Moroccan Amethyst: The Journey of Discovery

| 10 min read

Join David Troth, Gem Specialist, as he travels with Gemporia founder Steve Bennett on a journey to the Moroccan desert to explore the source of a gemstone which created shockwaves when it was revealed to the gemstone industry.

To understand our journey to Morocco we first have to understand the reason for this epic expedition. The catalyst for this burning fire within us wasn’t just a spark,it was flare. The discovery of Moroccan Amethyst sent shockwaves throughout the gemstone industry and we were eager to find out more.

Steve came across this particular variety of Amethyst in September 2014 at a gemstone trade show and was transfixed. After securing a parcel we began to understand what made this Amethyst utterly unique. The Moroccan Amethyst we had seen had the desirable ‘Siberian’ colour which is a deep shade of uniformed purple and is so named because of the original Siberian mines that produced the finest stones with unparalleled beauty.

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The more our team studied this new parcel the more we were taken aback. These specimens had microscopic inclusions within, tiny red rods that allowed the gemstone to interact with the light in a remarkably distinctive way. We cross referenced our gemological findings with that of the GIA who were becoming extremely interested in this new find of Amethyst. What we both discovered was a game changer.

This gemstone exhibits what are known as ‘diagnostic inclusions’ – inclusions that are only found in this specific stone from this precise location. These inclusions give each and every gemstone a unique fingerprint. It means that every single Moroccan Amethyst is as unique as each and every one of us.

This discovery was captivating, but what was even more staggering was that unlike the unique inclusions that are known to occur in the world’s finest Emeralds, these inclusions gave the stone a mesmerising and unmistakable flair. These diminutive rutile inclusions that are locked into each and every Moroccan Amethyst are in fact shards of red Haematite, one of the most reflective minerals known to exist naturally. This helps to produce a flash of electrically brilliant scarlet lightening that seems to endlessly ricochet around the internal facets of the cut gemstone as it captures the available light.

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Steve contacted the mine owner, Salah, in an effort to better understand this exceptional, rare and exclusive purple treasure. Salah explained that for Steve to fully appreciate the divine beauty of the stone he would have to understand the incomparable story of the gem. So he invited Steve to the mine on the basis of Steve’s keen enthusiasm.

Steve was among only a privileged handful of ‘outsiders’ who had been extended an official invitation to the birthplace of Moroccan Amethyst. Anticipation, excitement and apprehension grew on the plane to Marrakech. Salah and his nephew Aladdin, who runs the day to day operations of the mine, met Steve at the hotel that evening and they explained the long and challenging journey ahead.

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Steve was up early the next day and was raring to get started on the road to the mine, as he usually is on every other expedition. But Salah insisted that Steve needed to experience the culture. He said that to really be able to get the most from this experience and to be able to really tell the story of this gemstone, he would need to soak up the rich and vibrant hustle and bustle of the surrounding city.

It was in the Bazaars (or Souqs) of this city that Steve began to understand that the rich diversity, the magnitude of colours and the sheer individuality of this charismatic metropolis was perfectly represented by this new find of Amethyst.

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An early start the next morning saw the team in the back of a minibus and on the road for ten hours. Steve had been prepared for a mundane journey but he wasn’t expecting it to be so rewarding. The contrast in scenery was astounding. Vast expanses of land reminiscent of idealistic imagined paradises sprinkled with palm trees and turquoise lagoons led directly into cinematically stirring deserts as far as the eye could see. The minibus meandered through the staggering Atlas and Anti-Atlas snow sprinkled mountain ranges and along dried up river beds and astonishing valleys. The journey was like crossing all seven continents in one day.

Somewhere between Marrakech and Agadir, on a road with no end in sight,the minibus ground to a halt. Two hundred metres ahead of us was a herd of wild camels being guided by two nomads. This gave Steve the chance to both stretch his legs and witness first-hand a window into the discovery of this unprecedented gemstone phenomenon.

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The city of Agadir offered spectacular scenery of its own, a jewel on the coast with a breath-taking view across the vast Atlantic Ocean. That night, on the promenade, Steve and Salah savoured a panoramic vision and a sensational tagine – a local dish infused with flavour. Talk turned to the discovery of the Amethyst and the integral role that the nomads played in its beginning.

Three decades earlier, a tribe of nomads were moving their livestock in the wake of a formidable rainstorm across Boudi (an area in the Tata province). Their herd of goats managed to churn up the water-logged ground and in doing so they managed to expose what had lain dormant for millions of years. For thousands of years the nomadic ancestors had walked this land and all that time there had been a secret beneath their path. Mother Nature had chosen this moment in time to shower them, quite literally, with this revelation.

For the following decades the nomads collected what purple treasure they could and along their great migrations would trade with the local villages and Bazaars for food. As a consequence, in the subsequent years, occasional minerals were sold to tourists who wanted a keepsake of their holiday.

In 2007, a foreign gemstone dealer had encountered the gemstone by chance in an assorted gemstone parcel in a private collection. Mesmerised by this natural gemstone and by using his own passion, determination and dedication he managed to trace the stone back to Morocco. Recognising the significance of this mineral, he took a flight there in the hope he would be able to further trace the stone back to its source. Miraculously, he was able to find a Bazaar that was selling other examples of the same Amethyst, only to be told the source was unknown and that the nomad who brings the stone from the mountains would only stop by every couple of months. So - he waited. Eventually the illusive nomad made an appearance, bearing his spellbinding crystals, and he offered this foreign dealer a route to the source.

At this fledgling time in the Moroccan Amethyst story, the mine wasn’t so much a mine but rather a small clearing dotted with nomads who were picking these stones from the surface. The gem dealer’s grandiose ideas of obtaining mining rights were thwarted by the difficulty of dealing with the strict regulations of Moroccan law. After years of battling he decided to give up on his plans of an ambitious mining operation and he left Morocco with his parcel of exceptional Moroccan Amethyst gems that he had collected alongside his nomad comrades.

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This exquisite parcel was proudly debuted internationally at the 2009 Mineral & Gem Show at Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and it was at this point that Salah became charmed by the gemstone of his homeland and he immediately got involved with the mine. Even with Salah’s business acumen it took a further three years for Salah to negotiate and traverse the stringent laws around this type of application and in 2012 he was finally awarded the exclusive rights to the ‘open quarry’ mine. His first huge task was to build an off-road track to comply with environmental regulations and in 2013 his small-scale mining operation began.

The last leg of this far-reaching adventure saw the substitution of the minibus in favour of a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle to navigate Salah’s off-road track. This last 5km stretch in the 4x4 made the back seat of the minibus feel like a luxury armchair, but it was ultimately worth it to hear Salah announce that we had finally arrived.

What surprised Steve the most was just how small scale this mine was. With all of his experience he envisaged machinery, rooms full of Amethyst rough, sorting and grading tables and many more people. In actual fact this was a truly artisanal mining community where the people seemed like a closeknit family with lots of laughter. We were told they took it in turns to cook for each other and they were kind enough to share their food with us.

Steve spent some time with the mine manager Mohammad, who informed us that it was in fact his grandfather who found the first stone - his grandfather was that legendary nomad. Mohammad said it was very special for him to carry on and grow his grandfather’s legacy and Salah added that it was important for him to have that link to this gem’s origin as well as to someone who knew this area so well.

The Amethyst was all mined by hand, which is truly a skill to master. Using nothing but hand tools they expertly chip away at the rock and soil to remove these prized minerals from the host rock. The Amethyst here didn’t form in geodes like most Amethyst does, and on closer inspection of some of the gems that were being carefully excavated, Steve noticed another distinguishing characteristic. The loose crystal formation of these stones was double terminated,meaning that in its formation its crystal structure had grown to have two defined points.

Suspended within this octahedron is a cascade of the most desirable purple hues, with evident overtones of red and blue that pool together within the opposing points. This phenomenal natural occurrence is uncharacteristic for Amethyst but forms a remarkable hourglass in the world’s most unique Amethyst. This captivating demonstration of noteworthy colour partnered with surprising crystal structure, however beautiful, proved why it’s inherently difficult to retain a large carat weight as a cut stone. To cut away the clear crystal in favour of the fine deep purple concentrated within usually yields a stone no larger than 1.5 carats.

Steve could see how proud Salah was of this community and the investment that this mine has now contributed to the surrounding areas. The miners came from the surrounding cut-off small villages and this was their only form of income. In return it has injected a huge amount of positive change in each of these villages as a result. The pay for each and every miner is the best in the area and twice the local standards. Salah has also purchased trucks and other forms of transport exclusively for these villages which has revolutionised the way they are able to shop, visit the surrounding areas and has massively improved commuting times in case of emergencies. Health cover is also provided for all of the miners and an off-road 16 mile track has also been built so these people now have access to proper roads. Salah has already managed to implement his progressive ideals of what a mine could be with proactive investments at every step. This commendable approach has seen him rewarded with the prestigious award of ‘Best Mining Operation in Morocco 2016’ by the government for its socially responsible and ethical operation.

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After leaving the Moroccan mine, which was one of the most remote locations Steve had ever visited, he was left with an overwhelming sense of wonder and optimism. It was truly a combination of miraculous events that firstly allowed this unparalleled, distinct and unique Amethyst to form, secondly for it to be discovered and ultimately, its real gift, of offering such prosperity to its people.

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