Emer­ald city: new Muzo gems.

Be­hind the launch of a new brand of emer­alds this week is a min­ing in­dus­try that’s work­ing to clean up its act

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - FRANCESCA FEARON

Sheer de­lights on the cat­walk.

The pre­cious gems that adorn our necks, fin­gers and ear­lobes are a gift of na­ture. A beau­ti­ful di­a­mond ring of ex­cep­tional clar­ity, a rav­ish­ing neck­lace of vel­vety green emer­alds: th­ese were orig­i­nally formed deep within the earth’s crust mil­lions of years be­fore jewellers set to work imag­in­ing new ways to show off their magnetic ap­peal.

Ex­tract­ing th­ese valu­able stones from the earth, how­ever, is not with­out its prob­lems, and can tar­nish the story of the gem from earth to wrist.

Colom­bian stones in par­tic­u­lar have earned an dirty rep­u­ta­tion, thanks to the in­volve­ment of drug car­tels in the trade in the 1990s. Yet Colom­bian emer­alds are as fa­mous as Burmese ru­bies, and that has at­tracted out­side in­vest­ment — along with a new sense of cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity. And so it is that this week at Basel­world, the lead­ing watch and jew­ellery fair in Switzer­land, a new brand of the finest cut and pol­ished emer­alds is be­ing launched.

The qual­ity of th­ese stones, which go by the name Muzo Emer­ald, is de­fined by their colour and trans­parency, whether they are four or 40 carats. Some­times large stones emerge, such as the 2350-carat rough that was un­earthed last De­cem­ber.

The Muzo mine, in the steamy An­dean jun­gle 100km north of Bo­gota, has been pro­duc­ing emer­alds of a lush, ver­dant rich­ness for 1000 years. In­dige­nous tribes­men were min­ing emer­alds long be­fore Christo­pher Colum­bus ar­rived in the Amer­i­cas. When the Span­ish Con­quis­ta­dors in­vaded in the 16th cen­tury, they be­gan trad­ing th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary gems with Mughal em­per­ors in In­dia.

From the 1960s to 90s the emer­ald trade was lawless, with drug car­tels muscling in and moun­tains bull­dozed to ex­tract the gems.

But now Colom­bia is get­ting its house in or­der. Vic­tor Car­ranza, the “emer­ald tsar”, the gun-tot­ing peas­ant turned bil­lion­aire who owned Muzo dur­ing the height of the so-called Emer­ald Wars, re­alised that the prim­i­tive in­dus­try needed in­vest­ment to sur­vive. He found in­vestors in the US, and Mine­ria Texas Colom­bia was formed.

MTC took full con­trol of the mine in 2014, re-

vamped the feu­dal sys­tem by pay­ing the min­ers, mod­ernised the mine, cleaned up the en­vi­ron­ment, planted teak trees (for­tu­nately veg­e­ta­tion grows quickly in the jun­gle) and es­tab­lished a spe­cial­ist cen­tre in Bo­gota for the cut­ting and pol­ish­ing of the top 10 to 15 per cent of the emer­alds to emerge from the mine.

It is th­ese that are branded Muzo Emer­ald, with each gem­stone tracked and doc­u­mented from ori­gin to cus­tomer, with a view to them even­tu­ally end­ing up in the col­lec­tions of Chopard, Cartier and other pres­ti­gious jew­ellery brands.

“We in­her­ited a mo­mand-pop style op­er­a­tion so we’ve cre­ated a more for­mal or­gan­i­sa­tion,” says El­iz­a­beth Robin­son of the Muzo Emer­ald ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee. “We are very con­sci­en­tious about giv­ing back to the en­vi­ron­ment and are re­spect­ful of the coun­try in which th­ese stones have been cre­ated.

“Muzo has the most beau­ti­ful emer­alds in the world and we are us­ing the best min­ing pro­cesses to pro­tect the qual­ity of the stones.”

Signs of change are emerg­ing in the di­a­mond in­dus­try, too. Rio Tinto is work­ing closely with com­mu­ni­ties around its mines, such Di­avik on the edge of the Cana­dian Arc­tic, to en­sure that once the gem sup­ply has been ex­hausted, a mine is re­turned to na­ture.

Di­a­monds were dis­cov­ered deep be­neath the lake in north­ern Canada in 1991, spark­ing the largest min­eral prospect­ing rush in Cana­dian his­tory. Last De­cem­ber Rio Tinto, which opened the Di­avik pit op­er­a­tions in 2003 and has since pro­duced more than 90 mil­lion carats of di­a­monds, re­vealed its big­gest find: the 187.7-carat Fox­fire di­a­mond.

Jean-Marc Lieber­herr, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Rio Tinto Di­a­monds, says the com­pany has learned a lot from its ex­pe­ri­ence with the Ar­gyle mine in Western Aus­tralia, “al­though the en­vi­ron­ment is a lot more sen­si­tive in Canada”. The com­pany has worked closely with the govern­ment and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties that fish the lake for food and hunt the cari­bou that mi­grate along this route.

The fact that the di­a­mond pipe (the kim­ber­lite rock for­ma­tion in which di­a­monds are formed in the earth’s core) is below a lake meant Rio Tinto had to build a dyke around the pit to hold back the wa­ter; when the last pure, icy white di­a­mond has been ex­tracted the dyke will be re­moved and the lake will slowly be al­lowed to cover the pit.

Within a short time no one will know a mine had ever been there. “One of our ob­jec­tives is to raise the level at which ev­ery­one op­er­ates,” says Lieber­herr, al­though he is frus­trated that min­ing com­pa­nies don’t get any credit for re­spect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing and reveg­e­tat­ing it and work­ing with the com­mu­ni­ties.

It is a strat­egy that has worked very well for Gem­fields, the Lon­don-listed min­ing com­pany that is un­earthing emer­alds in Zam­bia, ru­bies in Mozam­bique and has re­cently in­vested in the Coscues emer­ald mine in Colom­bia.

Gem­fields ad­heres to eth­i­cal min­ing prac­tices and re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards the en­vi­ron­ment and com­mu­ni­ties around its mines.

It is hard to imag­ine when look­ing in the win­dows of Bul­gari or Cartier that th­ese beau­ti­ful gems emerge from the earth in a filthy, rough state and that it is the skills of the cut­ters, pol­ish­ers and jewellers that trans­form them.

When we put on the ring or neck­lace we might not care where th­ese pre­cious jew­els come from — but it is good to know that they are sourced re­spon­si­bly.

Fabergé De­vo­tion Emer­ald us­ing a 9.07carat cabo­chon Zam­bian emer­ald from Gem­fields


Colom­bian emer­ald pen­dant in Bul­gari’s Giardini Ital­iani col­lec­tion, main pic­ture; the re­cently dis­cov­ered 187.7carat Fox­fire di­a­mond, top; a re­cently dis­cov­ered 2350-carat emer­ald rough from the Muzo mine in Colom­bia, above; Faberge Quadrille emer­ald...

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