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Ethiopia – the new African gemstone giant awakens

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(An example of an Ethiopian opal recently won from the earth)

 In recent years exciting new deposits of precious and semi-precious stones have been reported from this ancient, but long troubled, African nation. The country is known to have significant deposits of at least nine gemstones: opal; corndium, beryl, garnet, peridot, quartz species and tourmaline. Most recently emerald, the most prized beryl of all, has been discovered in quantity approximately 300 miles south of the capital, Addis Ababa, in the Seba Boru district. Speculation is now abound as to the true extent of these deposits and how long production can be sustained for. The closest town of any significance to this site is called Shakiso, and this is where the majority of the rough is taken to market after sorting. From here most stones are shipped to dealers in Addis Ababa, an arduous 12 hour drive across less than perfect roads. Hitherto most of the mining in this part of Africa has been artisanal in nature, with most of the work carried out by hand and little in the way of heavy machinery. Most of the production is carried out by small scale miners operating in “associations,” each headed by a manager and several members who control the mining and distribution of the rough. Although no official figures have been published, the best estimates of output today are thought to be around 100 KG of rough (equivalent to about half a million carats).

 

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(The truly distinctive colour and hue of an Ethiopian emerald)

Overall production of gem-quality emeralds has been described by industry insiders as at best “pretty sporadic,” mainly due to the small-scale of most operations and a general lack of any centralised distribution system or logistical organisation. However the quality of some of the stones have been hailed as some of the finest in the world, with one expert stating “when there is a great crystal, it’s really, really good.” Most of the finest quality material is in the order of 3 carats or less, post cutting and polishing, and some of the best examples have little or no inclusions and require no clarity enhancement or oiling. Ethiopian rough emerald is schist-hosted material, akin to stones from Zambia and Brazil, and differs from the Colombian stones that are mostly found in calcite deposits. In terms of colour, Ethiopian stones have been described as slightly ‘minty’ and ‘glowing.’ In a recent interview the director of the Swiss gem lab SSEF, Michael Krzemnicki, said that although they had only assessed a very small number of Ethiopian emeralds to date, he had found them to be “rather medium saturated green” and “similar to emeralds from mica shist-related deposits such as in Brazil, Russia, Zambia and Habachtal in Austria (an historically important source in Europe).” It may take some time before stones of Ethiopian provenance truly build up the level of following enjoyed by some other regions.

 

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(Ethiopian miners at work: some resort to using their bare hands)

Clear pricing of these stones has proven to be a little illusive to date as the volumes produced have been so small there are few like-for-like comparisons for dealers to draw upon. Best estimates currently lie in the range of par with, to a slight premium over, Zambian and Brazilian stones but still significantly below Colombian examples. The finer stones of between 2 to 3 carats are generally fetching a wholesale price of around $4,000 – $6,000 USD per carat at present, although some of the very best have come close to $10,000. The indications are that emerald prices in Ethiopia, as in most other emerald producing regions, are rising at a significant rate. Demand is particularly strong for Ethiopian stones because they often found with so few fissures that oiling and treatment is not required. However the instability of this part of the world does have inevitable consequences when it comes to the continuity of supply. This was clearly demonstrated in late 2016 when the government, in a joint effort with the mining associations, closed the mining areas temporarily due to security concerns. This was repeated in early 2017 and the uncertainly it causes may inhibit much needed foreign investment into the infrastructure and technology necessary to develop the industry to its full potential. Despite being reopened more recently, the area is tightly controlled by government forces and militia and buying is tightly monitored, with all buyers, including the locals, required to obtain both a federal and local permit to trade.

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(Commodity rich but poor infrastructure and rugged terrain make large scale production difficult)

In spite of these difficulties it is clear that Ethiopia does have the potential to be a major producer of emeralds and other coloured gemstones well into the future. However, until the status quo in this largely closed and inward looking country changes to a more open posture it is likely that gems from this region will only occupy a niche market, operated by a small number of people supplying mostly collectors and gem connoisseurs. Chemical analysis and spectroscopy of the emeralds that have been discovered in Ethiopia have generally indicated they are predominantly coloured by chromium and vanadium. Comparison with data from other known regions for which GIA reference samples of schist-hosted emeralds are available, including Zambia and Brazil, have concluded that the presence of trace alkali metals and some transition metals make it possible for gemmologists to determine the provenance of Ethiopia stones with a high degree of certainty. The exciting discoveries of emeralds and other precious gemstones within Ethiopia does provide a new source of large, high-quality emeralds for the gem and jewellery trade. To date this region appears hold some promise, as significant productions was seen in the gem shows in Tucson, Bangkok and Hong Kong. The interest shown by the coloured gemstone giant, Gemfields PLC, certainly gives credence to the possibility of a solid supply chain potential for Ethiopian gems. However, only time will tell how significant the future for gem output in this region will be.

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