On the Road to Minas Gerais, Brazil

On the Road to Minas Gerais, Brazil – Brief Article

Anthony R. Kampf

During the last few decades, the mineral and gem world has been blessed with a succession of new and wonderful localities. When my own interest in minerals was first piqued about thirty years ago, one place stood out as an almost mystical source of exceptional specimens–Minas Gerais. So many different things had come from this exotic place. The first article I read about Minas Gerais, a one-page commentary titled “Locality–Minas Gerais” by John S. White Jr., in the second issue of the Mineralogical Record (1970), gave me my first glimpse of Minas Gerais–a land of mineral and gem riches filled not only with a diversity of mines and mineral deposits but also with intriguing history, people, and experiences. Since then I have had the opportunity to visit Minas Gerais six times and also the great pleasure of getting to know some of the old hands–Allan Caplan, Fred Pough, and Dick Gaines, among others. These gentlemen have related their experiences in articles through the years (e.g., Mineralogical Record 11:351-60), so here I will tell some of my own stories, with the hope of communicating in some small measure my tremendous love for this wonderful place.

Let me begin with a special thank you to Hyman Savinar and his wife, Beverly. I met the Savinars in 1982 after Hyman called me with an offer to purchase for the museum a tourmaline specimen that he had seen in Brazil. As things developed, my wife, Kathy, and I became great friends with the Savinars, and we jumped at the opportunity to accompany them on their next trip to Brazil.

APRIL 1986: Making Connections

Hyman had already been to Brazil three times and had made several good contacts. We had a general idea of where we were going but weren’t certain how well it would all come together. After a brief stopover in Rio de Janeiro, we arrived in Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil and the capital of the state of Minas Gerais.

In Belo we were happy to run into an acquaintance, John Ramsey, a dealer in gem rough from the San Diego area who made frequent trips to Brazil. He knew the dealers, he knew the gems, and he knew the language. What a break! All we had to do was convince him to join us.

John took us to visit several of his contacts in town and then to see the beautiful colonial city of Ouro Preto, the center of imperial topaz mining (more about this later). We had a great time and apparently so did John, because he decided to join us for the next leg of our journey into the heart of Minas Gerais.

We took a small commuter flight from Belo to Governador Valadares. The two-engine plane had a capacity of about fifteen (not including the chickens). At the end of the runway, engines roaring, the plane turned back. What could be wrong? A man raced from the terminal and handed a sack to the pilot right through the cockpit window. The pilot had forgotten either the mail or his lunch!

We flew over several open-pit iron mines and made a scheduled stop in Ipatinga. Finally, in the distance we saw a dramatic monolith with a sloping summit. This, we learned, was Mount Ibituruna, and at the base of its sheer front face was Governador Valadares.

With John along, I was confident we would get the most out of our gem experience, but I was in Brazil more for the minerals. I had made arrangements to visit Carlos Barbosa in Valadares. As many collectors know, Carlos has been a continuing source of rare Brazilian minerals for the mineral market. He is a man of small physical stature, brimming with jovial good humor. We visited him at his home, and he joined us as we made the rounds in Valadares. Our happy band had now grown to six.

One of the must-sees here was Jacinto Neto, a retired dentist with quite a mineral collection. Initially, he brought out rather ordinary specimens of quartz, feldspar, and the like. As he sensed our interest, he began bringing out his better material. The table in his dining room became more and more cluttered with remarkable specimens of topaz, brazilianite, crystallized rose quartz, and tourmaline of every description. Finally he carefully unwrapped his pride and joy, a suite of gemmy bicolored tourmaline scepters. Although Jacinto did not present himself as a dealer, we quickly realized that everything had a price, and he wasn’t shy about giving us his best sales pitch. Jacinto’s prices, unlike those of many of the other dealers we encountered, were high and virtually nonnegotiable. The minerals were, after all, part of his “collection.” Not surprisingly, on subsequent trips we saw many of the same specimens, which remained unsold.

Another person we had the pleasure of visiting in Valadares was Ailton Barbosa, a young garimpeiro (independent miner) who had a dream that had been realized beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. In the 1930s, Ailton’s father had worked a pegmatite in the Itatiaia Valley near Conselheiro Pena, about 60 kilometers southeast of Valadares. Ailton’s dream was to work this same deposit to find the fabulous tourmalines he was sure were there. He convinced a local gem dealer, Jonas Lima, to support his undertaking. After months of fruitless effort, with Jonas ready to pull out his support, Ailton broke into a pocket of rubellite tourmaline that ranks among the richest ever found. The story of this 1978 discovery is told in beautiful detail by Keith Proctor in Gems & Gemology (Summer 1985).

The discovery made Ailton rich, allowing him to buy the house in which we visited him that day. Unfortunately, like so many other get-rich-quick mining stories, this one has an unhappy ending. Ailton bought the Golconda mine, a large historic producer of gem tourmaline, which I’ll mention again later. He sank his entire fortune into the mine in an unsuccessful attempt at finding another glory hole. Then a few years ago, Ailton was killed in a tragic gun accident.

My wife and I, the Savinars, and John Ramsey had been getting around town in a combination of Carlos’s car and a series of taxis. We were now ready to head out to see the famous Cruzeiro mine, one of the largest and most productive tourmaline deposits in the world, high atop the Serra Safira. We made this rather daunting trip in the same taxis that had been chauffeuring us around town.

The Serra Safira were named by early explorers for the blue tourmalines they found here and mistook for sapphires. Nevertheless, the Cruzeiro mine, like many of the pegmatite deposits in Brazil, got its start as a producer of strategic minerals during World Wars I and II. Even in the modern era, electronic-grade mica has kept the mine operating successfully between tourmaline finds.

We arrived at the mine shortly after the excavation of a large pocket. After viewing the remains of the pocket underground, we were taken to the mine office and shown rooms filled with specimens of tourmaline, quartz, and lepidolite–all from that one pocket. Nothing was up to the quality of a large specimen of green tourmaline on quartz our museum had acquired in 1974, but we were nevertheless frustrated that none of the specimens were yet for sale.

The trip back down from the mine gave us a real taste of Brazilian driving. Our taxis, which had labored up the narrow, winding road, descended much more swiftly. At the bottom of the mountain, the brakes were nearly gone. Out of control, we whipped past a small fazenda (farm), narrowly missing a truck coming from the opposite direction. When we finally came to a stop, we were so shaken that it took us a good half hour to catch our breaths.

The next day the six of us (now including Carlos Barbosa) headed north about 120 kilometers to the town of Teofilo Otoni, a major Brazilian gem center, especially known for aquamarine. The only decent hotel at the time was the Lancaster, best known for its “firm” beds, which consisted of inch-thick mattresses resting on hard wood. The Lancaster, like many hotels in small Brazilian cities, has no central hotwater system. The showers are equipped with electric showerheads, which heat the water as it passes through. These actually work quite well, though the exposed wiring is a bit disconcerting, especially for those accustomed to lifting their arms over their heads while showering.

In Teofilo Otoni, we visited the two most important gem distributors in the area, K. Elawar and Tamil. Kahlil Elawar is from Lebanon, though he has lived in Brazil since 1959 and is now a naturalized citizen. He has built perhaps the finest gem collection in Brazil. We felt like kids in a candy store, visually devouring his entire collection, box by box. Agenor Tavares built the Tamil company with his late brother Orlando. They took advantage of the fact that their family fazenda contains some of the richest aquamarine deposits in the region. Rather than mine the aquas themselves, the Tavareses permitted garimpeiros to work their land in return for the commitment to sell them what was found.

I remember well our first visit to the Tamil office. Agenor took out parcel after parcel of aquamarine and morganite crystals until his large desk was completely covered. The morganite crystals had just been found at a deposit called Bananal in the far north of Minas Gerais. They were a striking orange color and rimmed with aquamarine. Carl Francis and I wrote an article about them for Gems & Gemology (Spring 1989), based upon specimens that the Savinars purchased on this and our next trip to Brazil. The aquas, beautifully etched crystals in lovely shades of blue and blue-green, were from a remarkable discovery the year before at a place called Marambainha. Hyman had purchased one of the best crystals, dubbed the “Bullet,” from this find a couple of months before at the Tucson Show.

At Marambainha, a small group of garimpeiros had found several hundred kilos of fine aquamarine crystals in a single pocket. When word spread, thousands of garimpeiros from far and wide descended on Marambainha. They began tunneling frantically and blindly into the hillside, trying to get a piece of the action. After months of work, they all came away empty-handed. Nothing more was found after the initial discovery.

The next day Agenor arranged for one of his employees to accompany us to Marambainha. As we arrived, we drove past tunnel after tunnel in the hillside, each the same shape and size as a small standing man and each with a small dump in front. The rock that composed the hillside had once been schist, but now, after millions of years of alteration, it had been converted to a dense, hard red clay called laterite. This type of lateritic soil, we learned, was typical of the entire region. It is relatively easy to dig with hand tools.

Continuing on, we saw a huge dump of fresh red clay reaching high up the hill like a tremendous anthill. We circled up the hill on a small dirt road, got out of our cars, and hiked the last hundred yards to the source of the dump. There we found a group of a dozen or so garimpeiros open-pit-mining the pegmatite. Unlike most gem-mining operations in the region, they actually had a bulldozer; nevertheless, the ambitiousness of their undertaking was amazing. The hundred-foot-high walls of the pit were absolutely vertical, attesting to the competence of the hard clay. Near the bottom of the pit a small section of pegmatite was exposed. About two-thirds of the way up the pit wall we saw holes penetrating the hill. These were the remains of the tunnels dug by the thousands of unsuccessful garimpeiros.

Our time in Brazil was growing short, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever be back, so I was determined to visit one more famous spot, Virgem da Lapa. The mines around Virgem da Lapa have been among the most prolific for pegmatite mineral specimens, including some of the world’s finest tourmaline, topaz, and herderite. We had only a day to spare–barely enough time for the round trip from Teofilo Otoni to Virgem da Lapa–but off we went.

We headed due north on the main highway toward Vitoria da Conquista in Bahia. This scenic two-lane road, known for its heavy truck traffic, winds past ancient granite domes and lush green coffee plantations. The devil-may-care driving habits for which Brazilian truck drivers are known make this route intimidating for the faint-of-heart. One such habit–passing on blind curves–is particularly difficult to justify but may be balanced somewhat by the ubiquitous religious decals seen on truck windshields.

Near Itaobim, we turned west on the road to Aracuai, and a while later Carlos pulled off the road at an unpretentious building. Outside we saw large tables covered high with specimens of kyanite in quartz. Inside we found room after room filled with specimens of tourmaline and cleavelandite feldspar, all from Virgem da Lapa. We were introduced to the proprietor, “Joe-of-the-Road” a short black-bearded man with a curiously lopsided gait. For years Joe had made a business of selling mineral specimens, mostly from the Virgem da Lapa mines, out of his roadside home.

This welcome distraction from our long road trip ate up more time than we had anticipated. When we pulled into Aracuai, still more than an hour from Virgem da Lapa, it was already late afternoon. John and the Savinars were fatigued and headed back to Teofilo Otoni. I felt great minerals coursing through my veins and convinced Carlos and Kathy that we couldn’t turn back when we were so close.

The last stretch of road was the worst, a narrow dirt road bordered by 6-foot-tall grass and thickly laden with red dust. We pulled into Virgem da Lapa just before dusk. As we surveyed the quaint town square, I realized there was not a mineral to be seen. The mines were in the hills north of town, and even if we could have negotiated the difficult road it would have made no sense to go there at night. We contented ourselves with a brief liquid respite to wash down the dust and braced ourselves for the long dark trip back to Teofilo Otoni.

Carlos was clearly tired, so I offered to drive–at night, something that even Brazilians avoided. I soon learned an interesting truck-driver’s courtesy: To avoid blinding oncoming vehicles, they turn their lights off. Trucks with their lights off passing on blind curves–this was going to be more fun than a barrel of tourmalines!

Things were going pretty well. We had made it back to the main road heading south to Teofilo Otoni when we hit a stretch of roughness I didn’t remember from our trip up. A moment later we all realized we had a flat tire. No problem. We pulled off, well out of the way of the careening trucks. Changing the tire without light wasn’t easy, but at least Carlos had the tools. Back on the road with a deep communal sigh, we pressed on until we felt a now-familiar shaking–another flat tire! Now we had a problem.

Standing by the side of the road in the middle of the night, we wondered, where did all the traffic go? We set out walking south, in the direction of Teofilo Otoni, without any idea how far we had to go, although Carlos assured us that it was probably just 10 miles or so. Finally, a truck driver stopped, and we soon found ourselves, four across, speeding down the road, staring at a religious decal in the window and silently praying for a safe end to our journey. The next day, safely back at our hotel in Teofilo Otoni, we worried whether Carlos could successfully recover his vehicle. Shortly after lunch he showed up with a big smile on his face and four brand-new tires on his car.

As our visit to Brazil drew to a close, we began to lay plans for our next visit. There was so much more to do, so much more to see, and so much of what we had already done and seen to share with others. There was no doubt in our minds that Minas Gerais was the world’s best gem and mineral destination.

JULY 1987–Great Beginnings

John Ramsey was the natural choice to organize a trip to Minas Gerais for the museum’s Gem & Mineral Council. John and his wife, Laura, through their company, Ramsey Gem Imports, had run tours to Brazil in the past. For better or worse, this time I would colead the trip. In July of the next year, John and I set off for Brazil with ten adventurers in tow.

The first stop was Rio, where we spent a hectic day hitting the typical tourist spots. We took a crowded tram to the top of the hill called Corcovado to see the gigantic statue of Christ the Redeemer. From here the views of Rio are dramatic. In the distance to the east, partially shrouded in Atlantic Ocean mist, rise a series of rounded granite domes. The most distinctive and famous of these appears like a huge loaf of bread standing on end and, appropriately, is called Sugar Loaf. To the south of Corcovado are Rio’s two main beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. These we saw later out of the windows of our bus, which nearly tipped over as all the male members of the group clamored for a better view. Some of our braver members hit the shopping district near the Copacabana, despite warnings about muggings and unscrupulous taxi drivers. Rio, with all its fame and allure, is unfortunately not a particularly safe city for tourists.

The flight from Rio to Belo Horizonte in a large commercial plane is a pleasant one-hour journey. Belo is a bustling metropolis, lacking both the mystique and the dark side of Rio. I had no qualms about turning our group loose on the streets of Belo, but first it was time to treat them to some Brazilian gems. Although Belo doesn’t have the gem focus of Governador Valadares or Teofilo Otoni, many gems find their way here through dealers. John took the group to see several of his best contacts.

Eyes grew large with each new parcel spread out on the first dealer’s desk. Before nightfall, the group had seen amethyst, citrine, imperial topaz, aquamarine, tourmaline, and even alexandrite. The puzzle facing each person was, Buy now, or wait to see what gems the next dealer has?–a dilemma for even a seasoned buyer. John Ramsey freely shared his expertise, and our first day of gem buying netted many treasures and a few regrets at opportunities not taken.

The next day we boarded the tour bus–our principle mode of transportation for the rest of the tour. Next on our itinerary was Ouro Preto (Portuguese for “black gold”), an easy 100 kilometers drive southeast of Belo. According to legend, sometime in the late seventeenth century an explorer in the area, bending down to drink from a brook, found some heavy black stones (probably hematitic schist) and put them in his pocket. Upon his return home to Taubate in the state of Sao Paulo, he gave the stones to another man who, in turn, passed them on, until they eventually reached the governor of Rio de Janeiro. The governor is said to have placed one of the stones between his teeth and, cracking it open, exposed gold at its center. News of the gold spread, drawing more expeditions to the area. Finally, in 1698 a rich vein was discovered.

Gold seekers flocked to the area. By the mid-eighteenth century, gold production reached its peak, and the city of Ouro Preto, formed from the combination of several smaller mining settlements, was the focal point of Brazil’s Golden Age. Much of its wonderful baroque-style architecture dates from this period, as does the discovery of imperial topaz. In 1823 Ouro Preto became the capital of Minas Gerais, a status it held until 1897, when the city of Belo Horizonte was built as the new capital. Today, the history and picturesque colonial architecture of Ouro Preto make it a prime tourist attraction, and the imperial topaz mines make it an important gem source.

Ouro Preto’s mining legacy led to the establishment, in 1876, of its School of Mines, located at one end of the central town square. Not only does it house an extensive mineral collection displayed in the traditional European style, but it also has an intimate modern gallery designed by Pierre Bariand to duplicate the famous gallery at the Sorbonne in Paris. These galleries are must-sees for anyone in Paris or Ouro Preto. The one in Ouro Preto is a perfect place to start exploring Brazilian minerals.

The imperial topaz mines are just east of Ouro Preto. We headed out to the Capao do Lana (or simply Capao) mine. The most difficult part of taking the trip by bus is negotiating the turn at the intersection in the small town of Rodrigo Silva–jockeying the bus can easily take half an hour or more. Along the road is one of my favorite photo stops: a large, yellow, arrow-shaped sign bearing the word CAPAO in big black letters. Every time I pass it with a tour group I insist that everyone get off the bus, cluster around the sign, and point in the same direction as the arrow. This can sometimes take quite a bit of cajoling because people are eager by this time to visit their first mine, and they can’t even see the Capao mine from the sign.

The Capao mine is the largest and one of the most productive in the region. It is a large open pit that exploits topaz-bearing hydrothermal veins that also contain quartz, hematite, magnetite, and accessory rutile, pyrite, and euclase. The enclosing rock was a schist that has now altered to a lateritic clay. The mining process is more mechanized than that at most Brazilian gem mines. Huge shovels pulled by draglines scoop the topaz-laden clay from the low-angled sides of the open pit, dumping it into washing pits at the top. Here, high-pressure water cannons convert it to a thick muddy slurry that is then run through a series of sieves and jigs to separate successively less-coarse material. The topaz is recovered by hand-sorting.

Members of our group got to test their skills at mining, first operating one of the large water cannons, sometimes with humorous results, then standing along the conveyor belt as fist-sized and smaller chunks of quartz passed by punctuated by occasional crystals of hematite and topaz. Considering the abuse the ore is subjected to during the mining process, it is amazing that this mine actually produces decent topaz crystals. A single day’s take, the result of processing many tons of ore, amounted to only a few dozen topaz crystals up to a few inches long scattered on a pan measuring about one square foot.

Although the trip from Ouro Preto to Governador Valadares took most of a day by bus, it was hardly tedious. The road was good and the scenery interesting and varied. At about the halfway point we passed through Ipatinga, a small industrial city in the upper valley of the Rio Doce, a region rich in deposits of iron and manganese. The bus trip gave us a chance to get better acquainted as we anticipated the adventure that awaited us in the gem-rich areas to the north.

That evening in Valadares we celebrated with a wonderful churrasco dinner at Tabu, a popular local restaurant. The main entree was sorubi, a delectable Brazilian fish caught in the San Francisco River to the north. Carlos Barbosa joined us, sharing news of the latest rare mineral discoveries.

Churrasco is Portuguese for barbecue, but that translation hardly does it justice. It begins with plates of various staples such as rice, beans, tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, potato salad, manioc, lettuce, french fries, spaghetti, and fried bananas; then comes the meat, brought around on a skewer and sliced right on each person’s plate. This evening we had only the fish, but normally there are a half-dozen different meats to choose from. It didn’t matter where we ate; the food was always delicious. It’s no wonder that I come home from every trip to Brazil with a few more pounds than I left with.

The next day we visited Carlos in his home, which was filled with unusual minerals to buy or simply appreciate. We made the required stop at Jacinto Neto’s where, much to my pleasure, there were some remarkable new specimens at rational prices. Visits to gem dealers rounded out the day.

Before heading on to Teofilo Otoni, a visit to a tourmaline mine was in order. North of town we took a turnoff to the west, and after a lengthy ride on a dirt road, we arrived at the Golconda mine. This mine has produced very fine gem-quality blue and green tourmaline as well as large quantities of industrial feldspar and mica. Unfortunately, as with most gem-bearing pegmatites, the gem production is sporadic and unreliable. Those who, like Ailton Barbosa, have focused primarily on its gem potential have generally not found financial success. Although I have visited the Golconda several times and watched the continued large-scale mining drastically change its appearance, my impression of the mine will always be defined by this, my first visit.

The pegmatites throughout the region are old, dating to the late Precambrian, and are contained in even older metamorphic rocks. Most of the workings at the Golconda are on the surface. At the time of this visit a short adit had been driven into the pegmatite at the center of a crest in its structure. The view from the front of the entrance to the adit presented one of the most dramatic geologic exposures I had ever seen. The pegmatite here consists mostly of cream-colored feldspar. Surrounding the mass of feldspar is a thick layer of black schist, followed by light-colored quartzite, more schist, and so on. Alternating dark and light layers form a several-hundred-foot-high vertical rock face, and in unison, as though directed by a geological choreographer, they arch around their pegmatite nucleus.

Another memorable sight was a huge pile of muscovite mica in sheets a foot or more across. We watched a local woman as she sorted and trimmed sheets that would be sold for use in electronic applications. When a member of our tour noticed that some of the sheets contained sprays of indicolite tourmaline, we all descended upon the mica heap like a swarm of locusts.

The trip from Valadares to Teofilo Otoni is only a couple of hours by bus. As our bus pulled up to the Lancaster hotel, I realized that tour busses in Teofilo Otoni serve as homing beacons for the small gem dealers, commonly known as street dealers. As we disembarked we were surrounded. Gem papers were thrust into our faces from left and right. Most in our group, accustomed to avoiding solicitors, did some nifty side-stepping and made it into the lobby safely.

We had encountered a few street dealers in Valadares, but in Teofilo Otoni there are many more. Although persistent, they are generally good-natured and not at all dangerous. Their wares are seldom worth a second look, but occasionally a worthwhile stone turns up. For those willing to play the bargaining game, some interesting souvenir gems can be had for low prices. Most Americans avoid the street dealers, but they end up missing out on an exciting and enjoyable part of the Brazilian gem experience.

By the time we left Teofilo Otoni we had become accustomed to our “greeting party” every time we arrived at or left our hotel. We got to know several of them by name, and they started to realize that we didn’t want to see any more low-grade amethyst and citrine. Better material started showing up, including some things that members of our group specifically requested. We learned that the key to successful bargaining is not to show too much interest and to be willing to walk away when the price is too high. Invariably the material will be offered again, perhaps the next day, at a lower price. One sometimes-comical aspect of the interplay between the street dealers is the way they pretend to be independent but often work together to make a sale. We found that the same parcels of gems were offered by several different dealers during the course of our stay. If they noticed that a member of our group liked to deal with one particular dealer, they would pass their parcels to him.

As it always turns out, the biggest highlights of our stay in Teofilo Otoni were visits to the offices of Kahlil Elawar and Agenor Tavares. Kahlil tends to have a greater variety of gems, but Agenor usually has the best aquamarines. Both often also have some remarkable gem crystals to show. On this trip a purchase from Agenor stands out most in my mind. It was a wonderful eye-clean 6-carat alexandrite gem with an exceptional red-green color change. The stone had come from a new deposit at Hematita (see Gems & Gemology, Spring 1988). We were impressed that a member of our group would spend $24,000 for one small stone, but in retrospect, this was one of the best bargains anyone has gotten on one of our tours. When opportunities such as this present themselves, it’s not always easy to recognize them and have the courage (and resources) to act.

Agenor joined our group for a tour of the Marambaia area. It’s an easy trip on the main paved road heading north. We drove about 50 miles north to the town of Padre Paraiso and then headed east along a dirt road following a river valley. This region is one of the most important sources of fine aquamarine in the world. Driving up the valley we saw dozens of tunnels in the hillsides, each with a small dump in front. The tunnels were similar to the ones we had encountered at Marambainha (little Marambaia) on my earlier trip, just tall and wide enough for one man. The bottom of the valley along the river was strewn with mounds of red dirt and white rocks, the remains of alluvial aquamarine workings.

With all the evidence of past mining, we were surprised that at this time there seemed to be no mining going on at all. We stopped along the road at a group of small shanties with walls made of sticks and roofs of straw, the typical dwellings of garimpeiros. The few garimpeiros we encountered here explained that there had been news of an aquamarine find in the next valley, and most of their compatriots had left in hopes of getting a piece of the action. Such is the life of a garimpeiro.

As we lingered, an old man on a bicycle arrived with a pouch of gem material to sell. We gathered around as he spread the pieces out on the hood of a car. All he had were small waterworn chunks of colorless topaz. Colorless topaz, sometimes in large crystals, is found in the same deposits as the aquamarine and is often changed by irradiation and heat treatment to a beautiful bright blue. The Marambaia deposits are prolific producers of both fine aquamarine and its principal gem substitute, blue topaz.

I accompanied those on the tour as far as Governador Valadares. Their time in Brazil had come to an end. John would see them safely home while I lingered a few days to investigate more pegmatites, assisted by Carlos Barbosa. We headed southeast to Conselheiro Pena.

A little past there, we turned south off the main road heading up the Corrego do Itatiaia (Itatiaia Valley). Along the way Carlos pointed out the now-abandoned workings of the Jonas mine in the distance. Finally, at the end of a very long dirt road, we passed under a banner proclaiming “Itatiaia mine” and came upon a beehive of activity. It looked more like a gravel pit than a gem mine, and so it was. The operation was indeed exploiting an alluvial gravel, and what they were recovering was an eclectic mix of gold, tourmaline, and emerald. At first all I could do was shake my head in wonderment. Although learning the source of the gold was not a priority for me, I was determined to figure out the source of the tourmaline and emerald.

The mine superintendent said that, although he didn’t understand it himself, both the tourmaline and emerald seemed to originate in the same pegmatite, which was adjacent to the gravels they were working. All other Brazilian emerald deposits that I knew of were hosted by schist and were clearly metamorphic in origin. Gem tourmaline and emerald in the same deposit was out of the ordinary, so I asked him to show me.

The pegmatite was modest in size by Brazilian standards. As we traversed it and I asked him questions, I learned that the tourmaline occurred toward the center of the pegmatite and the emerald toward its periphery. Now I was beginning to see the connection. The crucial question remaining was, What kind of rock surrounds the pegmatite? This I answered firsthand and was pleased with what I discovered. The country rock was serpentine, an alteration of what was most probably an ultramafic rock. The solution was elementary (my dear Watson). The elements necessary for the formation of the beryl (most importantly beryllium) were in the original pegmatite fluid. The dark green color of the emerald required chromium, an element not normally found in granitic pegmatites but often in good supply in ultramafics.

While I was still enjoying the rash from my successful geological sleuthing, Carlos and I started off on yet another adventure. Heading back toward Valadares, we took a dirt road north up Corrego do Urucum until we reached the Urucum mine. Carlos was eager to show me this mine because it was then producing two very rare iron-arsenic minerals, schneiderhohnite and karibibite, formed by the alteration of large masses of lollingite. The mine also had the reputation of being a producer of fine crystals of morganite and kunzite.

After examining large masses of silvery lollingite altering to black schneiderhohnite and orange karibibite, I convinced the mine operator to take me into the lower tunnel, where a famous pocket of wonderful morganite crystals had been discovered fifteen years earlier. Several hundred crystals weighing up to 22 pounds each had been removed and now reside in mineral collections around the world. At the end of the tunnel we entered a large underground cavern, and he indicated that we were in the very spot where the morganites had been found. Directing my light around the walls, I noticed long square holes surrounded by radiating blades of cleavelandite feldspar. This was the same dramatic feature exhibited by a morganite specimen from this discovery now on display in our gallery back in Los Angeles. I had always suspected that the hole represented a kunzite crystal that had been redissolved while the original pegmatitic juices still percolated in the pocket. As I now examined these dozens of holes, I was convinced my interpretation was correct. A special feeling overcame me that I can best describe as the mineralogical equivalent of a religious experience.

It had already been a full day. As we drove back toward Valadares, Carlos mentioned a pegmatite near Galileia that had phosphate mineralization–one of my longtime research interests. I insisted that we stop. The Jocao mine was a small, partially flooded open cut. We surveyed the exposure for phosphates in place. Seeing none and with daylight in short supply, we headed for our car. Along the way I noticed several large dark boulders. I suspected they were fragments of giant triphylite crystals, but they were glassy on fracture surfaces, with transparent reddish-brown areas. If I was right, this was the first gem-quality triphylite I had ever seen or heard of.

Once back home in Los Angeles, I verified that the material was indeed triphylite. Mike Gray was kind enough to facet a clean, record-sized 3.02-carat reddish-brown gem from one of the chunks of rough. I gave Carlos the news, and he showed up at Tucson the next year with more faceted material. On a later trip to Brazil, I purchased a 5.85-carat faceted Jocao triphylite from another dealer. I have no fantasy of seeing triphylite make it big in jewelry stores, but it gives me a feeling of satisfaction to have personally discovered a new gem for collectors.

JULY 1990: Let’s Party!

Almost as soon as we returned from leading our first group tour together, John and I started talking about our next trip. We discussed all the new things we might do and others we would change. John was invited to join the board of directors of our Gem & Mineral Council, but we both got busy, and our next trip ended up on the back burner. Our plans got a jumpstart at a party the Ramseys threw at the Tucson Show in 1989. The party reunited several members of our tour and got us talking about Brazil again. Laura Ramsey was particularly enthusiastic and proposed that she take over the job of social director for our next tour.

Laura is an amazingly upbeat and effervescent person. While John and I laid out the logistics for visits to mines and dealers, Laura planned the sightseeing and parties. I think she was a bit disappointed when I refused to take along a suit coat and tie, but I have my principles.

We left for Brazil in July of 1990. This trip was stretched to three weeks and included sightseeing in both Rio and Belo. We saw many of the same dealers and mining areas as on the previous trip. One addition in Belo was a visit with Alvaro Lucio, a retired professor of metallurgy. Alvaro graciously welcomed our group into his home, where we enjoyed his wonderful personal collection of Brazilian minerals and many flats full of interesting minerals for sale.

Two highlights of this journey through Minas Gerais stand out. The first was a stop at the Capoeirana emerald mine near Nova Era. In late 1988, a garimpeiro named Mario found some pieces of greenish beryl in weathered schist here. Further exploration turned up good indications of emerald, and the rush was on. At the time of our visit nearly two years had passed, but we could still feel the atmosphere of excitement. As our bus approached the mining area, the road was lined with hastily erected tents providing services for the miners. A surprising number of them housed bars. Except for various signs of modern technology, such as the ubiquitous satellite dish, this could have been a boom town during the California gold rush. We knew intuitively there was an element of danger involved in our visit, but any concerns were quickly dispelled by the friendly reception we received from the garimpeiros.

At the mining area we found a labyrinth of barbed-wire fencing separating dozens of claims. Hundreds of garimpeiros were spread across the valley floor. Some individuals and small teams sifted through the loose black schist, taking advantage of a small stream. There were also larger companies that employed scores of miners. We were visiting at the invitation of one of these concerns and were given a tour of their operation. We entered through a security station where, oddly enough, there was a time clock for the workers to punch. Each miner wore a T-shirt with the mining company’s name on the back and the miner’s number on the front.

The workings were a mix of surface pits, shallow tunnels, and shafts. Most of the mining involved hand-working the weathering schist with picks and shovels aided by dynamite and pneumatic drills. The biotite schist ore was transported by wheelbarrow to a rudimentary on-site crushing and separation facility that utilized rotating drums and vibrating sieves. The final emerald-recovery step was hand-sorting.

At the invitation of the miners and with the encouragement of our tour group, I bravely descended one of the narrow shafts. My conveyance was an old truck tire suspended on a thin cable. The tire was cut to also serve as an ore bucket, and for counterbalance I sat opposite one of the miners with my legs straddling his torso. The shaft, lined with logs set horizontally on each of its four sides, was so narrow that there was barely clearance for our interlocking bodies. As we descended, my behind bounced off each log we passed, as though I were a piece of laundry being scrubbed on a washboard. At the bottom, I followed the miner only about 10 feet into the unshored and unventilated tunnel, wriggling like an earthworm in its narrow burrow, until for the first time in my life I experienced a sense of claustrophobic panic. At times panic can turn to exhilaration, but once I reached the safety of the surface, I felt only profound relief.

On each of my later visits to Brazil, I have returned to the Capoeirana mine, and each time the mining climate has been decidedly different. By 1994 the mining had largely been consolidated under a single company and was more mechanized, more organized, and safer. During that visit, I again descended a shaft and tunnel system, this time to a depth of 80 meters. The air was still pretty bad, but the tunnel was larger and much less foreboding. In 1996 the log shafts had been replaced by concrete caissons, but the mine was essentially dormant. On my last visit, in 1999, mining was again active. When I descended one of the new shafts into the same area I had been in 1994, I found the workings much expanded and the ventilation quite good. Back on the surface, the recent production was evidenced by throngs of miners trying to sell us emeralds. I picked up a decent 5-cm crystal for $25. For more on the discovery, early development, and emeralds of Capoeirana, see the article by David Epstein in the Fall 1989 issue of Gems & Gemology.

The other memorable highlight of the 1990 tour was our visit to Marambaia, arranged by Agenor Tavares. We traveled again by bus but transferred to the back of an open truck for the last mile or so. From where we left the truck we still had a short climb up a hillside across a rather substantial red-clay dump. At the top we found ourselves standing on a flat surface of hard clay. The panoramic view of the river valley alone would have been worth the trip, but our reward was to dig in a pit from which two months before a remarkable aquamarine crystal had been extracted. Agenor promised we would get 10 percent of anything we found. This didn’t seem all that exciting, but each of us went through the motions of prodding the hard clay with a miner’s pick.

After our brief and completely unsuccessful experience as garimpeiros, we headed to a nearby fazenda for refreshments and a surprise. With substantial fanfare Agenor and his colleagues brought out what looked like a log wrapped in a blanket. When the blanket was removed, we realized the log was actually the largest gem-quality aquamarine crystal any of us had ever seen. We were told that the terminated crystal, weighing 65 pounds, represented the end of a crystal that measured a total of 5 meters in length. The magnitude of this discovery was not lost on a single member of our group, each of us thinking back to our half-hearted digging effort of an hour earlier. For a crystal lover, the story has an unhappy ending. This granddaddy of all aquamarine crystals was eventually shipped off to Idar-Oberstein where it was fashioned into a steep pyramid-shaped carving.

For the third and final week of the 1990 tour, we headed south to Iguacu Falls and then on to the amethyst deposits in Rio Grande do Sul. Iguacu Falls is spectacular and well worth the trip, but we weren’t fully prepared for the cold July (winter) weather in Rio Grande do Sul. But that is another story.

MARCH 1994: Don’t Rain on Our Parade

Not long after returning from Brazil in 1990, John and Laura Ramsey moved to Woodinville, Washington, and new business obligations prevented them from organizing another tour. Not knowing a Brazilian tour operator, I was not prepared to organize another trip on my own.

Time passed until, in 1993, Dr. Dave Douglass, chairman of the Materials Science Department at the University of Calfornia–Los Angeles, approached me. Dave had been to Minas Gerais himself and while there had enlisted the services of a tour guide named Laurindo (Lauro) Rauber, a retired history professor and former public relations representative for an American mining company in Brazil. Dave wanted to mount a tour using Lauro’s tour company and offer it to our Gem & Mineral Council members. The idea appealed to me because I saw it as an opportunity to get back to Brazil myself. We decided that Dave and I would both lead the tour for the Gem & Mineral Council and Lauro would be our Brazilian tour provider.

Dave’s schedule forced him to plan the tour for early March 1994. I knew this to be the end of the rainy season in Minas Gerais–a worry, but hardly a deterrent. Weather notwithstanding, there was a lot we both wanted to see, so we laid out an ambitious itinerary. From Belo we would head north to Corinto, Diamantina, and Aracuai, then back south, stopping in Teofilo Otoni, Governador Valadares, and Ouro Preto. Lauro promised ample opportunities to visit dealers and to dig for specimens at some of the mines, an activity largely lacking on our earlier trips. Eliminated from this and later trips was a stop for sightseeing in Rio–to conserve time and money but most of all to avoid the inherent dangers mentioned earlier.

Lauro met us with his bus at the airport in Belo. This affable gray-haired gentleman turned out to be everything Dave had claimed and more. He is knowledgable, intelligent, organized, hard working, jovial, caring, and patient, and he has an uncanny ability to get the most out of his many contacts with dealers and miners. I came to believe that there is no better person to organize a gem and mineral trip in Minas Gerais–especially since all these virtues were severely tested on this trip.

In Belo we had the great pleasure of visiting Luis Menezes, a dealer in fine Brazilian minerals who travels to major mineral shows around the world. On this visit Luis had some excellent specimens of the rutile stars from Ibitiara in the state of Bahia. We also visited several gem dealers in town but missed some of the better dealers that John Ramsey had arranged on the earlier trips.

From Belo we headed north to Corinto, where we settled into accommodations that were more marginal than I had yet encountered in Brazil. In such small towns, you take what you can get. The area around Corinto is known for extensive quartz beds that yield clusters of crystals rivaling the best of those from Arkansas.

The next day Lauro arranged for us to visit the fazenda of an old friend of his, a former Brazilian minister of agriculture. Because of recent heavy rains the bus could only get within a couple of miles of the fazenda. We walked from there and were quite relieved when we reached a cluster of farm buildings, where we were greeted with open arms. Among the buildings was a large barn filled with tables covered with quartz clusters. Lauro directed us to follow him to an outcrop where we could collect our own. The hike turned into quite an adventure.

First, we were ferried across a swollen stream in a small cart pulled by a tractor. After following a narrow dirt road for a while, we cut into the brush, negotiated a barbed-wire fence, and shortly found ourselves threading our way through a cornfield as a light rain began to fall. On the other side of the cornfield we forded a small steam, crawled through another barbed-wire fence, and eventually reached the outcrop, where we found huge piles of discarded quartz crystal fragments. The quartz here was in flat-lying beds just below the surface. With hand tools we worked into the banks of the broad, shallow, open pits that exploited the deposit. With a bit of work we extracted some fairly decent, though decidedly dingy, specimens. We learned that the beautiful specimens we had seen earlier had been through a rather intense cleaning process involving lengthy soaking in hot oxalic acid. Most of us discarded our finds in favor of the already cleaned clusters that could be purchased by the kilo very reasonably. After our long hikes earlier in the day, we gladly accepted a lift back to our bus in the back of an open farm truck.

Our next stop, heading northeast from Corinto, was the city of Diamantina. Here the colonial-style architecture is reminiscent of Ouro Preto, and here also the town owes its prominence to mining. Nearby, in 1728, alluvial diamonds were discovered, and by the mid-eighteenth century this area had become the leading producer in the world. It held this distinction until discovery of the deposits in South Africa in the late 1860s. We visited several alluvial workings along the Jequitinhonha River that are still being worked on a small scale.

From Diamantina we headed further north to Virgem da Lapa and Aracuai. We were coming in the “back way,” traveling over a seemingly endless rough dirt road, and because we hadn’t planned our time well, we found our drive continuing long into the night. We sailed past Virgem da Lapa with barely a notice and finally arrived at our hotel in Aracuai. The hotel was being remodeled, and my ground-floor room suffered from a plague of large red ants. Not wanting to share the narrow bed, I spent the first hour of my stay hunting down and executing as many of the intruders as possible.

The next day, in need of cruzeiros (the Brazilian currency at that time), we headed to the Banco do Brazil in the town square. Lauro knew the bank president, so we were assured of a favorable exchange rate. Even though we had come to expect casual attire in the small towns, we were taken aback when the president greeted us in front of his bank wearing shorts and sandals. We were also greeted by the local street dealers, who had an interesting variety of gems from the mines around Virgem da Lapa. To add further to the experience, two local cowboys on horseback, clearly in search of a few cruzeiros themselves, offered their horses to us for rides around the square. The horses were surprisingly small, and as I sat in the saddle of one, my feet were barely a foot off the ground. Later that day we stopped to see a mineral dealer outside of Aracuai–perhaps a successor to Joe-of-the-Road — where we found a vast array of minerals from the area. Then, after a stop at a small tourmaline mine, we made our way south to Teofilo Otoni.

Lauro had been promising a special visit to the Cruzeiro mine. I was eager to show the group this dramatic mine and to see it myself for the second time. Rain was threatening as we left Teofilo Otoni. Our bus took us as far as the small town of Sao Jose da Safira. From there, the mining company had promised to provide transport to the mine. Remembering the wild taxi ride I had on my first visit to the mine eight years before, I wondered what this trip might be like. The company kept us waiting for the better part of an hour, but finally their vehicle arrived. I wish I could say it was worth the wait. We all had to squeeze into the back of an open truck for the 7 1/2-mile trip up the narrow, steep dirt road to the mine.

The ride up the mountain was uncomfortable but thankfully dry, and when we arrived at the mining camp, we were treated to a hot meal. An even greater treat awaited. After lunch we were driven down to one of the lower workings, where mine workers presented us with dozens of large burlap bags filled with material that had just been removed from a tourmaline pocket. Armed with large circular screens, we worked the pocket remains in a small stream that ran past the mine adit. The best part was that we could keep anything we found. The day was turning out even better than I had hoped; unfortunately, my assessment was premature.

Our exhilarating mining venture complete, we happily piled into the rear of the truck and headed back up to the mining camp. The heavily loaded truck was too much for the steep, water-soaked road. A section of road gave way under one of the rear wheels causing the truck to suddenly tip back and to one side. Several of the group were thrown or purposely jumped from the vehicle, while most of the others piled into the sides of the truck bed or one another. No one escaped unscathed, but fortunately none of the injuries was life threatening. The miners rushed to our rescue, and after gathering our wits and belongings, we made it back to the mining camp for first-aid.

For our ride back down the mountain, we were able to commandeer a covered jeep to carry a few of our more beleaguered compatriots, but the rest of us begrudgingly climbed back into the rear of our now-notorious truck. As we braced for the rough trip, it began to rain–lightly at first, then harder and harder, until we were being pummeled by a constant downpour. Glancing around at our battered and disheveled little band trying futilely to keep dry, I realized how ridiculous we looked. The same realization apparently came over the rest of the group simultaneously because we all broke out into laughter. For the rest of the trip down we reassured one another by joking and singing some notably inappropriate (and off-key) melodies.

Fortunately, the tour didn’t end on such a bittersweet note. We enjoyed visits to mines and dealers around Teofilo Otoni, Governador Valadares, and Ouro Preto. Despite some frayed nerves, the group benefited from the sort of camaraderie that arises only out of mutually experienced adversity. One of the trip participants, Mel Hindin, a docent at our museum, remains a close friend and supporter. Despite traveling with a brand new hip, Mel weathered every storm and, with his background as a psychologist and social worker, helped to comfort some of those frayed nerves I mentioned. As each of our tours of Brazil has drawn to a close, I have experienced a sense of satisfaction and relief at having shared so many wonderful experiences, along with a feeling of melancholy that the trip must end. On this occasion, however, relief took the upper hand; I was glad that we had all survived in one piece.

JULY 1996: Fourth Time’s the Charm

The 1994 trip had taught me several things to avoid: rainy season, long drives on bad roads, potentially dangerous situations, and an overly ambitious itinerary. I was determined to make our next tour of Brazil the best possible. I worked with Lauro to come up with a program that would keep road travel and hotel hopping to a minimum and yet allow more opportunities to visit mines and dealers. We would schedule the trip to coincide with the Gem Fest (indoors, with an admission fee) and the Gem Fair (outdoors and free) in Teofilo Otoni, where we expected to give the group an even broader look at Brazilian gem and mineral dealers than we ever could on the road. We tried to plan all of the best things from the earlier tours, including stops in Ouro Preto at both the beginning and end of the trip. The gem component of the 1994 tour had been decidedly weak, so I convinced John Ramsey to sign on again as a coleader.

There was one aspect of this 1996 trip that we could not alter. The Brazilian government had recently enacted economic reforms that included a stabilized currency. This might sound like a beneficial development, but I soon learned that it was a deterrent to gem mining. At the time, it was explained to me that the artificial stabilization of the currency also made bank loans more difficult to obtain and that it was therefore more difficult to finance small-scale mining operations. Recently, Paulo Zonari and Haissam Elawar of the K. Elawar company explained the situation differently. The high inflation rate that had been the norm in Brazil for many years led to a currency black market through which U.S. dollars could be exchanged for much more Brazilian currency than was provided for by the official exchange rate. The gem miners, who always prefer to be paid for their discoveries in U.S. dollars, exchanged the dollars through the black market and pumped the “extra” Brazilian currency back into their mines. If this actually is the basis for the negative impact of noninflation on gem mining in Brazil, it surely is related more to the Brazilian psyche than to any profound grasp of sound economic principles.

Diminished mining activity or not, all our planning paid off, and serendipity seemed to be on our side as well. In brief, our itinerary included main stops at Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, Governador Valadares, Teofilo Otoni, and then back to Ouro Preto. We were able to visit many gem and mineral dealers and get plenty of good material. The Gem Fest and free Gem Fair, while not up to expectations, still provided more variety than we would have otherwise seen. The mines and mining areas visited included such old favorites as Capao, Capoeirana, Golconda, and Marambaia as well as such new ones as Resplendor and Pokim.

The serendipity of which I spoke was encountered at the Resplendor tourmaline mine. Here we had the great pleasure of actually watching a garimpeiro extract gem tourmaline crystals from clay-filled pegmatite pockets underground. Anyone at all familiar with these kinds of gem mines knows how rare an occurrence this is.

One day late in the trip, Lauro stopped our bus outside a fenced house in Governador Valadares. He went in and a short while later poked his head out of the gate, motioning for us to come in. Upon entering, we were introduced to Jonas Lima, the man behind the fabulous rubellite discovery I mentioned earlier. However, the real treat awaited on Jonas’s patio, where we were confronted with the largest fine rubellite crystal that any of us had ever seen. Jonas had sold most of the tourmaline crystals from the 1978 discovery years before, but this one he had saved, perhaps for his retirement or simply as a memento. We felt privileged because he generally refrained from showing it, even to other dealers.

Another marvelous highlight of the trip was a visit to Agenor Tavares’s estate, Fazenda Boa Vista. Agenor’s hospitality is well known, but this time he outdid himself. A welcome banner hanging across the road greeted us. While his servants cooked up a delectable churrasco, cerveja (beer) and caiparinhas (a delightful Brazilian cocktail) flowed freely, and Agenor circulated through the group handing out aquamarine crystals as souvenirs.

JULY 1999: The More the Merrier

I took a break from international tours in 1997, and in 1998 I led a gem and mineral tour to Moscow and St. Petersburg, sponsored jointly by the museum’s travel program and the Gem & Mineral Council. This trip was a rousing success, but visiting museums, palaces, and churches doesn’t do the same for me as visiting mines and dealers, and it certainly wasn’t the same as Minas Gerais. I was determined to return to Brazil in 1999, and the museum’s travel program coordinator, Christine Robison, was eager to do another joint trip.

Christine began taking reservations in the fall of 1998, and we were both amazed at the response. By early 1999, we had reached our agreed-upon limit of twenty-five, and we were still getting inquiries. Laurindo assured me that he could easily deal with that many people, but I knew that a larger number would make visits to dealers more awkward. I contacted John Ramsey, who agreed to colead the trip once again, and I enlisted Jean Brandt, the Gem & Mineral Council’s coordinator, to come along to assist with logistics. I had all the bases covered.

As the late June departure date neared, my carefully woven plan began to unravel. We were dismayed to learn that the airline had changed its flight schedule, and we would have to return a day later than planned. Lauro worked out an extra day of activities, and we enticed the travelers by absorbing the extra expense; everyone was satisfied. Then the second shoe fell with a resounding thud! John Ramsey checked in a week before departure with a no-go from his doctor. He would have to stay behind for tests and observation. The only recourse was for Lauro and me to pick up the slack. Lauro, always upbeat, responded with a fax message in which he quoted an old Brazilian saying: “If you don’t have a dog, hunt with a cat.” That message and my faith in Lauro’s ability were all the reassurance I needed.

Lauro came through as expected, and the trip ran like a fine Swiss watch. In fact, the tour participants deserve much of the credit. Considering the diversity of the group, their compatibility and good chemistry were remarkable. Even Lauro admitted that it was one of the most enjoyable tours he had ever led. Jean, with her passion for birding, added an extra dimension by leading several members on impromptu nature walks whenever opportunities arose.

The trip included stops at many of our past favorites, but a few highlights deserve special mention. On one day we visited two tourmaline mines, the Golconda and the nearby Escondido. The Golconda was as dramatic as always, but the Escondido provided a special opportunity. For the first time in all my visits to Brazil, we were allowed to collect underground in newly exposed pockets. Although no great treasures were uncovered, we came away with a fair number of small, gemmy blue-green tourmaline “pencils.” In fact I was impressed by Lauro’s success in arranging collecting opportunities at virtually all the mines we visited.

Our churrasco lunch at the Golconda featured the best cachaca I have ever tasted. Cachaca, a Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane, is the key ingredient in the wonderful caipirinha cocktails mentioned earlier. The liquor itself is bottled commercially, but it seems the best is homemade on the small farms in the backcountry. Lauro arranged a stop at a small farm store operated by the owner of the Escondido mine, where we bought “the real stuff” in reused 2-liter plastic soft-drink bottles for 4 reais (about $2.25) each.

On our way from Governador Valadares to Teofilo Otoni, we visited another tourmaline mine. As our bus pulled up to the workings, we were greeted by Ika, an attractive Brazilian woman with an interesting story. She had grown up loving stones. As soon as she was old enough, she began selling them on the street. Later, she endeared herself to an older gentleman known as Ze de Pedra (Joe-of-the-stones) because the mine he owned produced exceptional blue and green tourmaline. Joe married her and, realizing how much she loved stones, gave her the mine. Now it’s known as Lavra da Ika (Ika’s mine). We noticed that Ika wore jewelry made of blue-green tourmaline from her mine–a beautiful cross around her neck with earrings to match. Ika proudly gave us a tour of her mine, leading us underground through narrow tunnels and stopping periodically to have her picture taken with us. We too were captivated by Ika’s smile and personality. By the time we left, we had bought many fine tourmaline specimens and cut stones from the mine, including all the jewelry she had been wearing.

In Teofilo Otoni there was no Gem Fest this year, but the outdoor Gem Fair (the eleventh annual) was in full swing. Though we were told that mining production was still low, there was no lack of material here. We found an eclectic assortment of minerals, gems, jewelry, and carvings, with some excellent prices for the smart and determined bargainer.

Our visit to Marambaia included a stop at Agenor Tavares’s Marambaia mine. Here we descended into a huge open cut, reminiscent of the one I had visited at Marambainha in 1986. At the bottom, nearly 50 meters down into the hillside, was a waterfilled pit. We dug in a pile of loose rubble adjacent to the pit, finding a few crystals of smoky quartz, as Agenor and Lauro looked on with unhappy faces. When we asked what was wrong, we learned that they had unsuccessfully conspired to present us with a dramatic spectacle. They explained that the bottom of the pit was studded with large aquamarine crystals, but an unseasonable rainstorm just before our visit had filled the pit with water and debris. They didn’t realize that for us the moment was still quite special as we conjured up visions of a jewel-studded pocket that probably far exceeded the real thing.

Later that afternoon we were again welcomed to Agenor’s wonderful Fazenda Boa Vista. There we shared a fabulous churrasco lunch with dignitaries from nearby Padre Paraiso–the mayor and the pastor of the Catholic Church. Though Padre Paraiso is one of the poorest communities in the region, the people are proud of their town. Our entire group was invited back to the town center that afternoon for photos with the mayor. We were greeted with much hoopla and another flock of street dealers. We were told that our visit was one of the highlights in the history of the town–perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but I have no doubt that our purchases augmented their 1999 GNP.

My fondest memories of the 1999 tour involve the friendly interplay between the members of the group. Several in the group discovered that they could bargain for better deals if they bought parcels rather than individual pieces. At each opportunity, they banded together into a “cartel” to make the buy and then split up the spoils over caipirinhas later that evening. Another discovery was that, with concerted bargaining, little boxes of cut gems could be bought on the street for ten dollars or less. This worked out to only a dollar or two per stone. One of the ladies came up with the idea of bringing back such stones to put on her coffee table in a candy dish from which friends could take a very special treat. The other ladies liked this idea so much that between them they almost cornered the market in cheap gems.

One traveler I particularly enjoyed was a retired nuclear physicist. This fellow took great pleasure in taking me to task on almost any mineralogical explanation I might offer. From a dealer in Governador Valadares, I bought an unusual Golconda mine quartz crystal that was uniformly speckled with dozens of smoky spots. Some members of the group referred to it as Tony’s diseased quartz crystal. I dutifully explained that the smoky spots were probably the result of natural irradiation caused by many tiny radioactive mineral grains, possibly monazite or xenotime. This topic provided my friend, the nuclear physicist, with an opening he couldn’t resist. Our discussion proceeded through several not entirely logical steps. When the Heisenberg uncertainty principle came up, I knew it was time for another caipirinha.

Closing Thoughts

In this rather lengthy exposition, I have tried to convey some of the great experiences that I have had in Minas Gerais. I truly believe that no other region in the world has so much to offer the mineral and gem enthusiast. With reasonable precautions and preparations and the care of a good guide, traveling in Minas Gerais is both safe and very enjoyable. Anyone who would like to join me on my next trip can contact the Travel Program Office of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History at 213/763-3350 or crobison@nhm.org. I plan to leave in late June 2000.


ANTHONY R. KAMPF Mineral Sciences Section Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History 900 Exposition Boulevard Los Angeles, California 90007

Dr. Anthony R. Kampf, a consulting editor of Rocks & Minerals, is curator of gems and minerals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. His most recent article for Rocks & Minerals was titled “Mineralogical Computer Databases: Which One Is Best for You?” and appeared in the March/April 1998 issue.

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