Gemstones Galore – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach

The gemstone capital of the world has to be Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – for sheer quantity, variety and quality of precious and semi-precious stones that are marketed in the rough as well as cut and set in jewelery.

Rio is the main tourist entry point into Brazil, whether you are coming from North America, Europe or South Africa. What better place than Copacabana Beach for a vacation!

Copacabana has the reputation of being the playground of the rich and famous, an exotic haven from the northern winter and where everything costs the earth and is beyond the reach of the average traveler.

Not so! Two or three blocks from the beach are excellent three-star hotels having doubles with breakfast for US$65 and nearby backpacker hostels start at US$20 a double.

Your first glimpse of Brazilian gemstones is at the airport terminal as you fly in – the major gem dealers and jewelery firms, H. Stern and rival Amsterdam Sauer make sure their presence is known to the tourist. They have showrooms at Copacabana Beach and in major hotels, even on top of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Avenida Atlantica
Wavy patterned sidewalk on Avenida Atlantica

The broad Avenida Atlantica separates the long sweep of high-rise hotels from the golden sands of Copacabana Beach. The central divide is wide enough for coconut palms and at certain points, provides a safe haven for sellers of craft goods and gemstones. The wide sidewalks are striking, with their wavy mosaic pattern of little black and white stone blocks.

The early morning ritual is not to be missed – at least observed if not participated in. You must stroll, power-walk or jog along several kilometers of Avenida Atlantica, wearing next to nothing, either alone or accompanied by your pet poodle, stopping at frequent intervals to do callisthenics and inhale the ozone, all before breakfast.

The daytime is meant to be spent swimming, sun-bathing, playing ball games on the beach or exploring the city. The evenings are more relaxed. The restaurants spread out over the sidewalks and soon fill up with tourists enjoying themselves. Across the avenue on the beach side are more economical bars selling beer, coconut drinks and seafood snacks. Here you can imbibe and watch the surf crash on the beach.

The jewelery selling on the beach stalls is not cheap. The tumbled stone necklaces and agate ornaments have similar retail prices in Australia. The Brazilian currency is the Real which currently (Dec 2002) is valued at 3.74 Real = US$1.

Blue Topaz
Blue Topaz

I found faceted emerald-like green fluorites costing $10 and upwards and pale emeralds for a few dollars. In Brazil you can often buy the natural vanadium-colored emerald that lacks the bluish-green tint of chromium. However, the street stalls fade into insignificance when you enter the showrooms of the major gem dealers.

On Avenida Atlantica some tourist hotels, such as the Rio Othon Palace and Le Meridien, have showrooms in the foyer. Both Amsterdam Sauer and H. Stern have their headquarters, salesrooms and gem museum in Ipanema, the beach suburb adjacent to Copacabana. Staff will immediately provide a free taxi service and return you to your hotel with no obligation to buy anything. Don’t miss out!

My travel companion Chrissy expressed no interest in jewelery or gemstones. As a visit to Stern’s was a highlight of my previous trip to Copacabana I insisted that she come along to have a look, just out of curiousity.

Stern’s world headquarters is on Rua Garcia D’Avila in Ipanema; they have 150 shops in 13 different countries. All visitors are considered potential customers and you are treated like royalty. There is always your credit card if you get carried away with things!

On the third floor the reception girls establish where you come from and what language you speak. Next you are given the appropriate tape and headphones and start a self-guided tour that explains the entire operation, from mining, gem-cutting, gem identification and valuation to silversmithing and jewelery marketing.

The workers are behind glass partitions but you are close enough to watch every movement; the diamond sawing of rough gem material, preforming and faceting with a jamb-peg on a diamond lap. The wooden peg board has about 24 rows of 6 or 7 notches each, to position the dop, which is done by instinct developed by long experience – no mechanical faceting heads are used here!

The beautiful oval and marquise cuts of colored stones are works of art, created by gem cutters unconstrained by any mechanical rigidity. In the gem fields whole families become lapidaries using similar equipment, with children soon turning out respectable quartz gems, just like our children quickly become skilled with computers.

Lapidary shop at Cristalina
Lapidary shop at Cristalina

On a previous trip I stopped a few days at the quartz-mining village of Cristalina, located in Mina Gerais state close to the capital, Brasilia. There are three budget hotels (US$15/night), appropriately named Central, Pyramid and Cristal. I seemed to be the only foreigner present.

Friendly boys on bicycles followed me everywhere offering tobacco tins full of sparkling gemstones to buy; home-cut amethysts, citrines and smoky quartz for next to nothing – US$10 would buy a superb ring stone. Soon I exhausted my supply of dollars. Next they showed me their home workshop, which, like the kitchen, seemed to blend in with their living quarters, having four laps using carborundum grinding powder instead of diamond, and the usual jamb-pegs.

We piled into a taxi to go the 3km to a gem-mining area. Minas Gerais state is one of the world’s largest pegamatite provinces – the source of tourmaline, aquamarine, emerald and other beryls, quartz and topaz. No bedrock is visible at Cristalina, just rusty, residual, weathered material having scattered nicely shaped crystals of colored quartz – mainly rock crystal, citrine and smokies. A simple sluice and sieve was being used to recover gems from various pits.

Back at Stern’s we ended up in the salesroom. Chrissy now seemed to have a rapport with gemstones. She decided to linger and have a coffee. Perhaps they might have a little ring or something of interest? Highly unlikely, she assured me, but there was no harm in looking.

I glanced at an American being helped to match some superb deep blue oval topaz for making up a necklace. I too prefer the steely-blue topaz to the more costly aquamarine which rarely achieves the same depth of color. Another favorite of mine is Imperial Topaz.

Freshly mined Imperial Topaz at Ouro Preto
Freshly mined Imperial Topaz at Ouro Preto

Brazil’s unique sherry-colored topaz (Imperial Topaz) was first discovered in the 17th century. It is found in weathered pegmatite areas usually as small (2 to 4 cm) tetragonal prisms capped by basal cleavage faces. Topaz is the third hardest gemstone, after diamond and sapphire. Faceted stones tend to be small and elongated to the prism. Its orange look-alike, heat-treated citrine, is an attractive substitute found in more generous proportions.

Two important topaz mines exist near Ouro Preto, the old capital of Minas Gerais state, which overflowed with gold and gems in the 19th century. Its steep cobblestone streets and well preserved 18th century colonial architecture make it a national monument and popular tourist destination.

My excursion to Ouro Preto started with a visit to the famous School of Mines and mineralogical museum. Some staff members took me to the nearest topaz mine which is beyond the alumina smelter. Mining methods are medieval, the hillside being honeycombed with shafts that descend in steps of about 2 meters with scant timbering and rope ladders. In the manager’s hut we got to see the latest output – the largest topaz prism weighed 350 grams and measured 10 x 3 x 3 cm, about half of it being facet grade!

Stern’s museum also has superb examples of Ouro Preto topaz.

I was wondering why Chrissy was taking so long and checked out the salesroom again.

“I am having this wonderful ring altered to fit me,” she said. “It’s nearly ready. It has five different stones and you will have to tell me what they are or write it down somewhere.”

She had chosen a gold ring with step-cut stones of garnet, aquamarine, amethyst, citrine and peridot. Stern’s rarely fail to win a customer!

“Well done,” I congratulated her, “now you’ve got a real treasure to remind you of Brazil!”

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