Mining & Processing ♦
Mining has been around for millions of years, allowing us as a species to gather resources in order to build, grow & evolve into the civilisation we are today. In the simplest terms, mining is the process of extracting metals, minerals, &, of course, our beloved gemstones, from the earth. But, before we discuss these different methods of extracting crystals, it is crucial to touch on the positive & negative impacts of mining.
What Is Ethical Mining?
Unfortunately, mining operations can create a negative environmental impact, both during the mining activity & after the mine has closed. Whilst regulations are set in place in many locations across the world, the hunger & demand for business & profit sometimes takes importance over the safety of our Earth & our miners. These conditions are commonly seen in developing economies, such as Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo & Madagascar. Unethical mining in these locations can contribute to local human rights violations, such as child labour, unfair pay & poor working conditions. Additionally, war & corruption plays a significant role in the mining industry. Conflict minerals are resources that are mined & used to influence & finance armed conflict & violence. Notable examples include the Emerald mining in Colombia, Afghanistan’s 6,500 year old Lapis Lazuli Mines, & various minerals from the Congo such as Tin, Tungsten, Tantalum & Gold (all of which are essential for powering modern technologies such as laptops & smartphones.) But perhaps the most widely known example surrounding the ethics of the gemstone industry are Blood Diamonds, the fuel that feeds civil wars in Africa. On top of this, there is a deep concern regarding the harmful environmental impact mining causes across the globe. These include erosion, deforestation, contamination, air pollution & habitat destruction. Some of the most destructive mining conditions seem to be found in the large-scale Gold & Copper mines throughout the US & Mexico, as well as in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. It is important to note that these major sources of human & environmental damage come mainly from the extraction of precious gems (like gem-grade Ruby & Diamond), metals (like Gold) & industrial ores (like Coal) rather than your every-day crystals.
In comparison to the industrial mining industry, gem mineral mines produce about 10,000-50,000 metric tons per year as opposed to the 500-600 million metric tons a year produced by large-scale copper & coal mines. While small-scale gemstone mining exists, crystals like Quartz are often by-products of large-scale mining activities. Since there is no international certification scheme for crystal-mining (as there is for industrial-size mines & diamonds) buyers have to solely trust the word of their sellers when it comes to ethical sourcing. This is why it is important as both consumers & suppliers to be aware of these harmful practices, request transparency & do our part in rejecting poorly regulated mining conditions.
At Love Potion Crystals, we make it a priority to seek out reputable sources who look after their workers, provide fair working conditions, & have safe & environmentally conscious practices in place. Extra care is taken when sourcing conflict minerals or crystals from places like the Congo, where harmful mining practices are rife. While these consciously sourced crystals may cost more, the peace of mind knowing your stones have been mined in the least harmful way for our Earth & our fellow humans is more than worth it.
Environmentally sustainable mining sites do exist, & thankfully laws & regulations across the world are becoming more strict in order to minimise these hazards & keep them from affecting human health. The mining industry holds many positive attributes & is the main source of economic opportunities for several developing countries. About 70 countries rely on the mining industry, with as many as 80 to 100 million people around the world depending on mining for their livelihoods. Small-scale crystal mines provide families & communities a way out of poverty in countries where employment & income options are inadequate.
More than this, mining (as long as it’s ethical & responsible) is necessary for our survival, progress & development as a society! Many people don’t realise how much we rely on metals & minerals to live our day-to-day lives. From cookware, to batteries, mobile phones, life-saving medical equipment, cars & stainless steel, these products wouldn’t exist without mining.
Mining is classified in two general types:
Artisanal & small scale mining - This type of mining refers to the extraction of minerals with the use of manual labour & simple tools. Rarely does this type of mining involve the use of heavy equipment. Small scale mines are owned by families, small groups & communities, often in remote areas. (Note: Most of our suppliers at Love Potion Crystals belong to this category!)
Large scale mining - This type of mining involves a company with many employees that use large scale machinery, like bulldozers, explosives & excavators. The company mines at one or two large sites (often for industrial ores) & commonly stays until the mineral is completely excavated.
Some of the main approaches in extracting gemstones include:
Underground mining involves digging below ground to reach ore deposits. Vertical or horizontal tunnels/shafts are drilled underground to access buried deposits. Once found, the materials are hauled back up to the surface for processing.
Open Pit Mining
This gemstone mining technique is typically used to mine minerals found near the surface. Open pit mining is exactly what it sounds like: miners dig a massive open pit. When the pit has been completely mined, it’s usually refilled/rehabilitated.
Several species of gemstones can be found in bodies of water like lakes & rivers. Wet digging (panning) is where miners collect sediment in a pan & shake it to separate the lighter & heavier materials. Dry digging is where water sources are blocked off & miners dig for gemstones in the dry beds.
The last & most important stage of mining is closure. When all the raw materials have been extracted & the mining operations have to be discontinued, the mine & the facilities will be closed. This is crucial in ensuring safety around the mine & preventing environmental & social hazards. Reclamation is carried out, restoring the mine site to its natural & reusable state. This is commonly done through reforestation or developing the land into a residential, commercial, recreational, or agricultural space.
When a gem is extracted from the ground, it is rough & dull, covered in iron stains, clay, dirt & debris. It takes time, preparation & specialised knowledge of a particular rock to convert it into the perfect shiny & smooth gems we admire as collectors. Which cleaning approach is viable for an individual stone depends on its chemical makeup & its hardness. As a rule, anything under 5 shouldn’t be cleaned abrasively. Toothbrushes & toothpicks work well for soft minerals whereas wire brushes work better for hard stones.
There are two main methods for cleaning minerals: mechanical & chemical. The mechanical method involves using water & picks or tools such as ultrasonic cleaners or sand blasters to remove dirt & grime. Depending on the specimen, chemical methods can be highly effective for cleaning as well. These include the use of oxalic acid & other solutions involving baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, & hydrochloric or muriatic acid. Protective measures need to be taken when working with these chemical cleaners. This method is often avoided when working with calcium-based minerals like Calcite, which can dissolve in something even as gentle as vinegar.
The major health hazards faced when processing minerals are dust & dermatitis due to improper skin protection. An ethical factory should have good safety standards in place to protect workers, which includes proper training, well-ventilated working spaces & adequate eye safety. A water spray system to keep dust out of the air should be set in place when cutting minerals.
Shaping & Polishing
The process of cutting & polishing gems is called gem-cutting or lapidary. A lapidarist can turn a rough mineral fragment into a sparkling & valuable gem by utilising a variety of techniques. These gems are refined by progressive abrasion with the use of finer & finer grits of harder substances to fashion the stone into different shapes for different uses. There are various methods of preparing stones such as polishing, tumbling, cabbing, carving, & faceting.
After a gemstone is hand-cut into a desired shape using a thin circular blade or saw, it is then ground/sanded. To give the crystal a smooth, mirror-like finish, & remove marks left from coarser grits, it is further polished using very fine abrasives. Additionally, polishing compounds can be utilised. These include metal oxides such as aluminium oxide, cerium oxide, tin oxide, chromium oxide, ferric oxide, or silicon dioxide.
Tumbled crystals are pieces of rock & mineral that have been tumbled to produce smooth, rounded & highly polished stones. The process begins by placing rough stones into a rock tumbler along with sand, coarse grit & often water. As the barrel or drum slowly rotates or vibrates, the stones begin to lose their rough edges. This method is often utilised by large factories producing large quantities of polished stone, though some smaller manufacturers still hand-cut & hand- polish. When using a tumbler, it is important for all minerals to be tumbled alongside stones of similar hardness to avoid softer minerals being destroyed. The most popular materials used for making tumbled stones are attractive, colourful rocks & minerals that have a Moh's hardness between 5 & 8, as these materials are generally durable & accept a good polish. Harder stones like Ruby & Sapphire usually require special abrasives & a whole lot of time (like months!) Softer stones can also be polished in a tumbler but with special materials, & some extra consideration, care & patience. While most regular stones require several weeks of tumbling, a softer material like Calcite or Turquoise would do much better with a shorter time of around 3-5 days.
Cutting en cabochon is a popular technique utilised within the jewellery making industry. Cabochoning is most commonly used with opaque/translucent coloured stones, or gems that display a special pattern or optical effect such as asterism, cats eye or play of colour. Typically, the stone is cut with a flat bottom & a curved or domed top. Cabochoning can be done by simply holding the stone or using a wooden or metal dop stick, & polishing the gem with finer & finer grits until it is smooth & shiny.
Carving is the most distinctive lapidary art form, which can encompass anything from a simple etched symbol to a detailed & ornate sculpture. This term also relates to the distinguished designs of cameos & intaglios, which are similar in that both are carved portraits in stone or shell. Carving is an ancient practice that requires great skill & talent. The process of gem carving & engraving today is much the same as it was in antiquity. Once the rough gem has been selected, it is then cut to the desired shape but left slightly larger to allow room for the carving process. Unlike ancient craftsmen, who relied on simple hand-tools, modern jewellers utilise electric drills dipped in a mix of oil & abrasive powder. For the final details, tools made from softer materials, such as wood or leather, & a much finer abrasive, are used.
Faceting refers to the art of cutting & polishing angled faces, also known as facets, on a rough, uncut stone. A well-executed geometrical design of facets reflects light both internally & externally, bringing out the true brilliance, colour & fire of a gemstone. A cutting style often found in jewellery (think diamonds & engagement rings!), faceted stones are commonly transparent, & of high-quality & aesthetic value. Combining an art form with strategic engineering, the process of gemstone faceting is far more complex & challenging than one may think. The first step begins by planning the shape & cut of the gemstone. From the classic Rose cut, which originated in the 1500s, to more modern cuts such as the Princess, there are a wide range of gemstone cuts & shapes (such as round, oval & pear) to choose from. Each facet is then cut by grinding the rough stone, adhered to a dop stick, on a flat round file called a lap. The dop is connected to a faceting head, which allows it to be set at certain precise angles as the stone is being shaped & polished.
Treatment refers to any process other than cutting & polishing that improves the appearance of the colour or clarity, or alters the appearance, durability or value of a stone. The practice of treating & enhancing crystals has existed for hundreds of years & is far more common than one may think, especially within the gemstone industry.
♦ Heating - the exposure of a gem to high temperatures for the purpose of altering its colour &/or clarity.
♦ Irradiation - bombarding gemstone material with subatomic particles or radiation, releasing electrons from their normal location & moving them to a better colour-producing location.
♦ Dyeing - introducing coloured dyes into porous or fractured gems to change their colour.
♦ Oiling - filling surface cracks or fissures with a colourless oil, wax or resin, to improve appearance & diminish the visibly of fractures.
In the world of crystals, terms such as ”A-grade” or “gemmy” are used in regards to a gemstone’s quality. While often referenced when determining the value of precious gems, understanding the differences in quality in all types of crystals can be useful to know. Even though the term “quality” is used when describing the properties of gems, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one gem is better than another.
Limited supply or single-location stones are often valued higher than common varieties. Apart from rarity & unique qualities, gemologists commonly grade stones based on the four C’s: colour, clarity, cut, & carat (weight). Different stones have different requirements based on these factors. Below is a simple list of some common ways to differentiate between a high-grade (AA or A) & a lower-grade (B, C or D) stone.
Higher quality stones display vibrant, unique colours & thin, defined bands or patterns, as opposed to duller colours like greys & browns, & indistinct banding.
Higher quality stones showcase a deep, purple hue with a slight red tinge & no visible colour zoning (traits commonly seen in “Siberian” Amethyst). The crystal should have minimal to no inclusions &, if in cluster form, should display large points.
Higher-grade stones display transparent clarity & a rich pink colour. Quality gems may also exhibit asterism or Tyndall scattering.
High-grade stones possess a saturated, clear blue colour with a slight greenish shimmer. Quality specimens show perfect terminations, no damage & minimal inclusions.
Higher-grade stones showcase a strong, vibrant flash. Some of the best & most colourful material, known as Spectrolite, comes from Finland. Lower quality Labradorite may exhibit visible veins similar to cracks, a low contrast & minimal labradorescence.
Higher quality specimens show a deep, black colour & a high vitreous lustre. They will often display smooth, distinct striations.