Overnight Millionaires : Colombia’s Emerald Mines: Green Gold

Deutsche Presse-Agentur

About 150 miles from Bogota lie the mines of Muzo and Coscuez, the biggest emerald deposits in the world. The car drive from the Colombian capital over a potholed track takes eight to 10 hours.

To Santa Barbara, a small town 5 miles from the mining centers, the land is a lush green. Thereafter, the terrain is a gray bleakness. The wild mountain peaks are covered from morning until evening in a cloak of mist as if nature seeks to hide its treasures.

The houses in Santa Barbara are made of wood, despite the millions of pesos to be made in the town every day. There are no hotels, not even hostels for the simple traveler. Yet the finest and most expensive Scotch flows, and fortunes are squandered in the town’s bars and dives.

The neighboring town of Muzo usually has about 5,000 residents, but during an emerald boom--and that happens whenever a new seam is discovered--the population soars to 20,000.


Warnings Issued

For those unacquainted with the land, the journey into the mining zone can be extremely dangerous. Tourists are warned to stay away. The area has been dubbed the “Land of 1,001 Nights” and the “Devil’s Caldron.”

Wild rags-to-riches stories go the rounds in Muzo and Coscuez, where millionaires have been made overnight. Thousands of adventurers have lost their lives in bloody fighting among themselves. Numerous crosses planted by the roadside or dotting the fields are silent testimony to the violence.

The emerald is a form of beryl, a mineral found principally in granite and granite pegmatites. It is prospected in its pure form as a precious stone and is green or blue-green in color.

“The most valuable are the so-called ‘oil drops’ and ‘water eyes,’ veritable masterpieces of nature for which vast sums are paid,” explained a jeweler in Bogota.

The precious stones prospected in Muzo and Coscuez are sent to Bogota to be valued by experts. Shine, purity and color determine the price.

Emerald mines can also be found in Brazil, Africa, Australia, India and the Soviet Union. Japan even produces synthetic emeralds.

State Owns Resources

The deposits in Colombia were mined in pre-Columbian times. The present official prospector, the Compania Esmeraldas de Colombia, holds the concession from the state, which owns all mineral resources in the country.

The question of how much emerald is actually found in Colombia each year is difficult to answer, as great quantities of the precious stone disappear onto the black market.

Official figures put the annual legal export of emeralds at $36.3 million. However, insiders reckon that between $100 million and $150 million worth of Colombian emeralds are marketed each year.

The price of the stone depends on many factors, including ever-changing supply and demand, and the fluctuating rate of the dollar. Prospective purchasers are advised not to buy from strangers in the street, but to go to a respected jeweler.

Distinguishing a fake from the real thing is not an easy task, even for the experts. Many a traveler has returned home with worthless glass instead of a valuable gem.