The Best Gemstone Countries on Earth
Where do our gemsones come from? We asked geologist and host of Gem Hunt, Bernie Gaboury, to give us a rundown of some of the world’s biggest producers of our favorite eye-catching stones. See where our sapphires, emeralds, opals, jade and rubies originate.
EmeraldsOf all countries, Colombia mines the most emeralds, accounting for 70–90% of the world’s supply. Although indigenous people mined them in pre-colonial times, it was the Spanish conquistadores who first exploited Colombia’s emeralds commercially and internationally, forcing the conquered Indians to work in their mines. The geological forces that raised the Andes formed a particularly pure type of emerald, which is still mined today. Muzo is the most important of the 3 largest mines, which produce the finest emeralds.
Emeralds have also financed the on-going ”green war” in Colombia, involving left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups, Colombian drug cartels, and the Colombian government.
SapphiresDuring the first few years of the 21st century, Madagascar produced about half the world’s sapphires. They were discovered in 1998, near the small town of Ilakaka, which has since boomed into a wild-west town with “sapphire fever” and a population of more than 30,000 people.
The surrounding countryside is pocked with pits, dug by small teams of poor fortune-seekers, who risk their lives to descend beneath the surface in search of sapphire-bearing soil. Ilakaka’s peak has passed: all the “easy” sapphires have been taken, and miners now have to dig further beneath the surface in hopes of finding their fortune. New sapphire deposits have been discovered in the Tamatave and Didy areas over the last 2 years.
In addition to Sapphire, Madagascar remains a treasure trove of other gems including aquamarine, morganite, emerald, tourmaline, spessartite, tsavorite, demantoid, and color-change garnets, to name a few.
RubiesRubies are the most expensive gem, by weight, in the world, and 90% of the world’s supply comes from Burma. The very finest are dug at Mogok, in Burma’s “Valley of Rubies.” The most productive pit at Mogok is the Safari mine, which produces 800 grams of gems per day: that’s 4,000 carats!
The gems are separated from gravel using high-pressure water cannons and sluices. Then the residue is painstakingly picked over by hand, for rubies and sapphires. Burma also produces significant gem spinel and Imperial jade. The jade of Burma can attain values to rival the best emerald or ruby.
Most gems from Burma are sold to buyers from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian countries. Until recently, many US and European jewelery companies refused to buy these gems, based on reports of terrible working conditions in the mines.
Various GemsSince ancient times, the island of Sri Lanka has been known as the “Treasure Box of the Indian Ocean.” More than 50 varieties of gems are found here, including sapphires in every shade from yellow to cornflower blue.
The crown jewels of Russia, Great Britain and many other countries are studded with jewels from Sri Lankan mines. Ratnapura (“Gem Town”) is the center of the country’s mining industry. The gems are found in a clay deposit beneath the rice paddy fields in the surrounding countryside.
Using shovels and picks, miners dig pits as deep as 20 metres, and then tunnel sideways to excavate the clay. Once the clay has been brought to the surface, they sluice it in nearby rivers, using bamboo baskets, until the gems can be picked out.
Sri Lanka also produces a very coveted electric blue variety of Moonstone.
OpalA vast majority of the world’s supply of opal comes from Australia – around 97%. The best-known mines are found at Coober Pedy and Andamooka in South Australia and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. Opals can show every color of the visible spectrum because of the way light diffracts through the stone’s molecules. This effect is enhanced by cutting a thin slice of opal, and attaching it to a backing of dark stone, such as basalt, to create a “doublet.”
Miners use bulldozers and mechanical diggers to find opal but once the precious stone is found, they stop the machines and extract it by hand. At Coober Pedy, the premier source of the world’s opals, old mines have been converted into underground houses.
Australia also produces blue sapphires from volcanic-related deposits. Up until the discovery of the sapphire fields in Ilakaka, Madagascar, Australia was the world’s leading producer of sapphire.
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