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If  you  have  watched  the  children’s  film  ‘Madagascar’, the first thing you should know  about this country is that very few of the animals  seen in the movie inhabit it in real life. 

As  the  fourth  biggest  island  in  the  world,  situated off the East Coast of Africa, the country  is famous for its great vanilla, the huge Baobab  trees and a plethora of amazing gems. 

Its   gemstone   treasure   chest   includes  Aquamarines, a rare Blue Garnet, Tourmalines,  and Beryls, including Morganite. More recently  it has added the discovery of Diamonds to its  treasure-trove  and  with  sources  of  Corundum  (Sapphires and Rubies) dwindling in countries  such as Thailand and Burma, Madagascar is now  one  of  the  world’s  leading  suppliers  of  these  superstar gems too! 

With  so  much  potential,  The  World  Bank  is  funding  development  projects  in  cooperation  with  the  Malagasy  government  in  an  attempt  to  retain  more  of  the  wealth  obtained  from  gemstones  in  its  own  country.  Gemmology  schools have been set up to teach locals how to  cut and polish gemstones, ensuring they are able  to export the finished article, rather than the far  lesser-valued rough.

In Ilakaka though, the scene very much remains an  informal  artisanal  mining  community.  The  perimeter of the town is surrounded by small- scale mines, which are owned by entrepreneurial  individuals or small teams that work with very  little technology. Their lifestyle is consistently  better than that of subsistence farming: there is  always the belief and potential that a substantial  reward  will  be  discovered  tomorrow!  This  belief is backed up by the European brick-styled  buildings  owned  by  miners  who  have  struck  lucky. 

Located in the south of the island, Ilakaka was  nothing  more  than  a  tiny  subsistence  farming  community  until  gems  were  rediscovered  in 1998  (they  were  actually discovered  some  50 years prior, but due to the small size of the find  and  political  unrest  were  never  mined).  What  followed was similar to the famous gold rushes in  America. Overnight Ilakaka went from a handful  of  farmers  to  tens  of  thousands  of  individual  first-time miners all seeking their own fortune.  Even today, many of them still work with just a  shovel, a candle and a bucket. The nearest thing  they have to technology is a winch. A relative  or friend will lower the miner into the sandstone  shaft on a bucket which is attached to an old  piece of rope. Once at the bottom of the shaft the  miner continues to dig and the potential rough is  then winched back to the surface to be taken to  the local river to be panned, and hopefully a gem  or two will be seen. 

I recently met with Jean-Noel Andrianasolo who  was at the heart of what has been known as the  greatest “gem rush” of the last fifty years. Jean- Noel says, “In 1998 I was working in the capital  when I heard rumours of a big find of Sapphires  near Ilakaka. So I took the 15 hour drive, set up  a tiny home and began digging at the rear of my  own backyard. In no time at all I found my first  small Sapphire and the further I dug, the more  I found. As there was so much potential wealth  inside I named the open pit Banque Suisse”. 

Ilakaka  is  not  the  only  ‘gem  boom  town’  in  Madagascar; another is the town of Vatomandry  where Rubies of a quality to equal those from    Burma are being mined. In 2003, Rubies were also discovered in Andilamena.

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Blue Apatite from Madagascar.


A 1.6ct Strawberry Quartz from Madagascar.