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Madagascar: Gemstone Island

14 min read

Gemstones are found all over the world, spread far and wide from the peninsulas of Canada and the barren outback of Australia, to the freezing plains of Siberia and the tropical forests of Brazil. But there are a few select places scattered across the globe that are absolutely glittering with a wide variety of gemstones that are all found relatively close together. One of these places is the African island of Madagascar.

Located to the east of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and is almost three times the size of Great Britain. The landmass became an island around 135 million years ago when it split from the rest of the African continent, and split again around 88 million years ago from a landmass that drifted north and became India. The wildlife of Madagascar is unique as almost 90 million years of total isolation has seen its flora and fauna evolve differently to its near neighbors. Lemurs evolved here, and there are many species of plant that are endemic to the island. Humans are thought to have only permanently settled on the island within the last 3,000 years.

But it’s the soils of Madagascar to which we now turn our attention. Madagascar's turbulent geological history has gifted it with myriad beautiful stones, hidden deep in the ground all across the island. The gemstones are spread so widely that we’ve been inspired to take a virtual trip from its northernmost tip to its southernmost point, stopping along the way at the places that have gifted us some of the most astonishing gems we’ve ever seen, and taking in the spectacular sights we discover along the way.

Map of Madagascar

We start our virtual tour in the northern city of Ambilobe [1] from where we source some of the finest Sphene we’ve ever seen. Indeed, the 22.2 carat Chameleon Sphene in the Gemporia Museum is from this area, and the vivid green hue it exudes under normal lighting turns to a bright raspberry pink when viewed under incandescent lighting. The name is especially appropriate as there are chameleons aplenty, particularly the brightly colored Panther Chameleon, in this northern part of Madagascar. Ambilobe lies on the River Mahavavy, the waters of which are used to irrigate over 5,000 hectares of land in this area. Rearing livestock and farming the land makes up around 40% of the employment here, with sugar cane, tomato, rice and cotton among the most important crops. The fishing trade employs a further 10%. Ambilobe Sphene mining has slowed in recent times, though small amounts are still occasionally available. Ambilobe sits on a major road junction between RN5a heading towards the east coast and RN6 heading north to Antsiranana and south to our next destination, the city of Ambanja [2].

Ambilobe Tree

RN stands for the French ‘route nationale’ for ‘national road’, and this is one of many reminders that the country was a French territory from 1895 until it regained its independence on 26th June 1960. The road is paved for most of the 65 mile trip to this coastal settlement, which is far from a given in Madagascar, so the journey is one of relative comfort. Once again, a large proportion of the population in Ambanja, as many as 60%, are employed in farming. Cocoa is the most important crop here, and vanilla, rice and coffee are also produced. We once sourced a small amount of Ambanja Demantoid Garnet here, from one of the most unusual mines we’ve ever come across. The gem was discovered in coastal swampland, meaning mining could only take place at low tide and only with small hand tools. Very quickly, the area that the artisanal miners were able to reach during this small window of opportunity was mined out, and mines that only opened in 2009 were sadly closed in 2011. The nearby island of Nosy Be, which is reached by boat from Ambanja, is home to some of the finest beaches and tropical ocean vistas in the country. It is perhaps one of the most touristy places in Madagascar but is still very sedate and scenic. There are also other smaller islands to visit in these beautiful turquoise waters. Back on the mainland in Ambanja, we rejoin RN6 and head further south, leaving behind us the highest mountain in Madagascar, Mount Maromokotro (2,876m) before joining RN32 and then turning decidedly off-road to get to a very remote place called Morafeno [3].

Nosy Be Beach

In November 2013, a farmer here found a shiny stone while ploughing his land by hand. After showing it to people in Ambilobe while on a trading trip, it was identified as a variety of Sphene, but with higher clarity and a much more cognac-orange color than those from further north. On returning home, the farmer, along with his cousins and brother, continued to explore their land and were able to add Morafeno Sphene to their coffee, rice and vanilla producing activities. We rejoin RN32 and head south to Andilamena [4], a relatively modest town where, since the turn of the millennium, both high-grade Ruby and Sapphire have been discovered.

Morafeno Landscape

Continuing south to Amboavory, where we switch from RN3a to RN44, we pass the Zahamena National Park [5] and the dense jungles that surround it. The roads around here are not for the faint-hearted, but the places they lead are more than worth the effort. It is from around here that we recently began sourcing a quality of Ruby that has been compared to some of the finest Mogok Rubies from Myanmar. The clarity and color of these Malagasy Rubies, which are artisanally mined in very small quantities, are exceptional. Their higher iron content gives them the vivid red hue that Ruby connoisseurs spend years searching for. It is named Malagasy Ruby in honor of the island, with Malagasy not only being the name of the people of Madagascar but also the name of the traditional language spoken here. Interestingly, the Malagasy language has more in common with the languages of southern Borneo than with any African tongue. As well as being the source of exquisite Rubies, one of the largest lemur varieties, known as Indri, count the Zahamena National Park as home, among many other fascinating species that are only found in this area. As we leave the park to continue our journey south, we pass Lake Alaotra, Madagascar’s biggest lake and the center of its rice-growing region.

Indri Lemur

As we pass into Madagascar’s central highlands, we continue south on RN44 to Moramanga, before turning west onto RN2 until we reach Antananarivo [6], the capital city of Madagascar. Antananarivo, or Tana is it’s known locally, is a bright, bustling city with an estimated population of 1,300,000. There are gemstone markets and dealers dotted all around this city, along with some must-see places, such as the royal palace complex and Lake Anosy. The latter is distinctive due to the French war memorial standing in the center, topped by a golden angel statue. There are also opportunities to see the fascinating wildlife of Madagascar up close in the lemur park.

Lake Anosy, Antananarivo

Taking RN7 south out of Antananarivo we travel all the way to Antsirabe [7], the second largest city on the island. The approach to the city is heralded by the many tropical fruit and veg stalls lining the road, and travel in Antsirabe is characterized by thousands of colorful ‘pousse-pousse’ rickshaws. Just like the capital, finding a gemstone dealer won’t be too taxing here, and you may even find one selling Tourmaline stones that have been mined locally here. The train station building is of particular beauty.

Antsirabe Fruit Stalls

We now take a 300 mile detour by heading west out of Antsirabe on RN34, before eventually picking up RN35 and RN8, eventually arriving at the famous Avenue of the Baobabs, one of the most visually spectacular sights on the whole island. Back in Antsirabe, we now head further south on RN7 before turning due east and once more heading off-road to Ifasina [8], from where some of the finest Amazonite on the planet is sourced, and where it is still mined by hand in shallow pits. The color of the stone perfectly mirrors the tropical ocean blues that characterize the coastlines of Madagascar. Speaking of which, we now continue east, eventually picking up RN24 to Mananjaray [9] on the east coast. It is from this area that we source Madagascan Ruby, the deep, fiery red variety that’s become a firm favorite with collectors since we first set it into jewelry in 2015. Its bright, bold internal glow is complemented with subtle secondary hues of blue and violet, creating a vivid and eye-catching Ruby.

Avenue Of The Baobabs

Leaving Mananjaray on RN25, we make our way west on a 120 mile trip towards Fianarantsoa [10], passing through the Ranomafana National Park on the way. The park is set in over 160 square miles of tropical rainforest and is home to hundreds of rare species, including the golden bamboo lemur. The views here are spectacular, and the flora and fauna are wildly unusual, almost otherworldly. Over 90% of the wildlife on the island is unique to Madagascar, so it really feels like being in another world when exploring its rainforests. Fianarantsoa is a relaxed, historic town that sits as something of a transit hub in the lower third of Madagascar. Roads and trains leave here in all directions, and it would make an excellent base to explore this part of the country from. The old town here is as picturesque as it could possibly be, perfectly perched on a hillside. Sapphire has been mined in a quarry in Fianarantsoa, but we source a magnificent Madagascan Blue Apatite from a mine in this area. It sports a clarity and color that puts it on par with the finest Paraiba Tourmaline gemstones, and it is often found in large carat weights too. The stone appears to emit a gorgeous glow, especially when viewed outside in daylight. It was discovered by accident when a local man took his son to his new gold mine to show him around. At this point, the mine was yet to discover any gold and was just prospecting. The owner’s son was digging with a toy plastic shovel a little way away from the main mining area and suddenly unearthed a bright blue Apatite stone. The mine owner consequently shifted his main mining operation to this area and to this day is turning out world-class Madagascan Blue Apatite stones.

Fianarantsoa Old Town

Continuing southwest down RN7, through staggeringly beautiful countryside and the Anja Community Reserve, we leave the central highlands of Madagascar and eventually reach Ihosy [11]. Marialite can be found in this area, and its clear, deep golden yellows perfectly capture the atmosphere of this beautiful land. The gem was first discovered here in 1866, though the mines lay silent for many years before production started again in the late 1990s. RN7 continues beyond Ihosy, and we follow it on a rare trek west across the country. Madagascar isn’t short of areas of outstanding beauty, and the Isalo National Park is no exception. Here, you may catch a glimpse of the more familiar ring-tailed lemurs while you’re appreciating the views. Full of gorges, canyons and views of unparalleled beauty, this is Madagascar’s most popular national park.

Anja Community Reserve

Just beyond the southwest edge of the reserve lies the gemstone boomtown of Ilakaka [12]. In the early 1990s the area was home to around 40 people, but after the discovery of a huge Sapphire deposit here in 1998 the population boomed to over 60,000 people in 2005. This had settled somewhat to around 30,000 by 2008 estimates, but there is still a huge ongoing operation here to retrieve the gems hidden beneath the soils. The fast growth of the town is evident in the way it sprawls down both sides of the main street, and the main strip is notable for the huge number of gem dealers all exhibiting their discoveries. Ruby and Sapphire are found here, including their even rarer Star Ruby and Star Sapphire varieties, as well as Hot Pink Sapphire and Green Apatite. There’s even a phenomenal color change variety of Sapphire found here that is completely natural. Machinery is still a rare sight though, and most of the digging is done by hand.

Isalo National Park Lemur

Just 50 miles further west down RN7, via the Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park, is Sakaraha [13], where we’re currently sourcing a vibrant variety of Sakaraha Pink Sapphire. The hues of this gem need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated – they are simply some of the clearest, prettiest, most perfectly colored Pink Sapphires we’ve ever seen. Other radiant hues are sourced here too, which we showcase in our Natural Sakaraha Rainbow Sapphire jewelry. Interestingly, while Ilakaka has been stealing all the attention for Sapphire mining in this area, Sakaraha has quietly been able to build itself a reputation for supplying high-end jewelers with some of the finest, cleanest Sapphire colors ever mined. From here we retrace our steps back to Ihosy, before joining RN13 and heading south.

Near Ihosy

Heading a little way east off the main route at Beraketa leads to Tsivory [14], a large rice-producing town, while heading a little way west leads to Bekily [15], which sits on the River Menarandra. Both of these remote locations give us phenomenal varieties of Color Change Garnet, with gems from Tsivory showing a divine brown-orange hue with subtle leanings towards pink, and gems from Bekily showing a deep orange-red hue with cognac undertones. Both are unimaginably rare, and their beauty is world class. Heading southeast from Tsivory, we now arrive in the area of Tranomaro [16] and Mandrare [17], two incredible gemstone sources that lie just 11 miles apart and are just west of Andohahela National Park, home of the reddish-gray mouse lemur. Most of the population in these two towns are farmers, with rice and maize production being important. Mandrare also sits on the river of the same name, and fishing is a large source of employment here.

Reddish-Grey Mouse Lemur

Tranomaro is where we recently sourced our first ever Grandidierite stones, after years of tireless searching. The gem was first found in Madagascar in 1902 and has remained elusive for much of the last century. Grandidierite is often cited as one of the rarest gemstones on the planet, displaying a deep bluish-green hue that is unmatched by any other stone. At Mandrare we source a deep, bright green variety of Apatite that is unusual as its color sits closer to Tsavorite Garnet and Chrome Diopside than the more neon ocean colored stones that come from elsewhere in Madagascar. We’re almost at journey’s end as we rejoin RN13 and head south to the small city of Ambovombe. Our final stop lies just 70 miles to the east, but before we take that route, a western detour down RN10 for around 125 miles will take us to the small town of Ampanihy. North of here are the world-renowned Labradorite mines of the Bokonaky [18] area. Madagascar provides the world with some of its finest Labradorite, giving us stones that shimmer with a dancing swirl of blues, greens, oranges, yellows, reds, pinks and purples.

Creek Near Taolagnaro

Retracing our steps back to Ambovombe, we rejoin RN13 and head east towards Taolagnaro [19] down what can politely be described as one of the less well-maintained roads of Madagascar. It’s from this area that we source a vivid Neon Apatite that perfectly mirrors the colors of the clear skies and beautiful seas here on the southeast point of Madagascar. We also source Fort Dauphin Apatite from here, a more translucent to opaque variety that is characterized by the same deep color but with natural orange-brown patterns crisscrossing the surface of each stone. Fort Dauphin was the name of this city until 1975, and it was here that the French first landed on Madagascar. This modern discovery of this beautiful bay dates back to 1500 when it was found by a Portuguese captain. The area has some exceptional beaches with excellent views out into the Indian Ocean, and if we traveled south, the next land would be Antarctica.

Taolagnaro

We’re now about 1285 miles away from our starting point of Ambilobe, not including detours, and this is where we end our tour of these beautiful lands. We’ve barely begun to explore this phenomenal place, but it is clear from what we have learned that Madagascar is a gem of an island.

To discover the gemstones discussed in this piece, click here to start a gemstone journey of your own.

Gemstone Family Tree: Garnet
Gemstone Lore: Turquoise - In Native American Culture

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