Russia: Our Quest For Chrome Diopside

| 19 min read

I have lost count of the number of times we have planned our trip to Russia. Every year, sometimes literally days before we are due to leave, there has always been an email or a phone call from our contacts cancelling for one reason or another. Either the weather had changed, or the mine owner had gone AWOL, or our filming permits had been declined even though days before they'd been approved.

Even the week before I was due to leave, I got a call at 4am whilst I was in America, and was told that Pallav, our ‘fixer’ (the person tasked with organising the trip once we got there) had the wrong dates on his visa. Deciding to try and arrange our journey to the mine ourselves, we repeatedly tried to get hold of the mine owner, Dmitry, to ask him to meet us off the plane. But that seemed to be easier said than done, because we couldn’t get hold of him. The next day as I was boarding the flight back to the UK, I was told the trip was cancelled.

The second we touched the tarmac at Heathrow, I switched on my phone and received an urgent message from my assistant Barry to call him immediately. Barry, through another friend of mine Eugene, had managed to track down Dmitry who apparently had taken a few days off with his children. However, when Pallav realised that he couldn't make the trip, he had cancelled all of our internal flights! So Barry had rebooked them and agreed with Dmitry that we would still visit. We were to meet up with Eugene who would also fly to Neryungri (the nearest small airport to the mine) and act as a translator for us. The only problem was Barry had rebooked the flight for the following day and that was my son Louie’s first birthday and there was no way I was going to miss that. So we decided that Alex, my cameraman, would travel out as scheduled and I would take a later flight that evening to Moscow.

My wife questioned my sanity; “Why would you want to visit a mine, half way around the world, which is almost depleted?” But for me that’s the point. Chrome Diopside (also known as Russian Diopside) has always been one of my favourite gemstones and nobody I knew in the gem world had ever been and seen the mine. I wanted to see it, feel it, touch it, understand it and as always take videos and photos to share with others who share the same passion.

Chrome Diopside Rock

Everything I had ever learnt about the Chrome Diopside mine was passed on second-hand through the gem trade and I hate being in that position. With most other mines that I haven’t yet visited, at least normally I am secure in the knowledge that it is one of my closest friends or colleagues who has been there and therefore I know my information is reliable. But with Chrome Diopside, everything I knew was from talking to people in the trade and from research articles on the internet. So you see, I just had to go and find out for myself.

Considering its hostile growing conditions were in metamorphic and igneous rocks, it’s amazing that with such a difficult home life Chrome Diopside often arrives at the surface of the earth un-scarred! No wonder locally they refer to it as the Siberian Emerald or the Million Dollar Emerald. When you discover a piece that is clean, and I mean really clean, with its vivid green saturation, that bathes in sparkle due to its high refractivity and when you remember where it grew up, you might pause and wonder whether this is one of the finest miracles of nature you have witnessed.

Chrome Diopside Mine

Talking of its brilliance, Chrome Diopside has a higher refractive index (R.I.) than its two nearest green rivals. Emerald has an R.I. of 1.56 to 1.6 and Diopside’s nearest competitor, Chrome Tourmaline has an R.I. of 1.61- 1.66. With Chrome Diopside taking podium with an R.I. of 1.663–1.699, it’s easy to understand why when cut properly, the gem is a real head turner. Its name is derived from the Greek word dis, "twice", and òpsè, "face". This two faced gemstone has perfect cleavage in two directions and its name is in reference to the two ways of orienting the vertical prism.

But why are we travelling to the far off lands of Siberia, just outside of the Arctic Circle, some six time zones away even from Moscow, when after all, it is reported that Chrome Diopside has also been found in Afghanistan, Austria, Burma, Finland, India, Italy, Madagascar, Pakistan and Tanzania? Well to-date, I have yet to see a piece of Chrome Diopside from any of those countries that is worth faceting. It’s encouraging that the mineral has been found in these areas, and where there are traces, there is hope that gem grade will be discovered, but to my knowledge none have been uncovered yet.


I arrived in Moscow at 4am and got a taxi from the airport to the centre of the city. I arrived at the hotel to find there was no room reserved for me, (or at least that’s what I thought the night porter was telling me!) After travelling through the night I desperately needed some sleep, so I asked for the room number of my cameraman Alex and woke him up and slept on a tiny little sofa in his room. After a few hours’ sleep, we went out and explored Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the city and we had a great time taking in the sights. We visited St Basil's, The Kremlin, Red Square and the Aleksandrovsky Gardens. At around 5pm we headed off to the airport.

The flight to Neryungri was itself quite an event. It took off at 9pm and with neither of us speaking a word of Russian, all we could make out was that it landed around 9.30am the next morning. At about 1am I lifted my window blind and looked out of the window and to my amusement painted on the wing of the plane was a logo that looked very reminiscent of our old Gemporia logo! But what surprised me even more was that it was already broad daylight. I was really confused. It seemed crazy that it was 1am and brightly sunlit. But as we were travelling east, for every hour in the air, we were advancing one time zone earlier! The flight only took six and a half hours, but according to the clock, we landed twelve hours later.

It seemed crazy that it was 1am and brightly sunlit. But as we were travelling east, for every hour in the air, we were advancing one time zone earlier!

We landed at the airport which looked like it had been built in the forties and hadn’t had a single bit of restoration work carried out ever since. It was like stepping back in time. For the documentary we were making, Alex tried to film me walking down the steps of the plane and immediately, out of nowhere came a huge Russian gentleman in uniform who gestured in no uncertain terms that Alex was breaking the rules.

Right on schedule, Eugene arrived to greet us and we were all ushered like sheep into a tin shed where the baggage handlers literally threw and kicked the delicate camera equipment in our luggage! Eugene excitedly showed me a photo of the airport back in April when his previous attempt to reach the mine had failed due to the weather.

In the car, Eugene, who has been a geologist for over forty years and who has mapped out many areas in the region, (including Mirny where the world’s second largest Diamond mine once operated), began to provide us with a wealth of information about the area. I had first met Eugene in Tucson and ever since, he has been the most reliable source of information about the goings on in the Russian gem scene. The country is still not very forthcoming with information, especially when it relates to its precious metals and gem mining activities, much of which is still under government control. The man is a wealth of knowledge and even though the road was extremely bumpy and at times a dirt track, he went into so much detail about the area that the five hour journey to Aldan passed quickly. Even though we were visiting in mid August, as we drove we still passed through areas where you could see snow on the ground.

Eugene explained how the Inaglinsky Chrome Diopside deposit and vermiculite was located in the area of Central Aldan’s gold-bearing region, Sakha (Yakutia) and was some 30km to the west of the town of Aldan. We would first go to Aldan and meet up with Dmitry and together we would travel to his mine. Eugene explained how the Yakutia region was one of the richest areas of natural resources in Siberia. There were deposits of Diamond (Mirny, Aihal), gold and platinum (Aldan), Charoite south of Yakutia near the Chara river, coal in Neryungri, and as we drove we saw workers laying a huge pipe that is to eventually transport gas some 5,000 kilometres from Northern Siberia all the way to China.

The Central Aldan region is known for its gold and platinum resources, where there are about 200 working deposits and more than 400 deposits in the planning stages. Eugene believed that there were more than 10 tonnes of gold mined every year in the region and literally less than one hundred metres from the Chrome Diopside deposit, thousands of miners used to extract platinum.

Eugene explained that it was while carrying out geological mapping in 1968 that geologist Anatoly Korchagin made the discovery of Chrome Diopside in the valley near the Inagli River. He had named this deposit Inagli and continued for many years to explore the mineral’s composition and geologic structure. In 1972, Dmitry’s grandfather began mining the gem and his family have, although sometimes sporadically, continued mining ever since. Today, Dmitry owns the only legal permit for Chrome Diopside in the area and the full extraction process is under his careful control.

Dmitry’s grandfather began mining the gem and his family have, although sometimes sporadically, continued mining ever since.

Eugene went on to tell me all about Chrome Diopside’s host rock. Gem quality Chrome Diopside is discovered in the metasomatic rocks (those which have been altered chemically by the movement of water), not in the actual pegmatites. The length of the chrome bearing vein is approximately 800 metres long and its thickness varies from 0.5m to 3m. The key challenge is that it is running at 45 degrees into the earth. The size of the gem quality Chrome Diopside crystals range from 3-4 mm to a maximum size of 20 mm. The mining season is only 3-5 months because during winter the temperature reaches -45 to -50°C.

The mining season is only 3-5 months because during winter the temperature reaches -45 to -50°C.

I loved listening to Eugene as we drove. At 64 years of age, he is so passionate about geology that I probably learnt more during the journey than I have in the past few years. Throughout the entire drive we were surrounded by thick forests of what seemed to be a variety of Pine and the occasional Silver Birch. After five hours of extremely bumpy roads, we arrived at the small, rustic and remote mining town of Aldan.

Here, we met Dmitry and jumped into his 4x4 and set off on an even bumpier dirt track for a further two hour bone-shaking ride. As we drove, Eugene explained to Dmitry that we not only wanted to visit the mine, but also take photos and videos. Without understanding a single word of Russian, I could tell the conversation wasn’t going well. Alex and I looked at one another and both realised that Dmitry didn’t want his mine filmed!

Rainbow over mine

We had travelled half way around the world to film the mine on behalf of our following of gemstone evangelists, who just like us, have a thirst for knowledge and a better understanding of where gems are unearthed and it appeared that Dmitry wasn’t going to let us get our cameras out of their bags. With Dmitry driving and Eugene in the passenger seat, from the back of the car I leant forward inbetween them and insisted that Eugene translated my request. After what must have been forty minutes, Dmitry seemed to grasp the purpose of our filming and eventually started to nod his head in an approving kind of action.

I think it’s important never to forget that gemstone mining is normally a secretive affair. Mine owners are not keen to publicise their location, as one of the biggest issues with mining precious gemstones is theft. In remote locations, it’s almost impossible to prevent illegal miners coming onto your land, especially in the evenings and during closed seasons. One of the biggest costs for most of the mines I have visited over the years is security. But I explained to Dmitry that being able to show the world where the gem comes from, in this modern age where we all passionately care about origin and ethics, in an era where our quest for knowledge has never been greater, telling the story and showing the source is crucial.

We approached the mine, then continued straight past it! As I began to wonder whether we were still facing a breakdown in communications and whether our cameras would ever see daylight, Eugene explained to me that Dmitry first wanted to drive us to the top of the Inagli Valley. To fully appreciate the geology of the location here, we would get a bird’s eye view of the landscape. As we looked down the valley, Eugene explained how in 2004 there were over two thousand miners extracting platinum from the floor of the valley. He then pointed to the left of the valley and in the distance we could see the Diopside mine.

I asked Eugene why we couldn’t see the Mirny mine from this high vantage point. From my previous research I had assumed for many years that Chrome Diopside and the Mirny Diamond deposit sat on the same kimberlite volcanic pipe. He explained that there were many volcanic pipes in the area, but Mirny was a little way north of this deposit and I had been misinformed that it was the discovery of this Chrome Diopside outlet that had resulted in the discovery of Diamonds at Mirny.

Let me provide a little bit of a background to this misunderstanding. It is well documented that geologists use the presence of Diopside as an indicator for Diamonds. If they can successfully piece together the mass movement of rocks from millions of years of glaciers, tectonic plate movement, several ice ages and a myriad of other earth moving events, then they can identify where the Diopside originated – up-slope, up-stream, or up-ice from the location in which they were found. A trail of Diopside fragments can lead a Geologist to the pipe from which they were weathered. This activity, known as "trail-to-lode" prospecting is how many Diamond deposits are discovered. Hence the internet is full (I hope this will all get amended after I publish this article) of accounts of the Chrome Diopside and the Mirny mine being situated on the same volcanic pipe. As we descended back down the valley, a huge downpour greeted us. Eugene explained that in just a few weeks from now, the rain would be replaced by snow. We arrived at the mining site and Dmitry’s security guards lifted the security barrier and with a military-style gesture we were welcomed into the compound. Now on foot, we rounded the corner to the previous working face of the mine and my eyes almost popped out of my head as we were faced with a solid green wall of Chrome Diopside, back-dropped by a magical rainbow that had formed as a result of the storm we had just driven through.

As I faced the huge green wall of sparkling Chrome Diopside, with its otherworldly glow, my mind began to race. Had the rumours of depletion been a marketing ploy? Was Chrome Diopside not as rare as everyone had been saying?

Chrome Diopside Mine

We got closer and it quickly became apparent that the wall was really made of chromium dust, chromium agglomerates and only the very occasional small piece of transparent facetable grade material.

As we studied the vein, Eugene told us that he believes that the gem originated from within the mantle and not the crust. Based on all the photos I had studied, I explained that I had always thought that the gem had been formed at the base of the crust and arrived at the surface in xenoliths. Eugene went to great lengths to explain the local geology to me, even drawing me a diagram. Now, as I was standing here in the only gem deposit of its type, I had to agree with Eugene that this gem probably did originate in the mantle. This further reiterated why it’s so important to visit the source in person.

With Dmitry previously not allowing anyone from outside Russia to visit the mine and with his aversion to cameras, the plethora of information on the internet has to date been nothing more than guesswork.

Even in the host rock, the natural green hues of the gem are breathtaking. I have previously witnessed Emeralds and green Garnets in the host, but nothing can compare to the electrically vivid colours we were looking at. Considering the lack of light caused by the overcast sky, the Chrome Diopside looked magical! Even the opaque green conglomerate and areas of chromium dust looked like a gift from Nature.

As the rock face we were evaluating was no longer an active mining area, I asked Dmitry if I could take my hammer and see if I could find a few gem quality pieces. He seemed to find the request amusing and probably thought that if his experienced team hadn’t found anything then I would have no chance. However, without blowing my own trumpet, after visiting hundreds of different gem mines in dozens of different countries, you develop a bit of a sixth sense of where to look.

you develop a bit of a sixth sense of where to look.

Chrome Diopside in Hand

It was amazing, that with so much chromium in the ground, how few pieces of clean crystal we could find. The only time I had ever witnessed anything like this was at the Peridot mine in Changbai. There, the hillside was coloured green by the presence of billions of pieces of sand sized Peridot. Here though, it was the trace element of chromium and not iron that was the source of the electrifying forest green colour.

Next, I went and sat by the tailing of the season’s digging. I thought I might have more success scouring through the waste of the previous dig, than actually digging myself. I had a little bit of a success in finding some semi-gem quality crystals, but these were so small they would be difficult to facet (see photograph with hammer).

For a combination of reasons, this season’s mining had finished a little early. Firstly, bad weather had already been forecast and the next part of the chromium vein where Dmitry hoped he would uncover more pockets of gem quality Chrome Diopside, is currently underground. The gem-bearing vein runs at 45 degrees and there needs to be a lot of earth moved before he will know if there are more gem-quality rocks to be discovered. With the rainfall of the past week, a small lake had formed at the very place he will need to dig. Dmitry had installed a pump to extract the water but as the rain continued, his attempts were sadly futile.

Dmitry then showed me some gloriously coloured large Chrome Diopside crystals that they had extracted towards the end of the season. After I had evaluated them I told him that they would actually probably end up being cut into several smaller stones. I explained that for most gems, the bigger the size, the more vivid the colour saturation. If you think about the likes of Csarite, Morganite, Kunzite, Tanzanite or Aquamarine, it’s really difficult to retain colour saturation in smaller sizes and therefore the lapidarist will try and ensure that the brilliance is maximised (it’s a good principle to remember that the lighter the tone, the brighter the brilliance that can be achieved). However, with Chrome Diopside it’s normally the opposite. As the size increases, the stone becomes darker and loses some of its vivid saturation. Any faceted piece over one carat which retains a vivid saturation and does not become too dark in tone, is extremely rare! It is for this reason that larger pieces often tend to be cut into several smaller pieces to really allow the gem to showcase its spectacular saturation.

Considering that just a few hours ago Dmitry was so camera shy, he seemed to be really enjoying seeing us filming and documenting his deposit. He even asked if we could take a few pictures of us with him in them. Seizing the moment, I explained that in our flightcase we had a drone (a small helicopter with a built-in camera) and if we could have his permission to get an aerial view over the mine. By now he had realised the purpose of our visit wasn’t just to buy gemstones, but to share his unique story to gem collectors around the world. He was now much more forthcoming in supporting our efforts.

After a few hours, the light began to fade and Dmitry suggested it was time to have some food. While my cameraman, Alex continued to eke out every last moment of filming time, Dmitry set up a bench and Eugene and I searched the area for firewood. It turned out that Dmitry was quite a cook! Some weeks before he had been out hunting and had prepared us some amazing smoked antelope. Whilst some of the other local delicacies he had prepared were a little bit, should I say 'unusual', the antelope was phenomenal. And being in Russia, it was important to adopt the local tradition of washing down the meal with a few glasses of local vodka.

One of my golden rules is never to discuss gemstone prices either after a drink, or more importantly, at the source. When you are at the mine and you see all of the hard work that goes into extracting the gem, and as you begin to truly appreciate the severity of its scarcity, you will always end up paying more. But in all of the excitement of the day, I broke both rules at the same time and we started to openly discuss pricing.

We chatted about how in China, one of the leading retailers of coloured gemstones – Sino Jewels, recently launched a collection called ‘Crispy Green’. This collection is just one of many that can now be seen in retail stores across China. The problem for us in the West is that when China starts to adopt a particular gem in bulk, the supply can dry up very quickly. With demand outstripping the speed of extraction and with every year that goes by, the quantity of Chrome Diopside coming out of the ground is diminishing. So it’s not surprising that Dmitry wants a higher price than we had previously experienced. Whilst I had been drawn into the discussion about pricing, I still had just about enough sense not to commit to any pricing agreement and suggested that I needed to sleep on it. By this point I had been awake for 31 hours straight. I was absolutely exhausted! Despite the insalubrious sleeping conditions, the wonderful vodka did its job. With the cold night air, the satisfaction of finally seeing the Chrome Diopside deposit made me extremely warm on the inside and I dropped off into a deep sleep.

The next morning I awoke early to the sound of rain on the tin roof. Sadly our good fortune had turned against us and it was not possible to spend the day at the mine. Eugene kindly accompanied us on the drive back to Neryungri airport where we spent most of the journey organising a trip to his favourite place on the planet, the Ural Mountains. He had spent many a year working there at the Alexandrite, Emerald, Topaz, Demantoid Garnet and Siberian Amethyst deposits and he invited me to take a trip there with him next year. With our trip being cut a day short because of the weather, we said our goodbyes and decided to go off and try and find the source of Charoite. Sadly, we weren’t successful, so for the moment, that one stays on my Bucket List.

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