Learning Library

Mozambique

With one of the most diverse array of gemstones lying beneath it's surface, Mozambique today offers gem hunters the opportunity to discover a country that for many years, due to terrible wars and internal conflicts, simply was not safe to explore. During the 1980s and early 90s Mozambique was embroiled in a terrible civil war which claimed the lives of over one million people and acted as the catalyst for a further five million to flee the country.


As you talk to Mozambicans today you get a real sense that rather than wanting to debate the troubles of the past, they are focused on what the future has in store. Potentially those living in the north of the country have a very prosperous future as the area they reside in is rich in natural resources, one in particular that anybody reading this book has a desire to own, genuine gemstones.

Geographically, Mozambique is located on the east coast of Africa, its shape is similar to a heart. The entire right hand edge of the heart is costal, and as you travel around the tip at the bottom it borders with South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Protruding into the clef of the heart is Malawi and to the right of the clef Tanzania. Similar to a cartoon picture of a heart with an arrow entering it from the top left, the famous Zambezi river flows from Zambia and completely divides Mozambique in two. The southern portion of the country is now becoming a popular tourist destination, especially the costal areas around its capital Maputo (the capital is at the tip of this heart shaped land and is only a days drive from Johannesburg). Here there is now a thriving cosmopolitan city with many English and Afrikaans speaking restaurants and hotels. However, within a very short distance of leaving the capital, traveling on the only major road in the country that travels to the north (EN1), you start to enter a very beautiful, yet sparsely populated country.

As you cross the Zambezi you enter the northern portion of Mozambique. Here, those that have attended school speak Portuguese (the country was a Portuguese colony until 1975) and the vast majority that never went to school speak Macua, which is just one of the 60 different tribal languages of the country. Although the capital is in the south, the two largest provinces in Mozambique in terms of population are the northern communities of Zambezia and Nampula. Over 30% of the 23 million population reside in these two provinces with the vast majority relying on subsistence farming and fishing to survive. With aid provided by the World Bank, the north of the country was on the road to recovery in the late 90s with memories of the various droughts and wars starting to fade. Then came the devastating floods in 2000 in which many people died and over 500,000 were made homeless. Tens of thousands of cattle were killed and the floods, which lasted several months, washed away over 100,000 hectares of crops. One report even suggested that 80% of the countries livestock had been killed and over a quarter of the countries agriculture had been wiped away, along with the railways, roads and vital bridges. With so many people living off the land the population once again found themselves with their backs against the wall.

Today, in July 2011, it appears to me that this resilient nation is back on the road to recovery. Whilst in the capital last September there were riots over the increasing price of bread (with police insanely opening fire on protesters), in the north, despite unemployment running close to 60% and the average salary across the nation running at less than $3 per day, there seems a real hope of prosperity. As is the case with neighbouring Zambia, locals have good reason to feel optimistic as in the north there lies a wealth of natural resources: plenty of arable land, clean water supplies and many woodlands with tropical hardwoods. Sea fish, cotton, sugar, cashew nuts, corn and rice are all in plentiful supply. In terms of minerals the land is blessed with many natural resources: gold, iron ore, copper, nickel, chromium and of course what interests us most - gemstones. But as with Zambia, these countries lack management and training. What the modern world needs to do is help these countries with management and organisation skills, all of which we have developed over centuries out of the necessity of dealing with our challenging climates where temperatures swing from freezing conditions in the winter to scorching conditions in the summer.    

My visit to Mozambique was also one driven by necessity. Over the past few years I had built several relationships with Mozambique gem hunters and miners and had managed to obtain a reasonable supply of Morganite and the occasional small parcel of Paraiba Tourmaline. But over the past twelve months I had not been able to source a single carat of Paraiba and very little Morganite from this beautiful west African country and I needed to make a visit as my small stock holding of these two gemstones had virtually depleted.

My plan was to start by visiting my good friend Saint-Clair's mine near the small village of Mavuco, where along with his partners over the past four years they had invested in heavy machinery after finding trace elements of Paraiba. Then I would go to Namitil to visit some artisanal miners who were hunting for Aquamarine. We aimed to end our journey in search of Morganite in the picturesque village of Marropino. These were of course just travel plans, plans that we had scribbled on a paper napkin whilst in the UK, but plans don't normally pan out that way when you are in developing world countries, so as always we would have to be flexible.  

So Matt (my son and cameraman) and I took a three hour flight from Johannesburg on a small plane and arrived at Nampula. Although Nampula is effectively a city with over 500,000 inhabitants, it looks, feels and behaves more like a sleepy town. There are no tall buildings, just a tiny airport, a rustic train station and two main streets with a handful of half open stores. It is certainly no tourist destination. With the exception of a few hotels, a church, a few stores and the governmental buildings, virtually no other building has glass windows. There is one exception, and that is the town houses which were built and left behind by the Portuguese. For some bizarre reason the government have left these well constructed buildings fall into disrepair and not allowed anyone to develop them. Nobody I spoke to could explain the logic of this. When buildings made of bricks and mortar, with glass windows and proper roofing, are sprinkled all over the city - why haven't they been converted into schools or clinics, or auctioned off as homes and raising money for the community? Why when most homes are made of mud bricks, with no electricity, straw roofs and are no more than one hundred square feet, would you leave a well constructed building next door to become derelict? It does upset me as I travel to developing world countries how corruption, poor political decisions and just a lack of good management holds back countries that are rich in resources. Anyway, this is not intended to be a piece on politics but on gemstones, so let's move on.

Andre, the mine owner’s nephew, was due to be waiting for us as we arrived. Unfortunately, on his way to pick us up, he was delayed for thirty minutes as the local police had set up a road block and they insisted on searching his pickup truck. I have travelled to Africa several times, and I am not usually easily intimidated. However, as we waited for Andres arrival outside the shack which was labeled "arrivals hall", I was a little more nervous than normal. I was in a mad rush as I left my office in the UK, and had forgotten to take down any mobile phone numbers or details of my many contacts in Mozambique. Not that the mobile would have been any use, as we could not get a signal. So here we were, standing outside a shack, in the middle of nowhere, with no local currency, no way of contacting anyone, no understanding of the local dialect, several bags full of expensive camera equipment and a dozen guys trying to offer us a lift to town. After 20 nerve-wracking minutes of ushering away the hoard of people standing around the exit of this tiny airport Andre finally arrived.

As his uncle’s mine was some five hours out of town, we had to stop and pick up our food and drinks from some local stores and street vendors. A task that in the UK might take half an hour to do, took us several hours. We also had to stop at a petrol station to fill three large canisters with petrol for Andre's uncle’s car.

As we left Nampula we headed south on the highway. This road is over 1500 miles long and eventually ends up in the capital Maputa. But it is not a highway as you might imagine, it is full of pot holes, has no painted lines or cats eyes and every time you cross a river or a stream it becomes a single carriageway. On the odd occasion another vehicle appears in the opposite direction, one has to give way to the other.

After a couple of hours we reached the small village of Murrupula. This was the end of the tarmac, and now we were to travel on a dusty track for 50 miles. After about an hour, the sun set and we had to travel the last hour and a half in the dark. As the pickup bounced up and down, the track swerving around bushes and pot holes, Matt and I were slung around like I would imagine canoeists are as they decent rapids and I also started to consider how disappointed I would be if our trip proved unfruitful. As we travelled, Andre told us to be extremely cautious of the mosquitos. Over the past five months he had caught malaria twice and currently both the cook and a couple of miners were off work with the disease. Eventually, around 9pm, we arrived at the mine. The several brick buildings we would be staying in were all constructed over the past four years by Saint-Clair and his team and they had even installed running water from a well that they had built in the yard.

As we ate dinner, Saint-Clair explained to me the history of mining in the area. It was in 2002 that Paraiba Tourmaline was first discovered in the area. Within just six months, over six thousand unlicensed artisanal miners set up camp in the area. Over a period of five or six years they extracted quite a lot of Paraiba from the alluvial deposits, but eventually the mines were depleted and they moved to another area called Namitil, where Aquamarine and bead quality Pink Tourmaline had been discovered.

In 2007 the government granted two mining licenses - one to Saint-Clair's company Moz Gems and one to another company called Mirander Gems. Andre and Saint-Clair explained to us in great detail how his mining operation worked and within a short while, with the aid of a cold beer, I had forgotten about the 32 hours of travel we had endured to reach the mine and I was full of anticipation for the coming days. Moz Gems has the right to mine an area spanning over 200 hectares. As of their first four years mining this area, they have only focused their efforts on two small areas where they believed they had the best chance of finding Paraiba. However, as of yet, the yield to date has been small.

As all the electricity at the site was provided by generators, at around 10pm we all headed to bed so that all of the lights and equipment could be switched off and both Matt and I covered ourselves in a double layer of mosquito spray and hit the sack.

The next morning I woke at 6am, took a freezing cold shower, gave myself a quick checkup to ensure that I had not got any nasty bites and went for breakfast with Saint-Clair, Vera (Saint-Clair's wife), Andre and my son. Saint-Clair started to explain that when they first arrived in the area, nobody within miles had a paid job and they were all just living off the land. The government, when they granted him and his partners their mining license, had insisted on a minimum monthly salary for the workers of 2500 metical (50 metical is currently worth £1) and yet Saint-Clair was paying his workers a minimum of 4500 per month. This over-payment back fired on him in the early days as workers would work for a fortnight and the disappear for four or five weeks and then turn back up to work only when their money had run out. It took him a long time to educate them that other than agreed holidays, they had to turn up every single week in order to keep their job.

The workers at the mine have nothing to spend their salary on in the bush, being some five days walk (or two hours by motorbike) from the nearest shop. With no banks or mobile phones, with nowhere to exchange anything for cash other than the occasional market stand selling empty canisters for carrying water and second hand clothes, most workers have gotten into groups of three or four and pooled their salary together. They take it in turns at the end of each month to travel to town and purchase a motorbike. Saint-Clair explains that nobody even owned a bicycle when he arrived and now nearly all of his workers had at least one motorbike in their family.

He also explained that men in the area were not as reliable as the females and often would try and steal the gems they unearthed, which was why most of his team of about forty workers were female. It’s also a fact that in Mozambique, the woman in the house does all of the work. Most of the men seem to lack any motivation and seem to sit around doing very little. As you drive around it’s not uncommon to see a young women carrying a child in a sling on both her front and on her back whilst balancing a bundle of wood or bucket of water on her head, as her husband walks empty handed by her side. To those from the west this always comes as a bit of a culture shock! For this reason, his management team at the mine were all from Brazil and lived in the accommodation at the mine.

I asked Saint-Clair about how much Paraiba was coming out of the ground. His advice was that the best answer he could give me was for me to watch the whole process at the mine for the day, to watch the excavators, to go to the lavaria (the washing plant), to observe and help the gem sorters and then to weigh the discoveries of the day for myself. Consider this. Paraiba mining in Brazil has pretty much finished. The small deposit once discovered in Nigeria is now depleted and the 5000 to 6000 artisanal Mozambique miners all left the area when they had finished removing the easy pickings from the earth’s surface. When you consider that there are just two companies mining for this ultimate treasure, Saint-Clair explained that I would witness for myself 50% of the worlds supply of Paraiba mined on that day (this calculation is based on the assumption that both Saint-Clair's mine and Miranders mine are producing similar quantities).

So, after breakfast, we arrived at the mine face. All of the mining in the region is from alluvial deposits, which is a stark contrast to Saint-Clair's Pederneira Mine which I once visited in Brazil. There, Tourmaline is cut away directly from the host rock via a network of underground tunnels. This mine in Mavuco is an open pit mine and is excavated by one huge mechanical digger. There is no mining done by hand. The digger scoops away the top soil until a layer known as the ‘cascalio’ is reached. This is a layer of approximately one to two foot in depth which is full of pebbles and Quartz. In this zone, there is a chance of finding gemstones, but its still like looking for needles in a haystack.

The digger scoops all of the top soil into the back of a lorry and it is taken and placed at the edge of the mining area. Once the cascalio is reached, the driver of the digger works more carefully, dropping the soil and dirt from the cascalio layer gently into a trailer attached to a tractor. This is then taken to the lavaria where all of the scree is washed through a series of different steps and is then passed to the gem sorters to search for potential gemstones. Every time they find a pebble or a stone with any colour, the ladies at the sorting table place the potential gem into a chute that drops into a safe underneath their table. This in itself is a skilful task, as often a gem that has come to rest in an alluvial deposit will have a frosted and matte look on the outside and yet inside, once cut and polished, it will reveal a stunning masterpiece. If you have ever seen the frosted effect on a piece of green glass washed up on a beach you will know exactly what I am talking about. However, the initial identification of a gemstone is made worse by soil and mud that has, over millions of years, become encrusted on the outer layer of the gem.

We spent all day getting involved with various parts of the mining process. As I always do when I am in a mine, I ask the miners to let me have a go at every aspect of the work (well, with the exception of trying to drive the expensive excavation diggers). I find this the only way to fully understand the discovery process of gemstones, and to fully comprehend their true rarity. It also helps me to really appreciate how much work goes into finding and unearthing each carat. Being a Saturday, the mine closed at midday and all of the local workers either rode off on their motorcycles, or jumped on the back of the company truck and went back to the local villages.

Next, we removed the safes from under the sorting tables, unlocked a mass of padlocks and emptied the contents once again onto the sorting table. Well here it was before me, the proof of the pudding, a true measurement of how much Paraiba was being mined around the planet. The revelation was startling. One of only two mines currently known to be unearthing Paraiba, with it's work force of over 40 people, with it's diggers, trucks, tractors, modern lavaria and sorting room had only uncovered five pieces that might be of gem quality once cut and polished. One piece for sure was of immediate undeniable quality, it weighted just over a gram and once cut and polished would probably weigh 1 to 1.5 carats. I immediately offered Saint-Clair £1000 for the piece, but he said it could not be sold at the mine as it needed all of the proper export documentation filling in. Anyway, in today's market my offer was way too low for such an exceptional piece.

That started off a huge debate between the two of us regarding the prices of Paraiba. The price that Saint-Clair is asking for the grade I am always looking to buy, is some five or six times higher than we were paying just three years ago. Saint-Clair explained, "Steve, when there was a lot of Paraiba in the market, it was coming from the artisanal miners who didn't have the same operating expenses as us as they were removing just the low hanging fruit from near the surface, and as there was so much more of the gem in the market back then, prices reflected the fact that supply was almost keeping up with demand. However today, there is so much demand in Asia for the gem and there is such little supply that we have even sold some pieces for over $30,000 (£20,000) per carat.

Saint-Clair suggested that we did not try and discuss price at this stage and deferred it until our next meeting. So, I reluctantly agreed. I say reluctantly, because even though the main purposes for my mining trips are to ensure that we are using an ethical supply chain (plus they are part educational and part adventure), as the senior gem buyer of one of the largest coloured gemstone retailers in the world, as I travel I always need to try and purchase as much raw crystal (uncut gemstones straight out of the ground) as possible. However, we agreed that we would not discuss price again on this visit and instead agreed to meet up in September 2011 at the Hong Kong gemstone trade show. Saint-Clair promised to call me on the mobile during the show as soon as someone made a bid for any Paraiba parcel and I would have the chance to match it.

Back at the accommodation, we prepared a nice meal and enjoyed a rewarding cold beer. The day had been full of mixed emotions. The highlight had been to witness a medium sized mining operation from end to end. We were able to see the entire process from the excavation to the results of the day being analysed in terms of weighing the final gram weight of the raw crystals. The lowlight of the day was the realisation that Paraiba Tourmaline is becoming increasingly harder to discover, and that means we are not going to be able to make as much Paraiba jewellery as we once did.

As we were eating our dinner, two locals appeared out of the dark, arriving on the veranda totally unannounced, and with a small piece of pink crystal they claimed to be Morganite. The light was very low as we sat there talking with them, and they said that if we paid them 300 meticals they would lead us to where they had found the crystal early the next morning. We didn't take a closer look as any increase in enthusiasm would have meant having to pay them more, so Saint-Clair simply agreed and the two guys left, promising to arrive at 8am. I was so excited, in all my years visiting gem mines all over the planet, I had never really had the chance to go prospecting off the back of such a hot lead.

I couldn't sleep, tossing and turning thinking about the next day’s adventure, and then worrying about the highly infected mosquitos flying around my room. The next morning Matt and I woke early and decided to go and film the local villagers as they drew water from a well that had been built at a cost of $10,000 by Saint-Clair and his partners. Prior to this, the villagers had no access to clean water and were reliant on taking water from the local stream. The problem with this was that it often ran dry in the summer and carried a lot of mud and disease with it in the winter. When they first opened the mine, and dug their first well to support the miners and their family, every day hundreds of locals turned up to use the well. All too often this meant that the days mining was delayed as they had to wait in line to get access to their own well. Saint-Clair and his partner Moses realised that the best solution was to build a well right in the middle of the village. This not only alleviated the problem at their own well, but built a real strong bond between the local community and the mine. Later, when they asked the community what else they could do to help, the next request was for a small jail, so that they could try and teach the community some basic law and order. The owners of the mine assisted the community in building the jail, but as of yet it remains unopened as the government want some small changes made to the construction.

After our filming, being a little behind schedule, we rushed back to the compound only to then wait an hour and a half for the two Morganite guys to show up. By the way, that's not unusual in Africa, where many people, especially males, would consider being three or fours within an agreed time as punctual! So off we went, Saint-Clair and I in the front of the pickup, Andre and Matt in the back. Well, Matt was really just a little in the back as the vast majority of his body was hanging out of the window with his video camera, catching the breathtaking scenery as we travelled through the savannah. The two guys who said they had found the Morganite were standing in the back of the pick up shouting directions to Saint-Clair, and after a mile or so they instructed him to take a left turn straight into the bush. So, following their request, we traveled through tall grass and thicket, bumping up and down like we were on a pogo stick. At this point Matt retreated back inside the vehicle, unable to withstand the bashing he was receiving.

Eventually we arrived at where they had found the gemstone. We jumped out of the pickup and followed them through thick bushes. At one point Saint-Clair told me to be careful as one of the planets was incredibly poisonous. It's a good job he warned me, because to me it looked like a fury yellow chilli, and if he hadn't said anything my inquisitive mind would have most likely instructed me to pick it up! After one hundred or so yards on foot we came to an area where the two guys had been digging. On the ground were several pieces of fairly large pink crystals, but with the aid of daylight we could see instantly that this was not Morganite, but Rose Quartz. Whilst it had great clarity and a deep rich colour, it was immediately obvious that it was not as we had dreamt. Although Saint-Clair had never mined Rose Quartz before, I explained that if he extracted it, then my lapidarists in Jaipur would be able to cut it and I was sure we could cut a deal.

The next day was Sunday and with the mine closed Saint-Clair wanted to go and explore an area where several years before thousands of artisanal miners had mined an array of different gemstones. But with their very basic hand tools, just as they had with the Paraiba deposit, they never ventured more than a few meters below the surface. Once all of the easy pickings had been taken they simply moved on to another area. We were going to travel to the area with a mechanical digger and dig down four or five meters and see what we could find. Using all of our combined geological and gem experience and, more importantly, spotting through the undergrowth, we found evidence of small pits that had over a period of a few years naturally refilled with sand and soil. This is where we set the digger to work. After an hour of digging we arrived at the maximum depth we could with the mechanical digger, but we had uncovered nothing, not even a single piece of Quartz. For the last two days, our prospecting had been fairly futile, with just a discovery of a small amount of Rose Quartz, but as we traveled back to our accommodation Saint-Clair spotted something. He noticed a fairly big hole that had been dug out of the soil and at the bottom was a large black rock. As he stopped the car I commented on how unusual it was to see a jet black rock in Africa and he replied that this was actually a huge piece of White Quartz! Now I was really confused. As we walked towards it he explained that in the past, as the artisanal miners did not have access to modern explosives, they would make a huge fire over the Quartz. With lots of bails of wood set ablaze, the heat would be very intense and then, after an hour or two, they would pour cold water on to the fire in an attempt to crack the Quartz by quenching it.

So we carefully descended into this big pit opening and began to comb the area searching for any evidence or trace elements of whatever the artisanal miners had in the past gone to so much trouble to try and remove this huge Quartz pegmatite for. Bingo! We found a piece of Aquamarine. It was about one gram in weight, with a wonderful Santa Maria colour. Unfortunately it was totally opaque and not of facetable quality, but it was an indicator that we possibly were in a good spot. Then we found a second piece, and then a third. All three pieces had the same colour, but all were unfortunately of a low grade. However, when you are hunting for gems, all you need is an indicator and we had found not one but three. The rest of the morning was spent with Saint-Clair, Andre, Machado (one of the Brazilian managers from the Paraiba mine) and myself discussing how to best try and mine the area. Saint-Clair, who is an expert in mining pegmatite (which this outcrop certainly appeared to be) explained what he was going to do. As the land was just within the boundary of which he had mining rights, he would travel to Nampula and speak to the ministers to see if they could get him access to dynamite. If this was possible, he would tunnel under the burnt out Quartz in a manner similar to his underground Pederneira mine in Brazil. He careful drew a sketch of where the diggers needed to start excavating but before they cut the ground for the first time, he would get hold of an altimeter so that they could accurately arrive at the right depth.

For me, this made our entire trip worthwhile. We had not seen as much Paraiba as we had hoped. The new Mozambique Morganite deposits we had been told of were not to be found where we had been informed they were located (that's not a new thing in the gem world, as often people will claim they found a gem in a certain area to keep the true identity of the mine a secret). But we had been there on the day that Saint-Clair discovered some stunning deep blue Beryls and possibly an area that might prove to be a new source for richly coloured Santa Maria Africana Aquamarine.

Our time was over. On our next visit we would spend time at the Ruby mines and the Marropino Morganite deposit further south in Mozambique, but the time had come to make tracks back to the airport for a flight to Kenya.

We had experienced a lot in such a short time. Mozambique is truly a beautiful country. It’s people, whilst less fortunate than those of us in the west, were always smiling and very polite. Most of our stay had been with Moz Gems, a company that mine in a very ethical and environmentally friendly way. We had spent a lot of time with Saint-Clair and his wife, their company not only paid their employees incredibly well but looked after them and their families. Whilst we were there, his house was more like a doctor’s surgery, with people from the local village dropping in for both medicine and advice. The day before we arrived, one of his staff tried to rush a villager who was giving birth to the nearest hospital, but she had left it too late and on the way he had to stop the car and deliver the baby himself! The mine had built a well for the entire village providing them all with clean water and on several occasions we saw the Brazilian mine workers using the company tractor to do chores for the villagers. The whole experience was very humbling. One of my favourite memories will be of watching an old man at the mine making a wooden bookshelf. I asked Saint-Clair why he didn't just buy one next time he was in town, and I will remember his response for the rest of my life. He said, "My wife really likes this old man, we call him Papa. He really wants to work at the mine, but he must be in his seventies and the work would be too much for him. But my wife wanted to pay him something, so we got him to make the bookshelf. He has been on it for nearly two weeks. Look at him, look at how much pride he has in making it. Look at all the young men watching him and learning basic woodworking skills. You have seen how little locals know about construction from the quality of the houses they build, but here the old man is teaching them valuable skills. My wife's happy because we are helping him, the old man’s happy because not only do we pay him, he is doing something that makes him feel useful and the young men are happy because they learn something valuable. This isn't organised charity, it's grass roots support".

But what about the gems? Well, one thing is for sure, Paraiba is still coming out of the ground, but the quantity is minuscule for the amount of effort and expense that is going into getting it out of the ground. You will soon see some lovely Rose Quartz from the area and all being well some high grade Aquamarine in the not to distant future too.

Click here to see Mozambique loose Gemstones

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A Jacque Christie design featuring Mozambique Paraiba Tourmaline.