The journey of topaz, a Namibian desert diamond - News - Gondwana Collection

News

Gondwana's Newsroom

The journey of topaz, a Namibian desert diamond

Avatar of inke inke - 29. January 2019 - Economics


While visiting the small-scale miners in western Namibia, we came across a true desert beauty... 

By Ron Swilling

Formed millions of years ago when the Earth was young, our coloured gemstones have a long and intriguing journey before they end up in a favourite piece of jewellery or on a shelf as a collector’s item. Gondwana participated in the more recent part of the gemstone journey, seeking out prospectors, miners, gem-cutters, collectors, geologists and traders to hear their fascinating tales, as multifaceted as the finest-cut stone.

Joining GIZ, a German development agency, to highlight and uplift the lives of small miners, we travelled through the arid plains and hilly countryside of the hinterland in the scorching summer heat, meeting some of the small miners of the Erongo Region in west-central Namibia. The little-known industry comprises groups of hardworking men and women who gather in the gemstone-rich areas, hoping to unearth enough gems to feed themselves and their families. 

The desert diggers

The small miners of Namibia, thought to number between five to ten thousand, are concentrated in the Erongo, Kunene and Karas regions. The miners, often living in harsh conditions far from municipal services, education facilities and water, struggle on the land for survival, driven by hopes and dreams. They ride a rollercoaster of fortune, sometimes striking it rich and living it up for a while, only to return to the mining areas when the money runs out, to dig once again in the sands of Spitzkoppe or to hammer into the rock of the Erongo Mountains, searching for stone treasure. Some of the work is dangerous, and involves crawling through tunnels in the ground. All of it is dirty. The industry is shaped by determination, hard work and broken dreams.

Ancient Earth history

The gemstone journey began millennia ago, long before the desert diggers began searching on the rugged land, when magma travelled towards the Earth’s surface in a seething liquid mass. As it cooled gradually over time, minerals crystallised into the treasure house of gemstones we know today, the different minerals, temperatures and conditions shaping and colouring the various stones. Namibia is well-known for its wealth of semi-precious, colourful gemstones.

There are records of small-scale mining in Namibia from hundreds of years ago when the San mined copper ore in the northern reaches of the country. Today, small mining is an important sector of the economy, providing income to people living in remote areas where there is little other chance of employment.

Braving Brandberg...

Our first destination was Gobogobos in Brandberg-West where miners furrow into the rocky walls of the mountain looking for crystal quartz collectors’ pieces, amethyst, fluorite and calcite. A few us climbed up the rocky slopes, huffing and puffing with the exertion, and then braved the small, claustrophobic channels the miners had dug into the mountain. For them, following these mineral veins through the rock is daily routine.

Striking it rich

The farm Neu-Schwaben near Karibib was our next stop, where the land is pocked with deep holes and sparkles with mica. We came across miners hammering with pickaxes on granite ledges and others working with jackhammers and shovels, looking for tourmaline. Simple makeshift houses dot the area – providing places to sleep, eat and call home. Pekakarua ‘Lucky’ Metirapi walked us around his claim, describing the small miners dream of finding a ‘pocket’ - a cavity or geode of crystals. He had been lucky twice, as his name suggests. With the money from the first pocket he bought some cattle and got married. The amount from his second pocket, found three years later, was put away for his six children. “In there is my dream,” he said, pointing at the ground and hoping for the next lucky find to fund a new car.

Hello Topaz!

At Klein Spitzkoppe, not far from the main route between Swakopmund and Windhoek, the majority of the diggers are women who remain at home with their children when the men head north for the tougher mining work in the Brandberg vicinity. They dig on the sandy plains surrounding the granite outcrops for topaz. It was here where our interest in topaz was born, giving us the opportunity to move beyond the miners to the traders, gemstone cutters and gem shops. Small miner, Sam Meletsky, found a handful of topaz and smoky quartz while we were there, weighing them in his hand to differentiate the heavier pieces of topaz. “Oh, this is a good one,” he said handing over a small nondescript piece of topaz.

It was added to our collection of coloured gemstones that we had accumulated along the way. The rough pieces of topaz have little value and are often sold on the roadside tables in the area and at the Ûiba-Ôas crystal market on the turnoff to Spitzkoppe/Henties Bay from the B2 or are offered to traders and the gemstone shops of Windhoek, Karibib and Swakopmund. Many of the stones are exported to be cut and fashioned into jewellery overseas.

Cut to perfection

We paid a visit to Mike Thygesen’s shop, Desert Gems, in Swakopmund and discovered that Mike had pioneered a windmill design especially for silver topaz, to transform the ugly ducklings into the princesses they actually are. Mike became interested in topaz when he was transferred to a new job in Usakos in 1984 and began exploring the Klein Spitzkoppe area and hunting for topaz in his spare time. Later on, he began cutting gems, and his hobby gradually turned into a business and led him to taking over the shop in Swakopmund in 1991. For a Coloured Gemstones and Jewellery showcase in Windhoek in 2017, demonstrating the value chain of the industry, Mike decided to return to his roots and do something for the small miners in Klein Spitzkoppe by choosing topaz to be the main attraction. His 33-faceted windmill design was inspired by the windmill, an important symbol in a semi-arid country like Namibia. He recalls a windmill he saw on a farm in Klein Spitzkoppe many years ago, when he took refuge in its shade. He told us: “The fences had been removed, the buildings were gone, but there was a solitary windmill. As it started turning, there were reflections of sunlight and shadow on the ground.” The memory of it stuck with him. For six months after he developed the cut, he focused on cutting the design on topaz, and is still doing it. The unique cut added a special character to the stone, and has generated elevated interest and sales in topaz worldwide. 

We eagerly gave him our piece of topaz and watched in awe as he and gem-cutter, Elekan Shigweda, turned the stone before our eyes into a true Namibian ‘diamond’, the affordable type. 

Our ‘desert diamond’ was now ready for the next and last phase of its journey. We visited the jewellery-manufacturing training school at the COSDEF (Namibia Community Skills Development Foundation) centre on the outskirts of the town, leaving it in the capable hands of Jacob Shingenge, a promising student who would add further value to the stone by setting it in a piece of jewellery.

The small piece of topaz, which we had all become attached to, had come a long way from its origins deep within the Earth on a journey that took 135 million years, to finally be dug from the sand at Klein Spitzkoppe and faceted in the studios of Swakopmund.

The story of a topaz. A journey of millions of years, and a stone with authentic, earthy and Namibian soul.

GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) has been tasked with developing industry growth strategies - in conjunction with the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade & SME development - to offer support, encourage development and promote value addition in the small mining sector in Namibia.

View the video clips of the fascinating journey of Namibia’s desert diggers in the upcoming series on Gondwana’s Facebook page.

New comment

0 comments

Stay up-to-date with our monthly 'Gondwana Tracks' Newsletter Sign up Today