goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Brazil Adventure

Page 2

Busy indeed! For three months, thousands of garimpeiros descended on a small valley east of Nova Era. This was the first and only major strike of Alexandrite ever. After three months, and an average of one death by gunshot per week, the valley was mostly mined out. Fortunes were made and fortunes were lost--often in a hail of bullets. I was in Brazil at the time, and I knew one dealer who traded his house for a beer can full of Alexandrite rough and he made a fortune.

This afternoon we are to visit an emerald mine, one of the few still working in the area. We pass through the small village. The tiny whitewashed houses and tin-roofed shacks flank both sides of the narrow dirt track. It is late afternoon and a group of men are gathered on the verandah of a local bar to exchange the day's gossip. Glasses and beer bottles sit on narrow homemade wooden tables. They are dressed like miners--some shoeless, in shirts and dirt-soiled pants; they're dark faces burned even darker by the tropical sun. All look with narrowed eyes in our direction--some curiously, others suspiciously. We pull up to a gate.

A small concrete house sits several yards up a hillside. It looks more like a small fazenda, or farm, but we have arrived at our destination--the mine owned by Sergio Martinez. About twenty-five yards above the house a square hole leads to a round shaft-- similar to the lebin, the square reinforced vertical shafts dug for millennia in the ruby-bearing soils of the Moguk valley of upper Burma.

This one is a bit more up-to-date. A tin roof covers the shaft and a motorized pulley system has replaced the simple hand crank used to lower the miners and retrieve the gem gravel.

Shaping rough aquamarine is the first stage in the cutting process. First the rough is cut into long, slender slabs. During the next stage the stones are outlined on the slab then the shapes are cut out in a process called pre-forming.

I am strapped into a leather harness rigged to a tripod above the shaft. Below us a gaping black hole, perhaps six-feet in diameter, drops straight into hell. At the manager's order, "vai", we are lowered away. The cable sings, we drop straight down, fending off the walls with our feet as we descend. The wall is concrete part of the way down, then dirt. Our speed increases; soon the surface is a small round blue hole far above us. Finally, more than three hundred feet down, our descent ends with a jerk.

It is quiet. The only sound is an echoing drip of water coming from below us. We rappel off the shaft wall into a horizontal tunnel. There is no reinforcing structure, no supports of any kind. The cavernous shaft has been carved out of coal black schist, and reaches back into the darkness like the view into the belly of a whale. Am I apprehensive, perhaps a bit scared? Hell no--I love this stuff! A look back into the shaft, and the harness hangs limply. I was the only volunteer!

Tiny flakes of mica twinkle like stars as the manager's flashlight plays across the sides and roof of the tunnel. The floor is wet and slippery and slopes upward. The air is cool & damp as we work our way deeper into the shaft. Behind us the steady dripping of water seems impossibly loud.

The composition of the tunnel here at Capueirana is dramatically different from that of Posso Grande. On the other side of the hill the walls of the tunnel were rectangular and narrow. Composed of feldspar, quartz and kaolin (pure white clay formed of decayed feldspar), the floor of the shaft looked like it was covered with a coating of snow. Whereas they were able to dig horizontally into the side of the hill at Posso Grande, this shaft is at least five hundred feet deeper, and it seems that we are at the very roots of the mountain.

At Posso Grande we found large "books" of mica, as much as twelve inches in diameter; here tiny flakes mix into the crumbling black schist.

My guide takes me down several tunnels, pointing out areas where emerald was found. The work here was done mostly by hand, dug out with pick and shovel and transported by wheelbarrow to the tunnel's mouth, then raised three hundred feet to the surface. There is no one working underground today, but in the unnatural quiet, I can still here the echo of rock against steel.

Working the tailings of an emerald mine in Capueirana village outside Nova Era.

I am not sorry to find myself back at the surface. The sky is somehow bluer and the air seems sweeter. Three men are at work on a huge pile of schist, two breaking up the larger chunks and one washing the gravel on a large corrugated steel table--all looking for the telltale green flash of emerald.

Later in the trip, Haissam Elawar tells me the real story of the Martinez mine. "About one year ago", Haissam begins holding up his index finger to emphasis his point, "about thirty people invaded this mine". Haissam is Brazilian, born of Lebanese parents. He is a strongly built fellow with a broad face and an infectious laugh. To make a long story short; the owner of the mine was naturally upset having these squatters setting up in his mine and refusing to leave. He called the police. The police, including a high ranking colonel-of-police, entered the mine. A gunfight ensued and the colonel, along with several others garimpeiros and police, was carried out dead.

Rough buyer Emilio "Hoss" Castillo has lived in Nova Era for 27 years.
Kahil Elawar presides over one of the largest and most successful mining firms in Minas Gerais.
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