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Around the turn of the century, miners extracting copper at various sites in Bisbee, Ariz., tunneled into cavernous rooms whose walls were lined with malachite in layers as much as four feet thick and whose roofs were dotted with stalactites of this green, patterned mineral.

What happened next was like a scene from a mineral lover’s worst nightmare. Only in this case, the scene kept repeating itself, as if trying to change its tragic, inevitable outcome.

To no avail. Time after time, the copper-rich malachite was crushed and smelted for its metal content. Miners who knew the importance of what they found could do nothing to save this mineral treasure. “Those caught hiding malachite were fired on the spot,” says John Garsow of New Era Minerals, Grass Valley, Calif. “The mining companies cared only about copper.”

So it went most everywhere malachite was found, with one notable exception: Czarist Russia, where malachite was highly prized for wall-covering and place-setting use. Elsewhere it was, and is, a far different story, as anyone familiar with Anaconda’s and Dodge Phelps U.S. copper mining operations can tell you.

Nevertheless, since the late 19th century, there has been enough malachite for artisans to fashion into finely wrought objects—boxes jewel cases and bowls, for example. Often these objects feature delicate inlay work that can require thousands of slivers and hundreds of hours to complete, especially when the end result is something like a table top.

Recently, a painstaking form of inlay work called “intarsia” that involves fitting pieces of combined minerals together to make intricate designs has helped to elevate the status of malachite and to renew craftsmen and designer interest in it. Two intarsia masters in particular, Jim Kaufman and Nicolai Medvedev, have become toasts of the gem and mineral world, attracting considerable attention to their malachite chests and pendants and inspiring use of malachite inlays in custom jewelry by mainstream designers and manufacturers.

Now, just when malachite is reaching perhaps its greatest popularity ever, surging world demand has begun to take a heavy toll on supply. “The news from Zaire [the largest producer of malachite] is that top grades are very scarce,” says Atlanta gem dealer Tim Roark, who first broke into the trade selling malachite. What’s behind the sudden shortage?

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