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WORLDS LARGEST GEM STORE
If you have watched the children’s film ‘Madagascar’, the first thing you should know about this country is that very few of the animals seen in the movie inhabit it in real life.
As the fourth biggest island in the world, situated off the East Coast of Africa, the country is famous for its great vanilla, the huge Baobab trees and a plethora of amazing gems.
Its gemstone treasure chest includes Aquamarines, a rare Blue Garnet, Tourmalines, and Beryls, including Morganite. More recently it has added the discovery of Diamonds to its treasure-trove and with sources of Corundum (Sapphires and Rubies) dwindling in countries such as Thailand and Burma, Madagascar is now one of the world’s leading suppliers of these superstar gems too!
With so much potential, The World Bank is funding development projects in cooperation with the Malagasy government in an attempt to retain more of the wealth obtained from gemstones in its own country. Gemmology schools have been set up to teach locals how to cut and polish gemstones, ensuring they are able to export the finished article, rather than the far lesser-valued rough.
In Ilakaka though, the scene very much remains an informal artisanal mining community. The perimeter of the town is surrounded by small- scale mines, which are owned by entrepreneurial individuals or small teams that work with very little technology. Their lifestyle is consistently better than that of subsistence farming: there is always the belief and potential that a substantial reward will be discovered tomorrow! This belief is backed up by the European brick-styled buildings owned by miners who have struck lucky.
Located in the south of the island, Ilakaka was nothing more than a tiny subsistence farming community until gems were rediscovered in 1998 (they were actually discovered some 50 years prior, but due to the small size of the find and political unrest were never mined). What followed was similar to the famous gold rushes in America. Overnight Ilakaka went from a handful of farmers to tens of thousands of individual first-time miners all seeking their own fortune. Even today, many of them still work with just a shovel, a candle and a bucket. The nearest thing they have to technology is a winch. A relative or friend will lower the miner into the sandstone shaft on a bucket which is attached to an old piece of rope. Once at the bottom of the shaft the miner continues to dig and the potential rough is then winched back to the surface to be taken to the local river to be panned, and hopefully a gem or two will be seen.
I recently met with Jean-Noel Andrianasolo who was at the heart of what has been known as the greatest “gem rush” of the last fifty years. Jean- Noel says, “In 1998 I was working in the capital when I heard rumours of a big find of Sapphires near Ilakaka. So I took the 15 hour drive, set up a tiny home and began digging at the rear of my own backyard. In no time at all I found my first small Sapphire and the further I dug, the more I found. As there was so much potential wealth inside I named the open pit Banque Suisse”.
Ilakaka is not the only ‘gem boom town’ in Madagascar; another is the town of Vatomandry where Rubies of a quality to equal those from Burma are being mined. In 2003, Rubies were also discovered in Andilamena.
Blue Apatite from Madagascar.
A 1.6ct Strawberry Quartz from Madagascar.
GIA qualified Gemmologists
Members of the British Jewellery Association
Members of the Coloured Gemstone Assocation