By Gemologist Vincent Pardieu
Edited by Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
The following are excerpts from gemologist Vincent Pardieu’s personal account of a recent trip to Afghanistan to see the famous Lapis Lazuli mines in Badakhshan. Pardieu visited the mines to expand his own private reference collection for gem origin studies—not to purchase gems for resale. Find him at @vincent_pardieu. Learn more about gem origins here. Photos by Vincent Pardieu.
A Fresh Start
This is the start of a new day. I had a good dinner and a good night sleeping and have evacuated all the bacteria that turned my previous day into one of the most frustrating I ever had in the field. And I’m surrounded by great friends—Kamran is once again helping me today and insisted on carrying my backpack.
I put my pride aside and take it easy, my friends willing to help me have a better day than the one before. And we are getting ready to explore the Spinel deposits worked by Afghan miners in the Pitawak Lapis Lazuli mining area.
According to the miners, it is 30 minutes walking distance for them from Sar-e-Sang settlement, so we should expect to cover that distance in maybe one hour or so? Let’s be optimistic. Plus, we have an incredible sight of the Pitawak valley, with the sun sending its rays to illuminate the sky while it is still hidden behind the mountains in the East! It will be a beautiful day, and hopefully we will see the sun rising over the mountains from the Spinel mines!
The track to the mines, which is used regularly by about 150 Afghan Spinel miners, is satisfactory. There are a few challenging areas, but it is much more suitable for my current condition than the goat track on the cliff to that mining site at Madan Char.
En route, we encounter the youngest miner we’ve met so far at Sar-e-Sang. He told me he was 17 years old. He is a farmer from Wurduj, and as there is not much work for them at their farm, he is now helping his father at the mines. His job? Going up and down from the mine to Sar-e-Sang to bring supplies (mainly food for the miners who work there from Saturday morning to Thursday afternoon). I only met him briefly as he passed me very rapidly, as if he was racing! He told me that going up to the Spinel mines took him about 10 minutes (with a full load of supplies). Just amazing, as I hope to do it in about one hour (without carrying anything).
Arriving in Pitawak
After about one hour and 30 minutes, we finally arrived at the Spinel mines in the Pitawak area. The miners were preparing for a blast. As in most hard-rock mines, miners use explosives to break the spinel-rich marble. The explosives here—as in many Afghan mines that I have visited over the past 16 years—are made locally using some ammonium-rich fertilizers as a base ingredient.
Compared to Western standards for handling explosives, including safety and security protocols like those I witness regularly in Greenland (with helmets, etc.), the local methods are more relaxed. Afghan-style artisanal hard-rock mining is carried out by people who live in a country that has been at war for the past 40 years.
The miners were welcoming and eager to show us how they were blasting the rocks, and my friends were thrilled about the experience!
We visited three underground mining operations in the area. The deepest tunnel was about 100 meters long. After blasting, miners chiseled Spinel in tunnels or found samples by removing ore waste.
I was pleased to enter the mining tunnels after blasting, learning that we could find small Spinels in the ore and on the walls of the tunnels. Also evident was marble, mica, and a yellow mineral-like material that is commonly found with Spinels in other deposits I have visited in Tajikistan, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, and Tanzania.
So, we had proof that there were indeed gem-quality Spinels here just over the Lapis Lazuli mines! Fascinating! I had to learn more about the story of that deposit, as I’d never read any mention about Spinels at Sar-e-Sang from any papers or trade journals about mines. But, as I say often, expect the unexpected!
This trip reminded me of a past one that I considered my best day ever as a field gemologist: visiting the historic Spinel mines at Kul-i-Lal in Tajikistan in 2006. I recall standing at the entrance of Spinel mines that could have produced the Black Prince Ruby, that historic gem that triggered my very first interest in gemology!
That day I was also discussing with fellow gemologist Richard W. Hughes the possibility that Spinels could be found in Afghanistan. We had no idea that just over the Lapis Lazuli mines at Sar-e-Sang was a Spinel deposit producing gems similar to the ones from Kul-i-Lal.
So, when Kamran told me that one of the Spinel deposits in Badakhshan was actually in Sar-e-Sang, visiting that deposit became an even greater obsession. Sar-e-Sang mines are the oldest gem mines in the world, with more than 8,000 years of Lapis Lazuli mining and possibly the highest blue Sapphire deposit in the world. And now, also a Spinel deposit that nobody ever wrote about but that still could potentially be the real source of the famous gems found in the crowns of the most powerful rulers in the world!
And here I am today, standing at the entrance of the Pitawak Spinel mines over Sar-e-Sang village. This day in Sar-e-Sang was also one of my best days ever in the field. Once more, before we arrived at that gemological heaven, I had to suffer a bit, but it was 200% worth it!
I cannot stop wondering if Pitawak could be the source of some of the historic Spinels called the Balas Rubies (for Rubies from Badakhshan) that found their way into the treasures of kings and emperors during the Middle Ages. When I analyze my reference samples collected from the mines, I will possibly be able to help solve that mystery!
To learn more about the rest of Pardieu’s trip, including bluish-purple Spinel mines in other nearby regions, follow him on Instagram at @vincent_pardieu.