goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Brazil Adventure

Page 3

Immediately brokers surround us, each with an open gem paper showing his pedras. We see rubellita from Cruziero, green tourmalina verde from up north in Araçuai, Aquamarina from Nova Era and Padre Paraiso, and esmeralda from Goias and from Carnaîiba, the new mining area bordering the state of Bahia. Brokers with interesting parcels are directed to David's office a few blocks away.

We are interested in fine stones, so the words, boa extra and soù file, meaning "extra good" and "fine only", are repeated ad nauseum. This is my fifth trip to Brazil, and my Portuguese is good enough to carry on a basic business discussion.

An hour later at the office a dozen brokers are waiting. David unlocks the steel door that looks like the entrance to an old-fashioned prison cell. We enter a narrow waiting room where the brokers sit on a long wooden bench waiting their turns. David's office is small, but the light is good.

We get right to it. A small parcel of fine blue tourmaline is offered; "Quanto è-- "how much?" I ask. A price is stated. "If I wanted to pay retail I could have stayed in New York," I flippantly respond in Portuguese. I am rewarded with a weak smile, but eventually the price drops to something near reality. I counter offer and so it goes hour after hour, day after day. If we see a large, but likely parcel, Rebekah will sort it. This is a demanding, but necessary job. As any successful dealer knows, it's all in the pick!

My wife Rebekah and I sit on the far side of a wooden desk with the north light at our backs, greeting each broker in turn. In the meantime our agent previews the goods, sending off brokers whose stones are not up to the standard he knows I will buy. The first day is crucial. As a new buyer you are an unknown quantity. You must establish your bonafides! Pay too much for a parcel, and from then on you carry a big "S" for sucker invisibly tattooed on your forehead, and all the asking prices will be high.

Two solid days of buying, and I'm beginning to see a pattern. The salad days of plenty seem to be over, at least for the present. Brazil hasn't seen a major strike since the late 1980's. The last one--a huge bi-color tourmaline pocket found at Morro Rodondo more than seven years ago, lasted until 1998. Emerald, mostly from the Carnaîba area of Bahia, seems to be the most plentiful stone in the market, followed by Aquamarine from Nova Era and Padre Paraiso.

Frustrated and with eyes longing to see something great, we make an appointment to see T.H.E. Collection. Kahil Elawar, patriarch of the family firm K. Elawar, Ltd. has been carefully building a collection of the finest Brazilian gems from Minas Gerais. Elawar, who immigrated to Brazil from Guinea-Bissau via Casablanca in 1959, started in the clothing business. He eventually has come to preside over one of the largest and most successful firms of gem merchants in Minas Gerais. This collection that now includes over two hundred-fifty gemstones has taken thirty years to gather. It consists of a number of gems of world-class quality and size--aquamarines, tourmalines, emerald, catseyes, all from Minas Gerais. It was featured in the book "Gems of Minas", published in 1989 with color pictures by the famous photographic team of Harold & Erica Van Pelt. On our last trip we spent several fascinating hours viewing this world-class collection, and we are anxious to renew our acquaintance. Senor Elawar is gracious, and we spend a leisurely afternoon immersed in beauty.

We have been traveling for three days and buying for two. Finally it is Saturday, and a trip is planned up north near the town of Padre Paraiso and another working aquamarine mine. Haissam Elawar picks us up early at our hotel. The sun is sparkling and the day shows promise. The scenery along the road north is breathtaking. The rainy season has been a long one, and this mountainous region is a sea of green.

We stop to photograph a batholith. Geologically speaking a batholith is a knobby magmatic intrusion of hot lava that originally formed underground, pushing up the country rock to form a mountain. Over millions of years the rock above and around the intrusion has weathered away, leaving behind a smooth formation that looks like a shaved black skull. A green apron surrounds the formation, but the batholith itself is so smooth and dense as to be devoid of vegetation. Batholiths signal that gemstone deposits may exist in the surrounding area. One of the most famous examples of a batholith is Sugarloaf Mountain.

Padre Paraiso (Father Paradise) is a small town built into a rugged hillside-- it looks much like one of Cezanne's mountain paintings. Small rectangular whitewashed boxes are stacked geometrically against the hillside, divided by narrow cobblestoned streets, and punctuated by trees and shingled red clay roofs. It is this same countryside surrounding the town that produced a large amount of catseye Crysoberyl in the 1960s.

The mine we are visiting today has no official name. It is usually referred to simply as Abelita's mine, in deference to the owner's wife, a handsome, dark-complexioned woman in her fifties. Despite a small workforce numbering only four, Abelita's mine has produced twelve kilograms of aquamarine this season.

Our four-wheel drive labors on steadily as we enter a lovely valley, pass a small cattle fazenda, and climb up the shoulder of a steep mountainside, working our way to the mine. Abelita's mine, closed on Saturday, is little different from other sites we have visited. Detritus (tailings) from the mine form a broad apron in front of a single horizontal opening set into a shelf dug into the mountainside. A small generator sits under a plastic canopy at the right hand of the entrance. Several large quartz crystals are stacked on the other side of the mine entrance. On the road below, a simple daub and wattle hut provides shelter for the miners during the workweek.

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