Brazilian gemstones on the rise

On a recent trip to Brazil, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel through the eastern state of Minas Gerais visiting various gem mines with a friend who is a well-known Brazilian mining geologist. Minas Gerais or “General Mines” is the largest gemstone mining region in Brazil. It is about the size of California and Florida combined and is a major source of fine aquamarine, tourmaline, topaz, emerald and numerous other gems. The region is experiencing renewed activity due to the tremendous increase in global demand for colored gemstones.

 

Map of Minas Gerais courtesy of Brazil Travel, www.v-brazil.com

 

Continued strong demand from the U.S. and EU for aquamarine and emerald and the dramatic increase in demand from China for tourmaline has resulted in less supply and thus higher prices. Environmental concerns brought about new environmental mining laws that forced many Brazilian mines to close until they could afford to adhere to higher environmental standards. Many mines had either halted mining efforts or were on the verge of shutting down when the Chinese market resurrected demand for all colored gemstones. This resurgence may also be partly attributed to increased domestic demand, particularly for Imperial topaz and emerald fueled largely by the success of Brazilian designers and retailers.

 

Besides enjoying the fabulous beaches, I focused my time in Rio de Janeiro visiting the gem and mineral museums at Amsterdam Sauer and H. Stern. Their extensive collections of mineral specimens and gems combined with exhibits about the history of mining in Brazil are well worth the visit.

Later I flew to Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais to see the many gem dealers in “Belo” as the locals call it. There are numerous buying offices throughout the city, which makes it easy to compare gems and pricing. I chose to stay in an old 1950s business hotel located next to an elegant 19th century Gothic cathedral. Every morning, to my pleasant surprise, I would awake to the morning bells of the Igreja de boa Viagem, “Church of the Good Journey," which made me feel even more confident of my upcoming trek to the mines.

After several days in Belo, I endured a 12-hour bus ride to Governador Valadares to connect with my geologist friend and tour guide to the tourmaline mines nearby.

Our first stop was a commercial mine where gems were recovered from within a huge granitic pegmatite as a bi-product of feldspar and lepidolite mining. Feldspar is used as a fluxing agent in ceramic and glass manufacturing and lepidolite for lithium used in lubricants and cell phones. Amazingly, this pegmatite was so large that we could drive our truck right into it. Pegmatites are igneous intrusives that penetrate pre-existing country rock and sometimes form gem crystals within pockets or small voids as the pegmatite cools.