window of our pousada overlooks the Brazilian town of Nova
Era. The rainy season has just ended. Puffy white cumulus clouds
glide across an aquamarine sky. The foothills are clad in a coat
of green velvet, the grass cropped close by the broad flat teeth
of grazing cattle. Hill follows hill like a sea of verdant waves
rolling toward the horizon. In the valley that contains the town,
a winding river sambas along the valley floor, the water, like the
clay tiles on the village roofs, stained a rich, reddish brown.
Just above the river a dirt road carves a livid ruddy scar, paralleling
both the river's color and course.
The color of the iron-rich soil is
characteristic of the entire northeastern portion of the Brazilian
state of Minas Gerais, and is similar to other gem-rich
areas throughout the world including central Thailand, upper Burma
and the opal mining areas of western Queensland. The northeastern
third of Minas Gerais, "general mines" in Portuguese,
is one of the richest gem-bearing areas on earth.
Nova Era lies near the southeastern
edge of an area of what geologists call pegmatites: geological events
that occurred almost five hundred million years ago when super hot
liquid magma injected itself into gaps or cracks in the original
As these intrusions cooled, rare minerals
such as lithium, boron, beryllium and manganese concentrated in
pockets, allowing the formation of gem crystals such as tourmaline,
topaz, emerald and aquamarine. The area is vast! One of the world's
largest pegmatites, it encompasses 720 kilometers north to south
and 320 kilometers east to west, stretching from the town of Ouro
Preto in the southeast to the bordering states of Espirito
Santo in the east, and Bahia to the north.
Our jeep bounces along a one lane
dirt track, following the course of the Piracicaba River
as it works its way westward off the main highway. Our destination
is the Posso Grande Aquamarine Mine. Brazilians are optimistic
by nature--posso grande means, "it can be big".
And it still could be!
Our guide Emilio Castillo, a jolly,
rotund pedraista who has lived for twenty-eight years in
Nova Era, tells us that Philippe, the mine's owner, has hit paydirt
in this area no less than four previous times. Philippe is a seasoned
garimpeiro, or independent miner, and like many of his
brothers, lives for the day.
With each strike he has made a fortune,
and each time that fortune has slipped through his fingers.
Unfortunately for Philippe, his much-discussed luck appears to have
deserted him altogether. Disaster has struck! Just as he hit a pocket
deep in the hill, a mudslide buried his tunnel.
We arrive at the mine to find Philippe
and his five-man crew at loose ends. The mine is located several
hundred yards up a steep hillside above the river. Two previous
tunnels had proved unproductive, and it will take backbreaking weeks
of labor to dig away the slide by hand.
Still Philippe is philosophical. He
is cutting green bamboo with his machete, the heart of which will
be sliced and fried up for lunch. Money is tight, food is scarce,
and there is no capital available for heavy equipment.
This is the story in much of Minas
Gerais. The day of the garimpeiro armed with little more than
hope and a pick and shovel is over! Surface and near-surface deposits
have been worked out. Geologists maintain that fully ninety percent
of the gems are still in the ground, but the remaining pockets are
deep, as much as three hundred feet down, and that means heavy equipment
and the capital necessary to purchase it.
Back at his home, Emilio pours several
kilos of aquamarine rough won from Posso Grande before
the slide onto a table. Most are less than three grams, all a limpid
blue crystal without a trace of green.
Aquamarine rough is normally greenish.
Both the green and the blue color are derived from iron-- the blue
from ferrous iron and the green from the yellow of ferric iron.
Gentle heating will drive off the ferric iron, leaving just the
blue, but in this case, heating will not be necessary.
Emilio urges us to use a polarizing
lens and view the C-axis of the crystal under incandescent light.
"This is how it will look after heating", he assures us.
Twisting the lens, the crystal turns a rich dark sapphire like hue
"Some of these guys actually
believe that", says our agent David Stanley Epstein,
after our arrival later that same
week in Teofilo Otoni, the gemstone trading capital of
Minas Gerais. "Some believe it", he
says again with emphasis on the first word, "but it isn't true."
As we are not normally rough buyers,
it is with trepidation that we hand over our selection for David's
inspection. "Not bad" he says smiling, a trace of his
Brooklyn accent still in evidence despite eighteen years in Brazil.
"I've seen people get screwed a whole lot worse".
After lunch with Emilo, and a detour
so that he can purchase a gift of a bottle of cachaça,
the fiery Brazilian cane liquor, we continue our journey. The sky
is cloudless and the afternoon turns sultry. We find ourselves bouncing
our way up yet another dirt road, this time on the north side of
the mountain from Posso Grande toward Capueirana,
a village in the Nova Era region.
Nova Era first drew the attention
of the gemworld for its emerald, a light to medium-toned slightly
yellowish to grass-green limpid stone that was discovered in the
1980s. Many of the mines that produced Nova Era emerald are clustered
around this small village.
"This is also the back road to
Hematatita"; Paulo remarks as he skillfully navigates
our four-wheel drive, avoiding one pothole that threatens to consume
our vehicle. Paulo Zonari, along with his Belgian-born wife Ann,
has been our host from the time our plane touched down in Belo
Horizonte. "During the Alexandrite strike in 1987"
he notes, "this was one of the busiest roads in Brazil."