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
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
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
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
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.