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Tasmanian Sapphire
Gem Profile

Australia was to sapphire in the 1980s what South Africa was to diamonds for more than a century. Still, no one felt blue when Aussie indigos disappeared under a blanket of Madagascar's dressier blues in the 1990s.

The new African corundum boasted color that begged comparison to that of Sri Lankan goods—even on occasion Kashmir classics. Australia's material, on the other hand, was lucky to inspire comparisons to dark but sometimes handsome Cambodian and Thai stones. No wonder Australia came and went as a corundum colossus and no one shed a tear.

Nevertheless, the giant is stirring once again. And this time, it is hoping to earn respect for quality as well as quantity. Used to long periods of supply-side supremacy in diamonds and opal, Australia is looking to reestablish old leadership in corundum production, too. But no matter what kind of quality standards its new sapphire sets or doesn't set, the mining operation will set new standards for its good-earth philosophy of land and resource management.

The Tin Factor

A couple hundred miles to the southeast of Australia's once-thriving Queensland and New South Wales sapphire mining areas, on the island of Tasmania, lies a huge tin deposit. Given Australia's extensive, expensive land-stewardship regulations, an environmentally law-abiding tin mine might not of itself be very profitable.

But mixed in with the tin ore is corundum—enough of it to make a joint gem and metal mine potentially very lucrative. Indeed, the venture could be successful enough to be able to afford exceeding, rather than complying with, all legal requirements.

In addition, one of the marketers for this new gem mining operation is Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Washington. Since a 2002 trip to Madagascar to meet with World Bank officials about starting sustainable gem cutting factories in that very poor country, Braunwart has been obsessed with fair trade of gems and jewelry as well as fair treatment of workers and the environment.

Now he has a chance to create a role model gem mine that is as well-known for its conscience as its corundum. "We're not dealing with third world poverty or lack of opportunity here. Tasmania is decidedly first world," Braunwart says. "So we can focus almost exclusively on environmental issues like land restoration."

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