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Madagascar Gem Fever

May 3, 2001 5:32 PM   By Robert Genis
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Madagascar is an island in the Indian Ocean located between the African and Asian continents. It is about twice the size of Arizona. Madagascar gained its independence from France in 1960. It is one of the world's poorest nations; the average Malagasy per capita annual income is $260. The life expectancy is only 55 years. Madagascar is an island of extreme landscapes. The terrain includes tropical rain forests, mountains, and flat highlands with red rock formations.

Many consider Madagascar the new Sri Lanka in terms of gem output. According to Michael Couch, Michael Couch and Associates, Fort Wayne, Indiana, "Madagascar is part of the same geologic formation as Ceylon." Madagascar today is an important producer of various gemstones. Among the treasures found there are beryls, feldspars, garnets, tourmalines, rubies and sapphires. The fancy colored sapphires include pink, blue-violet, violet, purple, and orange.

Ilakaka

Many international news reports have focused their attention on Ilakaka. It is portrayed as a Klondike gold rush town. About 100,000 fortune hunters gripped with "sapphire fever" have migrated to this once remote southern village since sapphires were discovered. Two years ago it was a cattle-herding hamlet of 30 residents. Today it is an African version of the Wild West with 20,000 huts, nightclubs, brothels and gamblers. Men saunter down the streets brandishing guns and last year at least 15 locals were killed. Recently, security was tightened at the mining area because two Sri Lankan gem dealers were mistakenly killed at a local hotel.

Violence has also spilled into Isalo National Park. When security guards tried to stop about 1,000 prospectors from breaking through a fence into the park last year they were forced to retreat after being pelted by large boulders and sticks. The miners claimed more than 50 acres of land in a park known for its sandstone canyons, natural pools, rare plant species and a population of ring-tailed lemurs. The miners were eventually evicted by authorities, but environmentalists are furious that concessions have been given to gem mining concerns.

New Ruby Finds

According to Tom Cushman, Allerton Cushman & Co., Sun Valley, Idaho, a gem dealer who returned last month from Madagascar, the latest news from the island is the new ruby finds. According to Cushman, "Ruby is on fire and is being produced by the hundreds of kilos." There are presently two finds. The first and best goods are from Vatomandri on the east coast. The discovery is alluvial, but when the goods are cut most are below a carat. According to Cushman, "The material is gorgeous, almost luminescent. The material is crystalline and is better than the Thai material and closer to the Mong Hsu Burma material in appearance. It needs less treatment than the Mong Hsu material." This gem producing area was closed in December 2000 via military check points. Cushman speculates the government wanted to control the "gold rush" fever about the goods. Officially, the government stated the plan was to build a "special economic zone" with communal mining, a centralized bourse for foreign buyers, and collection of a 5 percent export tax. Some believe this was simply a pretense for government officials to "cherrypick" the mine. This area is presently still not officially open.

The second area is Andilamena, in the central highlands, two days from Antananarivo, the capital. To reach this area you must travel on a one-lane highway, hopefully in a four-wheel drive vehicle. When the road stops, it is still a 70 kilometer walk. It is such a hardship to get to the mining area that sellers are now not only available at the mines, but also at the end of the road, and some of the goods even end up in the capital. Of course, there are no hotels or amenities of any kind. According to Cushman, "Andilamena is now being mined by 30,000 diggers. They live on cow and rice and live in grass shacks."

Unlike Vatomandri, the goods here are large, with many gram pieces. The quality of these goods is much lower, with many of the pieces only cabochon material. Couch concurs, "Most are horribly included and need to be cooked and fracture-filled. However, a small percentage of the material is clean and can more easily be brought to the international marketplace." Reports from Chantaburi indicate rough Madagascar ruby is being offered at Mong Hsu Burma ruby prices, but is meeting buyer resistance.

Current Supply & Production

The new ruby finds have had one negative effect. The ruby fever has pulled people away from gem producing areas to chase the proverbial rainbow. Cushman states, "During my last trip, I had a much more difficult time buying aqua, amethyst, garnet, sphene and tourmaline. "Ilakaka is slow, but still happening. Those in the production of sapphires did not quit; only the middlemen and the diggers left. Many are already returning to the original mines because searching for ruby is too hard and too far."

According to Couch, "Availability of blue and fancy sapphires is up. The supply of pink tourmaline is down. It appears the production of color change from blue to red garnet was a flash in the pan." Ideally, these gems shift from blue-gray in sunlight to raspberry red in incandescent light. Cushman agrees, the present supply of these garnets is played out. Further, "They are still finding garnets but the color is gone. They now change from pinkish/brown to brown."

Treatment

Most of the Madagascar goods need to be heated. Couch expounds, "The treatment of material from Madagascar is different than the simple process of cooking tanzanite. Anyone can heat tanzanite. To heat Madagascar material, you need people who understand the complete cooking and cutting process. I am happy my German partners understand how to utilize different temperatures depending upon the material to reap the highest yield and best colors."

Buying

According to Couch, "Most gem buyers today meet in Antananarivo to purchase Madagascar gemstones. It has become the central buying place for the world dealers." However, certain dealers will search out sellers near the specific mine they are interested in, such as Ilakaka. Further, ten years ago Madagascar gemstones were an extremely small market. Today, you may have 100 buyers in Madagascar at any one time. The main buyers are Thai, Sri Lankan, French, Swiss, and American. Couch continues, "The well kept secret of Madagascar gems is gone...the word is out...it is almost old hat."

Conclusion

Most of the geological maps of Madagascar were made by the French in 1961. Of course, the maps are poor and outdated. According to Couch, "We can only imagine what gem wealth lays buried underneath Madagascar. What we have seen so far may be only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what we could find with accurate maps, the proper equipment, and skilled labor?" However, Cushman warns, "Anyone considering buying in Madagascar must remember the fact that endemic malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, and the Black Plague are rampant.
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