Madagascar Island

December Editorial      


Madagascar's Gems


The island of Madagascar is in the Indian Ocean off the south-east coast of Africa, and is part of the Republic of Madagascar. The fourth-largest island in the world, Madagascar is famous for the vast number of its plant and animal species, with most of them (about 80%) being unique to Madagascar. As well as its rich flora and fauna, the island is known for its gems - namely sapphires, rubies and emeralds. Madagascar is a relative newcomer to the ruby and sapphire market, as these were only discovered in the 1990s, but it already leads the world in the production of these two gems. As the older resources in Thailand and Burma begin to decline, the world increasingly relies on Sir Lanka and Madagascar for its supply of new rubies and sapphires.

The town of Ilakaka in the province of Fianarantosoa is one of the major producers of sapphires in Madagascar; yet 10 years ago, Ilakaka did not exist. When sapphires were discovered there in 1998, it started the Malagese equivalent of America's gold rush. In a short time, a hamlet of a few huts grew into a mining town. The fortune-hunters who flooded into the region did not require much equipment either. The sapphires were there for the taking on the ground, as pebbles on the river banks or on the river bed. Children going swimming would come up with handfuls of sapphires which they simply sifted from the mud.

Ilakaka and the surrounding region now account for around 50% of the world's sapphires. But still today most of the mines are hand-dug pits, horizontal tunnels, and small-scale mechanized mining operations. By these methods the gems can only be extracted to a depth of about 10 meters - how many sapphires are below this depth is anyone's guess. Ilakaka's 'Swiss Bank' sapphire and alexandrite deposits are some of the richest mines in southern Madagascar. As part of the 1990 sapphire rush the Tranomaro and Andranondambo mines were opened. They are also situated in the southern part of the island in ancient alluvial drainage basins and plains of the province of Toliara. Andranondambo mines produce cornflower-blue sapphires of very high quality.

Because the sapphires at the 10 meter level are of inferior quality, exports from Ilakaka have dropped sharply in recent years. Sapphire was discovered again at depths of about 26 m, but mining at that level requires machinery unavailable to artisan miners. But some big investment companies recognize the potential of the region and are prepared to invest money in larger-scale mining operations. Among these are Madagascar Resources NL, Rio Tinto, and SIAM (Societe d'Investissement Australien a Madagascar). At present, most of what is mined in Madagascar finds its way to Thailand for heat treatment, as the Thai gem dealers have the greatest experience in heat-treating corundum. However, the World Bank recently decided to fund development projects in cooperation with the Malagasy government, forming the 'Project de Gouverance sur les Resources Minerales' (PGRM) to facilitate an increase in Madagascar's gem production. The newly-created 'Institut de Gemmologie de Madagascar' (IGM), and Institut de Gemmologie d'Antananarivo have been established to foster research, technological development, and training through their lapidary schools.

If Ilakaka is the boom-town for sapphires, the boom-town for rubies is the city of Vatomandry, on the central east side of Madagascar in the province of Fianarantsoa. The ruby mines there are in the rain forests of the mountainous interior west of the city. The Vatomandry mines are some of the first ruby mines in Madagascar, producing higher quality 'ruby star' stones than elsewhere in the country, with some of the best specimens being comparable to Burmese ruby.

In addition to rubies and sapphires, Madagascar also produces very good quality emeralds. The Kianjavato emerald mines are the largest. They are in the rain-forest region of eastern Madagascar, approximately 60 km west of the coastal city of Mananjary. Emerald deposits at Kianjavato are associated with pegmatite rock, which is as much as 3 billion years old. Pan African Mining, Corp. of British Columbia (PAM Madagascar SARL) has options on mining rights in the Kianjavato mines, and intends increasing production.


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