milky aqua’s’ in their jewellery, a move away from the mostly synthetic stones they have used previously.
The next batch of stones was tourmaline, mostly green and with some pink and blue stones. However again sadly none of the crystals were of sufficient quality to warrant purchasing with the intention of cutting into gemstones. Some were nicely coloured but small and almost all were heavily included or cracked. The two pictured below were the pick of the bunch.
The next guy had the most interesting selection of stones, a selection that I am still wondering about now. They were presented as Demantoid Garnet from an alluvial deposit in an unspecified location that he mines and keeps for a regular foreign gem buyer. They weren’t cheap, over N$1000 per gram, but if they were as advertised, demantoid garnet then they were worth every penny. The colour was top grade and they were totally clean, even with a loupe (10x magnification) I couldn’t spot any inclusions – and this made me suspicious.
With no formal training as a gemmologist I was acutely aware that should I be presented with synthetics or imitation stones Id have no way of proving one way or the other, so with these stones I sought the opportunity to gain a second opinion. On an earlier visit to a gemstone shop with an on-site cutter, I had arranged that if I bought some rough I could take it there for an assessment before having it cut. So I made arrangements with the seller to meet him the next morning and visit the shop to check out the stones.
With or without the demantoids the day had been a success. I had met some miners, seen some stones and learned about the way stones are mined, bought, sold and most importantly I had a guide willing to take me to a mine.
It was clear from speaking to the miners that the game was changing in Namibia for small scale miners. When stones were first discovered here, they were on the surface. You could literally walk along and pick up aquamarines, topaz, tourmalines, garnets and all varieties of quartz. Some digging may be required but it is by no means intensive. Where large, high quality deposits were found larger scale operations were put in place
After colonial rule, and years of well-funded foreign prospecting, surface deposits have become exhausted and although substantial deposits are thought to remain here they are below the surface and will take specialist machinery, man power and resources to excavate them.
With China’s recent slow down the price of gemstones has been falling, noticeably fewer bulk buyers of stones have been visiting. Falling prices and higher costs are a bad mix for small miners. Later on in our trip we were to hear the same tale and see first-hand the efforts being put in place by local government to support local miners and to add value to the material that’s found here.
Although pleased with the day and as pleasant as it was in both Windhoek and to a lesser extent Swakop I knew the fun would really start when we hit the road and got closer to the mines. The next morning I had my meet with the demantoid seller, I was excited to see what came of that and get on the road.
Sadly the next day my guy didn’t show and it’s left me wondering whether I missed an opportunity or dodged a bullet. The stones were unlike any demantoid crystals I have seen before, or since, but I hadn’t seen alluvial mined stones before and the smoother surface is consistent with stones found in alluvial deposits.
If genuine then this was the best rough material I was to see during my time in Namibia. The guy himself was credible and was relaxed, happy to share knowledge about the mining process and about other foreign buyers and their methods. There was the obligatory request for me to compensate him for the cost of his journey, but no hassle when I refused. I was after all expecting to see him the next day to buy some stones.
There was one more twist in the tale before we hit the road. I got a call from a contact I had made a couple of days previously, who had some guys he wanted me to meet. Unlike the other people I had meet these guys had their own vehicle and a larger selection of stones, including a bag of demantoid garnets.
As you can see from the picture above the stones were considerably smaller and more the shape you would expect to see from demantoid crystals. The colour was not top grade but there was enough clear material amongst the crystals for me to buy the package. My intention was to cut the material into round brilliant cut stones for use in my own range of jewellery. As we speak the stones are still with master cutters in Asia but when they return I have them earmarked for a pair of earrings. To be made in oxidised silver or black rhodium plated white gold with green gem stones in various hues.
Having bought this bag from them I asked about their mine and found out that they worked mostly for local gem dealer who has recently invested in his first mining operation. I had heard this guy’s name from other miners so I was delighted when they agreed to give me his number. This was the contact I had been looking for. Buying direct from the guys who actually mine the stones is our aim but the gem trade is long established in the Namibia and any good stones will go straight to a dealer. Many miners will have dealers who will fly in especially if they find a special stone, so finding an established dealer is an important step.
Part 3 coming next week