goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Mines of Madagascar: Part I

by Vincent Pardieu and Richard W. Wise

(Moramanga mining village, Andilamena region, Madagascar, June 29, 2005)

It is 4 a.m., and I can’t sleep. It’s been two hours since the local nightclub has ceased churning out the pop music that can turn this jungle city into a disco. The neighboring movie theater closed a few hours ago, and the choreographed grunts of the latest Kung Fu movie have faded into the darkness.

Still, the jungle night in this mining village is far from quiet. In fact, it sounds like a battlefield. By day, this shantytown of 15,000 is the kingdom of men, but the night is ruled by rats — thousands of them, perhaps millions. In each wooden shack, dozens of rats run over the sleeping bodies of men, women, and children. I don’t like rats, so I’ve made a small fire and installed some candles; that way I can at least work and think . . .


Where once there was only jungle, Moramanga is now a town
of 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Photo by Vincent Pardieu

I am now into my third week of a month-long trip to Madagascar. My two assistants, Jean Baptiste Senoble and Tanguy Lagache, and I came here to collect samples from the major ruby and sapphire deposits on the island for the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS), where I am the laboratory director. In the course of our travels, we went from the capital, Antananarivo, to the southern tip of the island and all the way back up to the north, stopping at the major ruby and sapphire mining areas to learn what we could.

It seems that after a period of political instability, starting in late 2001 and continuing through the middle of 2002, mining activities are moving forward in Madagascar. Several large-scale projects are being started on the island, and the mining code has been reformed to facilitate foreign investment. But administrative problems remain, as we would witness in our first visit to Andilamena.

The Andilamena deposits were first discovered in October 2000 1, and the area has been producing rubies since 2002. It is located within a belt of tropical rainforest at the eastern edge of Madagascar’s northern high plateau. As of May 2001, about two tons of all grades of ruby had been mined 2. In July 2004, an important new find about 28 miles east at Moramanga drew independent miners from all over the island.
ABOVE: The author, his team, and their escort set out for Moramanga. Photo by Jean Baptiste Senoble. TOP: Miners carry bags of ruby-rich soil to the river to be washed in Tananarivekely. Photo by Tanguy Lagache.

Today, Andilamena is a jungle metropolis with more than 15,000 people mining and trading, either in the city or in the nearby jungle. Andilamena has become, after Ilakaka in the south central part of the country, the most important ruby and sapphire mining area in Madagascar.

When we arrived in Andilamena, the streets were full of people, but 50 percent of the buying offices were closed. Foreign buyers were present, but it was far from an invasion.

The major problem at newer mining areas, such as Moramanga and Tananarivekely, is lawlessness. There is absolutely no police presence, and 10,000 to 15,000 people are living in the forest without any sanitation. Adminis­tratively, the mining area does not belong to the Andilamena district, but to the Fenorive Est district. But the people and gems all move through Andilamena, as there is no road to Fenorive Est. It becomes an administrative issue: The Andilamena police force isn’t supposed to handle the problem, but the Fenorive Est police cannot get to the mining areas through the jungle-covered mountains.



 TOP: Miners carry bags of ruby-rich soil to the river to be washed in Tananarivekely.

BELOW: The author, his team, and their escort set out for Moramanga. Photo by Jean Baptiste Senoble.

Photo by Tanguy Lagache.

If we did not experience any security problems during our three-day visit to the mining area, it was thanks to our guides and police escort. We did, however, develop an intimate relationship with the mud and rats.

The mines at Moramanga are located a day’s trek from Andilamena through a mountainous region covered in jungle. The roads are muddy and difficult. The mines are located in a “red area,” which is normally closed to foreigners, so we had to obtain official authorization to visit them. Security on the roads to the mines is a real concern: In just the past month, two armed attacks occurred, and one person was killed with two others wounded. Nevertheless, after explaining our goals, we got the support of the local authorities in Andilamena — the mayor, the chef de district, the deputy, and the police chief finally allowed us entry, but only with a police escort.

We left for the mines at 5 a.m. The only way to get there was on foot — a long walk though the jungle-covered mountains. We arrived in the village of Moramanga Carriere, the main mining settlement, at 4 p.m. Moramanga gets its name from the first man to find gems there, who was probably from a different Moramanga, a city on the main road between Antananarivo and the eastern coast.


Washing the gravel in search of rubies near Tananarivekely. Photo by Vincent Pardieu

Miners have been working the Moramanga area since early 2001, but things didn’t start to heat up until 2004, with the discovery of alluvial multicolor sapphire and “ruby-star” rough in a nearby river. Much of the material was highly fissured. “Ruby star” is the local name given to the highly fractured material that is filled with lead glass by some heat-treaters in Thailand, which hides the fractures and makes the material look much better than it is. Ruby treated this way is currently flooding the Thai market.

A Thai dealer, Mahiton Thondisuk, bought ruby in the Moramanga area in 2002. He told me that he began experimenting with the use of lead glass to fill these fissures upon his return to Thailand. At this point, other Thai dealers began to take an interest in this deposit, and by late 2004, we began to see lead glass-filled ruby at the AIGS lab in Bangkok 3. By the February Bangkok show, large amounts of lead glass-filled ruby had shown up in the Bangkok market.

Both primary and secondary, or alluvial, deposits are being worked at Andilamena. Rubies are found deep underground, nicely crystallized, in pockets associated with weathered mica schist at depths between 10 and 60 meters (33 to 197 feet).




Washing the gravel in search of rubies near Tananarivekely. Photo by Vincent Pardieu.

TOP TO BOTTOM: A handful of the “new” rubies from Tananarivekely. The mines at Moramanga produce a variety of colors, locally called “polychromes.” A low-quality “ruby star,” the local term for corundum that is destined to be lead glass-filled.

Photos by Vincent Pardieu

The ruby mined in the newer areas is also well crystallized but of a darker tone than the “ruby star” material. Miners are finding multicolor sapphire in pinkish hues, in weathered ground associated with mica, quartz, and feldspar. The only place the ruby and sapphire are found together is in alluvial deposits found in streambeds.

Besides the ruby, this area also yields the so-called “polychrome” sapphires. These multicolor sapphires are bought as parcels in Andilamena and then cut into small pieces of even color, which are sold mostly in Ilakaka. The colors cover the range from blue to pink, green, yellow, and orange. We have seen many pieces from this area showing a natural, pinkish-orange “padparadscha” coloration. They resemble the sapphires found in the Umba region of Tanzania.

Most of the rough is small, and it produces cut gems that are likewise small, but of even color. Rough parcels are traded in Andilamena, cut locally, and sold to foreign buyers at Ilakaka. As of this writing, the hills surrounding the rivers in this area have begun to resemble a lunar landscape. Every available acre of dirt is turned over in the search for gem corundum.

In March 2005, two important events occurred in Andilamena. The first was an unconfirmed story about an important buyer who purchased many stones in Andilamena, but was unable to get his price in the United States. As a result, he did not pay his suppliers, and the prices for this material dropped within days. Stones that could be sold for $500 in February 2005 were hardly getting $10 in April 2005.

Luckily for the locals, a new ruby deposit was found in March 2005 a few kilometers away, in the same river. At the time we visited the new mining area, near the village of Tananarivekely, most of the miners had moved their operations to the new area, abandoning the “ruby star” deposits.

Thus far, this has been the story in Madagascar: A new deposit is found, worked out within several years, and then another deposit is found. Fortunately for the Malagasies, gemstones can seemingly be found everywhere one looks on this rich island.