goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Brazil Adventure

Page 4

Buying in Brazil:

It's about a four-hour drive from Nova Era to the northern trading town of Teofilo Otoni. Early the next morning David Epstein picks us up at our hotel. Its time to begin the buying.

Tall, wiry with a long narrow face, gray hair, beard and piercing eyes, David is a buyer's broker who works with Americans and other foreign buyers who brave the trip to the source. Fluent in Portuguese, David has been my broker on several previous trips, and we have become good friends.

The first stop is the plaza. Every Brazilian town has a central plaza and a park-- Teofilo is no exception. The gem brokers hang out on the eastern side of the park along a wide stone-cobbled dead-end street. Many dealers have offices in the buildings on either side. About halfway up is a coffee shop that serves the short dark café zinyo, David has brought us here to demonstrate in concrete terms that new buyers are in town. Here we meet brokers, renew old acquaintances, and look at goods.

The look of the pegmatite is very similar to that at Posso Grande. The shaft works its way through twenty feet of reddish topsoil, an additional one hundred feet right into the hardrock-- pegmatite zoned with quartz. An old miner, wearing a fedora and his Sunday shirt, fires up the generator to power the lights, and shows us where aquamarine has been found in various parts of the tunnel. The mine itself is nine years old. It took four years of digging before anything of value was found. Since then the mine has paid off handsomely, producing as much as twenty kilos in a single day. (slide#087-097)

Back at Padre Paraiso, we enjoy a Brazilian country lunch of rice; beans and shu shu, a succulent green Brazilian vegetable that cooked looks a lot like aloe vera. Lunch is prepared by Abelita herself. After lunch, her husband brings out a gunnysack containing six kilograms of beryl crystals from Abelita's mine. Unlike the rough from Posso Grande, these crystals are quite green and will require heating. One is distinctly yellow and will cut lovely morganite. A number of the crystals are perfectly formed, and the size of a loaf of French bread. Is it this analogy that is making my mouth water so? Most of the rough will burn a solid medium color, and, as the owner informs us, will sell for approximately twenty-five dollars a gram. The rough is not sold piecemeal, but is held till the end of the mining season and probably sold as one parcel. The miners work for shares, and will probably be present at the sale of the parcel to insure that there are no misunderstandings. (slide#001-006)

The second week of buying grinds along slowly. We buy perhaps one stone in a hundred, but this is normal. Buying is like mining: you dig and dig and every now and then--a bonanza! Buying requires a focus: you descend into a sort of mist where you ignore the forest and concentrate on the trees. And like the song says, don't count your winnings while you're still sitting at the table. One of the great joys of a trip comes upon the return home when the parcel is opened in your own office under familiar light. That’s when you get the best overview.

Aquamarine and emerald are available in quantity, and the emerald from the newer area, Carnaîba in Bahia is as any in the world. Opticon is still the treatment of choice in Brazil, and each stone must be minutely examined. We are seeing more topaz. This is good; we need a large parcel for a wholesale client.

Two weeks pass in a blur of activity, the end of which we find ourselves back in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest city. After a few days exploring the city, we board the plane that will take us to Rio and then to New York. The trip has gone well, our early pessimism slowly dissipated, and in the end we found what we came for. So like all dealers after a successful trip, we return home, tired and happy and very broke.


High Tech. Prospecting

Prospecting for gems has always been, at best, a hit or miss proposition--about as safe an investment as hunting for buried treasure or searching for the Holy Grail. Brazil's problem is simply that all of the gemstone deposits that could be found at or near the surface have been exploited. Professionals know that it is not the mining of the gems that takes the most time and consumes the most capital, it is the time spent prospecting, locating a deposit to exploit.

Kirk Bond, left, uses ground-piercing radar to prospect in Brazi


Historically prospectors have utilized a whole range of methods to locate precious gems. Some of these methods are scientific, some pseudo-scientific, some employ common sense and others are just plain bizarre. In Australia I watched a very successful miner use "L" -shaped steel divining rods to prospect for opal. Another prospector relied on the presence of certain species of trees, which he said grew over faults that could contain opal. Prospectors in arid regions such as East Africa routinely examine ant and termite mounds for bits of gem materials or other indicators such as mica that might have been dredged up by these tiny miners. In Brazil the government spent a great deal of time and money taking soil samples throughout the gem mining districts of Minas Gerais.

It was inevitable that technology would finally make its way onto the scene and it has--in the form of ground piercing radar (GPR).

Kirk Bond is an impressive sight. He is tall and broad, about 6' 4" tall, has a shaven head, and looks like he would be most at home perched atop a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He is affable and well spoken and seems totally at home in Brazil. Although American by birth, he has been around the Brazilian gem trade for fifteen years. Since 1997 Bond has been embarked on a project to adapt the use of GPR to gem prospecting in Brazil.

The technology for GPR has been around for a while. Originally developed to locate buried pipelines, GPR has been successfully adapted to use in archaeology. Basically what the technology is designed to do is find discontinuities, voids or holes beneath the surface of the earth. Perhaps its most exciting application to date has been the use of GPR to locate a twenty-meter cavity beneath the Sphinx. GPR has also been successfully used at archaeological sites in Mexico and Japan to locate hidden burial chambers.

As we have seen, gems in Minas Gerais are mainly pegmatic, which means that they form in pockets either inside or beside cooling magmas. These pockets--the geological term is vugs--begin as discontinuities, bubbles or voids in the cooling rock. In Brazil, the garimpeiros call these calderones, literally "black pots", a very appropriate term when you consider how the gems actually form.

In 1994 ground piercing radar was used unsuccessfully in California at the site of the famous Old Himalaya tourmaline mine, in an attempt to locate tourmaline- bearing pockets. Bond's first attempt, an analysis of the Cruziero mine was also unsuccessful. "There was a learning curve", says Bond, "we needed to figure out what we were looking at". What Bond found is that the machine, which is about the size of a vacuum cleaner attached to a laptop computer, wouldn't give accurate readings if there was too much moisture and Cruziero had moisture. Bond's next attempt at the site of the old Santa Rosa mine was also a disappointment. He dug a one hundred thirty-foot tunnel in the hardrock, but what he found was old pockets that had been previously exploited and backfilled by the miners.

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