Matt Bennett at the Ouro Preto Mines.
Directly translated from the Portuguese meaning ‘Black Gold’, Ouro Preto is a former colonial mining town set into the rolling hills of the Serra Do Espinhaço Mountains. The town is located in the gem rich state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The town is famous for its baroque style buildings and is a world heritage site.
Historically there were many gold mines around this region that are now depleted but during the first gold rush of 1695, Ouro Preto was said to be the biggest city by population of the whole of The Americas (even bigger than New York). This city was once reliant on its gold and gemstone industry but due to the depletion of several gold mines the city has turned to its tourism. The baroque churches and museums, including a gem and mineral museum, are a big pull for tourists. So why am I talking about this historic town in such detail? Well, 40 kilometres away down a dusty single lane track, you come to the region of Rodrigo Silva which is rich in its Imperial Topaz and is in fact the only place on the planet that this incredible gemstone is currently being uncovered.
Although there are several small artisinal mines in the area, through my Dad’s connections we were invited to visit the famous Capao Mine. I say we were invited, but on this occasion my Dad couldn’t make it as he was off buying gemstones 100 miles also away in Tefino Antoni, Brazil, so he arranged for close family friend Glenn Lehrer to accompany me.
Whilst not on the same scale as the Emerald mines I have visited in Zambia and Itabira, what struck me as we arrived at Capao was how vast the mine is, when considering how little of the gem is unearthed. Without doubt, Imperial Topaz is one of the rarest gemstones on the planet and before I arrived at the mine, I had envisaged that mining would be carried out on a very small scale.
When you see how large the operation is at Capao and how little of the gem is unearthed, you begin to appreciate both how rare the gem is and why it is always so expensive. Mining in the current century, with increasing wages and high fuel prices (most mining equipment runs off diesel), is not a low cost business. As a friend of ours who owns an Emerald mine once told my Dad, “these days most miners unfortunately put more cash into the ground than they take out”. Joas, who combs the area searching out Imperial Topaz to supply our family business, told me that there is one mine in the region that has never extracted a single piece. It’s not that they have been unlucky, but is due to the fact that the mine’s owner, who is one of the wealthiest in America, bought the mine for a huge sum a few years back and refuses to start exploration. I asked Joas if this was because he was waiting for the scarcity to increase and then he would begin his operation knowing he could sell his Imperial Topaz at an even higher price, but Joas believed that this gentleman does not need to earn a penny from his mine and as a keen gem collector, takes delight out of the unknown. Joas explained, “You see if you don’t need the cash, just imagine the feeling of owning the ultimate treasure box, but being too frightened to open it. Also it’s possibly a bit like the excitement you have before you go on holiday: once you have travelled, it’s all over. But before the event you get immense pleasure dreaming about it”.
Mining for the rough material is made very difficult by the fact the area sits on a high water table. The mine owner explained that what looked like a normal lake to us was in fact an open pit mine a mere 8 months ago. This meant that a 40 metre deep lake had formed in 8 months due to water seeping through the ground and therefore they had started digging another open pit 100 metres away. However, the pumping that needs to be done to continually remove the water out of the open pit mine is excessive and makes mining very difficult and costly.
The scarcity of the gemstone is evident from the size of the mine. Considering this is the only area of the world where we can source Imperial Topaz, the fact that only 3 miners are digging at any one time shows the difficulty of sourcing this gemstone. Once a piece of rough is found it is handed to the security guard. After waiting around for 2 and a half hours, we finally saw a piece of rough being brought out of the mine. Similar to mining your Zambian Emerald, a lot of rubble has to be moved to find this beautiful golden stone.
Imperial Topaz comes out of the ground in very small crystals, and to get a gem of quality and size is a rarity.
But let me tell you a little more about this wonderful, glowing gem. Of all the gemstones mentioned in the Bible, Imperial Topaz is possibly the scarcest of them all. In Ezekiel 28:13, Topaz was one of the “stones of fire” given to Moses I can think of no better way to describe the gem’s sensational colour, which can vary between delicious combinations of golden yellow, rose pink, peach and sunset orange. Just like Csarite and Rubellite, this is a gemstone whose appearance seems to change daily. Due to its pleochroism, depending on the light source, you are going to experience different hues at different times. The gem will look different at sunrise, midday and sunset. It will take on a totally different look under candlelight than it will in your kitchen under the light of your fluorescent tubes. As gem expert Jim Fiebig once said when visiting our studios in the UK, “after you have owned an Imperial Topaz for a while, you develop a relationship with it. If a friend then asks you about its colour, you will find yourself waxing lyrical about it for hours. This gem literally lives, it has a personality which is always upbeat and for this reason it is one of the most sought after gems on our planet”.
As with other Topaz, the gem is normally eye clean (when you look at the gem sitting on your desk or if set in a ring with an outstretched arm, if you don’t see inclusions then this is what I refer to as an eye clean gemstone). In terms of cut, due to the crystal structure of the gem it will normally be faceted into an octagon or emerald cut. Almost without exception, as the rough material coming out of the ground is so expensive, so as to retain as much carat weight as possible it will normally be free cut and not calibrated.
Having spent time in the beautiful historic city of Ouro Preto, having seen how much work, effort, time and money is spent unearthing just a handful of pieces each day, having had Glenn Lehrer explain in depth how exciting yet frightening it is to cut such a rare treasure from our earth, I have found myself falling in love with yet another gemstone.
Whilst there is an array of splendid colours of Topaz available in the Market today, Imperial Topaz is unique in that its colour is totally natural. For those who love watching an evening sunset, there is nothing that quite competes with the colour of Imperial Topaz (with the possible exception of the equally rare Padparadascha Sapphire).