Rapidly developing into one of the most exciting and vibrant holiday destinations in South-East Asia, Cambodia offers a great many attractions to the visitor: the majestic splendour of Angkor Wat draws thousands every year, as does the provincial charms of the capital city Phnom Penh, with its dusty colonial elegance and the bargains to be had in the many small markets throughout the city.
Ratanakiri — Jewel Mine of Cambodia
Guidebooks and tourist publications all warn visitors to Bangkok to be wary of the “gemstone scam”. Unsuspecting tourists who are herded into jewelry stores by pushy Tuk-tuk drivers are sold so-called bargain stones. They are then “persuaded to avoid the “import duties” by having them conveniently mailed to their home countries. If they turn up at all, the stones usually turn out to well short of the value quoted.
No one likes to be taken for a sucker – but fortunately, there is a way to avoid these unscrupulous middle men, by going directly to the source!
Looking around the dusty jewel town
In the red dust coated province of Ratanakiri in the northeast of Cambodia, the locals are hard at work cultivating a range of produce, from cashews to bananas, sugar cane to glorious blue onyx gemstones. From the main township of Ratanakiri*, a short 30 kilometer, 2 hour drive over roads so rough they are nicknamed “dancing roads,” visitors can venture out to the mining town of Chum Rom Bei Srak.
Here, we found sorters busy at work shifting through freshly mined stones. As they expertly work their way through the pile, stopping occasionally to trim the stones with wire cutters, they check for cracks and flaws that will determine whether the stone ends up a precious 5 carat jewel or a less expensive 1-2 carat stones.
This town, with its modest, wood slab stores and stilt homes, is no more than a cluster of buildings along the main road at the entrance to the mine. In contrast to the rest of Cambodia, it has a barely lived in feel. This is hardly surprising as the mine was only discovered 4 years earlier.
There are no fancy equipment or structures in sight, just a rough field of simple square holes with foot holds cut into the inside walls of the mine. Some are more elaborate, connected by shafts, but most look no more sophisticated than an oversized rabbit hole.
The miners work in teams of close friends and immediate family. Unquestionable trust and honesty is required in order to work the mines successfully, as a good stone could be the equivalent of a month’s salary in this deeply impoverished country. The work is hard, with only simple tools available, buckets and hand-turned winches to dig out the mines to the minimum 8 feet depth. The stone seams do not appear until at least this depth below the surface.
Odd foreigner’s request — to polish own stones
The day we visited, Chinese New Year celebrations saw most of the miners enjoying rice wine parties rather than working their mines. However, Mr Yuen, a 24 year old, 4 year veteran of gemstone mining was hard at work with his cane-woven sieve in a water-filled slush pit.
He paused long enough to show us some of his earlier finds. In our hands they were rather uninteresting looking cola colored pebbles. While we admired the stones and the hard labor to extract them, our ex-commodities trader tour guide could not help himself and out of habit he started negotiating a price. When we realised that we could have these expertly cut in town to reveal the polished blue jewel beneath, the $5 US price tag for 3 stones seemed a worthwhile investment.
Our return to the township of Ratanakiri saw us drop by one of the 3 gemstone stores. These are simple, tiny rooms, opening directly onto the street without even a wall, door or window (Tiffany’s they certainly are not!). Instead, there was just a glass counter in front displaying the cut stones with a workbench visible behind. The lack of furnishings allowed us to view the skilled cutter practicing his craft, working the rotating wheel in the style of a potters wheel to turn the brown stones into blue gems.
Our chosen cutter took some convincing before taking on our 3 stone commission. Normally dealing in lots of 50-100 stones at a time, he couldn’t work out why we crazy tourists would pay more to have our stones cut than what we would spend to get ready-cut stones. But with some fast talking by our local guide named Lucky, our request was met, with a deal struck at $1 a carat.
With the heating and cutting process taking 2 hours, and the setting sun a reminder that we were expected at a 75th birthday party soon, we were going to have to wait until the next day to see the finished product. But the following day, our freshly cut, freshly polished “babies” arrived. Like any new parents we fussed over and photographed our new arrivals from every angle. Our “eldest”, biggest stone came in at a whopping 4 carat, our middle 2- carat, and the runt of the litter, the one we were told would turn to dust under the cutters tools, a respectable 1-carat. Total investment, including cutting: US$12!.
Had we beat the scammers and made a good investment? Who cares! For 12 bucks we got to take the journey from mine, to gem cutter to finished stone. As an added bonus, we met a visiting geologist, on the hunt for Asian Rubies and Sapphires, who declared our modest investment a savvy buy and our gemstones to be worth at least $100 US. Definitely the most satisfying jewelry shopping I’ve ever done!!
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