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In the Muzo Emerald Mines: Getting Down and Dirty

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

Take a tour with Yvonne of the emerald mines of Muzo, Colombia!

It’s interesting to see that the gem trade works the same all over the world.  If you go to a remote area even just once and spend money on gems, you will be recognized and celebrated upon your return. Repeat business is an entirely different ballgame compared to a one-off.  It is valued much more highly, not just by sellers like me, but by gem sellers all over the world.  Repeat business implies trust, love for the product, and it is more secure, for both sides.

 Muzo, Colombia

Muzo, Colombia

And that is just what happened once we reached Muzo, Colombia, and sat down in the local marketplace, in the same spot where Jochen had visited in November 2018.  In fact, his height and beard was recognized before we even crossed the road!  Several of the locals, strolling around with loupes around their neck, chatting with one another, came up to him right away and called him by his (local) name, “Joaquin.”  Before we could even order lunch, we were surrounded, cell phones going off and more and more sellers arriving by the hour to show us their most recent finds.

Jochen and his Buddy Buying Emeralds in Muzo

By my estimate, the gem trade in Colombia consists of about 90% men & 10% women  (excluding sales personnel in shops), ranging from their late teens to their 60s or 70s.  During the week they mostly work, either in the mines, or they cut gems, and on weekends they gather in the marketplace to wait for the buyers from Bogota, trade among each other, or to offer gems on commission to the larger gem brokers. Our day of arrival was a Tuesday, so it was a little more quiet by comparison, but as we were told, foreigners come to this region only once in a blue moon, so we probably brought some of their regular business to a dead halt.  Selling comes first!

 

Emerald Sellers Surrounding Us

Initially, the locals approached Jochen with their specimens and pretty much ignored me, so I took photos and some blog notes instead. I placed my loupe on the table as a hint, waiting to see what would happen. You have to be patient in this trade and allow people to gauge you properly to establish mutual trust. Eventually someone showed up with a faceted piece carefully wrapped in the typical parcel paper. Jochen saw it, then pointed to me. The man came over to the other side of the table, unfolded the parcel paper and laid it in front of me. I got my tweezers out, inspected the piece carefully and correctly folded the diamond paper to give it back to the seller – yes there’s an exact way these are folded and your technique with the loupe, checking for window in the gem, use of tweezer and folding the paper all indicates your level of expertise and determines what happens next. As expected, I was watched intensely.

The man then made an offer by writing the price for the gem down on a piece of paper I provided, I shook my head, “no.” He then made a nod toward me and said “offerte.” I understood that one!  I wrote down a counter-offer, the man nodded and I counted my pesos carefully onto the table, gestured for him to recount, got my gem, and done.  First sale accomplished!

Within just a few minutes, lots of parcel papers arrived with their respective owners.  For two hours I opened and closed papers, louped emeralds, tried some low-ball offers that weren’t accepted (yeah ok, they know their stuff too), bought a cabochon and trapiche rough, then several more small faceted gems, much of it lighter colored material, what they call emerald “crystal” in Colombia. The material still counts as emerald, not green beryl, because it has just sufficient saturation for that, but the price per carat is lower.

I don’t think the locals were used to a lot of women buying, but it didn’t take anyone long to adjust. I made some jokes, like handing someone my gem cleaning cloth to wipe off non existing tears when I made a low offer, and I worked quickly to acquire the important terms needed to buy: “puntos” for points, “kilates” for carat, “offerte,” “selection,” “no me gusto” (not my taste), which is a lot more polite than “your gem is ugly.” There's a lot of testing each other about what you know about prices but I didn’t buy much material over one carat there so I felt it was fairly safe for my first time.

After about three hours of intense staring at emeralds, we were done in. And the miners had to come back with more stuff so we called it a day, promising to return in the morning. We went for a swim in our hotel pool and ordered in, so to speak - since that doesn’t exist in Muzo.  In other words, one of the guys working at the hotel drove off on his moped and brought back roasted chicken, arepas and some very tasty roasted potatoes for a nice sized tip. We had some local beers, a shot of rum, and passed out at around 9 p.m.

Breakfast Tamales in Muzo

From what we were to learn the following day, there are dozens of mining areas around Muzo. The emeralds are washed out of the mountainous region through the river, which is in turn literally turned over and rinsed through stone by stone. Most of the mining regions belong to large companies that have rented the claims from the government, such as the company Mineria Texas Colombia, where many locals work for about $300 a month under strict control by armed guards. These companies export directly to the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and China. 

The miners we bought from, by contrast, were artisanal.  They mine in the areas not claimed by foreigners, then they cut on location and sell to Bogota, or to people like us. Some Chinese buyers also show up on occasion, we were told. 

It didn’t look to me like the mining made the locals rich, not the ones we bought from anyway.  They had mopeds, not cars, their houses are small and run down, no hot water, simple food, and not many dentists around or affordable ones, at least (presumably the latter, therefore the former).  As far as I am concerned, when I see conditions like these in my travels, I am glad to pay the local miners more money than they are used to for their wares, so that some of the money my business generates flows back to the those who worked the hardest for the least amount of profit. The label “fair trade” is fairly meaningless in places like this, but I don’t see that as an invitation to ignore the concept. I wish more money flowed back to these regions. It is a pity that in most parts of the world there is no correlation between mineral wealth and personal wealth.

Muzo in the Morning Fog

Drive to the Emerald Mines in Muzo

Anyway, of course we were eager to see the actual mining areas, and so we spread word around that we wanted a tour.  Our hotel manager, Mario, who also worked in the mines but was enjoying a short staycation, offered to show us around. So we started off at 10 a.m. the next morning in our four wheel drive vehicle with Mario sitting in front. We first took a drive up the mountain that Muzo is nestled into, to see the area from above. After just a few miles, the road got too rough for our Volkswagen Tiguan, its ability to shift into the necessary mode to turn the wheels leaving something to be desired, according to Klaus. So we walked uphill in the warm sun for about 45 minutes. Mario frequently asked if we wanted a break, but, breathing heavily, we were too proud to stop!  Its always good to burn some unwanted calories after all. Once on top of the hill, we enjoyed a gorgeous view over the region and the various digging areas, but of course we wanted more... 

 

Armed Guard Calling his Supervisor to Alert of our Visit

Next, Mario took us to the area that belongs to Mineria Texas Colombia, where we were carefully watched by all of the armed guards.  We got permission to take some photos, but our request had to be radioed over to some supervisor-or-other before we could proceed. I took a couple of photos, but we felt too watched, so we asked Mario if we could go elsewhere. “Yes,” Mario said.

Some Shade for the Miners

 

After another 30 minutes driving through rough terrain, we reached a very small and impoverished-looking town built along a steep hill leading down to a riverbed.  As Mario explained, the locals who live in Muzo have to walk three hours to get there in the morning. They mine from about 7 or 8 a.m. in the morning until it gets too hot, then break or walk back. It’s a long an arduous day for the workers.

Bridge to Cross to get to the Mines

Once parked, we were shown a long hanging bridge with wooden planks. We needed to cross it and then climb down the steep hill on the other side to get down to the riverbed. Well, nothing much stops Jochen or Klaus, so with me trailing behind, we slowly crossed the precarious looking bridge and descended down the foot path, carefully selecting our steps on the steep hillside covered in slippery and moving rocks. I was grateful for the rock climbing course I recently completed; it helped me decide where to place my feet and what to hold on to.

All the work in these mines is done “by hand.” You don’t see any heavy machinery.  The various pits are covered by linen to create some much needed shade. The rocks in the meagerly flowing river is all black schist that blackens the water completely. The miners use small push carts to haul the rocks out from fresh areas freed up with small explosives and empty the carts on the ground. Alternatively they hose down a pit dug with shovels, and sift through the schist shovel by shovel, using water to rinse off the schist.

 

Surface Mining in Muzo

The miners didn’t stop working as we approached. Eyeing us with interest, they kept washing the river, letting us take photos and video. Some locals approached us with a few pieces they found, one of them told me he had a bigger trapiche, found just that day. Once back in “town” he showed it to me. The price was $650. I knew the piece was worth that but I just don’t have the market for it, so I passed. I prefer to get faceted pieces. We had some coke and fizzy water, rested up a while, and I watched as Jochen acquired crystals from the miner’s recent finds.

 

The Host Rock is Washed and Sifted for Emerald Rough

We all then headed back to Muzo and did some more shopping with the locals. I had to exchange dollars twice in the local drugstore – there are a couple of banks in Muzo but banks there don’t exchange money. You have to find a shop that is willing to exchange for you for a fee. The shop owner then has to go to Bogota to change the dollars back to pesos. And of course the shop owner has to have enough pesos on hand. Eventually the day was done, the pesos were done and we just kept being shown the same stuff by different people: it’s a common trick, not to see if you are paying attention but to see if perhaps you have changed your mind. So we made our goodbyes, promised that we would come back (some day), and went back to our pool. I braved the cold shower, and finished the day in the same way I did the previous one: roasted chicken, arepas, potatoes, beer. I was beginning to crave my vegetables. Together, our friend Klaus, Jochen and I made a pact. Thursday: Chivor and home made tomato salad.


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