In the province of Ratanakiri, in the northeast of Cambodia, the locals are hard at work cultivating a range of produce, from cashews to bananas, sugar cane to glorious blue onyx gemstones.
From the main town Ban Lung, it’s a short 18 mile (30 km) two-hour drive over rough roads to the mining town of Chum Rom Bei Srak.
In Chum Rom Bei Srak sorters are busy at work shifting through freshly-mined stones. As they expertly work their way through the pile, stopping occasionally to trim the stones with wire cutters, they check for cracks and flows that will determine whether the stone ends up a precious five carat jewel or less expensive one to two carat stones.
No fancy equipment or structures are in sight, just a rough field of simple, square holes with foot holds cut into the inside of the mine. Some are more elaborate, connected by shafts, but most look no more sophisticated than an oversized rabbit hole.
The miners work in teams of close friends and immediate family. Implicit trust and honesty are required to work the mines successfully, as a good stone could be the equivalent of a month’s salary in this heavily impoverished country.
The work is hard, with only simple tools at hand, a bucket and a hand turned wrench to dig out the minimum eight feet (2.4 m) deep mines. The stones don’t show themselves until at least this depth below the surface.
Mr. Yuen, a 24-year-old, four-year veteran of gemstone mining, was hard at work with his cane-woven sieve in a water-filled slush pit. He paused long enough to show us some of his earlier finds. In our hands, they were rather uninteresting looking cola-colored pebbles.
While we took in the hard labor and patience it took to extract these stones, our ex-commodities trader tour guide could not help himself, and out of old habits, he started negotiating a price. When we realized that in town we could have these expertly cut to reveal the blue jewels, the US$5 price tag for three stones was a worthwhile investment to see the end result.
Upon our return to Ban Lung, we dropped by one of the three gemstone stores, where we were allowed to view the skilled cutter at his craft, working the rotating wheel in the style of a potter’s wheel to turn the brown stones to blue gems.
With some fast-talking by our local guide our request was met, with a deal struck at a US$ 1 a carat.
Because the heating and cutting process takes two hours and it was near day’s end, we were going to have to wait until the next day to see the finished product.
The End Result
But the following day, our freshly cut, freshly polished “babies” arrived. Like any new parents, we fussed over and photographed our new arrivals at every angle. Our “eldest,” biggest stone came in at a whopping four-carat, our middle two-carat, and the runt of the litter, the one we were told would turn to dust under the cutters tools, a respectable one-carat. Total investment, including cutting — US$ 12!
Had we beat the scammers and made a good investment? Who cared? For 12 bucks we got to take the journey from mine, to gem cutter, to finished stone.
It was an added bonus when a visiting geologist, on the hunt for Asian Rubies and Sapphires, declared our modest investment for our three blue Ratanakiri Onyxes gemstones a savvy buy, worth at least US$ 100!
Definitely the most satisfying jewelry shopping I’ve ever done!!