You may be forgiven for thinking Africa’s only ‘Sperrgebiet’, a restricted access wilderness of gemstone-bearing lands, is solely Namibia’s claim to frame. It turns out however, in the remote Ethiopian Highlands, at a height of almost 8,000 feet, a large sapphire-field has been found in a remote, culturally-timeless area that is carefully administered by the authorities.
This new find, made in early 2017 at the north end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, was somewhat eclipsed by the 2016 discovery of a Madagascan sapphire deposit that occupied the sapphire industry’s attention (see pp.14-15). This new Ethiopian sapphire deposit has emerged almost entirely unnoticed, and the scale is only just being understood.
A 12 gram/ 60ct blue sapphire being passed through a tightly-packed crowd in the restricted-sapphire areas in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. ©Simon Bruce-Lockhart
Thousands of farmers and sapphire miners walk to Chila market to trade sapphire. ©Simon Bruce-Lockhart
To the north of Askum, the ancient seat of Christian kings known for cultural jewels of millennia-old steale and rock-hewn churches, is the dusty market-town of Chila – the gateway to the sapphire fields. Chila is a remote settlement, over 1,000km by road from the capital city, Addis Ababa, and is perilously close to the sensitive UN demarcated border with Eritrea. The sapphire-fields are in the middle of the strategic border areas and are part of the former conflict-zone between the two nations – access here is forbidden to foreigners.
I have come here with the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines, Petroleum & Natural Gas to verify the sapphire-fields, document what is going on, and prove the sapphire-types produced from Africa’s highest sapphire mines that are likely to become a significant player in the global supply-chain over the next few years.
Heading to Chila from Aksum, fertile flatlands give way to winding mountainous dirt-roads. Mountain slopes of granite rocks are peppered with acacia trees, eucalypts and huge aloe-veras. Vast fields of time-worn boulders stretch for miles forming hills, outcrops and deeply-strewn valleys. The closer one get to Chila, it is clear you are entering the debris-field of an ancient volcanic landscape. This is the ‘Adwa Plug’, an 800km square granitic and basaltic-zone visible from space – much of which is sapphire-bearing.
Chila is a small town on a dusty plain, surrounded by granite. Home to several hundred ramshackle houses, the town’s main draw is its once-a-week market. Thousands of rural people from surrounding areas come to town to trade the produce of subsistence-farming and purchase provisions. It was, until recently, not unlike any other remote market-town in Ethiopia’s Highlands. However, since early 2017, the market has morphed into a lively and unusual trading post, where sapphire and zircon are sold alongside mangoes and live chickens, and garnets and tourmaline are traded next to goats, shallots and grains.
The Chila sapphire mines. ©Simon Bruce-Lockhart
Untethered camels wander the streets in front of sapphire-dealing offices. Boys herding goats drift through side-alleys as men inspect sapphires. The streets of stone and dust throng with thousands of people looking to sell sapphires and more. Here in these streets, crowds press-up against you to show and sell their sapphires. The surrounding one-story stone buildings comprise of offices that provide relief from large, curious crowds eager to sell their sapphires.
The Saturday market attracts many of the 5,000 sapphire miners who work the current deposits. The isolated sapphire mines, some 10km outside of Chila, are accessible only by robust four-wheel drives along winding dirt-tracks with tyre-shredding pieces of rock. These arduous conditions and farmers’ low-incomes, means no cars, trucks or motorbikes pass down these tracks – the traffic here belongs to a bygone age.
Thousands of people walk large distances to trade and barter sapphires and subsistence-farming produce. On Saturdays, long columns of people an livestock trudge the boulder-strewn valleys and hills. Most walk 10km or more to market with camels and donkeys to trade their sapphire, purchase a week’s worth of provisions, load their beasts of burden and walk all the way back through valleys and hills at dusk.