Nyala Ruby & Sapphire

Chimwadzulu Hill in Malawi, you can see the sunrise over the Great Rift Valley, the seam in the earth's skin that stretches almost 5000 kilometers north of here to end in the Dead Sea and the Jordan River valley in Syria. In a few million years, this hill will be on Africa's eastern coast, as the eastern side of the rift moves off to create a great island in the Indian Ocean.

The Great Rift Valley, mankind's cradle, is also the birthplace of an amazing number of gemstones, colorful crystals of minerals brought to the earth's surface through the grinding of the two continental plates that meet here.

This hill is no exception. Under the iron-rich red dirt of Chimwadzulu lies the ultimate red gemstone: ruby of exceptional quality. Before dawn lights the rift, the blackness of the sky and the green earth, and the precious rubies it holds bring to mind the tri-color flag of Malawi. Dawn and dusk come suddenly this close to the equator. Electric lights are rare and the stars seem close enough to touch.

This place, in the southern hills of this long and skinny country about the size of Pennsylvania, seems as though it is at the end of the earth, not just at the end of the Great Rift. Malawi is one of the poorest and least developed places in the world. Although this limits employment opportunities for its people, this also means life here has a timeless quality. Most people grow or catch their own food.

Rubies were discovered here decades ago. A Malawi Ministry of Natural Resources Report mentions a deposit of sapphire, which like ruby is the mineral corundum, as far back as 1958, when Malawi was still a British colony.

But efforts to mine the deposit commercially were unsuccessful and the mine lay abandoned from the 1960s until 1986. Several later ventures failed. Unlike more common water-washed alluvial deposits, which concentrate the gems into channels of river of sea sediment, the corundum deposit here is eluvial: the remains of a collapsed dome of earth on top of this hill, which scattered the heavy minerals in an unpredictable way.

And the location, at the top of a hill in this forgotten world, without roads, water, or electricity, made mechanized mining difficult to imagine. The severe beauty of this place also needed careful protection.

David and Kathy Hargreaves came here eight years ago from the United Kingdom, founding a Malawian company called Minex in 1994, to try once more to coax gems from this isolated earth. There are no gemstone mines in Malawi but they thought that this deposit might be something special.

At the beginning, it was a struggle. The deposit can only be mined from April to October during the dry season. The area is often steep and it is difficult to use heavy equipment like the Kubota extractor that carefully removes a layer of soil, revealing the layer of corundum below. And because the mineral deposits are sporadic, the only way to prospect is to dig holes, trenches, and pits to look for concentrations of ruby and sapphire and to better map the deposit. In fact, here at Chimwadzulu, Minex has dug 2000 test holes, one every 5 to 10 meters, each one 3 to 4 meters deep.

Initially, Minex was in search of sapphire but after a few years, Minex discovered ruby here ranging from pink to red to orange to the rare pinkish orange known as padparadscha sapphire. And incredibly, unlike almost all ruby and padparadscha sapphire from every other deposit in the world, its color was completely natural, requiring no heat enhancement to make it beautiful. It also did not contain rutile inclusions, which fog the clarity of rubies from other deposits, allowing it to sparkle with brilliance.

It is only the discovery of these rare brilliant and natural rubies, even though they are only one-third of the gems found here, that has made this mine possible.

The idea to market Chimwadzulu's rubies as all-natural gems came from Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Washington in the United States. Braunwart developed the world's first collection of gemstone jewelry with guaranteed origin, the Gemstones of America collection in 1990. Gemstones of America featured Montana sapphire, Oregon opal, Arizona peridot and other gems in styles designed and manufactured in America.

Gemstone mines generally sell what they find to dealers in rough gemstones that mix parcels and sell to cutting factories, who sort material by size, color, and shape, but the origin of each gemstone is lost forever. The cut gems are later sold to manufacturers who sell to retailers. If you want to know where a gem is mined, you take it to a laboratory. Tests for inclusions and trace elements can sometimes indicate the origin of the gem.

Braunwart, who has exclusive contracts direct with miners, his own cutting facilities in the US and China, and a jewelry design and manufacturing workshop in the United States, was uniquely positioned to track each rough gem from the mine until it reached the jeweler's showcase.

“This tight control of the supply chain is the only way to ensure that no treatment of any kind has been done to the gemstones. The control also guarantees the origin of the stones, allowing us to bring the unique history and beauty of the land and its people to the consumer as part of the beauty of the gemstone,” Braunwart says.

He created a market for American gems and, with the control systems in place, later expanded the concept to certify many of the gems he sells as Fair Trade Gems: gemstones mined, cut and set in facilities which respect both the environment and the workers who create the gems and jewelry.

Braunwart reasoned that consumers would appreciate all-natural rubies from Malawi more if they understood where they came from, the people who produced them, and why they are rare. Collectors who buy the world's finest ruby at auction have long awarded a huge premium to gems that could be certified as all-natural, thanks to their rarity.

He decided that, given a chance, buyers of engagement rings and birthday earrings, and anniversary necklaces would feel the same way, preferring rubies from Malawi to those of other countries thanks to their all-natural guarantee. He agreed to take responsibility for world-wide distribution of the Malawi gems, guaranteeing the mine's survival.

To gain recognition for the special characteristics of these rare all-natural gems, he named them Nyala™ Ruby and sapphire, after the rare antelope in Malawi that lives in a game reserve not far from the mine.

To help distinguish the new gems, he decided that all Nyala™ rubies would be exceptionally well cut. This is rare for ruby and sapphire, which are so valuable that many producers sacrifice brilliance for weight. Nyala™ Ruby and Sapphire are available in a variety of shapes including brilliant and Portuguese rounds, emerald cuts, ovals, cushions, and trillions. Also, since Nyala rubies and sapphires are mined and cut with high environmental and labor protection, the gems can be included in the pioneering Columbia Gem House Fair Trade Gems program.

The first collection of Nyala™ ruby and sapphire jewelry and loose gems was launched to retailers in the United States in February 2004.

Jewelers were impressed. “It's nice to have a ruby that's completely untreated that you can once again talk about as a thing of natural beauty,' says Ron Arends, Sr of Aires Jewelers in Morris Plains, New Jersey, who bought five beautiful examples of the ruby for his store, including one spectacular gem above a carat in size.

His customers are lucky: very few people in the world will ever see an all-natural ruby above one carat. Amazingly, Nyala™ rubies are available up to seven carats in size. Rough that produces natural rubies above three carats in size is discovered about once a month at the mine.

Today, 70 people work at Chimwadzulu Hill, making it the largest operation of its kind in Malawi. The mine now produces about 1 kilogram of gem-quality rough gemstones a month. Income from work at the mine supports 400 people. The company has built a 450-pupil elementary school in the area near the mine to support the education of children in the region.

Thanks to the success of the launch of Nyala™ ruby, Hargreaves, services manager Tom Nijikho, production manager John Banda, geologist Matteus Mwalija, and plant operator Matthew Masunda are now installing a new separating plant that should increase production to 5 kilograms a month, including two kilos of red to pink ruby. That will allow the mine to produce a far greater number of cut gems above a carat each year.

The largest ruby ever found here was 15 carats, a size ruby which few museums even display. Miners keep their eyes peeled for another record-breaking gem.

Of course, production of Nyala™ ruby is dwarfed by big mines elsewhere. Thousands of kilos of Burma ruby is mined every year but only a very very small fraction is of a quality that can be cut and sold without extensive treatments and enhancements.

The government also hopes that the beauty of Malawi ruby may introduce people from other countries to the beauty of Malawi itself, which has unspoiled beaches, mountains, and national parks that might someday attract tourists from around the world.

As more and more consumers support sustainable development in the third world, gems that can be traced directly back to the place they came from are more and more in demand.

Of course ruby, gem of passion, has been desired for thousands of years. It has long been more valuable and rare in large size than diamonds.

Some large Nyala™ rubies of more than three carats sell for significantly more than $20,000 per carat. Of course, most of the rubies found in Malawi are smaller and more modest in price. In fact, you can find a half-carat Nyala™ ruby for under $500. Knowing that your rare, all-natural ruby contributes to the future of Malawi?