From the Andes to the Pantanál: in search of ametrine
April 30, 2013
The highest peaks of the Andes Mountains tower majestically over Bolivia. At over a million square kilometres, an area twice the size of Texas, this country occupies a fairly large share of central South America. The Andean mountain chain, known as the Cordilleras, lie in the eastern third of the country, and the majority of Bolivia’s ten million people live here, as they have since pre-Columbian times. Even after the Spanish conquistadores laid claim to this rich and beautiful land in the early 1500s, the Andes remained the country’s lifeblood.
We take you to the source of one of the world’s most unique gems: ametrine. In this gem, nature has combined two quartz varieties, purple amethyst and golden citrine. Ametrine is found only in this exotic Andean nation, a land as unique as the gem it produces.
The goal is to better understand ametrine and its origin, as well as the people who mine it and treasure it. We’ll take you to the Anahí mine itself, getting our hands dirty as we clamber through the very tunnels and shafts that pierce the earth’s crust to produce this unique gem material. There you will see how the ametrine gets transported and processed, and then the final act of making the gem ready for jewellery. Finally, we’ll take you to a glamorous showroom in Bolivia that specialises in selling these treasures. In all, you will have a true mine-to-market experience.
But our journey through Bolivia begins high in the Andes—far from the tropical environment that produces ametrine.
Bolivia’s highest peak, El Nevado de Sajama, rises 21,400 feet above sea level and remains cloaked in a permanent snow bank, as do many of the other impressive peaks in the Andean Cordilleras. It is the snows from the Western and Central Cordilleras that nourish Bolivia. The melt rushes down the mountains toward the Altiplano, a high plain that is home to the world’s highest navigable body of water, Lake Titicaca. It is also the largest freshwater lake in South America, visible from outer space, and home to fascinating, high-altitude flora and fauna such as the James flamingo, once thought to be extinct before it was rediscovered in the mid-1900s.
The roots of Bolivia’s history—and the bulk of its population and cultural and mineral riches—lie in these high, austere elevations of the Altiplano. In this arid, seemingly inhospitable location, the mighty Tiwanaku civilisation once thrived. Tiwanaku is thought by historians to be a precursor to the mighty Inca empire, and its people inhabited the region around Lake Titicaca as early as 1500 BC. Evidence suggests a civilisation dedicated to agriculture. At the height of the civilisation, around 300 BC, this region was probably the source of many of the world’s potato varieties, as well as unique forms of barley and quinoa and domesticated camelid species such as the llama, vicuña and alpaca. The people were also exceptional stonemasons. A visit to Tiwanaku, Bolivia’s most important archaeological discovery and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exemplifies their extraordinary architecture and stone carving for decorative or ceremonial purposes. One of the most important icons there is the Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun), a giant monolith carved with a stunning design of the sun god Inti wearing an elaborate headdress and surrounded by humanlike birds.
While Bolivia’s rivers and high-altitude lakes are nourished by the Andes, so are its people. In fact, the bulk of Bolivia’s population is concentrated in the Andean region. In the 1500s, the Spanish began to inhabit and colonise these areas, often returning to Europe with raw materials found in the New World. From mineral-rich Bolivia (known at the time as the Great Colombia), silver, gold and other treasures were taken in huge quantities. These contributed greatly to the growth of the Spanish Empire in the 1500s and 1600s.
If we see ametrine as a colourful reminder of Bolivia’s gem and mineral riches, it was precious metals, particularly gold and silver, that were most sought in the 1500s and 1600s. The city of Potosí epitomises the treasures that pour out of the Andean region. An interesting story relates the discovery of silver in the year 1544. Huallpa, an Incan llama herder, had lost one of his animals, and rather than return home without it he spent the night on the mountainside. With the perpetual cold at this altitude, even more so once the sun sets, Huallpa built a fire to stay warm. As the legend goes, tiny threads of molten silver began to flow in small rivulets from under the coals, a mother lode of silver.
For the nearly 500 years since this discovery, Cerro Rico has been the world’s largest silver deposit. It is also one of the highest working mines in the world, located a punishing 14,000 feet above sea level. Of this discovery it was once remarked that a bridge of solid silver could be built, stretching from Potosi to Spain. This was figuratively true, as much of Cerro Rico’s wealth went directly to Spain in the following centuries. In attempting to create a Bolivian silver industry in the 1500s, the Spanish viceroy built the national Bolivian mint, La Casa de la Moneda. This truly imposing structure struck most of South America’s silver currency, as well as some of Spain’s own currency, for well over two centuries.
A rare view from the roof of La Casa de la Moneda today portrays a city whose architecture has remained virtually unchanged for the past 500 years. A series of colonial churches, brick and stucco buildings with red tile roofs, huddle together as if seeking warmth against the cold, barren landscape.
Overlooking Potosí is the now heavily pockmarked mountain of Cerro Rico, often depicted in Bolivian paintings as a sacred figure protecting the city and its people.
The legend of Anahí
Bolivia’s colonial era is a good time to introduce the legend of Anahí, which touches upon the gem ametrine. The Spanish conquistadores were probably sending teams of explorers off throughout the Andes from the 1500s, and their journeys led them down the high valleys into the lowlands and eventually the Amazon basin. Their charge was to discover as much gold and silver as possible for the homeland. One such explorer is said to have encountered a native Ayoreo tribe along the Pantanál region and, in a Pocahontas-like story, fallen in love with Anahí, an Ayoreo princess. As a token of her admiration for the conquistador, she presented him with a bicoloured gem, one that the Spaniards had never seen before. The rare stone was found near the village, in a mine that bears her name today.
As laced with romance as the story might be, the ametrine as we know it today was probably found much later, in the 1970s.
Sucre and La Paz
Bolivia’s constitutional capital is Sucre, located in the high mountain valleys. And while the city is one of the country’s largest, bustling with activity, it is no longer the seat of government. All the major government offices, the president’s home, and the international embassies are now located in La Paz. Nonetheless, Sucre is a magnificent colonial city to visit because of the wonderful mix of modern conveniences and ancient history blended together there. Sucre is centrally located, linked by rail to Bolivia’s principal silver and tin mines, and from there to other main cities and export centres.
Not far from Sucre is the village of Tarabuco, today a quaint community known for the amazing colour and quality of its textile designs. But Tarabuco’s reputation was not always so peaceful. The Tarabuqueños were fierce warriors, ancestrally linked to the Incas and vigorously opposed to Spanish rule. A visit to the small town reveals a society lost in time, and one still gets an uneasy sense that outsiders are unwanted. The main square has as its centrepiece a ferocious Tarabuqueño statue, a wild-eyed man who has just ripped the heart out of a Spanish soldier’s chest. Despite their opposition to the Spaniards, the conquistadores clearly left their mark. Remarkably, vestiges of ancient Spanish influence can still be seen centuries later. To this day, men and women often wear leather replicas of the old conquistador helmets, sometimes adorned with flowers.
La Paz, meanwhile, is truly international, the highest major city in the world. Here too the Bolivian partiality for hats is seen everywhere you go. In the La Paz region, the hats take on a more European flair. Women enjoy wearing black and brown felt hats, similar in style to an English “bowler” hat. The city a Bolivian woman comes from can often be determined from the type of hat she wears.
Overlooking La Paz is one of Bolivia's most dramatic mountains, Mount Illimani, which is permanently blanketed in snow and towers over the capital. Nestled in a deep bowl on the Altiplano, La Paz lies within easy reach of Lake Titicaca and Bolivia’s other main cities. A short but hair-raising drive to the cumbre, the highest mountain pass, some 20 miles outside the city, provides a bird’s-eye view of the city’s skyscrapers. Peering down the other side of the mountain, however, brings into view a precipitous plunge into the beginnings of Bolivia’s jungle lowlands. We will now proceed past the high valleys, following the melting snows and rivers into the jungle below, in search of ametrine.
A half-hour flight from La Paz deposits visitors in the fast-growing city of Santa Cruz, in Bolivia’s tropical heartland. We are one step closer to the birthplace of ametrine. Our first stop in Santa Cruz is a visit with Ramiro Rivero, owner of Minerales y Metales del Oriente. This parent company encompasses a group of companies dedicated to mining, transporting, sorting, preforming, faceting and marketing all of Anahí’s gems. While ametrine is the most coveted gemstone, the mine also produces a variety of other quartzes, including amethyst, citrine, and colourless and lavender quartz.
The best way to get to Anahí is by invitation. Given the utter remoteness of the locality, those arriving unannounced are not welcomed with open arms. Assuming that an invitation stands, the travel choices are limited. In practical terms, there are really only two ways to get there: a drive and boat ride, or a flight from Santa Cruz. One could take the route of the conquistador and traverse miles of scrub brush and deep jungle by horse—but this is not recommended. Another option would be to wait until the dry season (Bolivia’s winter months, such as June or July) and take the daylong drive along a rural road from Santa Cruz. The road meanders south-east to the village of Roboré, and from there to the town of Puerto Suarez, on the border with Brazil. This completes the land portion of the journey, approximately two-thirds of the way to the mine. An extraordinary network of swamplands and inland waterways, which make up the world-famous Pantanál ecological reserve, are the next leg of the trip. Another eight to ten hours are spent on a barge or motorboat, heading due north until reaching Laguna Mandioré, a large freshwater lagoon. Along its shores, a small port serves as a disembarkation point… and then for the last bumpy hour of the trip, a winding slog through the jungle, over a small series of hills to Anahí.
The most expeditious way to the mine is by single-propeller aircraft, a three-and-a-half hour flight from Santa Cruz. Not far from the mine, a grass airstrip awaits, and heavily armed guards are there to greet you.
Upon reaching the mine, it becomes immediately clear that the place is all about quartz. Chunks of different sizes, including outright hexagonal crystals, are embedded along the road leading to the mine and throughout the mine itself. The hills surrounding the mine property consist of dolomitic limestone, containing veins of quartz. Several different shafts have been drilled into the property along these veins, and Rivero estimates that in a good year 3,000–3,500 kg of gem-quality quartz are mined. Ametrine is the most lucrative of the products, although on average amethyst makes up 44% of production by weight, ametrine 33% and citrine 23%. A portion of the production is very light, lavender-coloured, which Rivero has called “anahíta”. Some colourless or very milky quartz, previously discarded, is now retained for ornamental purposes.
In a good year, some 70 to 100 individuals work at the mine. Rivero takes great pride in describing how the mine is run. He says the miners play football every day, eat good food, watch satellite television and use the company’s phones to call home. Alcohol is prohibited at the mine, and the company provides basic medical care.
The mining process
Most of the mining at Anahí takes place underground, accessed through a series of reinforced shafts and horizontal tunnels that extend to the mineralised areas. But there is also a small open-pit mining area. In the tunnels that are being enlarged, or when mineralised areas in the open pit need to be loosened for hand digging, dynamite blasting occurs once or twice per day. An alarm is sounded, and everybody seeks cover.
The air must be cleared after blasting, and then the miners remove loosened rock or chisel into areas containing amethyst. In the principal tunnels, overburden is piled into mining carts that roll down a slight gradient when full. A single person pushes the carts. The overburden is transported up an lift shaft and slid down a chute to another waiting mining cart in open air. Fully loaded carts are pushed to a washing area where the material is dumped. A water cannon further loosens agglomerations of rock and mud, and a series of sieves are used to separate out particulate matter. The Anahí mine is conscious of environmental damage from particulates, particularly if these were to flow downstream into the Pantanál. Particulates are therefore meticulously collected in a series of holding ponds.
After washing, material is bagged and taken to a protected pre-sorting facility. Here some 20 employees begin evaluating the material. Some items are hammered—or cobbed—to reveal only the facetable material, and to reduce weight. While no items are actually faceted at Anahí, the pre-sorting is aimed at streamlining the cutting process later.
The mine prides itself on compliance with government regulations on the use of dynamite. Miners also wear protective gear such as hard hats, gloves (quartz can cut as easily as broken glass), eye protection and masks to protect the wearer from airborne quartz particles.
The return trip is also arduous. Mine run is trucked to Laguna Mandioré and loaded onto a barge. From there it makes the long journey down to Puerto Suarez, where it is transported to a holding facility. Rough material is then shipped to the processing plant in Santa Cruz, as needed.
The manufacturing process
The main facility for processing the mine run and transforming the material into sparkling gems is located at the Parque Industrial in Santa Cruz. Here the material is categorised and sorted further, dutifully routed to the proper preformers and cutters at the factory. Preforming reveals the ametrine’s colour zoning, which allows a skilled cutter to determine the final outcome of the gem. He or she must also work to fashion the gems to perfectly fit the factory’s jewellery design, or according to the specifications of overseas manufacturers. Because the designers, preformers, cutters and jewellers are all located under one roof, clear communication is needed. An informal open-door policy encourages this type of communication.
End of the line
Now the finished jewellery is finally ready for its ultimate destination, the market. While a portion of the rough and preformed amethyst, ametrine and citrine production is slated for export to markets around the world, M&M’s own retail division stands as a profitable test market for selling finished products in a retail environment. M&M’s spotless showrooms in Santa Cruz serves as a forum for aspiring, as well as accomplished writers, artists and musicians, who are often invited to exhibit their work or perform at the store. In turn these guests carry the message of Anahí throughout the country. This strategy has not gone unnoticed. Ametrine, also known as “Bolivianita”, is the country’s national gemstone.
Ametrine serves as a spectacular mine-to-market model for anyone seeking to elevate the status, market appeal and value of a given gemstone. And in examining the source of this unique gemstone, we have gone further—to understand the culture, beauty and historical background of Bolivia.