While sun-browned fishermen dip for pearls on the winding Vietnamese coastline, men hunt for gems inland, high in the mountains. Vietnam is home to over 70 gemstone deposits and produces thousands of precious and semi-precious stones every year, to be bought as glimmering high-end jewellery or strung onto a thick, round-bead bracelet and sold in a local market.
According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), thousands of years of geological events across Southeast Asia created the perfect conditions for different gems to form, leaving large deposits of metamorphic rocks.
“Vietnam is known for its quartz, topaz, tourmaline, peridot, aquamarine, ruby, sapphire, garnet and spinel,” says Anupa Horvil, gemstone jewellery designer and founder of Anupa Eco Luxe Boutique. “And various types of pearls.”
A 2012 article in the journal Gems and Gemology states that, while creamy, cultured pearls are found all along the Vietnamese coastline, the rare and beautiful melo pearl is found only in the far south and the far north, near Cat Ba Island. Rubies, spinel and peridot tend to form in the central and northern Highlands, and Vietnam’s most vibrant sapphires are also sourced here. Other semi-precious gems and less-bright sapphire stones are found as far south as Dong Nai.
Like all precious and semi-precious gems, Vietnam’s glistening stones are not sparkly when they’re first found. According to a 2013 GIA study, most of the rubies and sapphires found at Luc Yen in Yen Bai province are formed in marble or gravel. Their crystals are of varying shapes and sizes, quality and worth, and once a deposit is found the country’s mining community swoops in to see what they can make of it.
Yen Bai has been the centre of Vietnam’s gemstone trade since 1987, when the first high-quality rubies were found there by local farmers. Soon after, three large state-owned corporations were established to oversee gemstone production at Luc Yen, but these companies had dissolved by early 2000 and the state has not taken part in the mining sector since then.
The GIA states that, in 2012, mining and pearl farming activities were still mostly small-scale operations run by individuals or small companies. Vincent Pardieu, a leading field gemologist at GIA, visited the Luc Yen area in 2010. He noted that: “The most modern gem mining operations typically consisted of 10 or so miners, working with a small pump and a locally made jig.”
At that time fine gems were rare in Luc Yen, but there was a flourishing local market for small, low-quality stones which kept the miners in business. “The miners know they will get some income even if they don’t find fine gems,” wrote Pardieu. “Not much, but enough to keep them mining.”
Studying the local way of life, Pardieu also found that many people chose the hard life of gemstone mining because it gave them hope. “Many people in Luc Yen hope to get lucky,” he wrote. “They know that they will never be rich farming rice, but gemstone mining might change their life.”
These miners use a range of excavation techniques, depending on what they’re mining. In Luc Yen, ruby forms in bands of marble. Having located the vein, men drill a deep hole to set an explosion and excavate the host rock. Peridot is mined in deep, hand-dug pits, while pale blue spinel is extracted using hand tools and a jackhammer.
Heavy machinery is rare in the Vietnamese gem mines. According to the GIA: “Excavators and high-pressure water hoses are used in some places, but most of the miners use basic tools, washing with rattan buckets and picking the gemstones by hand.”
Once mined, earth-dug gemstones must be transported to the valley. Local men and women, often from ethnic minorities, are hired to carry the rocks on their shoulders for as little as VND3,000 per kilogram. Miners tend to be between 17 and 35 years old, and although the terrain is treacherous, one man or woman can carry up to 80kg.
Unlike gemstones, melo pearls are usually found by accident as a by-product of common fish trawling. During his visit to Cat Ba Island in 2009, Pardieu found that these snails and their pearls are becoming less and less common. He wrote in his journal that: “The melo pearls are produced by a mysterious orange sea snail — the melo melo. According to local fishermen, melo snails are not as common as before and large snails are becoming rare.”
Once the gems are found, they must be cut. In the late 20th century, most of the rubies and sapphires mined were sold and cut in Bangkok. Now, many of Vietnam’s gems are cut locally, on-site and often as part of a family business. There are also a number of private corporations that specialise in more elaborate cuts, carving gems into decorative shapes and ornaments.
“Vietnam has an incredibly talented cutting industry,” says boutique designer Anupa Horvil. “They produce such high-quality, careful cuts, but many people don’t realise this.” Anupa only sells naturally cut gemstones, all from Vietnam.
“Highly-skilled gem cutters can produce beautiful stones without chemically enhancing the colour or clarity,” she says. “Unlike chemically enhanced gems, a naturally cut stone will sparkle under sunlight.”
After cutting, a gem is traded to designers and sellers looking for something special. During the 1990s most business was conducted in local marketplaces, selling to Vietnamese customers or traders from other areas of Southeast Asia. Today these markets still thrive, but many professional traders will go straight to the miners to find the region’s higher-quality stones. The GIA states that most local rubies are dark red and opaque. Spinel comes in a range of colours from brownish-red to a deep purple, but most blue spinel is dull in colour and low in transparency. Vietnamese sapphires are blue to blue-green, and tourmaline is found in shades of red or pink.
By the time Vietnam’s gemstones reach the storefront displays and marketplace stalls, they glint like they’d never been in the earth. While most quality cuts are sold to designers and dealers, lower-quality gems and offcuts are often used to create glistening gemstone paintings.
As Sandra Kynes details in her 2002 book, Gemstone Feng Shui: Creating Harmony in Home & Office, these gems are also used in phong thuy, Vietnamese for feng shui, applying crystal therapy to typical feng shui techniques. Some of these carvings and beads are also sold at bustling local markets across the city. Many are strung on bracelets for good luck or good health, to be sold for as low as VND100,000.
Vietnam’s higher-quality gemstones tend to end up in the country’s top-end jewellery stores and boutiques. A very wide range of boutique designers, local businesses and large-scale corporations sell both domestic and imported stones in Vietnam. The gemstone jewellery market here is based largely on trust, and to gemstone designer Anupa Horvil, it is among the best in the world.
“If there’s one thing you have got to do before you leave Vietnam, it’s to buy yourself some bling.” To Anupa, buying a piece of gemstone jewellery is very personal.
“I get many different customers in my store, but my advice is always the same,” says Anupa. “Fall in love with a piece, and it is yours.”