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Mining and gemstones in Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 10. May 2019 - Economics, Tourism

Semi-precious gemstones and crystals from Namibia. (Photo: Megan Dreyer)

Brigitte Weidlich

Namibia is not only regarded as a touristic gem waiting to be discovered by travellers from all over the world, the country has many hidden gems in the literal sense of the word.

Tourists love to take home a lasting memory from their trip to Namibia, in the form of a sparkling diamond ring or pendant with a diamond found in the ancient Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world. Many semi precious stones found in Namibia like amethyst, topaz, crystals, tourmalines and rose quartz are beautifully transformed by local goldsmiths into jewellery. The gemstone and jewellery trade is a smaller, but important part of Namibia’s economically significant mining sector, which can be traced back over 400 years.

Today, the mining sector contributes about 14 percent to Namibia’s economy and it generated N$33.5 billion (about 2.08 billion Euros) in revenue in 2018 through the sale of minerals that were extracted locally. The most important minerals are copper, lead, uranium, gold and zinc, while diamond and salt production are also significant contributors to mining.

Termite hills were once used to smelt copper

Archaeologists found traces of early copper mining by indigenous people near today’s Matchless Mine, southwest of Windhoek. Early European hunters and travellers in the early 1800s found local women in northern Namibia wearing heavy copper bracelets around their wrists and ankles. The Owambo-speaking inhabitants used copper from the Otavi mountains and are said to have melted the copper in termite hills (also called termite mounds) they hollowed out, using charcoal and operating with bellows.

Around 1850, news of copper discoveries led to a copper rush leading to the establishment of companies like the Walvis Bay and the Namaqua Mining companies. Copper ore from the Matchless Mine was carted with ox wagons to the coast and exported through the port of Walvis Bay.

When Namibia became a German colony in 1884, the colonisers soon found out about the copper deposits between Otavi and Tsumeb, which they ‘discovered’ in 1893. A railway line was constructed from Otavi to Swakopmund by the Otavi Mining & Railway Company (Otavi Minen- & Eisenbahngesellschaft), which was established in 1900. The discovery of diamonds near Lüderitz in 1908 led to a huge diamond rush, which ended abruptly in 1914 with the start of the First World War.

Modern times unlock mining potential

While the mining giant De Beers, owned by the Oppenheimer family took over the diamond production during the early 1920s in the Sperrgebiet (forbidden area) until Namibia’s independence in 1990, other international companies mined in copper, lead and fluorspar near Tsumeb, outside Swakopmund and Otjiwarongo, among others.

Interestingly, beautiful semi-precious stones and minerals were found as ‘by-product’ at several Namibian mines, particularly in Tsumeb, stirring great interest from international collectors and geological museums. Many photo-books have been published over the years depicting the beauty of these stones.

In the Sixties, news of uranium deposits some 60 km east of Swakopmund in the Erongo Regions caught international attention. It took several years to build a mining plant in the Namib Desert and production of the Rössing Uranium Mine started in 1976. To date, two more uranium mines were set up, Husab and Langer Heinrich.

Small miner in the Brandberg area. (Photo by: Ron Swilling)

Mining chamber 50 years sold

Rössing Uranium was one of the three founding members of the Chamber of Mines (CoM) along with Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM), owned by De Beers and Tsumeb Corporation Limited (TCL). They started the Association for Mining Companies in a Windhoek hotel on 9 May 1969. At Namibia’s independence in 1990, the name was changed to Chamber of Mines. The CoM’s golden jubilee coincided with its annual mining conference and expo on 8 and 9 May this year.

Sustainable gemstone mining supports locals

Many tourists stop outside Usakos on the way to Swakopmund near the turnoff to the majestic Spitzkoppe mountain range and buy gemstones from the small-scale miners who live in the area. The small miners spend many hours of hard work per day to chip away bedrock in their pursuit to discover beautiful semi-precious stones. They sell them along the road. Similar activities are carried out near the Brandberg. Since these informal small miners operate under harsh conditions and lack support, the Namibian government and Germany’s development agency GIZ have started a two-pronged support initiative called ‘Mine Stones’.

Small miners are selling their gemstones along the road in Namibia’s Erongo Region. (Photo by: Megan Dreyer)

It was made public at the annual Mining Conference & Expo on 8 May by the Minister of Industrialisation, Trade and SME-Development, Tjekero Tweya. The ‘Namibia Fair Gems’ is a pilot project for sustainable gemstone mining and jewellery manufacturing by introducing interested tourists to various coloured gemstones of Namibia. They are cleaned and crafted into jewellery. The semi-precious stones often remain uncut to keep their natural beauty.

Gemstone beauty shaped eons ago

The Gondwana lodges are the first partners to the project, and offer a home where this jewellery will be sold to tourists, who will acquire a unique memory of their Namibia trip with these stones that were shaped millions of years ago. In addition, small miners earn a better income and can support their families.

The second initiative is called ‘Geopark Brandberg’ and will link small miners of Goboboseb in the Brandberg West area, traditional authorities and conservancies in the vicinity to offer tourists different experiences off the beaten track. Rolf Adrian is the chairperson of the steering committee for the “Namibian Jewellery Industry and Coloured Gemstone and Associated Value Chains”. He also owns jewellery shops and is a member of the Jewellers Association of Namibia (Jassona). “The Geopark Brandberg initiative will offer packages to tourists, including onsite mining tours, geological information and village tours”, says Adrian. “Tourists can also try and dig for their own crystals on these tours”, he added.

Gondwana has recently acquired the well-known Palmwag Lodge in the Kunene Region, west of Kamanjab and also owns the Damara Mopane Lodge in the vicinity of the Brandberg (with the famous White Lady rock painting), Twyfelfontein, the Petrified Forest and the Burnt Mountain. Goboboseb is close by.

And in the words of the Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development Minister Tweya “the launch of these initiatives is a breakthrough event promoting greater economic freedom” for the small miners in these remote areas. For this new pioneering geo tourism adventure Minister Tweya lauded Gondwana as a “real patriot”. The company further promotes the local jewellery value chain through video clips on its various platforms.

Tourists can also book geological safaris in Namibia to discover the many fascinating aspects of the geological evolution, which shaped the country over millions of years with pockets of semi-precious gemstones for humans to admire.

An amethyst specimen from the Goboboseb area near the Brandberg (left, photo by: Saxminerals), and another amethyst found in Namibia in the Kristall Gallerie in Swakopmund (photo by: Kristall Gallerie).

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