I’ve spent the last four days roaming around the Sapphire Gemfields, about 1,000 kilometres north west of Brisbane.
This 900 square kilometre area of sapphire-bearing ground, which encompasses the small towns of Anakie, Sapphire, Rubyvale and The Willows, is one of the largest sapphire-bearing regions in the world.
You know you’re in country Australia when phone reception dies and the earth turns red. The colours of Mother Nature out in this part of the world are vibrant, especially under sunny blue skies.
The main reason for my visit was Gemfest 2016, one of Australia’s premier gem festivals. Established in 1988, this Festival of Gems celebrates the region’s beautiful sapphires, and other precious gemstones, minerals and crystals.
Here’s a quick video I filmed at the event.
Ironically, most of the crystal-selling stallholders I spoke with came from Brisbane or Northern NSW, so while I picked up a few beautiful specimens, there was not as broad a selection of crystals as I was expecting.
Sapphires on the other hand, were abundant, and anyone looking for raw stones or ready-to-buy jewellery, had a huge range to choose from.
These beautiful, prized stones, second only to diamond in terms of their hardness on Moh’s scale, have been collected, worn and traded since the days of the Roman Empire.
A brief history of sapphire mining in Queensland
According to the local tourist brochure, the first reported discoveries of sapphires in Queensland’s gemfields took place in the 1870’s. By 1890, commercial mining of the gem variety of the mineral known as corundum, began in the township now called Sapphire.
At this time, mines were dug by hand – arduous, backbreaking work in harsh, dry conditions. Even today, there is little infrastructure in this region, with the largest nearby town, Emerald, some 40kms away.
After 1935, the Sapphire Gemfields went into a decline until a resurgence in the 1960’s, when a new influx of tourists made recreational mining and fossicking popular again.
An increase in the price of rough sapphires in the 1970’s led to large-scale mechanised mining, which resulted in large amounts of sapphires being discovered by a large number of miners, and purchased by buyers in Thailand. During this period, Australia produced over 80% of the world’s sapphires.
This high level of production continued until the early 1980’s, until an increase in production from Asia and Africa led to a massive downturn in Australia’s sapphire market.
Today, the region balances a small commercial mining industry with areas set aside for fossicking and hand mining, largely driven by tourists and hobbyists.
Visiting Australia’s largest underground sapphire mine
Miners Heritage, just out of Rubyvale, is Australia’s largest underground sapphire mine, and offers a fascinating 45-minute walk-through tour.
Forty-eight steps lead visitors down into the heart of the mine, where you’re then guided through a labyrinth of tunnels. Because this mine is now used solely to educate tourists about sapphire mining, the ceilings have been made higher than would typically be found in a true working mine.
There are many examples of “tummy tunnels” – claustrophobically narrow tunnels that miners crawled through on their bellies, literally scraping the earth away with hand tools.
The tour gives you an idea of just how tough sapphire mining is – with thousands of tonnes of earth from the “wash” section – that is the layer of stones above what would have been a river bed millions of years ago, needing to be scraped off the tunnel wall into steel vats, hoisted above ground, sorted, washed and manually combed in the hopes of finding the elusive BIG ONE.
And some of the world’s most famous sapphires have been found in the Sapphire Gemfields.
Like the “Black Star of Queensland” – a whopping 1,156 carat sapphire beauty found in 1938, by 12-year old Roy Spencer. This piece was recently sold for $90 million.
And the “Centenary Stone”, a thirteen ounce beauty named to mark the centenary of Anakie’s sapphire fields. Reputed to be the largest exceptional quality crystal ever found, it was purchased by the Richardson Brothers, lost in a jewel heist, eventually recovered and sold for some $5 million. How’s that for a well-travelled gemstone!
Our guide also explained why there are no fancy houses or large-scale infrastructure in the gemfields. Basically, miners lease their plots from the Department of Mines for a number of years, and when they are finished with their plot, must leave it exactly as they found it – that is, all tunnels filled in, fences and buildings removed – as if they were never there.
This explains the quaint mix of cabins shacks, lean-tos, tents, caravans and buses dotted around the gemfields.
Fancy a spot of fossicking?
There are plenty of opportunities for visitors to try their hand at fossicking. Many of the local shops and caravan parks sell bags of “wash” for between $10-20, and provide the metal sieves and washing trays needed.
Our guide at Miners Heritage mentioned that sapphires are heavy and are often on the bottom of the wash or around the larger rocks.
She also recommended to look for signs of shine rather than colour. While most people typically associate sapphires as being blue, they in fact come in all colours – so if you’re just focused on finding a blue stone, you may miss other coloured varieties – or other stones like zircon (and in rare instances, diamond).
While the amenities out in the gemfields are pretty basic, you can still get a solid pub lunch and cold beer in each of the towns. Locals are friendly and genuinely passionate about their precious gemstones.
I’m so grateful that my work with crystals led me to visiting Gemfest and the Sapphire Gemfields. I’m not sure I’d have otherwise visited this part of central Queensland, but I now have yet even more appreciation for country Australia, Mother Nature and the origin of these truly precious gemstones.