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Colored Gemstones – on the treasure trail

We accompany Kim-Eva Wempe on her search for coloured gemstones in Brazil.

residential landscape of Brazil
Evening views: The town of Ouro Preto owes its wealth to the gemstone mines. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Just for a moment, the gemstones slip from Kim-Eva Wempe’s mind. “Do we have enough water?” she asks the others, as Nezio, the driver, inspects the burst tyre of the Jeep and mutters something in Portuguese under his breath. It doesn’t look good. And to make matters worse, a group of urubus, the local red-headed vultures, are hovering close by.

There’d be no problem if Kim-Eva and her team weren’t stranded in the middle of nowhere, along one of the dusty red roads that weave through southeast Brazil. The sun is scorching and there’s no settlement for miles around — the nearest provincial town is 150 kilometres away. It’s the second day of a strenuous, unusual trip organized by Hellmut Wempe, who has been an enthusiast of coloured gemstones for many years. He’s invited his daughter and some close colleagues here to the heart of Brazil, the origin of many of these stones. But it’s not until their journey is over that they will notice the fitting name of their off-road vehicle: the Jeep Adventure.

This is a trip that came about not out of necessity, but out of passion. Kim-Eva and her group are travelling through Brazil for a week, searching for stones with a truly special feel to them. They stop at mines and visit gemstone dealers, but above all they want to see the sources of the beryls, tourmalines, topazes and aquamarines that will one day be painstakingly cut and polished, change hands at trade shows, and ultimately cause jewellery designers to puzzle over how best to preserve their breathtaking beauty. When the Jeep breaks down on the dusty road, they start to realize just how far a stone has to travel before it finally ends up adorning a ring on the finger of a satisfied customer.

When it comes to producing gemstones in every colour of the rainbow, Brazil is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Back in ancient times, most precious stones came from the Orient. Today around 90 per cent of the world’s gemstones come from Brazil. Only diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires used to be regarded as precious stones, while all other kinds were regarded as second-rate or of minor value. This is what gave rise to the term “semi-precious,” which has long since fallen out of favour among lovers of the shimmering, gleaming stones. The first emerald wasn’t found in Brazil until 1963, although topazes and tourmalines have been mined in the country for more than 300 years.

Some of the world’s most coveted colour variations are among these precious Brazilian treasures, including imperial topaz, a stone that sparkles like fine sherry in a glass, and the light blue or green Paraiba tourmaline, one of the rarest gemstones in the world. 
Kim-Eva Wempe checks gemstone
All-seeing eye: Kim-Eva Wempe inspects a faceted imperial topaz.

On the first day of the trip, the group sets out for Téofilo Otoni, one of the centres of the Brazilian gemstone trade. But Brazil is a vast country, with huge distances to cover if you want to visit three mines within a short time. “Three of us were sitting on the back seat of the Jeep,” recalls Head Buyer Anja Heiden, who has been with Wempe for 23 years. “We swapped around every day so we wouldn’t all be hurting in the same places!” The drive takes them along dusty roads right through the state of Minas Gerais, a name that still resonates with associations of the past. It translates as “General Mines,” and the towns and cities here have names like Turmalina, Diamantina, Carbonita, Topázio, Berilo and Cristália. Gold was mined here first, back in the 17th century. Then came the discovery of gemstones — and these were fabulous indeed. The so-called Braganza diamond was shipped from Brazil to Portugal in 1740, but it wasn’t until later that this supposed diamond of 1,680 carats was actually identified as atopaz — a crown jewel of incredible transparency.

Teófilo Otoni is an unexciting provincial town that calls itself the “world capital of precious stones.” The stones mined in the region are taken to Teófilo to be sold; around 2,000 dealers and cutters live here. In fact, it’s not uncommon for sellers to unfold their paper envelopes in the street and show the glittering stones to potential customers. It seems to be a good idea to take a look around the town and visit a few mines. After all, Kim-Eva and the rest of her team share a passion for treasure-hunting — and for the dream of discovering that one special stone tucked away at the bottom of a dealer’s briefcase. Each stone is carefully turned and viewed from every angle. Whenever one is set aside as not good enough, there’s still a feeling of apprehension, or, as Kim-Eva puts it, “a touch of fever,” in case something’s been overlooked.

“You always remember spectacular stones,” she says. Her own passion for coloured gemstones is clearly evident in her collection of jewellery. “In recent years we’ve been using more and more unique pieces,” explains Anja. “For a long time, the attitude was that diamonds would go with anything. But now, coloured gemstones are becoming more important to our customers because they’re more individual.” The problem is that you can’t always tell the potential of a raw stone just by looking at it — even after years of experience. That’s why the group goes to see a specialist dealer. His office resembles a natural history museum, with fragments of stone and dark bedrock scattered all over. But lying on the table is an aquamarine crystal that makes Kim-Eva and the others rub their eyes in astonishment. “Twelve kilos!” exclaims Anja. “I’ve never seen a block like that before in my life.” It’s not until the cutting stage, however, that the stone will reveal itself to be a beryl or an aquamarine. A raw gemstone is always a mystery.

Colored gemstones on a table
man, mule

Two days later, the team stops in a town called Governador Valadares. It’s another long drive, and to Anja it feels “like a journey of a thousand kilometres.” This time they’re on their way to the Lavra do Morrão mine, where tourmalines and aquamarines are broken from the rock. Time seems to have stood still here. As the team stops in front of the imposing hill with its many narrow passageways, a garimpeiro, or gemstone prospector, approaches, riding a mule. The men here work for themselves, with pickaxes and their bare hands, like their adventurous ancestors in past centuries. “Just like it used to be,” remarks Anja, following the others into the mine. It’s hot and sticky inside, and the oil lamps smell terrible. “The differences between these mines and the professional ones are enormous,” Anja adds. One of the latter is Rochas Minerais, an emerald mine a few hundred kilometres away that the group will visit later on. Sophisticated equipment is used there, and all of the miners wear red helmets. Its owner, Antonio, has even poached the geologist from the neighbouring mine — with successful results. Inside, the black rock is studded all over with the glistening green of emeralds.

The Wempe team buys a stone from Antonio, even though making a purchase without first having the stone checked with the help of a gemological tool always harbours a risk. Is the gemstone worth its price? Trust and risk are ongoing topics of conversation in Minas Gerais. As well as the emerald, Kim-Eva and the others decide to buy some imperial topazes from a neighbouring mine, unique stones of more than ten carats — the largest you’ll find anywhere. Negotiations take place outside over steaming bowls of chicken soup and bean stew. And when it’s time for the group to leave, a horse trots along beside the car. In general, mines aren’t ideal places for purchasing gemstones because the prices are usually set only when a stone’s potential is revealed. The value of a diamond depends on how colourless it is, whereas the opposite is true for coloured gemstones: the greater the colour intensity, the more valuable the stone. And it’s nature that dictates the price, because some shades are more common than others. After the discovery of the sought-after Paraiba tourmaline, the mine where it was found was quickly exhausted, so the prices of its stones rocketed. 

It’s the brilliance of coloured gemstones, which come in every imaginable shade, that fascinates most people. Kim-Eva Wempe has been looking for a petroleum-blue stone, a tourmaline, for many years — but her lack of success hasn’t discouraged her. “What I love about tourmalines is that you find them in every colour,” she says. And choosing a particular stone, she explains, expresses something about your personality: “Some stones you just have to have.” It’s agreed that you can’t go wrong with diamonds; they have fixed stock exchange prices, which can be an even more persuasive argument than an individual preference. That’s why when men buy jewellery for women, they often go for the safe option and choose diamonds. Jewellery with coloured gemstones, on the other hand, is usually bought by women. “But of course you have to know what suits you, too,” says Kim-Eva.

On their last day in Brazil, the people from Wempe are at a hotel in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. In the afternoon there’s a knock at Kim-Eva’s door: two men with suitcases full of gemstones are standing there. The dealer’s name is Marco Aurélio Nascimento, and it seems that he doesn’t have much to offer today. Everyone takes a cursory look at the contents, but the topazes are too small, and the other stones are lacking that special something. They go through the entire suitcase, “worried that we might miss something after all,” explains Kim-Eva. Suddenly she stops short. “I don’t believe it,” she whispers. In her hands she’s holding a tourmaline in a magnificent colour she has never seen before. She holds it up to the light — and the stone shimmers in the deepest petroleum blue. 


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