Around the World with Loretta Castoro

In search of Exotic Gems

Gemstones are harvested from some of the most remote and inaccessible sites around the globe. The difficultly and danger presented in accessing these exotic locales have created obstacles to all but the most stoic adventurers—like gemologist and gemstone expert Loretta Castoro. Looking at a global map, it becomes apparent that not only is access to these regions forbidding, but the areas are also some of the most politically unstable anywhere, doubling the risk.

Loretta Castoro has made it her life-long passion to overcome these dangers and travel to those regions to examine first hand the gems that are produced there. The rich knowledge she's gained has made her a world respected leader in the field of gemology.

Take a desk-top tour with Loretta by clicking on any of the red push-pins for a private —and very comfy tour of these destinations all around the globe. The images that appear provide you an up-close and personal view of what Castoro experienced on her travels.

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Click on the albums below to see pictures by location

 

Cambodia

At the Jig

 

Collecting Gravel for Panning

 

Hole inside

This is a view looking into the hole of the mine.

Lunch

 

Mine hole at top of mountain

When we arrived to the top of the mountain we found various holes that were dug to mine sapphires. This is one of the holes

mine in Pailin

We visited many mines while in Pailin. THis is one witht he mountain in the background

Mining

 

mining

 

Mining equipment

 

Mining Lady

THis lady is showing us the pit that she has dug.

Mining lady spear mining

This miner is showing us her method of mining. SHe uses this long spear to loosen up the dirt and removes the loose dirt with her hands.

 

Mining near home

Many mines are dug just along side homes.

Mining near home inside

This is a look inside the mine. you can see a miner digging inside the walls of the hole.

Panning

Here is a Cambodian panning in a river for sapphires

Panning

 

Road to mine

We drove many hours to the top of a mountain to visit sapphire mines. These mines where not producing sapphires while we visited them

Roadside checkpoint

 

Rough buying

We met with several stone dealers in town during our visit. this is a selection of rough that was shown to us.

Sunset

 

Team in back of cab

Traveling up tot he mine we were in a pick up truck several rode in the cab.

 

 

team in pick up

He is the team in the back pof our pick up getting ready to go to a mine.

Colombia

A Bogotá, Colombia: Colombian Emerald specimen from the La Pita mine

This is a massive super fine emerald specimen from the famous La Pita mine. It weighs approximately 900 pounds. Fine crystal specimens can be seen throughout this piece. It is quite amazing.

This piece was shown to us in the home of one of the mine owners. It was being prepared to be donated to a gemological institute.

 

Bogotá Colombia Emerald cutting

While in Bogotá we were able to witness the cutting of an emerald. Here you can see a cutter examining the emerald that he is cutting on the spinning diamond encrusted lap in front of him.

Bogotá to Muzo and La Pita Road trip

Our road trip to Muzo took us through the Colombian jungles for over 7 hours. Then we stayed over night in a finca (farm) in Muzo before continuing our trip to our final destination La Pita. The drive from Muzo to La Pita was 4 hours. It seemed like we were driving up hill most of the way to La Pita. These areas were only recently safe to travel by vehicle. We were one of the first foreign groups to visit the area in over 15 years. The Colombian countryside is truly beautiful. The windy dirt roads, many times slim and often we were driving on roads on the edge of cliffs with no guard rails were quite rugged. Our car was many times just inches from hundreds of feet drops with no guardrail. We were grateful for the many years experience of our drivers. Who although frightened us delivered us safely to our final location. They did the best they could with the roads they were given.

Bogotá, Colombia buying offices

We start our adventure in Bogata Colombia where we view loose Colombian Emerald gemstones in various buying offices. This gives us a good idea of the current pricing of different quality and sizes of emeralds available in the Bogotá market.

We saw many lots of various sizes, shapes and qualities of emeralds. Interesting to note the vast differance in emeralds that had no treatment. These exceptionally clean gemstones were fetching much higher prices than the emeralds that looked the same and had some enhancenet. Rarity has a price and the local Bogotá traders are not shy to ask for a strong price for these amazing gemstones.

Bogotá, Colombia Emerald cutting

Here the cutter is placing the stone to be cut on the diamond encrusted lap in front of him. This seasoned professional understands, oh too well, how crucial this process is for the emerald. He must angle the stone on the dop perfectly and places just the right amount of pressure on the lap to get the optimum facet. This is a trade that has been handed down from generation to generation and is a very prestigious position in Bogotá. Steady experienced hands cut the finest gemstones.

Borbur, Colombia with the Fura Tena twin peaks

This picture was taken after we left the village of Borbur on our way back to Bogata.A village we had not expected to visit on this trip due to unrest in the area just 2 weeks prior to our visit. This picture depictes the beautiful lush landscape of Colombia surrounding the village including the amazing Fura Tena mountain peaks.

 

Colombian emerald consorcio mine wall

Black shale wall with veins of white calcite specaled with pyrite. Miners have found that they tend to find emeralds when the white calcite veins become wider and have an abundance of pyrite. so they follow these veins as an indicator for emeralds in the mine. When they find a wide calcite vein with pyrite they will mine in that area.

Colombian Emeralds: Consorcio mine in the La Pita mining area

Two miners exiting the tunnel of the Consorcio mine while we were entering the mine. The mine was pitch black with black shale walls.There was about 3 inches of water on the ground as we walked about 700 yards to the shaft. We ascended approximately 40 meters to view the mining. The mine is actually 60 meters deep however we were told that below 40 meters the mine is flooded so we were not able to go down further. Water pumping is a main issue with mining in this area. The pipes you see here bring oxygen into the mine.

 

Colombian Emeralds: Consorcio mine tunnel

I took this picture as we were walking in to the Consorcio mine tunnel. as you can see the wall are composed of black shale, the ground has about 3 inches of water on it and it is a very long tunel entrance. It was about a 700 meter walk to reach the mine shaft.

Consorcio mine in the La Pita Mining area

This is the river bed area on the Rio Minero by the Consorcio mine where the miners from the mine would dump the tailings from the mine. This gentlman is working through the tailings to find any emralds missed by the miners.

Corsorsio mine in the La Pita Mining area

The Corncorsio mine is the first mine that we visited on this trip. Consorcio means partnership. We were told that there were two mines that met and the owners decided just to create a partnership for the results of the mine rather then fighting over the location of finds within the mine.

The mine is a tunnel mine as opposed to the open pit mining of the Muzo area. THis picture is a group of miners carrying out a load of black shale to be dumped by the river bed some 200 yards from the mine. The Miners where playing with us and placed a small emerald crystal on teh top of the pile.

 

The miners were quite funny and liked having us there. They loved to take photos with us and were very proud of their work.

 

 

Emerald Auction in La Pita, Colombia

While we were in the La Pita area, we were very honored to be invited to view the monthly rough emerald auction between the emerald consortium owners. The mine owners gather in a room where a mediator for the consortium will unseal packages containing the mined rough emeralds for the past 30-40 days. The mediator will then run the rough under water in a large sink to clean off any excess dirt so the mines can get a good look at the quality. The owners then bid on the entire lot. The winning bidder pays the consortium the amount they won the rough lot for and the consortium divides he money buy % of ownership amoung the owners.

La Pita mining area Compound

Waiting for our next outing a little resting outside our compound in the mining area of La Pita. I am joined here by fellow traveler Susanna Martinez and the daughter of one of the emerald miners. She spoke little English but tried very hard to communicate with us. She told us stories about how her older sister was granted a scholarship to study in the United States and how her dream was to do the same when she grows up. The mine owners have built schools for the children in this area and she was telling us how greatful she was to have the opportunity to study. She continues to study in hopes that she too can go to University in the United States. She heard we were visiting and wanted to practice English with us so she just came over and introduced herself. VERY ambitious! We were all so happy to meet her.

Loretta Castoro in the Consorcio Mine

Here I am in the Consorcio Mine in the La Pita mining district. This picture was taken after walking about 600 yards into the entrance of the mine. We had not ascended into the mine shaft at this point. You can see the black shale behind me. The pipes are bringing oxygen into the mine.

Photo taken by: Dr. Lore Kiefert

 

Primarus mine in the La Pita Mining area

The second mine that we visited was the Primarus Mine which was a short drive through the jungle on hilly dirt roads. When we arrived to the site we noticed these miners digging a whole just a 100 yards from the entrance of the mine's tunnel. Anyone is allowed to mine in the country so why not pick a target rich location.

 

 

Montana

A Picking through panned gravel in search of sapphires in Montana

 

Chris of Green Mountain was kind to show me how to pan for sapphires while I was visiting the mining area.

 

El Dorado's Bar

El dorado's bar is an important contributor to Montana sapphire mining. Many amazing sapphires where found in this alluvial deposit.

Gem Mountain Rock Creek near Philipsburg, Montana

Loved Gem Mountain sapphire mining!! The mine owner took us to the place where very fine gems were found and let us pick around on the grounds. I found a nice stone that I had cut and have in my collection. It is untreated and beautiful. I love to study the inclusions and I use it for teaching seminars.

Gem Mountain Rock Creek near Philipsburg, Montana

Chris Cooney and Robert Kane took me to the tailing area for the mining of sapphires it did not take me long to climb right up on top of the huge mountain of sapphire mine tailings and start poking around on it. I found a great stone this way:) I am a very lucky girl and on top of the world!

Montana near Helena in Big Sky Country

The Amazing Big Sky of Montana. This picture was taken while stopped in a gas station on our drive back to Helena from El Dorado Bar sapphire mining area. This area was mined as an alluvial deposit alone the Missouri river. So when you go there today there are no tunnels or signs of mining. All was quiet when we went there. No one in sight.

Myanmar Nam Ya the finest spinels in the world

A welcome sign to Nam Ya

 

Examining rough from the area

 

Sign departure

 

Testing samples from Northern Myanmar

The Dr. 's were very happy to examine a bag of rough samples of a mix of gemstones:) Oh happy day. There was a chicken that kept running under the talbe we were sitting in while we were reviewing the stones. It was hysterical!

Myanmar, Mogok: Finest Rubies in the World

a. Entrance to the Village of Mogok

The most thrilling site for a gemologist is the final yards in teh drive up to Mogok. When we arrived I was just shaking with excitement. After decades of studying, buying and selling the Finest rubies in the world I have arrived at their birth place. THe only place on the planet Earth (that we know) that has the most spectacular Rubies ever found. Truly there are very few rarities that you can speak these words for accurately. To see a Burmese ruby at its finest is beyond words. Of course every gem location in teh world has varying qualities however no location that I know of can acheive the quality of the Burmese ruby at it best.  

Departing Gates

q. I did not want to leave Mogok. It was my favorite and to me the most beautiful of all the villages that I visited in Myanmar. It was very sad to leave, especially knowing that chances were good that I would never be abloe to visit the village again. I was one of the last foreigners to visit this village before it was closed off from foreign visitors. It was an honor to have been there. I would fly around the world again to visit if I were to be allowed. Not only are the rubies spectacular, the village is surrounded by a mountain ridge that when I was there was full of yellow flowers. THe people were warm and inviting and the food was fresh and delicious.

Guide shows us the way

n. As we were leaving Mogok we had mentioned to our guide that we would love to see the pegmatite if possible. We knew it was in the area. Our guide said he knew the trekker that could take us there and he would stop to see if he was around. It was on the road we were on. We stopped and met the trekker (he did not speak any English) He was very nice and told out guide that the trek to the pegmatite was 2 days through the burmese jungel sleeping in tents etc. We did not have the time or the equipment for such a journey so we had to pass. The trekker said that the sign for the road to the Pegmatite had fallen off its post but he had it and gave it to our guide who stood in teh road with the sign to show us the way we would have to travel to get to the pegmatite. Our guide was so helpful and did all he could to make us feel comfortable and went out of his way to give us information and teach us about the gems from his land.  

Hard rock mining

f. There are different ways to mine in Mogok. You can mine alluvial deposits by diggings and panning or you can mine hard rock deposits.

Here is a picture of men mining a hard rock deposit in Mogok. You can see the tools are very different then tht eother types of mining. They are using chisels and hammers to break the hard rock.

Ladies panning

 

j. As we were on our way out of Mogok we found these ladies panning for gemstones.

 

They were kind to show us how they panned and what they found for the day.

Ladies panning find for the day

k. The ladies were kind to show us what they had found so far in thier day of panning

Loretta Castoro mining in Mogok

c. Here I am with a group of miners along side a mine just outside the village of Mogok.

Loretta Castoro next to the Rubyland sign

b. On our way to visit mines just outside the village of Mogok we stopped just atop the village to get a good look at the village and to see the Dattaw mine which is said to be the first ruby mine found and produced the finest of all rubies.

You can see the Dattaw mine behind me it is the open area on the mountain behind me. At the time I was visiting I was told I could have visited the Dattaw mine however it took several days to climb to it (there are no roads leading to the mine. And since we were only allowed to be in Mogok for 3 days we would not have seen any other mines so we did not go. If I ever get to Mogok again I would love to go to this mine.

Lunch on the roadside to Mogok

p. We departed Mandalay to drive to Mogok. The drive was about 6 hours. I was told that we would be traveling on British built roads all the way to Mogok. The British were known for building the finest roads in Myanmar. So it was a nice drive, unlike the very tretcherous roads of northern Myanmar.

We stopped by the side of the road and had a nice lunch. This lady served us a very nice meal. The tubes on her head were filled with rice. Some tubes were white and some were black. It was a pretty decoration.

Men mining

e. The men in Mogok do the mining and the ladies do the selling

Miner panning

d. This miner is panning in a little stream. Rubies are virtually everywhere and anyone is allowed to dig or pan.

Mogok (Burma) Ruby Mining group breaking up limestone rock brought out of the mine

h. At this mine, just to the left of the entrance of the mine shaft there were a group of people sitting around in a half circle breaking up pieces of limestone rock with simple hammers in hopes of releasing a Ruby from its host.

Mogok Entrance Gates to the Butterfly Hotel

o. This is the hotel that we stayed at during our visit to Mogok. Mogok was my favorite place in Myanmar (Burma). It is a magically village set in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. We were very lucky to be there when the flowers were blooming on the mountains. It was like a sea of yellow amoung the plush green foliage. The food was great, fresh vegetables and rice. I always go vegetarian when in northern Burma (I am not generally a vegetarian)

Mogok Myanmar (Burma) Ruby mine shaft, 400 meters deep

g. This mine shaft in Mogok, Myanmar (Burma) is approxitaely 400 meters deep. The miners were using rope and a pulley system to hand lift buckets of limestone from the bottom of the mine.

Mogok valley

m. Even in the valley of Mogok you can see mines.

Mogok Village

l. I loved Mogok. It was my favorite place in Myanmar. And I love Myanmar. It is a magical and beautiful place.

One year of gems found

i. One of the mine owners had saved all of the stones found in his mine for an entire year. this is the amount. As you can see it is a wide mix of stones probably ruby and spinel, many shapes and sizes.

 

 

 

Myanmar, Phakant:Jadeite Mines of Northern Myanmar

Imperial Jade water

Upon arriving at the Jade City Hotel I was given a key to my room, a watermelon and 3 bottles of Impreial Jade water. Off to bed for me. I was so excited to wake up and visit the Jadeite mines in Phakant.

Jade City Hotel

While In Phakant we stayed at the Jade City Hotel. I was serenaded by a pair of mating Geiko's all night one of the nights we were there.

One morning I was woken up by the sound of a large group of excited people in the parking lot, just outside my door. Curious about the commotion I stepped out on to the balcony in front of my room and looked down to find Dr. George Harlow surrounded by a mob of Chinese Scientists. Each person was taking turns being photographed with George and getting his autograph.  This was a true Paparazzi moment for our very own Rock Star Dr. George Harlow! Of course then the group saw George Rossman and the photograph started all over again! I was in the presents of Rock royalty. 

The Group of Chinese scientists were from the University of Kuming and they were a true please to meet.  

When we arrived at the first jadeite mine the chinese group was there as well. Again the cameras were in full use.

 

Jade Raider's in Nant Maw Jadeite Mine

The Jade Raider's Dr. George Harlow of the Americam Musuem of Natural History in NYC (AMNH) the world's most respected expert of Jadeite, Dr. George Rossman the Head Minerologist at CalTech and I. on the platform beneath the largest jadeite boulder in the world. We were told that since the boulder cannot be removed from this location the miners dug around underneath the boulder to determine the approximate size and then built a platform to have a place for dignitaries to be photographed with the immense boulder in the background. Truly AMAZING. I was told I was the only American women to visit this regoin in the memory of our hosts.

The journey to this location was quite rugged. After flying into Mytikyina we traveled by vehicle for 12 hours through the Burmese jungles through very rough terrain we arrived to the Village of Phakant where we stayed at the Jade City Hotel.

We were able to tour many mines each day we stayed in Phankant.

Jade Raiders waiting to enter the Nant Maw (Mine)

Jade Raiders: Dr. George Harlow, Dr. George Rossman, Dr. Saw, Myint Soe, Several officials and mine guides. We are waiting for a group of Chinese scientists from Kumming to complete their tour of the mine before we begin ours. This gave us an opportunity to examine the ground surrounding the mine.  

I am the one in pink. 

Jadeite rough at mine

Here we are examining a rough piece of jadeite that was just pulled from the mine in Phankant

Nant Maw

After standing on the blue platform surrounded by jadeite, ceiling and walls! We walked around one of the walls to continue following the boulder. The miners kept digging around the boulder looking for the end. It was quite amazing to think that we were standing under and along side a 3000 ton single boulder of Jadeite. The walk way continued around the corner of walls of jadeite and then down flights of steps.   

Nant Maw mine, Model

This is the model for the Nant Maw (mine) where the 3000 ton jadeite boulder resides.  

Phakant, Myanmar (Burma)

Deep in the Nant Maw (mine) Dr. George Rossman and I take a minute away from our examination of the wall of Jadeite in front of us to take a quick photo. Thanks Dr. Saw! As you can see Dr. George Harlow was completely focused on the jadeite:)

Myanmar, Sagyin Marble Mountain

Carving Buddha

In Sagyin the craft of carving Buddha has been practiced for generations. A Buddha statue can be commissioned by placing a order with a technical rendering of the buddha that you desire. The statues come in just about any size you can imagine. I have seen buddhas here that were are small as and inch and as tall as a two story house. As you travel through the village you will see many buddha statues carved with out the face carved. I was told there are many faces of Buddha and when the order is placed then the carver will carve the face that is desired by the customer.

 

 

Reviewing rough

 

Rice field

 

Rubies

 

Rubies oh my

 

Spinel in limestone

 

TNT hole

 

transportation

 

Welcome to Sagyin Myanmar

Sagyin is a small village about a 30 minute drive outside of Mandalay. The village is situated at the foot of a a marble mountain. The marble is so fine that it is used to carve Buddha's and other objects that are then sent all over the world. We also got to study ruby and spinel here as in the marble are rubies and spinel.

Myanmar, Yangon the trade center of Myanmar

$US300 dollars worth of Kyat

THis is me with the equivalent of US$300 dollars worth of Kyat.

9 wonders of the Swedagon Pagoda

 

Book shopping

While in Yangon we stopped by to see if there was anything interesting in the local book shop.

Burmese cat

We met this cat at a friends house while we were visiting. It was very playful. WHat a beautiful cat.

Bus

 

Buying gemstones

I began going to Myanmar in the late 1990's. I was very excited to learn the trade market there for gemstones as well as to learn more about the material that came from there. I had quite a vast exposure to rubies from Myanmar as I bought and sold and appraised them on a daily basis. SO going to the source to learn directly from the people on teh ground was paramount to my continued growth as a gemologist. I have visited Myanmar many times since my first visit. I love the country and the people that I have had the priviladge to work with and meet.

 

This is a picture of me during my first visit to Myanmar. I only went to Yangon and only for a weekend. I was on a buying trip to Bangkok and Yangon is about a 1-1 1/4 hour flight.

Buying in Yangon, close up

 

Here is a closer view of the gems that I am examining for possible purchase

Jadeite boulder

This is the largest Jadeite boulder that was aboe to be moved out of a mining area. While I was in Phakant I was underneath the largest jadeite boulder that was ever found in Myanmar that was estimated to weigh 3000 Tons.

 

 

Loretta Castoro inside the Swedagon

 

The swedagon was the most spiritual place i have ever been. It was truly moving.

Pan Sea Hotel Lunch

We had a very civilaized lunch at the Pan Sea Hotel. A beautifully appointed table set is a lovely secluded area of the landscapes grounds

Swedagon entrance

Here our team are all at the entrance of the Swedadon Pagoda

Swedagon entrance

Here I am at the entrance to the Swedagon Pagoda! I love to visit hte Pagoda evertime I go to Myanmar. Day and night it is always an amazingly moving experience.

Swedagon temple

A scene at one of the more then 80 temples that are within the walls of the Swdagon Padoga

Team at the Swedagon Pagoda

Here is our team at the Swedagon Padoga entrance

Thailand

Buying in BKK

 

Elephant

 

Mining

 

Mining

 
 

Mining

 

Mining

 

Mining

 

Rough