Gems of the Sahara: Amethyst Mining in Morocco

Moroccan amethyst

It’s high excitement for Becky Scheffler and me, Kevin Whitmore.  We are the gemstone buyers for Rio Grande, and we are departing on our first ever trip to Morocco, to visit our supplier of amethyst.  Amethyst is a purple form of quartz, quite popular, and named as the birthstone for people born in the month of February.  Rio has been selling amethyst for decades.  But just last year we started offering Moroccan amethyst, which is special – Moroccan amethyst comes out of the ground purple, no heating needed.  Further, we can document the “mine to market” path this gem takes.

A rough amethyst crystal from the mine site.

A rough amethyst crystal from the mine site.

After a day full of airplanes and airport lounges we arrive in Casablanca, the biggest city in Morocco.  After clearing the official entry point, we collect our luggage and walk out into the Moroccan sun.  We are quickly met by our friends – Salahaddine (Salah), the mine owner, is flanked by our good friend (and famous gem carver) Glenn Lehrer. They rush over to greet us.  We are introduced to Andy Lucas, a field gemologist from GIA, and several others from the mining concern.

Salah and company have organized a big effort for us. We divide the group into two cars, and begin our journey to Agadir, a major city on the Atlantic coast.  As we drive, I am interested to observe what Morocco looks like.  Near Casablanca I see some palm trees, but they quickly dwindle and we travel along a farm belt.  I see lots of wheat fields.  We have a long drive ahead of us – it will take five hours to arrive in Agadir.  Morocco uses the Arabic language, but I see a couple of odd looking road signs.  They tell me that some signs are in Berber – the language of the Amazigh people who inhabited much of North Africa before the Arabs arrived.

We arrive in Agadir after dark.  The hotel they have arranged for us is a stately older hotel – a palace based on how beautiful the lobby appears.  But after 24 hours of flights and 5 hours of road, I am ready to find a bed.

My wake-up call comes at 5:00 a.m.  Time to get ready for a big day!  We leave Agadir before dawn. Salah takes through the Moroccan countryside.  The early sunlight reveals a rich farming belt, where we see orange groves and several cloth-covered greenhouses.  As we get further from the coast, an arid and increasingly mountainous environment is presented. It reminds me of the geology of the American Southwest.  I mention this, and Salah reminds me that it is only April for my visit to Morocco. By August, they can see temperatures well over 50 degrees Celsius.  He has even seen it get to 57 (134  degrees Fahrenheit).  Wow!

The sun-parched landscape on the drive to the mine.

The sun-parched landscape on the drive to the mine.

In the mountains we stop to view a tree.  It is the Argan. The Argan tree bears nuts. Salah is very proud of this tree, explaining that it only grows in Morocco, and it provides the valuable Argan oil, which is used both as an edible oil and in specialty cosmetic items such as soap. As we begin to enter the Anti-Atlas mountains, the road narrows and roughens, and we traverse a shaky single lane bridge over a small gulch. After a couple of hours we arrive in Igherm.  We enjoy a small repast, where the proprietor brings us freshly cut mint leaves, steaming green tea in teapots, and some large blocks of sugar. We put the mint leaves into the pot along with a block of sugar, and allow it to steep.  Our hosts tell us to pour a glass and pour it back into the pot.  In this way the tea gets nicely mixed.  Baskets of bread, and two pans of cooked eggs and tomatoes arrive. We tear the bread into small pieces to dip in in olive oil, or to dab up some of the cooked egg. Salah tells us after we leave that the eight of us enjoyed the meal for about $4.

Back in the car, and after another two hours, we pass through a small village near the mine site.  The boys of the village are very excited, chasing our car, hoping we have brought candies.  The boys are relentless, running alongside the cars for quite a while.  We spy a number of girls all gathered together sitting by a doorway next to the road.  They are adorable in their beautiful dresses.  But when Glenn points his camera at them, the all turn away and hide their faces.

On the road to Agdir

The Berber village near the amethyst mine

When we leave the village by a back road, the going really gets rough. For the next hour or so, we bounce over the terrain. Eventually we arrive at the Berber village next to the amethyst mine.  The people who live at this village are connected to the mine. Salah points out the new pump house. The mine has brought running water to this village, where before they had to haul water over a long distance. We continue past the village, and Becky spies a few solar collectors. Salah explains that the village also enjoys having electricity, an improvement over the past.  More bouncing and six kilometers later we finally arrive at the mine site.

Workers at the amethyst mine pull the gemstones from the earth.

Workers at the amethyst mine pull the gemstones from the earth.

The amethyst mine is currently a pit mine. Salah explains that Morocco has laws for metals mining and for stone quarries  But amethyst mining is a bit different than either of these pursuits. So they are working with the authorities to get the proper legal definitions needed. Mining began at this site by pulling away some of the rock face.  Once some rock has been dropped from the face of the rhyolite and “mudstone” wall, workers pick through the rock, and bust open the mudstone with small hand picks.  Today the workers are few, and they simply work at the bottom of the dig.  But work is winding down for the season due to heat.  In cooler months the rock is transported to an open field, and several workers will each have their own pile to harvest amethyst crystals from.

Examples of the amethyst rough from the mine

Examples of the amethyst rough from the mine

The crystals vary a lot.  Some are colorless.  But many are natural colored amethyst. The best ones are deep purple. Some specimens are double terminated, and one they show me has amethyst ends with clear quartz in the center of the crystal.  Amazing. Glenn is especially excited by these banded crystals, seeing an opportunity for his TorusRing™ creations.

We climb all over the site.  The lead engineer is proud of his site, and the amount of untapped amethyst still waiting to be uncovered. The landscape is rugged, barren and breathtaking.  Andy Lucas from GIA is keen to photograph everything.  So am I.  Salah explains that the mine is at a crossroads.  They must decide whether to maintain the pit mine approach or start tunneling.  This is still an open decision, and the terms the Moroccan authorities set will have an impact on it. Regardless, the geologist is convinced the yield will just get better as they mine further into the mudrock.

Kevin and Becky with one of the miners they met while exploring the site

Kevin and Becky with one of the miners they met while exploring the site

After climbing all over the mine site, Becky and I retire to the small village for a respite from the sun.  Glenn and Andy want to conduct some additional interviews with the miners. Even though we are visiting in April, both Becky and I are relieved to find some shade.

We relax under an open porch to the Berber chief’s, house. We lounge on colorful rugs and pillows. Muktar, the chief, begins to laboriously make us green tea.  He pours the tea constantly, over and over into one glass, immediately emptying it back into the tea pot. After a while he stops pouring the tea back into the pot, but instead pours it back and forth between the glasses.  This goes on for a long time. As he pours he is building up a head of foam on the tea, similar in appearance to how a beer can have a head of foam.

Kevin relaxes after a long day at the mine site.

Kevin relaxes in the village after a long day at the mine site.

He then brings over a very low table, and serves the tea.  Much to my surprise the tea is still quite hot.  Sweet and delicious too.  We chat with our hosts about life in the village, about amethyst, and we relax as we cool down. Some of the group decide a nap is in order.  As most of our remaining part is napping, I decide to go back out and take pictures of the village.

I walk a short distance to enter the adjacent oasis.  I’ve never been in an oasis before.  Despite what I’ve seen in the movies, I don’t find a water feature. But the oasis goes on for quite a while, so clearly there is water feeding all these palm trees.  I walk back up to the village and note the solar panels Becky had noticed earlier.  I saw one electric light in Muktar’s home. I am later told each house has one light.

A view of the mine site

A view of the mine site

I get back in time for lunch. Glenn and Andy have finished up at the mine, and our Berber hosts provide a small feast for us. It is clear that the amethyst mine has changed everyone’s life in this village.  Before the mine, herding goats was the chief occupation. Now with the amethyst mine they have electricity, running water and more wealth.

Back into the car and another five hour journey back to Agadir!  Becky and I enjoy two more days in Morocco, and our pace slows down.  It is a perk of our positions that we get to visit Marrakesh and see the Moroccan market, and we get to dine in Rick’s Café in Casablanca (with the obligatory Humphrey Bogart movie playing in the background).

But the visit to Morocco has been excellent mainly because we have firmly connected with our amethyst suppliers.  Becky and I had previously visited Jaipur where this amethyst is cut.  We have experienced the entire supply chain.  We know the mine is helping our Moroccan friends improve lives. We know the jobs in Jaipur cutting the rough are valued by those workers.  And we are proud to share this story with our customers.  I get excited by these lovely jewels the earth provides. But I get even more excited by what our creative customers will do with these gems.  And I know that our customers will love knowing the entire story behind this amethyst.  It’s a story we want to tell for every gemstone we can.

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