During the last couple of years Grape Garnet has emerged as a hot new gemstone in the colored stone market. However, due to its limited production it occupies only a small marketing niche. Nevertheless, many gem dealers and collectors love this stone for its affordability, its unique color, and because it is not normally enhanced.
Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House of Vancouver, Washington is the leading mover and shaker in the Grape Garnet market. In an attempt to brand the gemstone, he has trademarked the name Grape Garnet. Although Columbia Gem House markets a diverse array of colored stones, Grape Garnet remains their number one selling stone. Braunwart's conclusion? "Branding works." Columbia Gem House utilizes co-op advertising with retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers. To Braunwart, branding is more than simply placing an identifying mark on the girdle of a stone and issuing a certificate. Instead, he uses strict color, clarity and cutting standards. He wants to be able to provide exactly the same product whether the customer is in Maine or Hawaii. Braunwart states, "Our goal is to support the sellers with quality, consistency, and beauty."
Mining and Supply
The original goods were mined in the Naktamunda mine in Orissa in northwest India. According to Braunwart, "Today the new production is in a national preserve in Orissa." From the mine in India, he rejects 50-60% of the production. In cutting they lose another 20-25%. This leaves only 15-30% to be marketed through his alliances.
As the leading market maker of the material, Braunwart buys all the available supply but states, "The bulk of the material is still below a carat." The rough is very large and dirty and it is practically impossible to get large, clean stones. However, he does retain a reasonable supply of 1 1/2 to 2 carat gems.
Columbia Gem House operates almost like a mini-DeBeers for the Grape Garnet market. They bought tremendous amounts of the material when the supply was good. During the last three years, supply has been relatively consistent to meet Columbia Gem House's market demand. However, when they do demand more supplies from their sources, production only goes up by minuscule amounts. When demand outstrips the current supply, they have to dip into their old stocks. Braunwart's goal is to find a medium balance between supply and demand.
Bear and Cara Williams of Bear Essentials of Jefferson City, Missouri agree with the supply problems of the material, "The supply has dried up. I buy the goods off and on and have bought no new supplies above 2 carats lately."
New Brazilian Goods?
The only other source of these goods is the new Tocantins mine in Brazil. According to Bear Williams, "We recently bought a couple of kilos from the mine. The majority of the goods are small and included. Approximately 40-50% of the material is a rhodolite pyrope color and about 50% is a grape color."
The ideal grape color is intense purple red or rich cranberry. What you are looking for is a color combination between a very purple amethyst and a rhodolite garnet. According to Cara Williams, "The color should be similar to a Welch's grape or a Purple Cow." It must have excellent saturation with a medium tone. The goods must be clean. One problem with the species is the larger stones tend to become oversaturated or "black out".
Grape is a combination of almandine and pyrope type garnets. It is unknown why the color is grape. Some speculate these stones have a lower iron content than the reds. The lower iron content may create the unique purplish hue.
According to Braunwart, "The reason the Grape Garnet is so brilliant and bright is the stones have a high refractive index." Grape Garnets are slightly over 7 in hardness. They are hard and durable gemstones that are ideal for jewelry or for collection.
As a general rule, most Grape Garnets are below a carat. The largest fine stone Braunwart has owned was approximately 6 carats. According to Braunwart, "We have had about 250 stones between 3 and 5 carats in the last 10 years. Although the rough is large, if you cut it big the goods are included and overdark. After cutting the material properly, everything today ends up to be small pieces."
Grapes under a carat can be purchased for under $50. Top quality, one to three carat size grapes can range from $75-$125 per carat. Any Grape Garnet above 3.00 is ulta-rare and can command over $150 per carat. According to Bear Williams, "You could ask whatever you wanted if you had a 10 carat grape."
Due to the consistency of color of this product, manufacturers can design jewelry lines with the material. Retailers can offer an attractive and inexpensive alternative to their clients. Collectors may also be attracted to this stone because of its rarity, the fact it is relatively inexpensive, and the color is truly beautiful.
|Queen of Diamonds: The Fabled Legacy of Evalyn Walsh McLean|
by Evalyn Walsh McLean, Boyden Sparkes, Carol Ann Rapp (Epilogue), Joseph Gregory
Providence House Publishers
382 pages, 2000, $29.95
"In the mining game gold is where you happen to find it, and you never know what's under your feet."
When Evalyn was a child she lived with her family in Colorado. Tom Walsh was a builder and hotel owner in the mining boom towns. He was once offered 1/2 ownership in what later became the Homestake properties. The "experts" told him the mine was worthless and he passed on the transaction. Homestake eventually became the basis for the Randolph Hearst fortune. Burned once, Tom Walsh obsessively learned everything he could about mining and geology. He would later become wealthy beyond belief by exploring properties others had simply passed up. When Evalyn was 10, Tom Walsh discovered gold at the Camp Bird Mine. He told her, "Daughter, I have struck it rich."
In 1902, Tom Walsh sold the mine for $5.2 million, after reaping between $2-4 million in profits. He purchased the 2020 mansion in Washington, D.C. along with 23 servants for $835,000. The family traveled extensively throughout Europe and even negotiated mining deals with the King of Belgium.
"After all, it really is an investment."
"It is only when the thing I buy creates a show for those around me that I get my money's worth."
Evalyn Walsh McLean
As a child Evalyn loved to drink creme de menthe. This was probably a precursor to her addiction to morphine and other bad habits. Evalyn became obsessed with diamonds, gemstones, pearls, and jewelry as a child. She extracted a diamond ring from her father by simply changing her hair style. She halted an affair with an Italian prince when her father bought her a new Mercedes. When her brother Vinson was killed in a car accident and Evalyn was bedridden for seven months, the Walshes considered the gold responsible for the tragedy.
Evalyn eventually married Ned McLean, whom she had known since childhood. Ned's parents owned the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Each parent gave them $100,000 as honeymoon gifts. They wound up in Paris "broke". However, before leaving they bought the pear shaped, 92 1/2 carat Star of the East from Cartier. Evalyn convinced Ned her father would pay for the jewel because it was almost Christmas! Since she had no money to pay the customs duty, she smuggled in the rock.
The best part of the book depicts how Pierre Cartier actually sold the Hope diamond to Evalyn for $154,000. She put down $40,000 and agreed to make three annual payments for the balance, minus an emerald and pearl necklace trade-in. At one point, Evalyn decided to return the Hope to Pierre Cartier and they became involved in a lawsuit. When the lawsuit was settled in 1912, she threw a $40,000 dinner party to celebrate. Of course, later she was forced to pawn the Hope for $37,500 during the Depression. Evalyn expounds throughout the book on the supposed bad luck of the Hope.
A great deal of the book records the rich and the famous during this fascinating time in American history. She interacts with the Tafts, the Hardings, and the Coolidges, to name a few. You can also learn about Evalyn's role in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
Highly recommended for gem lovers, historians or those who devour biographies.
You can purchase this book on-line at Amazon.com.
In the November 29 issue he wrote the following regarding colored gemstones:
"I mentioned diamonds and precious gemstones on my web site (November 06), and I asked if subscribers wanted to hear more about diamonds and precious gems. I received many e-mails all asking for more information. So here goes (confession, I've always been a precious gem nut).
In dollar value, the word to remember is r-e-d-s. This signifies rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and sapphires with rubies being the most expensive and sapphires being the least expensive.
There is a catch however. The diamond market is by far the most liquid-any decent diamond can be sold at a price. With colored stones (rubies, emeralds, and sapphires) the market is thinner, and you may have to scratch for a buyer....
Colored gems are more difficult, and prices can vary hugely. Rubies are not appreciated in the US and sapphires are also not appreciated. Most women like emeralds. The best emeralds come from Colombia. Emeralds and diamonds look great at night-rubies and sapphires tend to look darker and less glamorous at night. Colombian emeralds have a clear green look, while African emeralds tend to have a tinge of brown in them.
A ruby is the only truly red stone. Rubies are extremely rare, and great rubies (color, clarity) are extremely rare and expensive.
Country of origin can make a big difference in the price of colored stones. In sapphires, the preferred countries of origin are Kashmir and Burma. In rubies it is Burma, although I've seen many beautiful, bright red Thai rubies. To my mind, a great ruby is the hardest to find, since many are heavily included, and many tend to be darkish rather than "pigeon blood" red. Burmese rubies tend to be "pinkish", but I prefer blood red.
Here again, your best bet in buying a colored stone is to buy one through a reputable dealer, one who is honest and one who loves and appreciates colored stones.
For serious buyers of precious stones, I suggest buying a book on gems. The bookstores have many such books, check them out and pick out one you like."
They bought a .71, G color, SI1 for $5350 from Fortunoff. When it arrived, it was sized a half size too large and the diamond was filthy. The jeweler estimated the stone at $2750-$3000 wholesale. When they called Fortunoff, they stated someone put the wrong price on the diamond on the web site. Ms. Fortunoff said, "We made a mistake. I am sorry."
From Ashford.com they purchased a one carat, G color, VS2 for $5810. However, the jeweler disagreed with the GIA clarity grading and said it was impossible to be a VS2. He speculated the stone might have been damaged when mounted. The jeweler thought the piece was worth between $6000-$6300, but needed recut, reducing its value.
They bought a one carat, G, VS2 diamond from Blue Nile with an International Gemological Institute (IGI) grading report for $6100. The jeweler would not comment on the diamond because it did not have a GIA grading report. Most dealers in the Wall Street Journal article believe the IGI grades easier than the GIA. In the article, the IGI denied that perception.
They purchased a one carat, I color, IF from Mondera for $5070. Although they saw the GIA grading report before they purchased the stone, the jeweler criticized the diamond because the table was "too small". The jeweler also asked why would they buy such a clean stone with low color. The jeweler put the wholesale price of this stone at $5400-$5700.
Finally, they bought a one carat, G, VS2 from Diamond.com. They paid about $6000 and the jeweler estimated the value of the stone at $6400. They were all set to name this company "Best Overall" when they tried to return the stone after the 10 day return privilege had expired. Customer service refused twice to take the diamond back. Only after they stated they were from the Wall Street Journal, did the company president take the stone back.
The Gemstone Forecaster has one important problem with the methodology of this report. Of course, we do not know Peter A. Natale, the Manhattan jeweler utilized by the WSJ to verify the purchases. What we find unusual is that here is a jeweler who believed he was expert enough to disagree with the GIA's grading of Ashford.com's one carat, G color, VS2, but refused to grade Blue Nile's one carat, G, VS2 diamond because it had an IGI grading report. It is even stranger to us because he probably had all the stones together, including two other GIA graded G-VS2's. We find this extremely suspect and it does not make sense.
This "bad press" right before Christmas probably did not help these internet diamond dealers' sales. The Wall Street Journal is a highly respected publication and is read by many leading decision makers in America. What have we learned from this report? Most of the leading internet diamond dealers sell at excellent prices compared to retail jewelers, except Fortunoff. However, it appears these sites need an immediate overhaul of their web design, ordering procedures, and quality control.
Sotheby's Switzerland Hotter
In November, a collection of the late Begum Aga Khan, the fourth and last wife of one of the world's richest men, was sold. The 19 lots fetched $4,559,553. The jewels were sold to raise money to help fight poverty and illiteracy in the third world.
Begum Aga Khan was born Yvette Blanche Labrousse in 1906 and was a former Miss France. Aga Khan III was the grandfather of the present Aga Khan, who is the head of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.
The prize piece was a 51.85 carat, white diamond ring designed by Harry Winston which sold for $2.7 million. A 1960's French diamond necklace, set with 150 marquise and pear-shaped diamonds, along with diamond pendant earclips, brought more than $1 million.
The top lot of the auction was a 32.67 Burma ruby and diamond ring which sold for $3,303,770, or over $100,000 per carat to a private buyer. A 22.54 carat, cushion ruby and diamond ring mounted in platinum sold to a US private buyer for $1,000,820. A demantoid garnet and diamond lotus flower brooch was bought by an Asian private buyer for $216,570. A diamond necklace with a 50.05 carat, fancy intense yellow, pear diamond sold for $1,280,910. An 18.17, round, fancy grey diamond mounted with small intense pink diamonds fetched $415,750 from a private buyer in the US.
Rapaport Diamond Report, November, 2000
A Cooker's Story
"Robert Genis: What is your opinion of the heating and fracture-filling of Mong Hsu Burma ruby?
Ted Themelis: Without proper heat treatment, the natural Mong Hsu rubies are almost worthless. I can safely say that the majority of the rubies sold in the market today are fractured-filled, heat-treated Mong-Hsu rubies. The Mong-Hsu rubies keep the ruby market afloat."
According to Commercial Mineral Co.'s newsletter (December, 2000), orange spessartite garnet is one of the hottest stones in the market. Goods from 1-3 carats are available. Goods between 5-10 carats are scarce and prices have doubled in the last 16 months. Also, the rubellite deposit in Nigeria has dried up. These goods are now rare and prices are quickly escalating.
Tanzanite is mined only in Tanzania's Mererani area, near Mount Kilimanjaro. Miners and Sonje tribesmen clashed for two days in October at northern Tanzania's tanzanite mines. Seven people were killed and 33 injured. It began when the tribesmen seized $31,000 of tanzanite from a mine owned by Peter Lucas as a result of a business dispute. The Sonje provide security to the mines, which amount to little more than holes dug hundreds of feet deep into the ground. Enraged miners fought the Sonje with machetes, knives, and clubs. Police reinforcements eventually restored order. Tensions remain high in the area and mining activities are gradually resuming. In September, nine people were also killed in a dynamite blast in one of the tanzanite mines.
A joint venture was recently formed between Kabal of Ireland and the Russian Ural Emerald Mines Co. The project is the Malyshevo facility in the Ural Mountains. It is supposed to be one of the world's largest emerald mines. Approximately US$4 million has been invested into the project, and the joint venture hopes to be profitable by the year 2003.
The first task is to upgrade the facilities, which had seriously deteriorated since legal problems and a lack of money forced the 1995 closing of the mine, which was privatized in 1993. At one time, the mine produced 700 kilograms of emeralds a year. They have 280,000 tons of ore on the surface, which should yield about 420 kilograms of emerald crystals.
The plan is to sell the gems in Russia and abroad, and to compete against emerald industries in Colombia, Brazil and Africa. Russian officials say the Urals emerald, in particular, is widely appreciated for its quality. However, analysts explained that trading in precious gems in Russia can be a complicated process. All gems must first be offered to the Central Bank state vault. After that, the goods can be sold domestically or exported to international markets.
Among the real rocks housed there is the spectacular, 203 carat, De Beers Millennium Star, the world's third-largest diamond. The collection also features 11 large diamonds of a distinctive vivid blue.
The world's largest gem theft was carried out in August, 1994 by three men who stole items valued at $43 million from a jewelry shop in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France. The world's biggest bank robbery was staged by guerrillas who blasted the vaults of the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut in 1976, taking valuables worth $31.4 million.
Australian Cat Burglar
A British burglar on the run from Australian police for eight years has confessed to a string of crimes that netted him $2 million from the rich and famous. Daryl Harris claims he is Sydney's North Shore Cat Burglar who committed daring gem thefts in Melbourne. His exploits made headlines in 1991 and 1992. A Sydney detective who has followed the case since the start has confirmed his story. According to an Australian newspaper he stated, "I got away with millions. I made an absolute mockery of the system in Australia. Plain and simple - I was the best there was." His reputation became legendary. Families even claimed he was so adept he could steal from their bedrooms while they ate dinner below. Mr. Harris puts the number of burglaries he committed as high as 50. In an unusual turn of events, Mr. Harris has offered to come back to Australia, plead guilty and serve his time, but only if he is allowed to settle in England afterwards. Mr. Harris claims he is a changed man for the sake of his teenage children and wants to clear his conscience. He also revealed he was planning to write a book about his exploits. He stated his Australian girlfriend robbed him of everything, leaving him penniless.
Internet Credit Card Scam Update
The 18, #2 Gemstone Forecaster reported about a scheme to buy more than $730,000 of diamonds and Rolex watches using credit-card numbers and bank account information stolen from prominent executives.
Recently, James Rinaldo Jackson of Tennessee, 39, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to 29 counts of conspiracy, credit-card fraud and bank fraud. Jackson said he used the stolen information to buy diamonds and Rolex watches he found on jewelry dealers' Web sites. Jackson said he was able to find personal information about his victims by researching "Who's Who In America" and by using the internet. He faces up to 30 years in jail and a $1 million fine on the charges when he is sentenced on January 16, 2001. The government's case against a second man, Derek Cunningham, is pending.
Over-The-Hill Gang Indicted
A recent federal indictment named a retired Chicago police detective, allegedly the ringleader, and five other men who are accused of stealing nearly $5 million in jewelry nationwide during a 10-year period. The retired detective is William A. Hanhardt, 71, of suburban Chicago. Hanhardt retired from the Chicago Police Department in 1986 after a 33-year career. The men were charged with conspiracy to steal and transport stolen jewelry, gems and watches across state lines. Each could face up to 20 years in prison. Also indicted were three men from the Chicago area, Joseph N. Basinski, 55, Guy Altobello, 69, and Sam DeStefano, 46, as well as Paul J. Schiro, 63, of Scottsdale, Arizona, and William R. Brown, 74, of Gilbert, Arizona.
A treasure-trove of evidence was handed to investigators by Karen DeStefano, the wife of Sam DeStefano, who is seeking a divorce. She gave investigators surveillance equipment and driver's licenses that bore her husband's photo and other men's names. Interestingly, one of the IDs listed the name and Social Security number of Mike Tyson assistant Darryl Francis. Francis stated he did not know how his personal information wound up on an Illinois ID. Mrs. DeStefano also turned in diamonds and jewelry that were hidden under her name in a safe-deposit box. She is cooperating with the government and is in protective custody. Sam DeStefano's uncle was the late mob killer, "Mad" Sam DeStefano.
Joseph N. Basinski, another gang member, was recently placed under house arrest for allegedly punching his mistress in the parking lot of a local restaurant/bar. In a second incident, he was charged by prosecutors for harassing two women at the same restaurant. One of the women he allegedly harassed was an off-duty Chicago cop he groped. He was also ejected from the restaurant after calling the waitress a nasty name because she was slow to bring the appetizers. Joseph Basinski was allowed to remain free under home confinement with an electronic monitoring bracelet attached to his leg. Basinski has never had a paying job and has used various Social Security numbers and aliases.
According to the FBI, members of the gang attended jewelry trade shows and targeted traveling salesmen. The group kept an array of tools to pick locks and duplicate keys to vehicles and rooms. They also wore disguises, such as fake facial hair. The detective is accused of using police equipment and resources to gather information about the salesmen, including personal and financial information.
The gang's largest heist occurred in Columbus during the 1994 Mid-American Jewelry Show, held in August at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. More than 500 loose and mounted diamonds were stolen from safe-deposit boxes at the Hyatt Regency. Other jewelry thefts associated with the gang occurred in 1984 in Glendale, Wisconsin, in 1986 in Monterey, California, in 1989 in Englewood, Ohio, in 1992 in Dallas, Texas, in 1993 in Flat Rock, Michigan, in 1993 in Mankato, Minnesota, and in 1994 in Phoenix, Arizona. The gang also is blamed for attempted thefts in 1996 in Chesterton, Indiana, and in 1994 at a hotel in Los Angeles.
A former Namdeb (Namibia De Beers) Diamond Corporation employee, Gert Johannes Feris, was convicted of stealing 51 diamonds worth $2.5 million on September 16, 1999. Feris swallowed 70.30 carats of diamonds at the diamond mining town of Oranjemund. Feris admitted he had intended to sell the stones for his personal use. He also confirmed to the court that the stolen gemstones were found inside his stomach. He admitted swallowing the rocks in an attempt to pass an X-ray checkpoint at the mine's Personnel Control Center.
Brazilian bombshell, Gisele Bundchen, posed for Victoria's Secret's Christmas catalog wearing a $15 million bra and matching string-bikini panties. The jewel-encrusted lingerie displayed 300 Thai rubies and 1000 white diamonds. Extra is the Diamond Body Bracelet (50 inches long), set in 14K gold with seventy-six 2 carat round and pear shaped diamonds for $3.7 million. In early December, Gisele Bundchen braved the freezing cold in the diamond-and-ruby bra outside Victoria's new store at 67th Street and Broadway in New York. Gisele is the highest-paid model in the world.
World's Largest Yellow Diamond
London jeweler, Laurence Graff, recently sold a 132.43 carat, fancy vivid yellow, cushion cut diamond. The diamond, named Sarah, was graded by the Gemological Institute of America. An anonymous private collector outside of the United States purchased the rock. It is rumored to have sold for $15 million. The original rough weighed 218 carats. The rough was given to Belgian cutter Jean Chandisias, who spent 12 hours a day for five months fashioning the stone. Chandisias obtained a 70 percent yield and also managed to get a second, 20 carat, fancy vivid yellow from the rough. The same collector also bought the smaller stone.
Top Internet Scams
According to the FTC, the number one internet fraud committed is auction fraud. Consumers say they've received an item that is less valuable than promised, or don't receive the item at all.
How Rare are Mogok Burma Goods?
According to the Mining Journal, London, June 16, 2000, annual worldwide diamond production is over 111 million carats. In a report in Geology Today, November, 1999, the 1000 mines in the Mogok tract produce 100,000 carats of ruby and 300,000 carats of sapphires yearly.
Therefore, for every one carat of Mogok, Burma ruby mined, 1,110 carats of diamonds are mined. For every carat of Burma Mogok sapphire mined, there are 370 carats of diamonds. Another way to think about this is the Mogok ruby production is less than 1/10 of 1% of the diamond production and sapphire production is less than 3/10 of 1%. Based upon rarity, these goods are genuinely underpriced.
The "Big Big" is a large sapphire stone that can fetch up to $2,700, or the equivalent of 10 years of work for the average Malagasy, whose per capita annual income is $260.
Although there are no official figures, observers say hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from the gem trade changes hands every day in the town. With that kind of money to be made in one of the world's poorest nations, 100,000 fortune hunters gripped with "blue fever" have migrated to this once remote southern village since the first sapphire was discovered two years ago.
At that time, Ilakaka was a cattle-herding hamlet of just 30 inhabitants. Now it is an African version of a Klondike gold rush town with 20,000 huts, nightclubs, brothels and gamblers. And more people keep coming.
On most days, overcrowded buses on National Route 7, one of Madagascar's few paved highways, bring newcomers who arrive with all their worldly possessions piled high atop the bus. The pavement ends at the bus station, which is also the best place to buy overpriced mining equipment, rum, clothes, and sporting goods with the Chicago Bulls logo.
At the mines, bare-chested diggers work from dawn to dusk in human chains, passing dirt in 33-pound bags from the bottom of the pit to the surface, where it is panned for gems. Children, most of whom have dropped out of school, help their parents sift through red clay looking for the precious stones.
Augustin -- most Malagasy are known by their first name -- was a retired Lutheran pastor before coming to Ilakaka. The 64-year-old former clergyman uprooted his family of eight from the nearby coastal town of Tulear to help him look for sapphires. "It is for their future," he said. Augustin is a patron, or boss, who employs three or four younger men to dig.
Fano is another patron, whose employees dig without ropes or any other safety equipment. In 1999, 216 men died from mining accidents, the majority from cave-ins and falls, according to local miners. Fano boasts that his crew once found 300 grams of gems -- worth $50 to $200 a gram depending on quality -- in a single day.
But for every get-rich-quick story, there are dozens of tales of failure. Rene Fernand is the president of a fokontany, or village assembly. He has yet to find anything other than the tiniest of stones. Most men wind up digging for $2 a day plus food and sodas if the boss is "generous". With any luck, they can become a patron or a middleman, taking a cut for deals between the miners and the buyers. The diggers are largely Malagasy who typically sell gems below market value to Asian and European buyers.
The real winners are the foreigners -- Thais, Sri Lankans, French, Swiss, even some Americans. Some are gem company buyers with plenty of cash; others are gem cutters or owners of bulldozers and hauling trucks. Some fly in by private plane several times a week to buy sapphires, communicating with their firms by satellite phone. A stroll through Ilakaka's "Big Boss" neighborhoods shows a two-tier economy: This is where most foreigners live, buy and sell sapphires behind enclosed brick compounds protected by security guards.
Those with sapphire gems often look for Malagasy women who stroll the main drag or frequent bars and restaurants in platform heels and gold jewelry. At the Mahahera nightclub, which is little more than a fenced-in dirt circle with a generator that runs a sound system, the party goes on until the town lights are shut off at 10 p.m. Afterward, it often continues at one of Ilakaka's two hotels or behind the walls of a trader's compound.
In contrast, most miners live in thatched huts crammed together on paved streets, with no sanitation or running water. At Bepeha, a village that has the look of a refugee camp, 5,000 residents live in triangular homes no more than three feet high, six feet across and 10 feet long. They use the nearby Ilakaka River, which gave the town its name, for drinking water, washing clothes and bathing. It is a "cholera epidemic waiting to happen," according to a recent guidebook.
At a time when the government is battling a nationwide cholera outbreak, only the charity group Catholic Relief Services has stepped in to stop the spread of the disease in Ilakaka. More than 1,200 people have died from cholera in Madagascar since the first outbreak past year. "The most difficult thing has been changing the mentality (of many Malagasy about hygiene)," said one CRS worker.
More locals have died from gunbattles over gems and money than from contaminated water. In a page out of the Wild West, men saunter down the streets with guns at their hips. In the last year, at least 15 locals have been killed, and many miners bury their gems in their huts to protect them from robbers. Poorly paid police officers would rather dig for sapphires than restore law and order.
The violence has also spilled into Isalo National Park, which begins at the edge of town. When park guards tried to stop some 1,000 prospectors from breaking through a fence last year, they were forced to retreat from a hail of rocks. Within hours, the miners had claimed more than 50 acres of land in a park known for its Arizona-like sandstone canyons, natural pools, rare plant species and a population of ring-tailed lemurs. The miners were eventually evicted by authorities, but environmentalists are angry that concessions have been granted to mining companies in a six-mile stretch of protected land around the park.
Meanwhile, some Ilakaka residents who left their poverty stricken origins in hopes of striking it rich are returning. Rollande Rosie Razananirina, a young mother who wears the traditional sarong called a lamboana, left her job as a radio journalist six months ago to run a shack bar. Her mother had urged her to seek her fortune despite the area's reputation for violence, disease and empty dreams. Razananirina says she will soon return to her native city of Fort Dauphin so her young son can start school. Her husband, however, will keep mining.
"So far, we have only found the smallest sapphires," she said. "We are waiting for the Big Big.""
For comments, questions or price quotes E-mail NGC, Attn: R. Genis
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