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Memoirs of a mineral collector--Part 1: fifty-nine treasure hunts in Minas Gerais, 1969-2005.

The author has been visiting mines and mineral occurrences in Brazil for 36 years, and has seen many now-famous discoveries. Fifty-nine (and counting) mineralogical tours have taken him from his home in Austria to such enticing sites as the Virgem da Lapa, Golconda, Santa Rosa, Sapo and Morganite mines and the Ouro Preto topaz fields, and to the warehouses, shops and homes of numerous Brazilian mineral miners and dealers. And he was also among the first non-Brazilians to see the great specimens of Jonas mine elbaite, discovered in 1978. Following are the records, verbal and photographic, of more than three decades of journeys to Minas Gerais.


Welcome to Brazil: Ouro Preto, Santa Rosa mine

Brazil: the name sings of magic to a seasoned mineral collector. To me, from the beginning, it has sung particularly of crystals as found in their natural settings.

Our Super DC-8, with 204 passengers, landed smoothly in Rio de Janeiro on that November day in 1969. We had come here as collectors with somewhat conflicting interests. As a collector of mineral crystals, I was not primarily interested in gems, although I was certainly not averse to bringing home a few precious stones. The rest of our party consisted of three doctors, a jeweler, and a naturalized Brazilian who was waiting in Rio to meet us.

It was November 10, 1969, and in Rio a rainy spring day which promised greenhouse temperatures was beginning. The great size of this beautiful world capital surprised me, but the city did not greet us in a particularly friendly way. A bag was missing from our luggage, and during the resulting delay of several days the rain prevented us from doing much satisfactory sightseeing. Although uncomfortable with having little to do, we were happy to take pleasant evening walks and eat luxurious meals. In Brazil the European palate is seduced by fantastic-tasting fruits and by styles of cooking which we found totally unfamiliar.

At last the missing luggage reappeared. Luckily it proved possible to renew lapsed appointments with important people, and soon, armed with the best recommendations (worth their weight in gold here) we began our safari into the interior.


Traveling in a rented car and a second passenger car driven by our local guide, we enjoyed a lively journey through the virgin forest of Guanabara, a botanical wonder-world, arriving at last within the borders of the land of the crystal-seeker: the state of Minas Gerais. The asphalt ribbon of the road proceeded monotonously over the red lateritic soil of the hilly countryside. In the few isolated towns and settlements, dark-skinned, colorfully dressed people who seemed distrustful without seeming really unfriendly surrounded us. As soon as we turned off the main highway, the state of the roads deteriorated noticeably and our shiny vehicles developed problems.

When we arrived in Ouro Preto, a phone call from our consul reached us. Were we still alive? Yes, we were, despite these cars we'd been traveling in. Why did he ask? We heard to our horror that one of the cars had no front axle and no front shock absorber; the rental agency had made a mistake in letting us take the car. That explained all the rattling during the trip, and why the driver had had to steer the wrong way while negotiating curves. The vehicle received the service it needed, and slowly we recovered our nerves--but only slowly, since the humid heat of this place was giving us the blind staggers.

Now, though, it was onward to visit our first mine! Our mechanical steed now gave us a much better ride, and kilometer after kilometer stroked by. Gusts of rain wet the blacktop, and ahead of us a big tractor had skidded on the slippery surface and gone partly off the road. Up hill and down dale we went, at last reaching Rodrigo Silva, the last village before the topaz mines of Ouro Preto.

We presented ourselves to the deputy of the mine owner, who received us jovially and personally took us in a jeep to the mine, about 40 minutes' drive away. We could see that the rocks cropping out along the way were extremely friable; one could shatter them to pieces with one's bare fists. At the mine, thanks to this first contact between our language-capable neo-Brazilian and the local villagers, it proved possible to buy some specimens of the famous amber-colored "imperial" topaz of the region, although I was able only to get some "reference" pieces, hardly suitable for display.

In Ouro Preto, a steep-lying city with many monuments, the wonderful mineral collection of the mining school was on view. The gemstone section was very rich, and provided a good cross-section of the mineral treasures of Minas Gerais.

Distances in Brazil are enormous: the ribbon of the road seemed endless as we drove on to Governador Valadares, realizing forcibly that Brazil is about the size of Europe. Once we ran over a green mamba--an extremely deadly poisonous snake. Very near the edge of the road was the rim of a primeval forest which eternally hides the land under its thick, undisturbed canopy. To reclaim this land, and to provide people from the interior with access to the wider world, Brasilia, a new capital city, was soon to be built.

Governador Valadares is the center of the precious-stone industry, and the better-known dealers here did not seem at all interested in small-scale business. Casual customers, such as humble mineral collectors with little money, were best advised to seek out only small dealers. We saw no fabulous museum pieces this way, but we did encounter reasonable prices and were able to pick up a few nice specimens. One major mineral dealer frankly refused to sell us anything because, he said, he sold only wholesale lots. He had beautiful tourmaline specimens, but sold them only in lots of a dozen at least ... at the "best price." During the brief time of this first adventure in Valadares I found only one business openly advertised as a mineral shop. Making connections with others might have been possible, but, I realized, it would have taken days and would have required a command of the language.


In the interior of the country, languid nature had impressed her stamp on people and relationships, and making plans about schedules and routes seemed an illusion. Stormy weather was then prevailing over vast expanses, and flooding prevented us from traveling to the Tres Barras aquamarine mine. Teofilo Otoni, a city in northem Minas Gerais, is known as a locality for many gem species--and here we encountered a fact about many locality designations referring to wide tracts of land. Most of the prospects which had been dug in the red laterite had no names; thus it was very hard to assign a precise designation to any particular find. The Brazilian "Strahlers," called garimpeiros, were usually illiterate, and often did not know, any more than the dealers who bought their wares did, which specimen came from which place.

Only large mines and mine complexes, which by virtue of their productivity had attracted permanent settlements, had definite names. Such was the case for the Santa Rosa mine near Itambacuri, then already famous as a source of multicolored tourmaline. Armed with the permission of the mine owner, we set out for Santa Rosa, where few Europeans had been before us. Our jeep, equipped with four-wheel drive and all-weather tires, climbed in the hot morning through the forest wilderness around Itambacuri. We encountered garimpeiros on galloping horses. We had to "restore" some bridges before we could duly admire the control with which our driver negotiated the old beams of their decks.

Pre-arranged horn signals announced our arrival at a private road, sparing us any unpleasant surprises. It was a Sunday, and the miners were not working. My blue-peaked cap with a tassel excited a special interest in them.

Soon we were standing before the entrance tunnel--a narrow opening, half as tall as a man, in pegmatite. In front of it there were trenches a meter deep and at least a meter wide. Carefully, curiously, I pressed forward into the tunnel, moving by decimeters into this blind, moisture-swollen mouth of Hell. In the dim light from the portal behind me I saw a snake on the ground. I recognized it as a viper (the locals later told me soberly that it was a cobra), certainly dead ... but then again I couldn't be wholly sure ...

To be on the safe side I picked up a stick lying nearby, lifted the snake in the air, and left this hospitable spot. Outside, in sunlight, our doctor and tour leader was standing, legs far apart, in front of an open trench. As soon as he saw me, and saw the snake hanging down on both sides of the stick, our masterful tour leader jumped, and pallor covered his face; sweat droplets appeared instantaneously on his forehead. Then his rather pudgy body performed an act that would normally have been impossible for it: he leaped over the trench. On its other side he stood gasping and trembling. To calm him, I called to him, "Doctor, the snake is dead!" I shouldn't have done that. Still panting from his daring leap, and still panicking from the hypothetical thought of a snake bite, the doctor reflexively let loose a barrage of abuse and insults, thus redeeming his honor as an "old trooper."

Hard by the primitive wooden huts of Santa Rosa lay the burrows of the shafts and tunnels. We wanted to descend into Mother Earth, and two mine workers were available as guides. We entered a tunnel 1.4 meters high and 40 centimeters wide, its entryway supported by wooden beams. The temperature inside was between 40 and 50 Celsius, and the humidity was 100%. The rock was so friable that the tunnel walls started to crumble with only light blows from hammers. We stooped, crept and crawled until we were soaked with sweat, and then when we paused for breath we began to look about us eagerly for colossal tourmaline crystals.

At the time this mine was not very viable economically; most of the regular garimpeiros were off seeking their luck elsewhere. But about 60 were still here, and it was expected that when a great find was made again the rest of them would hurry here like swarming ants, to partake in the new prosperity. The work was done entirely by hand, in narrow spaces and under harsh conditions--a European would find it impossible to tolerate such hardships. I succeeded in finding a very nice, gemmy green elbaite crystal about 4 cm long and wide. In the huts above ground we saw a few multicolored tourmalines, the largest measuring 10 cm; the crystals were not terminated, but their colors were wonderful. Here at the mine the asking prices for these specimens were so enormous that we had to pass on buying them.

Despite the small material rewards, we found this mine visit extremely interesting and instructive. We had gained a clearer idea of the places in which gemstones are found, and we now knew the localities of some of our showpieces. On the drive back to Itambacuri we saw an armadillo, and a brief, heavy downpour threatened to render the road impassable. These experiences further enriched and enlivened our day-trip.

Back in Teofilo Otoni we looked for more gemstone sellers, and many beautiful pieces were shown to us; however, the best of them were so expensive that owning them had to remain just a fantasy. Moreover, we had learned that finding such specimens in the mines for ourselves would be very difficult. Shortage of time, impassable terrain, the lack of official authorization, and the presence of danger all dampened individual initiative. All the same, I had been able to acquire a few exceptional specimens during this safari, e.g. a 14 cm-long dravite crystal group, a terminated green elbaite crystal 14 cm long and 4 cm thick, a water-clear topaz crystal weighing 500 grams, and a few titanite crystals to 6 cm.

Now we had a few kilograms of minerals in our travel bags. But the search had left us, finally, with a certain weariness with our own visions, one might say a certain "stone blindness." The climate and the vagabond-like style of travel, as well as the annoyance of increasingly common toll stations along the road, led us now to call a retreat. (The toll stations occurred at intervals of 50 to 150 km; we had grown unhappy with the idea of paying frequent "duties" on specimens which had been expensive to begin with.) Having chosen to make our return trip through the state of Espirito Santo, where tolls were levied less often, we succeeded, mostly by dumb luck, in having a drive free of disturbing developments. Passing through Guarapari, where radioactive monazite sand had brought a purportedly curative bath facility into being, we hurried along the coast to Rio.

Gorgeous weather had accompanied us now for days. The members of the gemstone safari plunged into the "crystal" floods of the Copacabana; besides swimming, we wanted to soak up the sunrays. A trip to the Corcovado, where a gigantic statue of Christ spread its arms wide over Rio, provided unforgettable views over the city and over the cliffs that rose steeply above the blue flood of the ocean. The Favelas, the city's poor quarter, hung like a cluster of swallows' nests on the cliffs, not far from the forest which ringed the city above Sugarloaf Mountain to the north.

Twice we drove all around Sugarloaf--although, both times, we were forced to make emergency stops because of fires in the engine. And we had to forego our planned visit to the snake farm in Sao Paulo. In the city at that time there was a threat of flooding and of outbreaks of contagious disease ... and it was time for us to begin our trip back home to Austria.

While our jet took off from the runway, the great city glittered behind us, in myriad night-lights. Traveling home with us were gem-crystal specimens from Minas Gerais, the El Dorado of crystal-seekers. Goodbye, Brazil!


A Viewing Experience

I had accepted an invitation from an acquaintance, Ilia Deleff, a mineral dealer in Governador Valdares, to inspect his crystal warehouse. Shirtsleeves rolled up and collar open, he greeted me warmly and led me to a central room. Brazilian workers in wide-brimmed sombreros were either sitting around or working in monotonous, uniform rhythms. The temperature was remarkably high, and everyone was sweating heavily. It was January 1971, and at home, in central Europe, there was extreme cold and much snow. Thinking about it, I realized that I was obliged to be happy, having found such warmth here.

I examined a display of large crystal specimens that was set up just outside a large central room in the warehouse. Realizing that this was just an appetizer, I was a bit perplexed: I had never before seen so many specimens as fine as these! Beautifully formed quartz crystal groups stood or lay all around, many of them more than a meter across. Several groups were completely transparent, and they ranged from colorless "rock crystal" through quite black smoky quartz. I gazed all around, and touched some of the specimens to assure myself that I was not dreaming. "Decorator" quartz specimens, huge crystals of amazonite, and huge terminated crystals of black tourmaline were all on hand. My host, standing nearby, visibly savored my delight.

An amethyst geode weighing at least a ton attracted my attention. The deep violet crystals in the narrow tubular neck on its top receded, disappearing, from the observer. This museum piece resembled a multi-dimensional coral specimen.

I would gladly have spent days there, examining everything in detail. To visit this place was to see extremely large specimens; thus I felt like a mountaineer suddenly finding himself in the high Alps. A lamp was brought to illuminate a large, transparent smoky quartz crystal from the rear. This splendid specimen glowed like a star, richly reddish brown.

Slowly but surely, however, I grew "stone blind" until, exhausted, I sat down. A person sitting nearby was a fellow German-speaker, and knew much about Brazil and its minerals ...


Santa Rosa mine

In radiant weather, our bus traveled through the tropical Brazilian landscape, rich with luxuriant vegetation. Shortly after Rio de Janeiro the coastal hills greeted us, and the bus climbed higher, taking wide curves. The roadside was lined with banana trees; with other huge tropical trees overgrown by parasitical plants; with gorgeous shrubs whose flowers were intensely red. At intervals, waterfalls tumbled over the steep cliffs and lost themselves in cracks in the earth. Again I was under the spell of this wonderfully exotic place, and my study-tour companions proclaimed themselves likewise enchanted.

The group which had embarked on this Easter 1973 gemstone-study trip to Brazil consisted of one Swiss, five Germans, one Dutchman and three Austrians, and we were now bound for the interior--for Minas Gerais. Our initial sojourn in Rio, the world's most beautiful city, had taken only one day, and we had quickly made contact there with "mineral people." Crystals and faceted stones alike had been available at reasonable prices from some private people. The gemstone magnate Jules Sauer, the owner of the Cruzeiro tourmaline mine, had treated us to a display showing off the variety and plenitude of Brazilian crystals. So many precious things!

On the following day, in the comfortably furnished bus, the members of the group I was leading were keeping very busy trying to frame the fast-moving images of the landscape in their cameras' viewfinders. Soon we reached the highest point of the coastal hills, at an elevation of 1000 meters, and almost immediately the character of the land was transformed. The road descended rapidly to a brown river, and we saw typical South American settlements nestled harmoniously among stands of trees. Lines of hills appeared, and in the crease of a valley we rolled smoothly north. Most of the houses in the villages were of a simple type, but occasionally manor houses came into view, their spaciousness, dignity and aesthetic refinement bespeaking the high social place of their owners.



Although these impressions were strong, our gazes began to grow tired, and faces once tense with curiosity began to relax. The travelers began taking short naps; rest stops now and then broke up the journey. Throughout, though, we remained alert for photo opportunities: lovely almond-eyed girls in exotic costumes; the expressive faces of farm laborers; colorful, bustling village markets ... there were more than enough.

Hours passed in conversation until, at last, the red light of late afternoon was illuminating the erosional patterns on the laterite hills, and turning huge termite mounds purple. We began to discern, one by one, the dark entrances of mine tunnels on nearby hillsides! Lepidolite dumps (well-known signs of gemstone occurrences) were piled outside of the openings. And now the first hillside houses of Governador Valadares came suddenly into view; they rested on the slopes of a taller than average "sugarloaf" mountain called Ibituruna, at whose base the red-brown Rio Doce flowed by in slow majesty. "Patience," the river seemed to whisper--a word holding much of life's wisdom for people who live in these latitudes.

Patience, however, is certainly not a distinguishing characteristic of Europeans. No sooner had we checked in at our hotel and briefly refreshed ourselves than we were again on the go. As it happened, one of the few official mineral dealers in Governador Valadares was taking inventory just then, and he put us off until a few days later. Nevertheless, since by then I already had a fairly wide circle of local acquaintances, intensive shopping (as well as sightseeing) could go on until well into the evening. Patience, gentlemen--we are just beginning our trek into Minas Gerais.

Our day concluded with a magnificent view from the high windows of our hotel rooms. The city's glitter hung magically in the dark, and a loud, joyous clamor swelled up from everywhere below us. Occasionally, faint samba rhythms rose to our ears; the wind seemed to carry the sound from houses where the day was being closed with festive elation. Palm fronds caressed the half-shadows like wide-open arms, as if to say that we were welcome here, in this place blessed by nature with so many gifts.

The morning of April 18, 1973, saw us once again under way. Teofilo Otoni, the city at the heart of the colored-gemstone business, was our goal. We hurried forward at 80 km/hour, as if in seven-league boots. Primeval forest with a continuous canopy came into view, and massive cones of granite with dark perpendicular banding surprised our eyes. Yes, our powers of mineralogical observation would be getting a big test today.

An acquaintance of mine in Teofilo Otoni, Dr. Jacinto Ganem Neto, had an extremely rich collection, and visiting him was our first goal. I had told him that we were coming, so I knew that we would find this king of crystals at home. He received us with genuine Brazilian hospitality, and, after a short conversation, allowed us to marvel at his collection. He showed obvious pleasure at our entranced expressions and our perhaps insufficiently stifled exclamations of wonder. What a lot of things to see! Beautiful colored tourmaline crystals, to 20 cm long and terminated, lay before us: matchless things, world-class specimens! There were 12 bicolored red/green scepter tourmaline crystals of highest quality; brazilianite matrix specimens 30 cm wide; superbly crystallized rose quartz clusters with childrenite rosettes; doubly terminated herderite crystals more than 10 cm long, on matrix; morganite crystals with phantoms; euclase crystals to 6 cm, the smaller ones richly colored. But one isolated tourmaline crystal would stay particularly in my memory. Twenty cm long and of a wonderful green color, it has one convex and one flat termination, and a doubly terminated quartz crystal lies across it.


One of our party was able to acquire a large green tourmaline with a beautiful, colorless, doubly terminated quartz crystal angled between prism and basal faces. No wonder that we imagined ourselves to be in the Mecca of crystals and gems here! The hours seemed to fly by, and the courteous host did not tire of showing us piece after piece of his wonder-world. The sun was already low when we took our friendly departure and, with some newly won treasures, covered the short distance to our hotel. We were still excited by what we had seen, but were already restlessly looking forward to moving on to the next mine owners, cutters, and collectors.

For some members of our party the night's rest began very late. Through friends I was able to offer them a chance to enjoy some real South American singing, dancing, and general gaiety. We made lasting memories out of the melodious voices of the senoritas, the soft and insinuating music of Brazilian troubadours, and the virtuosity of the youthful guitar players. The mistress of the house kept serving us--past midnight--with foods prepared European-style, and the grandmother of the family sang a tender folk song. Our ever-goodhumored "Haro" smoothly mimed an interpretation of a popular song--and our hosts were well able to understand his performance, once good will was brought to bear.


On the next day we were scheduled to visit the Santa Rosa mine. Punctually, as arranged, the jeeps appeared in front of the hotel. Soon, in great good spirits, we were riding off on the barely passable road, through the clouds of dust we raised after leaving the asphalt-surfaced highway and entering rough terrain. It was a beautiful day, and we rode over the sticks and stones in high expectation. From Itambacuri it was about 45 kilometers to the mine. Our jeeps, passing foaming cascades of waterfalls, gallantly climbed uphill. From time to time, wild-looking horsemen crossed our path, hands held high as they gripped the reins, their sharply cut, moustached faces shadowed by their sombreros. Images from almost-forgotten movies awoke in my memory, but it was neither the time nor the place for pondering these: suddenly the shock absorber began to suffer major damage from malicious stones and potholes, and I was thrust back into reality.

Finally the Santa Rosa mine lay before us. Thanks to countless borings and tunnelings, this hill had long since become famous in mineral-collecting circles: many of the best tourmalines in existence had come from here! The brilliant glitter of the lepidolite dump reminded us not to expose our uncovered skin to the merciless sun for too long; the ultraviolet component of sunlight can be as damaging here as on the face of a glacier in the high mountains.

The first jeep had already driven past the first tunnel opening. Recent violent downpours had deeply channeled the road and made it almost impassable. When we four travelers had circled above a steep cut (our driver having mistakenly taken us on a little detour), we were laughed at by those who had arrived before us.

Since my first visit to Santa Rosa in 1968 the place had changed quite substantially. Where formerly there had been bustling activity, only a few garimpeiros were huddling about in these days before Easter 1973; there were many fewer huts, and the central depot was yawningly empty. Only one vault contained small bags of tourmaline; the bags were padlocked, and the key was in the safekeeping of the mine owner in Itambacuri. Well, many of the spoils here were probably not remarkable anyway, so we resolved to explore the mine for ourselves. A few of the available garimpeiros were willing to act as guides, and these led the way over steep terrain and through grass taller than a man. We reached the mouth of a tunnel. Some of our party entrusted themselves to the dark hole, and a little later I followed. Certainly I knew in general what mines are like, but still I wanted to experience again what it's like to find gems underground, and I wanted to see the present state of the workings. Ahead of me, now and then, in a regular rhythm, I heard muffled sounds and broken outcries, signaling collisions of the heads of the people in front of me with the mine's crossbeams, which were situated (as far as I could determine) about 1.6 meters high in the tunnels. The tunnels themselves tapered upwards, and were barely shoulder-wide; they were slippery-sided and crude, and it took a while for my companions to get used to this unfamiliar environment.

Claustrophobic conditions, danger, heat, 100% humidity--all these are the usual conditions endured by the local gem-seekers, the garimpeiros. They had been shaped by and stamped with these realities. It would hardly be possible for a European miner to undertake hard physical labor under the same circumstances.

Streaming with sweat and panting through wide-open mouths, some of the participants on my tour straggled out again into the daylight. They walked around in short circles, and there was a barely stifled curse. Now they knew what it means to dig precious stones! Haro reached for his wallet and pulled out 50 cruzeiros for his guide: a princely sum for a fellow man whose fate it was, apparently, to receive a minimum of reward for a maximum of work done, day in and day out. "Now," Haro said, "I appreciate my tourmalines much, much more."

On the following day we returned to Governador Valadares. From morning until late at night we kept very busy scrounging for crystals, studying them, learning about localities, and acquiring particular pieces. A few of us prepared shipments for export. Transparent "fenster" quartz, smoky quartz, colorless quartz, exceptional amazonite, topaz, tourmaline, beryl--during these days we handled much that Minas Gerais has to offer. We no longer bothered with inventories; hours dwindled to minutes. And these were only the specimens to be found in Valadares ...

Late into the night we worked to get everything safely packed. One of us in particular worked with extreme care, and worried obsessively about his export shipment. He bestowed drinking money to make sure that his packing assistants brought special diligence to their task; he kept constant watch and did everything possible to ensure that the minerals were safely stowed away and would suffer no damage from human misjudgment during transport. An example worth following!

On the last day, in Rio, we found some emerald specimens, and I acquired a perfectly formed white topaz crystal that weighs more than 5 kg. I was able to help Uwe Niemeyer, a German mineral dealer who was now a friend, to acquire a pale blue, 4-kg topaz crystal. On the evening of the return flight, in small groups, we prowled about casually in the city that sprawls below Sugarloaf Mountain. After a refreshing swim under evening skies we returned to the hotel: departure time was near.

The shadows of night were lying over Rio by the time the howling of our giant bird's jet engines had reached full strength, and we rose from the runway. Now we were airborne, and under us spread the ocean of light of the dreaming city. Our last glimpse of Brazil already was calling forth a yearning to return, a desire to dream the dream of South America yet again ... saudade do Brasil.



Virgem da Lapa mine

Since early in 1975 a major Brazilian gemstone mine had become widely known: the Virgem da Lapa topaz mine. Discovered in 1973, the deposit had been intensively mined since late 1974. It lies in the northeastern part of the state of Minas Gerais, 690 km by air from Rio de Janeiro, west-northwest of Aracuai and east of Montesclaro, 76 km from the main connecting road to Bahia.

Mica schists and gneisses compose the crystalline basement rock. Sandstone and quartzite units are interlayered in these rocks, and bodies of granitic rocks, including gem-rich pegmatites, intermittently protrude as outcrops. The country rocks are of Precambrian age, whereas the erosional deposits overlying them date from the Tertiary. In quartz-lined cavities in the pegmatites, wonderful blue topaz crystals and large tourmaline crystals occur, associated with platy albite and lepidolite. Beryl, including aquamarine, is sparsely intergrown with the feldspars of the pegmatites.

Blue topaz crystals on matrix from Virgem da Lapa are rare, and these splendid specimens therefore have always been cherished, and certainly were so in 1975. The topaz crystals perch on quartz, on feldspar, and on an unusual-looking lepidolite which is characteristic of the locality: yellow to brown to violet wormlike aggregates. Fine crystals of aquamarine on feldspar matrix also are found at this locality.

In July of 1975, I went to seek out the mine. In Governador Valdares I arranged to travel by jeep to Virgem da Lapa with a good acquaintance of mine, a former garimpeiro who by that time had become a gemstone dealer. I traveled early on the following day to Teofilo Otoni, where I would be picked up for the excursion to the mine. On the appointed date, I waited all day at the hotel--in vain. In the evening, just as I was preparing for my night's sleep, a Brazilian friend stated his willingness to take me in his vehicle to my destination. On the next morning we thundered off. Fura's jeep was quite old and battered, but on good roads the old veteran cruised smartly along, and felt safe enough.


The first landscape we entered was rank with tropical vegetation. At times, areas marked by mining in secondary deposits came up almost to the edge of the roadway. Near Marambaia we took advantage of the fine weather and sought out a large aquamarine mine called Pontalete, in a small nearby valley, but, finding little of interest, we soon were continuing on our journey. Near Padre Paraiso the topography and vegetation changed completely. The characteristic flora of moist, tropical climates receded, and the region we entered now was wide and open, with low, sparsely vegetated hills. Soon I could make out farms amid cultivated fields.

Finally we had to leave the good asphalt road which led on to Salvador, and proceed in the direction of Aracuai on a wide but extremely poor and dusty road. My driver took joy in traversing this "runway" with lightning speed--so that we wouldn't notice its roughness, he said. But passages of limited visibility caused by the whirling dust forced him to apply the brake pedal. We made a joke of this: he was evidently determined to test my horsemanship as I rode along in the saddle of this gasoline-eating steed. When eventually I tried a braking move myself by applying the top of my head to the roof of the jeep, he calmed down, deciding that rodeo wasn't so interesting after all.

In Taquaral, a little town just before Aracuai, we disembarked, covered with dust and thoroughly rattled. Here I met Acentino, a not very young but very energetic farmer, whose noiva (fiancee) was remarkably pretty. Acentino was also involved in minerals, and told us about new finds of diamonds, gold, uranium and other rarities along the Jequitinhonha River. After a huge meal we went to see his fruit plantation, which stretched along the banks of the river. Mango trees, with their highly edible fruits (which we sampled), stood among the orange trees in their groves. After this side trip the head of the household introduced us to Jose Estradea, owner of a rubellite (red elbaite) mine near Taquaral.

Finally we continued our trek. Like a comet with a long dust trail we thundered on, surmounting potholes and rocks and hillocks; we passed Aracuai, and at sundown, after a further hour's ride, we reached the village of Virgem da Lapa, after which the mine was named.

In the very modest "hotel" where we had pre-arranged to stay, there could be no thought of sleep: massive clouds of mosquitos fell upon us. There were no mosquito nets, so I sought shelter under the bedclothes. I stuck the end of my nose out, like a periscope, and at once I became the target of an attack of the blood-suckers who so far had been disappointed in their quest for a good night's meal. So many of them fell victim to me in the maelstrom around my organ of smell that my handkerchief became a heroes' grave.

In the gray light of earliest morning we sat behind the wheel again, and our jeep labored up onto the dusty laterite road. We passed an abandoned mine, crossed a dry stream bed, clambered over flat-lying rock outcrops, and drove through a forest. We had long since left the easy road and were now experiencing a roadway paved with corrugated iron sheets--not good for the digestion. At last, after we had bounced over every bump for an endless 25 kilometers, we entered the area of the mine.


A remarkable scene presented itself: the whole hillside, riddled with holes, suggested a giant building-construction site. Machines clattered, and crude shanties supported by wooden poles rose against the morning's blue sky. One's gaze could wander widely over unending chains of hills to the far horizon. Now, I thought, I am at the famous Virgem da Lapa gemstone mine, source of the blue topaz and green aquamarine crystals that are astonishing people everywhere!

The garimpeiros seemed not to be in any particular hurry this morning; soon we fell into conversation with them. In this way I learned that my friend Luizelio Barreto, for whom I had waited so long in Teofilo Otoni, had already arrived at the mine, indeed, on the previous day, bringing with him a load of the explosives which had been desperately needed, and in his drive here he had been compelled to avoid all towns and to detour around all government outposts while on his dangerous errand. So now I knew why he hadn't shown up to fetch me. Under those circumstances it was for the best, anyway, since I would have had no wish to accompany him and the dynamite. Also the garimpeiros told me that just a few days ago one of their comrades had lost his life because dynamite had been handled improperly. The police had gotten wind of it and had made difficulties.

Now I began my tour of the mine area. Lone people were searching over the dumps, and many miners were bringing waste rock out of the tunnels that served the workings. For a while I joined in the search for minerals, and made a few discoveries; however, for Virgem da Lapa they were unimpressive. I was shown a few topaz crystals with high asking prices. The finest specimens, I gathered, had left the mine site the evening before, in the company of my amigo, Barreto.

Miners with their mining tools, thoroughly filthy, were emerging from the tunnels. Visibly uneasy, they stole glances back at one tunnel opening. Suddenly, strong explosions shook the whole area of the mine. Barreto must have brought powerful explosives with him; the earth kept vibrating for a long time. Considerable fireworks were now breaking out in the bosom of Mother Earth, surely liberating many tourmaline and topaz specimens.


Unfortunately I couldn't wait to see this abundance; I had only half a day to spend at the mine. With a heavy heart I took my leave of this place, then so productive, in order to start the trip back to Teofilo Otoni. Fura, behind the wheel, laughed at me because he knew that Virgem da Lapa was going to prove productive for me personally after all--thanks to my sometimes unreliable but still very good friend Barreto, whom I would soon see in Governador Valadares!

Virgem da Lapa--one more great experience. I hoped it would remain productive for all of us who find joy in the beauty of crystals: the beauty that can turn every working day into a Sunday!


Jonas mine, Golconda mine

The tour and mineralogical study trip which I led to Brazil in 1980 was extremely interesting. The seven participants took a Boeing 707 of the Brazilian VARIG line out of the Frankfurt/Main Airport; the plane touched down briefly in Lisbon and made a night landing at Rio de Janeiro. Early the next morning we sought out our first dealers and crystal warehouses, and soon we were standing before aquamarine crystals with cross-sections wide enough to sit on. Topaz crystals to 15 kg were also on hand, and the shelving, loaded with gigantic mineral specimens, gave the impression of a prodigious cave of crystals, summoning astounded shakings of heads.

Jules Sauer of Amsterdam had a fantastic mineralogical museum, especially strong in precious stones, in the Ipanema quarter of Rio de Janeiro; he ran the second biggest jewelry business in South America, and owned several gemstone mines. When we visited his warehouse tremendous specimens from the Jonas rubellite mine were especially prominent. The shelves also held a few distinctive specimens of dark green Cruzeiro-mine tourmaline. The days in Rio went by too quickly, what with touring the city, examining crystals, and making contacts with mineral people.


Then, early one morning, we were again on the road in a comfortably furnished bus of the Rio Doce line. The way led past the bizarre coastal hills and in the direction of that mineral El Dorado, Minas Gerais. Odd-looking towers of rock rose steeply above us like the fingers of God. In the glowing light of the early evening we arrived at "crystal city," Governador Valadares. In show windows here one saw crystals constantly--although whoever wanted something special needed to have good connections and to be familiar with "sources" in the surrounding countryside.

In those days the mineral "filling stations" in town--the head-quarters of mine owners, gemstone prospectors, and dealers of opportunity--often had wonderful specimens, although the quality and abundance of their offerings was highly variable. What you found was a thing of the moment, a matter of luck and, of course, of financial circumstances. Sometimes you found that good old contacts had faded away and new people had established themselves. Thus, until late in the evenings we had visited crystal galleries, gemstone depots, the narrow and cluttered rooms of private collectors, and the roomy halls of well-known dealers, admiring faceted gemstones, fingering major specimens--two days had already flown by!

The bus brought us to Teofilo Otoni, a typical South American city, with myriad whirlings of human activity; sloths living in the canopies of the trees in the main plaza; innumerable street merchants and street-lapidaries; whirring hummingbirds; and always, of course, crystal storehouses to be discovered. My friend Dr. Jacinto, the South American "crystal king," greeted us in his usual friendly way and spent hours showing us outstanding items from the mineralogical wonderland that is Brazil. He had specimens of the best quality, with crystals of the most perfect development, such as any museum would put in places of honor: multicolored and doubly terminated tourmaline crystals weighing more than a kilogram; cutting-quality tourmaline scepter crystals with red stems and green heads (which I reported in print, a few years later, to a mostly unbelieving readership); plates of rose quartz crystals, decorated with eosphorite crystals, more than 40 cm wide; sharp blue topaz crystals of various sizes; blue single crystals of aquamarine with wonderful terminations, rich in secondary faces.

This intense inspection, lasting for hours, made us tired, again almost "stone-blind." But we quickly recovered when we had taken our places in comfortable wicker chairs in the "Garden of Giant Stones" among crystals of colorless quartz, smoky quartz, amazonite, etc., half a meter high, populating an expanse of lawn like garden dwarfs. After some conversation about possibilities for new discoveries, and about the land and people, we took a warm departure from Senhor Jacinto.


We visited Agenor Tavares, a specialist in faceted stones and the owner of a large aquamarine mine near Vitorio de Conquista which produces fabulous gemstones. At Agenor's place we saw his new, very large aquamarine crystals, many of highest quality. Also he showed us a dreamlike collection of cut gems, from 3-carat alexandrites with distinct red/green color change to 1000-carat blue topaz and aquamarine gemstones. As a novelty he also displayed a 10-cm gold nugget from a region in Serra Pelada, in the state of Paraiba.

On the following day we were invited to Governador Valadares to visit one of the two former leaseholders of the Jonas rubellite mine at Itatiaia. This former garimpeiro was now well situated, the father in a family of four; his daughter was a real beauty. In his yard stood large mineral specimens of diverse sorts, including geodes being used as flower planters. Inside the house there were things to be seen everywhere, including specimens from a recent find of fan-shaped aggregates of rose-violet tourmaline crystals ... and here a brief digression, and a brief trip back in time, is in order.

In early 1978 the garimpeiro Ailton Barbosa of Governador Valadares, with five companions, decided to try his luck again in an old mine. Insignificant finds were the skimpy result of the group's first investigations. The leaseholder, Jonas de Souza Lima, a mineral dealer from Governador Valadares, was no longer willing to fritter away his money on exploration work. But Ailton was successful in persuading his patron, Jonas, to permit one more short period of work in the mine. Ailton drove tunnels deep into the Itatiaia pegmatite, and after 60 meters he breached a small pocket; filled with sand and water, the pocket contained some acicular crystals of green tourmaline. Water trickled from above along a fissure, inspiring Ailton to work upwards. To open the much larger pocket above, he employed dynamite--carefully, to be sure, and in small quantities, so as not to destroy any pocket contents. The drill chewed deeper into the mountain. Suddenly a block of rock fell away, exposing a grotto. Spellbound, the miners stood before a great pocket of amazing beauty. In the light of the lamps, fabulous crystals shimmered and glowed: the lustrous, terminated, deep red rubellite crystals had grown to amazing sizes, like petals of giant flowers, on feldspar; some were doubly terminated.

Many experts agree that this is the greatest single discovery of tourmaline, in terms of the size and quality of the crystals, ever made in South America, and perhaps the world. The pocket was 2 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. The extraordinarily valuable crystal groups had to be collected from overhead with primitive tools in dangerous and very difficult circumstances. Exceptional precautions were necessary in order to free the crystals from the rock and take them out undamaged. Some of the world-class specimens which emerged were given individual names, e.g. Joninha, Foquete, Tarungo, Flor de Lice. The prices asked for them climbed far beyond anything known before, and many interested parties, understandably, hesitated at first to buy--but did not keep hesitating for long. News of the sensational discovery spread rapidly throughout the region and throughout the mineral world, and a run on Jonas mine tourmaline specimens commenced.



Now it was 1980, and my group was about to visit one of my oldest acquaintances in Governador Valadares, Jonas de Souza Lima, who owned the most valuable tourmaline specimens in the world. We went to see them as pilgrims go to a holy shrine. Senhor Jonas (as he was called) first showed us the "Tarungo," an organ-pipe-shaped rubellite crystal weighing 80 kg, which he kept in a separate vault. The audience was left breathless: we had never seen anything remotely comparable to it. Then Jonas took us into his study, where, in a well-secured area, he kept more world-famous specimens, truly wonders: "Joninha" (named after his wife), 350 kg, two huge terminated rubellite crystals in a beautifully composed group with albite rosettes and quartz crystals, surely the most spectacular crystal specimen in the world; "Foquete;" also known as "the rocket," 150 kg, a column of red crystals 104 cm high, terminated and of excellent quality, rising from a group of doubly terminated quartz crystals; "Flor de Lice." 65 kg, a "flower" consisting of a large red tourmaline crystal encircled by quartz crystals and feldspar.


Sometimes, while showing off his treasures like this, Jonas would be wearing two bullet belts like sashes and carrying a revolver and a shotgun. Standing there, legs spread wide, with a stubble of beard and an eloquent grin on his face, he looked like a Mexican desperado. Armed to the teeth, he was guarding his treasures personally. Despite our long acquaintance, Senhor Jonas was always reluctant to allow photography. On this occasion he permitted me to photograph only "Tarungo" and "Flor de Lice."

The time had come for us to take a close look at the Jonas mine for ourselves. Of course, for quite a while already the coveted rubellite with the violet cast had not been found at the mine; still, we were not about to let the chance to see the place slip by us. The trip will always remain unforgettable to me. We picked up gemstone specimens, studied the mine's interior, observed ongoing work in the tunnels, talked with the miners and learned their customary methods, and even reached out longingly to touch the cross-sections of tourmaline crystal stumps in the tunnel walls. The journey itself, in both directions, was an adventure, with fords over the river, car troubles, wildly romantic scenery, and the drive back at night under starry Brazilian skies.

The next morning's sunrise found us nearing the Golconda tourmaline mine. This excursion, too, brought adventure, deepened our knowledge of the landscape, and provided the joys of personal discovery. Besides several kilograms of quartz crystals, we collected many modest tourmaline specimens. We climbed over piles of mica; feldspar crystals cut grooves into the soles of our shoes. But, too soon, we had to leave this great and charismatic locality.

Back in Valadares we finally succeeded in finding a certain store with Jonas mine rubellite crystals; they belonged to the man who then held the lease on the mine. Senhor Dilermano was only willing to sell these huge, expensive rubellites as a complete lot--what a shame! (In the time since this visit, Senhor Dilermano disposed of almost the whole contents of his shop, and now there is no Jonas mine rubellite to be purchased in all of Brazil.)

Later I was able to locate a few of the transitory dealers and mine owners I knew in Belo Horizonte and Montesclaros. As is usual in Brazil, they had new addresses and new telephone numbers, but also new finds to tell me about. These included quartz crystal groups weighing tons, amethyst resembling some that we know from the Austrian Alps, and beautiful pink apatite crystals perched well on feldspar; the Brazilians call these latter crystals "natural gems."

We stayed considerably longer in the interior than we had planned to. A final bus ride by way of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais, brought the members of the study tour to Ouro Preto, formerly a rich gold-mining town, now partly preserved in colonial style. Many baroque churches and museum-like secular buildings lined the streets, which were narrow and deep. This very interesting city hosts a mining school and possesses the best mineralogical museum in Brazil, with a special emphasis on minerals of the region (there is a special sub-collection of "imperial" topaz and euclase). The landscape around Ouro Preto is Alpine-looking, the water is good, and the climate is pleasant; we felt healthier here than on the hot, humid coast.

There remained one more quick buying trip, this time to Rodrigo Silva, the rough, picturesque town where miners who work at the nearby topaz fields live. After pleasant strolls down the photogenic alleys of the former regional capital, Vila Rica, it was back to Rio, and farewell at last to Minas Gerais. Brazil: one word for so much that we had experienced, seen and enjoyed. We would come again.


Golconda mine, Ouro Preto, Rodrigo Silva

In 1982 we were in for another fascinating experience in Brazil! Under blue skies and a burning sun, my big group of 17 enthusiasts rode in two Volkswagen buses through the neighborhoods of Rio (the city center, Gloria, Flamengo, Botafogo, Leme, Ipanema) to Leblon, to spend a short but pleasure-filled hour on one of the city's most beautiful beaches. The surroundings of this world-city are unique: wide bays, kilometer-long beaches, steep conical hills, and tropical forests. Harpuador, a rocky point of land, offered us a magnificent natural spectacle: wild sea waves break here, and columns of water rise to 30 meters high--a grand view!

Shortly afterwards we were sitting comfortably in the sales room of an acquaintance of mine, a jeweler, and admiring cases full of gemstones and gem carvings of various kinds and qualities. Necklaces, agate slabs, carved stone figures, and minerals in their natural state filled the shelves. This "appetizer" was stimulating, and soon we were strolling on Avenida Atlantica, where the best South American jewelry concerns have their outlets. Choice items were on display in the show windows; a well-composed specimen of Jonas mine rubellite weighing 85 kg was especially impressive. Not neglecting the joys of the palate, we sought out the Jardim specialty restaurant and treated ourselves to a large Spiessbraten (in Brazil this grilled pork delicacy is called a churrasco), whose artful preparation won our approval. Finally we came to the mineral depot of the second biggest South American jewelry business, that of Jules Sauer, in Rua Mexico in the center of Rio, and gained entrance to work areas which were "furnished" with gigantic tourmaline specimens. By this time, however, most members of our group were too tired to concentrate any longer, and wanted to return to the hotel. The enormous pyrite specimens from Jacobina, the tourmalines from Itatiaia weighing 60 and 65 kg, the bicolored tourmaline from the Cruzeiro mine and the massive amethyst geodes from Rio Grande do Sul had finished us off--that was enough for today.

On the next morning the bus brought us first to the tropical hills on the coast. Soon it was climbing to high elevations, the road frequently traversing undisturbed forests. Groups of trees overgrown by parasitical plants, with orchids and bromeliads, seemed to reach out for us as we passed. Chains of mountains, forested on their peaks, appeared in the distance. Among them were bizarrely shaped towers of granite, the highest of which, a natural obelisk, is called the "Finger of God"; in clear weather Rio is visible from its summit. But as we descended the scenery quickly changed, and now the landscape brimmed with alluring valleys and rivers.

Late in the afternoon we reached Governador Valadares, a world capital for crystal-seekers. We could hardly wait to make our first visits to the mineral dealers and gem prospectors. For very reasonable prices we had soon acquired blue kyanite of an intensity of color we'd never seen before, and soon again we were searching for new specimen sources. We handled and marveled at huge smoky quartz groups, great specimens of colorless quartz, black smoky quartz specimens weighing 180 kg, amethysts as big as bathtubs, amazonite, sodalite, "crocodile" quartz ... until, weary from so much looking, questioning, understanding, and happy about having bought so many showpieces, we finally went to dinner.


On the next day, after an ample breakfast, we were under way again. Mineral dealers, private collectors, gemstone accumulations, and crystal warehouses were all brought "under the lens" in turn, and specimens were examined, admired, and photographed. The selection was more than rich: what do you do when you cannot take it all with you? At lunch almost nothing was said; we were all too preoccupied. While the sun was coloring the horizon red, 17 mineralogical hobbyists returned wearily to their hotel.

And then on to Golconda! How the whole area of the mine had changed since our last visit! The entire mountain was now riddled with holes. Where previously the tunnel entrances had seemed sadly disused, there were new ones gaping now, garimpeiros were working busily, and new huts had been built. Golconda was producing again! By evening, Ailton Barbosa, discoverer of the great Jonas mine tourmaline and now co-owner of the Golconda mine, had shown us many new tourmalines from the Golconda, and it had been agreed that a local prospector would lead us into the tunnels.

It turned out to be a wonderful mine tour. Having discovered small pockets containing beautiful green, transparent tourmalines, a few of which have doubly terminated quartz crystals on them, the travelers, beaming, emerged from the tunnel, hands full of tourmaline; and everywhere we could simply pluck 20-kg quartz crystals out of the soil. We found garnets and autunite, feldspar and lepidolite. On the return trip we stopped to rest on the shallow bank of a river, and saw local people washing the sand for black columbite crystals. Our companion Rott pulled a quartz crystal weighing several kilograms out of the streambed (it is a scepter, with a head of darker quartz), and Herb Weber washed his specimens of green tourmaline in the stream. The group, in fact, swarmed all over the stream, finding one thing here, another thing there. Karl Jellinek hauled the quartz crystal group he had found to the car, undeterred by its weight; he said it would always remind him of this Golconda trip.

On Friday the crystal warriors set out eagerly for the town which would be the gemological high point of their journey: Teofilo Otoni. First, a two-hour bus ride brought us to Itambacuri, an idyllic little town where many mine owners lived. We went to the house of Don Jose Gomez, proprietor of the Santa Rosa tourmaline mine. He himself was not at home, but his wife permitted us to see and to photograph "the most beautiful calcite in the world," a rose-shaped crystal cluster about 30 cm across, the petals wonderfully aligned and transparent along their edges, suggesting gemmy euclase crystals.

This specimen made a tremendous impression on me, and I have always considered it to be the world's finest calcite. I wanted to show it to my fellow travelers on a later mineralogical study-tour, by which time Don Gomez had sold off the wonderful tourmalines he had gathered, but he had been unable to part with the calcite rose. One of my companions on this later study tour, a German dealer, turned up his nose and said self-importantly, "Herr Steger, do you think I haven't already sold plenty of beautiful calcite roses?" But then we were standing before the specimen. Don Gomez had taken it out of its own special showcase and now presented it proudly: a snow-white crystal cluster 30 cm across, with crystal "petals" resembling euclase crystals arrayed in a circle. At the circle's center is a vertical aggregate of terraced scalenohedrons ending in a spearpoint. The spectacle was disorienting. No one spoke a word--not even a "fabulous" or "fantastic." It couldn't have been quieter in a church. Our formerly outspoken friend also seemed to have lost the power of speech: was he praying, perhaps?

Half an hour after leaving Itambacuri we reached Teofilo Otoni, the world's greatest gem-cutting center. This city was founded by German colonists, but has a typically South American character, with market stalls, street vendors, many people traversing the bumpy streets, tame animals in the trees: a colorful scene, shot after shot offering itself to the photographer.

Once again we had the appointment to visit the hospitable Dr. Jacinto, the uncrowned king of Brazilian gemstones. And the pieces he showed us once again bordered on the otherworldly--our wonder at so much beauty would stay with us for a long time. Super-specimens were brought out one after another: multicolored tourmaline crystals on quartz crystals, blue topaz on feldspar or lepidolite, and seemingly whatever else the mineral-lover could wish. Hours of looking, commenting, and asking questions created a kind of crystal-intoxication. Our eyes remained fixed, spellbound, on the glistening prisms, terminal faces, and combinations of forms. For some of us, it was like living inside a dream.

On the next day, while a part of our group set out to visit two aquamarine mines near Tres Barras, the others were drawn, as if by enchantment, back to the "precious stone" warehouse of Dr. Jacinto. New suites of minerals were displayed, and the new finds from Coronel Murta particularly impressed us: tourmaline prisms which are pink at the base but change to an intense gemmy green at the termination. Many specimens soon found themselves in the hands of new owners.

Then it was on to Belo Horizonte, a city of a million people in the greatest iron-mining region on earth, and the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. For hours the variegated landscape passed by the windows of our comfortable bus. Finally, as the bus rounded the cliffs at the crest of a hill, we saw the city spread at our feet: a huge sea of dwellings ringed by a chain of hills from which gold, iron and precious stones are extracted. We disembarked at a luxury hotel, and did not take long to discover that the swimming pool was on the roof terrace on the 15th floor.

Ouro Preto, a very special topaz locality, is reachable in two hours by bus from Belo Horizonte. Golden ("imperial") topaz is found there, and commands enormous prices because of its special beauty. Found very rarely in association with the amber-colored topaz crystals are crystals of euclase, a gemstone for connoisseurs. Ouro Preto, reposing in a pleasantly Alpine-like landscape, is a real architectural jewel, and we enjoyed seeing once more the baroque style of colonial times, and the many monuments. Every dilapidated old house has been rebuilt in the original style. The historic old gold-mining capital is full of churches, aristocrats' townhouses, romantic plazas, and narrow, steep alleyways. The mining academy and its mineralogical museum testify to the central place of this former capital city of Minas Gerais in the mining industry.



A rented motorbus took us to a destination of special interest: Rodrigo Silva, the site of some topaz mines. The tour members learned of the methods, and difficulties, of mining golden topaz, and some of them found some crystals. The ground was extremely muddy, and some of the members lost their shoes in the deep slime.

After this very instructive side trip, during which we also learned about the second great "imperial" topaz mine, at Vermelhao, we left the city, and late in the evening we reached Belo Horizonte again.

The tour having come to an end, the travelers flew back to Rio, where most remained for another week, getting to know Brazil better--Sugarloaf Mountain, the Corcovado, the bathing beaches, the botanical garden, the Petropolis, Iguassu Falls. In quiet, leisure hours in the future, or in contemplation of our new treasures, many scenes would pass before our mind's eye, and "Do you know what?" we would say to companions then, "One time, in Brazil ..."


Sapo mine

The Sapo mine, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, had by 1998 produced brightly colorful, bicolored tourmaline crystals for about five years. The pegmatite was discovered by prospectors in 1992, and production of gemstone stock began in 1993. Some of the tourmaline crystals are zoned in the "watermelon" style while others display parallel bands of red and green. The crystals range from gemstone-cutting quality through opaque (but bright green); in many cases they compose handsome groups of fantastically varied forms. These attractive specimens reach impressive sizes--to more than a meter across.

The Sapo mine lies in the Conselheiro Pena region, about 130 km east of Governador Valadares, a major administrative center of the state of Minas Gerais. The region is fascinating: a hilly landscape with distinct summits, shot through with prominent rose-violet erosional features which interrupt the luxuriant tropical vegetation. Beyond this prospect looms a bizarre formation of steep, toothlike rocks.

In 1998, the year of my visit, the mine's owner was Senhor Martin Clovis Coelho, nicknamed "Baiano," a big mineral dealer of Governador Valadares. The proprietor of the land was a farm owner who received 20% of the revenues from the mine. Fifteen garimpeiros were employed; most stayed in Governador Valadares on weekends and otherwise lived in lodgings near the mine. They received 15% of the profits.

There were about 250 meters of tunnels, the deepest just 15 m below the surface--a big problem during heavy rainstorms. Since the mine lay in a valley floor between the hills, and under layered deposits of sand and gravel, there was always a danger of the ground becoming flooded and in that case production was broken off for a time.

Geologically, a basement of schist and gneiss is overlain by lateritic soil and by layers of sand and gravel. The basement rock is injected by quartzite and by granite and pegmatite lenses; the latter, which stand out conspicuously, are the gemstone-bearing units. These geological formations are of Precambrian age, while the sedimentary deposits date from the Tertiary.


The most important mineral species found include elbaite (red "rubellite" and bicolored, the latter showing either parallel bands or watermelon-configured zones, as well as green and blue varieties), dravite, schorl, beryl (morganite, rarely goshenite and aquamarine), hydroxyl-herderite, columbite-group minerals, fluorapatite and albite. The production of colored varieties of-quartz as of 1998 was 70,000 kg of "crocodile" quartz, 20,000 kg of transparent "fenster" quartz, and 10,000 kg of citrine.

On November 20, 1998 we set out for a visit to the Lavro da Sapo pegmatite. A wonderful warm summer day had dawned. The mine's owner, an affable, sociable Brazilian, picked me up at the Hotel Realminas in Governador Valadares. Lazily smoking cigarettes while still attending vigilantly to the road, he sat beside me and fatalistically steered the big truck which had just been brought out of the mine and into the city to have a defective compressor repaired. We conversed freely, and thus I picked up interesting information.

The blacktop road ran along the mighty Rio Doce for about 100 km, and then came to a fork: straight ahead for Resplendor, left for Goiabeira and Mantenha. We took the Goiabeira turnoff, the road remaining blacktopped for a short while but beginning to ascend, and soon the rubber hoofprints of our gasoline-eating steed were showing up in the red-brown-violet iron oxide dust of an eroded roadbed. The road climbed ever higher in a series of curves. We were shaken and vibrated through and through: this part of the trip was unhealthy for the digestion, never mind the integrity of the spinal column. To traverse this band of laterite in bad weather would clearly be dangerous; one would have to deal with a chaos of slippery sludge.

Around every curve we saw new kinds of plant life and rock formations. A farm flitted by us, and a few kilometers before the picturesque town of Goiabeira, silvery, glittering dumps at last appeared. Garimpeiros were working in front of the holes, as tall as a man, which speckled the hillsides. A group of mine workers was gathered with the shift boss under a shady tree. While the boss was issuing instructions and paying wages, I surveyed the dump in the hot sunlight, poked about, and took photographs. It turned out that this was only a "showplace" working: Senhor Baiano operated many more mines in the area.

Soon we continued our drive, and after 15 more minutes of intense rattling over potholes and hummocks we reached the Sapo mine. In the hilly landscape, at the foot of a towering sugarloaf mountain, a flat, sandy valley spread before us. Violet-colored erosion gullies descended threateningly. A farm was visible, as were miners industriously at work. Serving apparently as their homes were two wide, colorfully painted huts--as if to make a pretty picture on a TV screen. Various pieces of mining equipment were being taken out of the huts, and nearby, waste material (sand) was being taken in buckets out of a shaft. A winding cable transported a miner into the depths--only seven meters. The shaft's walls were secured by concrete rings more than a meter in diameter. At eight meters the shaft reached rock and ended its descent; from here the tunnels, 250 meters of them altogether, branched out. It was from this shaft that crystals were routinely brought up and into the light of day.

The Padrao knew of my interest in entering some of the tunnels. Preparing myself, I took off my long pants and put on a pair of shorts that I had brought with me, and put on rubber boots. Very soon I was moving, through watercourses, puddles and mini-pools, along a narrow tunnel, following my guide and friend of the moment, on a zigzag course, at times in a full, knee-deep crouch. I had to be terribly careful to see that the jagged rocks of the tunnel ceiling didn't rip at the skin of my head (for I had forgotten to wear a helmet) and possibly scalp me. Once in a while the tunnel widened and I could walk upright, but sharp, rocky protrusions left and right warned me not to be careless. Abrupt shifts in the level of the tunnel floor also demanded maximum alertness. There were very few wooden support beams, and those only in the central part of the tunnel. Electric cables and air hoses were fastened to the walls throughout the tunnel's course. In several spots, miners toiled with their drills to make shot holes. Charges of dynamite would be inserted, and the holes sealed; blasts would be prepared like this in nine separate places, and they would all be set off at the same time this evening.


Martin Clovis Coelho or "Baiano," the experienced former garimpeiro, examined the strike of the gemstone-bearing pegmatite and gave directions concerning where, and how much farther, the work should proceed. Now and then he pointed out to me the places where gems had been found; in the light of the lamps he showed me the traces of blue and red tourmalines still visible where the crystals had been attached. Finally, after 30 minutes, filthy and breathless and wet through and through and streaming with sweat from the underground heat, we were back at the tunnel entrance. A few more gymnastic turns on the winding cable, and we were bathed in daylight and fresh air once again.

Whoever enters such an underground mine will come truly to appreciate what difficulty, hard labor, and danger miners must undergo to wrest gemstones and other minerals from the earth. Also, it should be remembered that mine owners must take enormous financial risks to make possible the discovery, extraction and safe transport of the gemstones and specimens.

Of all my visits to mines in the course of 30 years, this one was the most rewarding!

Guido Steger

Nestroystrasse 15

2700 Wiener Neustadt

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Author:Steger, Guido
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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