Unveiling hidden treasures

May 28, 2024

The fascinating process of gemstone and mineral specimen exploration and exploitation in Pakistan

Some amazing microcline crystals with subordinate quartz and black tourmaline. This is a museum-grade specimen and its intact nature is a credit to the skills of the miners.

by Noor Ullah, Business Owner at Gandhara Gemstones

Pakistan, a land with a vast history and diverse landscapes, has long been a treasure trove of precious gemstones waiting to be discovered. The process of exploring these hidden riches is a meticulous and intriguing journey that combines geological expertise, cutting-edge technology, and the spirit of adventure. In this article, we will briefly delve into the intricate and mesmerizing process of exploring for gemstones in Pakistan.

Pakistan is home to a variety of precious and semi-precious gemstones, including rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and topaz, which are found in a variety of geological settings, including metamorphic rocks, igneous rocks, and sedimentary rocks. In addition to an impressive array of gemstones, the deposits yielding the gems are also host to world-class mineral specimens, many of which adorn high-end mineral collections and museum displays.

The process of gemstone exploration, exploitation, processing, and commercialization begins in mines that are typically remote and subject to seasonal mining periods since they are in the series of mountain ranges collectively comprising the Himalayas. The miners are as tough as the country that yields the gemstones, working in some of the most inhospitable geological environments in the world. The rewards, however, for anyone who has the privilege of owning or viewing these specimens, make it worthwhile.

Pakistan is known for its rich deposits of various gemstones, and there are several mines across the country where these precious and semi-precious stones are extracted. Some notable gemstone mines include:

  • Mogok Mine
    Location: Gilgit-Baltistan
    Gemstones: rubies, pink topaz, aquamarine, tourmaline,
  • Shigar Valley Mines
    Location: Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan
    Gemstones: aquamarine, topaz, emerald, quartz
  • Swat Valley Mines
    Location: Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
    Gemstones: emerald, malakite, pink topaz, tourmaline, quartz
  • Kala Dhaka (Kohistan) Mines
    Location: Kohistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
    Gemstones: peridot, aquamarine, tourmaline, quartz
  • Khyber Agency Mines
    Location: Khyber Agency, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
    Gemstones: period, tourmaline, quartz
  • Chumar Bakhoor Mines
    Location: Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan
    Gemstones: aquamarine, topaz, quartz

Photos of some of the highly sought-after, collectible mineral specimens are shown throughout the article.

Discovery of gem deposits – geological evaluation

The discovery of gem-bearing areas variously involves the use of satellite imagery, geological maps, and on-site fieldwork to pinpoint regions of interest. Geological maps and remote imagery (e.g. satellite imagery showing alteration and host-rock signatures) are employed initially to identify regions with potentially favorable geology. Next, a review of the local geology is undertaken, including literature reviews, identification of known mines and liaisons with local geologists and prospectors. The next step becomes logistically more challenging because it requires on-ground geological investigation. Commonly, access is poor, and the terrain is brutal, and cultural sensitivities/awareness need to be employed. Steep valleys, near-vertical cliffs, lack of roads, threats of landslides, dealing with different communities, large rivers, seasonal influences, lack of communication, etc., all make the process challenging. These factors have to be combined with the process of identifying misinformation, where people will deliberately give mines different names or locations to throw competitors off the scent!

Regardless of the difficulties, once promising sites with the correct host-rocks are located, the exploration process transitions to sampling, including drilling and diamond coring. Portable drill rigs, commonly known as man-portable or backpack drill rigs, are carried to sites by people or animals rather than being transported by trucks. These rigs are commonly used in remote and challenging terrains where larger truck-mounted rigs cannot access. Getting even the portable drill rigs into exploration areas in the mountainous regions can still pose challenges. The difficult terrain, lack of proper roads, and altitude can make transportation a logistical hurdle. In some cases, the equipment may need to be disassembled and carried in sections to reach the desired exploration site.

The collected samples are analyzed both for gemstones (direct indication) and/or associated minerals and alteration (indirect association). These samples undergo thorough laboratory testing, including mineralogical and chemical analyses, to confirm the type and quality of gemstones present. The exploration process doesn’t stop there. It evolves into a delicate balance of environmental consciousness and sustainable practices. Mining operations, if deemed viable, are conducted with strict adherence to environmental regulations to cause minimal ecological impact.

Underground mining – crafting pockets in the mountains

Once a promising volume of mineralized rock has been defined, the process of tunnel planning is undertaken. Eventually the zone of rock containing the mineralized pockets will be intersected. It is then an intricate process of extracting the host-rock, much of which will be the correct composition for hosting gemstones but will not be mineralized. Generally, the gemstones occur in preferentially mineralized volumes within larger zones of poorly mineralized to unmineralized rock. The voids are best described as vugs geologically but tend to be referred to as ‘pockets’ in the mineral and gemstone collecting world.

The exact locations of the pockets within the lesser mineralized rock are unknown, so the process of exploitation can be time-consuming as the host-zone is progressively removed. If too little care is taken, e.g. by trying to mine too aggressively, priceless specimens can be damaged. Unfortunately, untold numbers of specimens have been destroyed in the past. And there can be a lot of Pakistan between the destroyed pocket and the next one, meaning it is in the best interests of everyone involved to proceed with care. As such, a combination of geological mapping and careful excavation is employed to provide the highest rates of success for the discovery and extraction of the minerals in these pockets.

The pockets that host the gemstones are the product of a complex interplay of geological processes. These pockets may result from the dissolution of minerals, opening of voids in conjunction with other processes such as, faulting and volcanic activity, complex fluid/crystallization fractionation processes, fluid mixing, evolution and overprinting of mineral species as new fluids have entered the pockets, etc. The result is an array of different precious and semiprecious mineral species that is unparalleled globally. As such, ongoing interaction between geologists and miners (who are commonly very geologically-savvy) is very important.

Miners employ a combination of traditional methods and modern techniques to locate and extract gemstone pockets. An overview of the general mining process is given below, followed by details of the extraction process. General mining involves the following steps:

1. Initial drilling

Once a potential site is identified, miners may use drilling equipment to extract core samples to assess the quality and quantity of gemstone deposits in the area. Drilling ahead of the blasting allows miners to gather information about the geological structure and the presence of gemstone pockets.

Some magnificent aquamarine crystals growing from the roof of a quart- and feldspar-lined vug. The helmet in the bottom-right of the photo gives an idea of scale.

2. Tunneling and extraction

After identifying a promising area, miners begin tunneling using techniques such as drilling and blasting. As the tunnels progress, miners may use handheld tools to carefully extract and inspect the rock for signs of gemstones, a process requiring skill and experience. The choice of blasting technique depends on the type of rock and the proximity to valuable gemstone deposits. Miners commonly use ‘softer’ blasting techniques or controlled blasting when they are closer to known gemstone pockets.

This helps minimize the risk of damaging or fracturing the gemstones during extraction. Soft packing materials such as foam or cloth blankets may be used to protect the extracted gemstones from damage during the extraction process.

Pakistani miners commonly employ hydraulic and electric drills, which have multiple drilling bits for different rock-types. The diamond saw is not the best option for mining in the mountains. The biggest issue is that heavy machinery, including diamond saws, can have a significant impact on the environment. In regions with delicate ecosystems, as is the case with certain areas in Pakistan, the environmental consequences of large-scale mining operations need to be carefully considered. Furthermore, diamond saws are expensive to purchase and maintain. Such initial investment in such equipment can be prohibitive, especially for small-scale miners in Pakistan. Otherwise, chisels allow miners to have more precision and control when extracting gemstones. This is crucial when dealing with valuable and delicate materials, as it reduces the risk of damaging the gemstone during extraction.

3. Surveying and mapping underground

Throughout the mining process, surveying is crucial. Miners use instruments, such as theodolites and laser range finders to map the tunnels accurately. Surveying helps in understanding the orientation of the tunnels, ensuring safety, and providing valuable data on the location of gemstone pockets.

As gemstone pockets are exposed, miners often resort to manual extraction methods. Hand sorting allows for careful examination of each gemstone, ensuring it is not damaged during the extraction process.

It’s important to note that the specific methods used can vary based on the type of gemstone, geological conditions, and the scale of mining operations. Sustainable and ethical mining practices are increasingly emphasized to minimize environmental impact and promote the well-being of local communities.

Processing the gemstones

The minerals that are extracted fall into two broad categories – specimens for processing for the jewelry trade, and specimens that are retained in their natural state for display in mineral collections. The remoteness of the gemstone areas, and the apparently primitive conditions, have unfortunately led to a perception of the miners being unskilled. This is unfounded and couldn’t be further from the truth, as the miners take great care and pride in their job. One only has to see the fragile, delicately crystalline morphologies of the specimens that have arrived in mineral collections all over the world to appreciate the great care with which they extract the gemstones and mineral specimens.

Pakistan is famous for aquamarine, one of the most desirable, blue forms of beryl. Aquamarine specimens from the mines in Pakistan grace the best mineral collections in the world and command extremely high prices. The specimen I am holding was sold to me by a private collector about a year ago. It was acquired from Shigar Valley, Skardu District, Gilgit-Baltistan Province, and weighs more than 1 kg (2.2 lb) with no repairs and no damage.

Once extracted, gemstones are typically cleaned and sorted. Special care is taken to wrap them in materials that prevent scratching or damage during transportation. Gemstones may be individually wrapped in soft materials like tissue paper or cloth and then placed in secure containers or padded boxes. For higher-value gemstones, additional precautions such as custom packaging with shock-absorbing materials may be taken.

Transportation methods can vary depending on the scale of the operation. Larger mining operations may use secure courier services or transport gemstones to cutting and trading centers for further processing and distribution.

In the case of minerals for jewelry, the gem-laden rocks go to processing centers equipped with state-of-the-art machinery. There the stones undergo a series of meticulous steps. First, they are cleaned to remove any impurities accumulated during extraction. Next, expert gem cutters carefully examine each stone to determine the optimal cut that will enhance its natural beauty. This step is crucial, as the cut plays a significant role in the gem’s brilliance and overall appeal.

Selling gemstones to jewelry manufacturers

In a significant development for Pakistan’s gemstone industry, a notable collection of precious stones has found its way into the hands of local jewelry manufacturers. This strategic acquisition not only represents a key milestone in the gemstone trade but also underscores the growing influence of Pakistani artisans on the global jewelry market. The jewelry crafted from these gems will serve as ambassadors, representing the craftsmanship, culture, and sophistication of Pakistani artisans on the world stage. As these gems take their place in the hands of skilled artisans, they become the building blocks of masterpieces that will shine with the essence of Pakistan’s gemstone legacy.

For more information contact Noor on LinkedIn