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Sapphire Mining

Sapphire Mines In Africa

Africa has become a premiere location for sapphire mining that produces beautiful stones and can be a true economic force in regions.

African Sapphire Mining Guide

Long been known for its diamond mines producing amazing stones, Africa has emerged as having a wealth of sapphires in its ground as well. A few nations have gained worldwide notoriety for quality and beauty of their sapphires.

Tanzania Sapphire Mining

map of tanzania
A current day map of Tanzania.

Tanzania obtains much of its gem wealth from a geological feature known as the Mozambique Orogenic Belt, which contains one of the richest gem loads on earth.  The Belt runs in a north-south direction through the eastern part of the country, and it is up to 300 kilometers wide in places.  

The rocks in this mountain belt have undergone significant tectonism and metamorphism, which has created a multitude of gemstones , including sapphires. The majority of the sapphires from Tanzania are found in three locales: the Umba River Valley in the north, and Tunduru and Songea in the south.

The gem gravel of the Umba River Valley has been a major source of fancy sapphires for at least half a century.  The area yields sapphires in all colors of the rainbow, including highly valued padparadscha and rare color-change sapphires.  The finds are usually face-table grade and some of the stones are sizable.

reddish orange sapphire Tanzania
A fiery reddish-orange sapphire from Tanzania.

Songea, the most productive sapphire mining region in Tanzania, has been worked since the mid 1990s.  Most of the stones tend to be blue.  A majority of the finds go to Thailand for treatment before they reach the market.  Although two mechanized mining companies have been working the area in recent years, most of the mining activity is small scale.

Recent discoveries near Kibuko of pink sapphire deposits have produced some beautiful stones and large hauls up to 100 carats in six months. Tunduru to the south was quite actively being mined until buyers left in 1999 for newly discovered deposits in Madagascar. A paved road linking Tunduru to the coast and then Songea has recently been finished, making these areas much less isolated, and hopefully drawing back renewed interest.

While sapphire production levels have varied over the years, Tanzania is considered to have tremendous future potential.   The Tanzanian government is actively involved in building a sustainable future for its promising gemstone industry and there’s a lot of optimism about its growth.

Kenya Sapphire Mining

map of kenya
A map of present day Kenya.

Sapphires were first found in Kenya in 1936 at Kinyiki Hill where crystals up to one meter long were discovered. Kenya holds enormous potential as a future source of sapphires with their access to the Mozambique Orogenic Belt, which bisects the country in a north-south direction.

While the ruby and tsavorite deposits of Kenya are well known, sapphires are a relatively new and unexplored resource.  To date, the country’s sapphire wealth has not been completely inventoried and new deposits are continually being discovered in many different parts of the country.

Baringo district Kenya sapphire mining
The Baringo mining district in Kenya.

Today, promising mining locations include the Baringo district, which produces pink sapphires; Garba Tula, which produces blue, green, and yellow sapphires; and Turkana, which is known for its blue sapphires.

As mining endeavors develop further in Kenya, the government is getting involved and looking to promote the industry as a boon for tourism. With an eye to the future, they are also looking to establish the capital of Nairobi as an alternative mineral exchange to Bangkok – the global capital of jewelry in Thailand.

Nigeria Sapphire Mining

map of Nigeria
A current day map of Nigeria.

Nigeria is the most important producer of gems in West Africa.  Nigeria produces aquamarine, emerald, amethyst, garnet, tourmaline, topaz, and zircon, among other gemstones. Sapphires have been mined in the central part of Nigeria for about 20 to 30 years.

 The government of Nigeria is seeking to expand its mining enterprise with the aid of international loans and investment.  Although the extent of the deposits in Nigeria has yet to be evaluated, the prospects for the future look promising.

radiant cut Nigerian blue sapphire
A before and after of sapphire rough and the beautiful radiant cut Nigerian sapphire gemstone it creates.

Small-scale mining operations are reported in the States of Borno, Kaduna, Taraba, and Bauchi. There, the sapphires are retrieved from secondary deposits of weathered alkali basalts.  The yields are primarily dark blues and greens.  Although the clarity can be excellent, the stones are mostly small in size.  Many of the sapphires are heat treated to improve their color.

In 2014, Nigerian sapphires made a splash in the industry with the discovery of a significant amount of high-quality blue sapphires. They were recognized for having an attractive size, high clarity, good color, and strong crystal habit.

The small town of Antan in Kaduna and under the Jama’a local government currently, is where the first sapphire mining site was erected. Many good quality sapphires were discovered here, mainly of a darker blue hue on par with Australian sapphires. This site is still producing high quality sapphires today in good quantity.

yellow blue bi-color sapphire rough
A selection of yellow and blue bi-color sapphire rough from Nigeria.

Mambilla is another small town where the most recent sapphire mining sites have taken root. In the Taraba state and under Sardauna local government, the Mambilla sapphires are beginning to be considered some of the most beautiful specimens. Most of the stones that are discovered here are of very high quality, very transparent, and with desirable cut sizes.

As mining continues, new examples will likely keep appearing, and increased demand and interest should expand the mining endeavors.

Madagascar

map of madagascar
A current day map of Madagascar.

For the two decades, Madagascar has experienced a sapphire rush. Although sapphire deposits are known to exist all over the country, mining was banned in the northern portion of the island in the 1990s in an effort to protect indigenous species.  In the south however, new discoveries of quality sapphires has caused a massive migration to the area. Sapphire deposits in the north come from alluvial deposits of weathered basaltic rocks, while those in the south have metamorphic origins.  

As mining has continued in Madagascar, specifically in the Ilakaka region, which is rumored to be the world’s largest sapphire deposit of real economic value, some of the finest pink sapphires of anywhere in the world have been unearthed, along with very fine blue sapphires.

Sapphire mining town sign in Llakaka Madagascar
Sapphire mining town sign for Ilakaka, Madagascar.

Since 2005, Madagascar has seen a decline in their sapphire industry as the government placed a temporary ban on exporting sapphires. Since then, the government has attempted many routes of regulation to be sure that the country’s resources and people are managed and protected.

The presence of highly-valued and high-quality sapphires in Madagascar is not much of a surprise considering its location and history.  Many sapphires from this island nation carry the same prized characteristics as sapphires from Sri Lanka since the deposits for both of these islands were created in the same location and roughly the same time – approximately 165 million years ago.

natural untreated sapphire Madagascar
Trenches in southwestern Madagascar, all that are hand dug.

Recently, the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor has been producing a huge amount of high quality and large size sapphires, leading conservationists to be concerned about the toll that illegal mining is taking on the ecosystem and rainforest.

As the government continues to work with the legal miners in the country, important measures can be taken to make sure that the new rushes that have produced 50 carat size stones of the highest quality don’t negatively impact the native land and species. The country’s biggest concerns are tamping down on the illegal sapphire mines that have cropped up that threaten rainforests and indigenous plant and animal species.

Insider View from the President of The Natural Sapphire Company:

My first trip to Madagascar was in 1998 soon after the first pink sapphire ‘gold rush’ finds.  I’ve since been back to Madagascar several times, traveling all over the country. I have mixed feelings about the mining conditions there.  It’s the wild-west for sure; yet, there are no civil wars, slave camps, or people with machetes cutting off arms and legs in any of the places I’ve been to.  It’s mostly all small prospectors working in groups without any regulation or oversight by government authorities.

oval cut Nigerian blue sapphire
An oval cut Nigerian blue sapphire as its original crystal rough and then the faceted gemstone.

I’ve heard stories of accidents of course, but I think this is generally rare, and overall I see this very poor country gaining a lot of economic benefit from the sapphire deposits. The main wish I have for Madagascar is that gem cutting becomes a skill among its industry participants.  I’m glad there are not a few big mining companies taking all the profits or flooding the market with inventory – it could be a lot worse for sure.

Madagascar has a long road ahead before it catches up with places like Sri Lanka, where there are so many highly skilled cutters and trade professionals. The quality of the sapphires from Madagascar are some of the finest I’ve ever seen in my career, and I am certain the country will continue to find tremendous wealth in future years to improve the lives of its citizens.  

Moving to another continent, next we explore Sapphire Mines In The Middle East.

 

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