HomeMining Jadeite

Mining

Mining activities usually are carried out during the dry season from November to March each year. Primary deposits are worked using shafts and tunnels. Underground mining is slower and more expensive than surface mining, but evidently the quality and quantity of the jade makes it worthwhile. 



The more common type of mining is open cast mining where workers start work from the top down. The jade miners start to work on the tops of mountains or hills, where jade boulders are found mixed with other rocks types. It is estimated that only one jadeite boulder can be found from among a thousand boulders. 

The tools used in operating the mine can be mechanical excavator with explosive devices to open up the mines. But in most cases, primitive tools such as hammers, steel spikes and picks are used to loosen layers of conglomerate on the slope. Thousands of women using bamboo shoulder yokes with a pair of baskets carry boulders up to the waiting trucks. Sometimes in order to identify the jadeite boulder, man with long sharpened steel spikes will crack the ends of the boulder so as to identify the material and see the colour inside. 

In areas where jadeitite are found in the river bed, part of the river flow is blocked off and pumps are used to drain the water out and begin mining extraction.


6. Mining and Cutting Jadeite



Jadeite in Burma is mined in the mountains and rivers. The center of the industry remains the Uru River valley, where the vast majority of jadeite is recovered from alluvial deposits. The jadeite from such sources is found in rounded boulders with a relatively thin outer layer and is referred to as "river jade". Jadeite traders tend to associate the best quality of rough jadeite with river jade. This is because weathering tends to remove damaged areas from the stone and the thin skin of the rough stone allows for a more accurate assessment of the quality of the jadeite within. The jadeite located in hillside sites is found in irregular chunks. This jadeite is called "mountain jade". Mountain jadeite stones usually are covered with a relatively thick outer layer that is called "mist" by Chinese traders. Jadeite dikes are the most desirable forms of deposit to discover: "It is said that to find a dike is to become an instant millionaire. For whilst ordinary miners flail away in the common soil, only rarely turning up a boulder of jade, the dike is the mother lode itself, a bridge straight to heaven" (Hughes, et al 1996-97). Some dikes contain only jadeite and albite. Others have a boundary on one or both sides of dark gray to blue-black amphibolite-eckermannite-glaucophan or dark green actinolite. Chhibber (1934) describes the boundary with serpentinite as being marked by a soft, green border zone that consists of a mixture of the adjacent vein minerals and chlorite, with or without calcite, actinolite, talc, and cherty masses.

There are numerous descriptions of jadeite mining in Burma from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Warry (1888, quoted in Hertz 1912), for example, provides an early description of the mining at Tawmaw:



At the end of seven and a half miles from Sanka we emerged upon a broad plateau, some hundreds of acres in extant, the whole of which had been cleared for mining purposes. The excavations, which were in some cases of considerable depth, presented the general appearance of a series of limestone quarries at home. The largest quarry measured about 50 yards in length by 40 broad and 20 deep. The bottom was flooded to a depth of a few feet. It is the joint property of 120 Kachins in equal shares, one of which is held by Kansi Nawng, the principal Sawbwa of the district... There were at the time of our visit elaborate bamboo structures over some of the largest quarries for the purpose of bailing out the water. When the floor of the pit can be kept dry a few hours – and this is as a rule only possible in February and March – immense fires are lighted at the base of the stone. A careful watch must then be kept, in a tremendous heat, in order to detect the first signs of splitting. When these occur the Kachins immediately attack the stone with pickaxes and hammers, or detach portions by hauling on leavers inserted in the crack. All this must be done when the stone is at its highest temperature, and the Kachins protect themselves from the fierce heat by fastening layers of plantain leaves round the exposed parts of their persons..."



The jade mining industry in Burma has grown in recent years following a peace agreement with rebels associated with the Kachin Independence Army in February 1993 and subsequent liberalization of the mining industry. Hughes, et al (1996-97) remarked after a visit to the mining area in Burma in 1996, "government liberalization of the mining and trading sectors has brought renewed vigor to the quest for jade. Long-abandoned mines are being reclaimed and everywhere one looks, signs of the current renaissance are on display." Hughes discussed mining with a local Jingpho (Kachin) headman who told him that mining around his village had begun only four years previously, although the village had been there for centuries. Mining concessions are awarded by the government. While some Jingpho are engaged in jadeite mining, Hughes, et al (1996-97) note that most of those holding concessions are Chinese (i.e., ethnic Chinese in Burma). The jadeite-bearing boulders are evaluated by a government-appointed committee and then taxed at the rate of ten percent of the appraised value.

Chhibber (1934: 44-65) provides descriptions of various mining operations in Burma in the early twentieth century. The mines associated with some of the major dikes could be relatively extensive, with a number of shafts cut into the jadeite dikes. Elsewhere people simply search the terrain or rivers and streams for jadeite boulders. Chhibber (1934: 65) even mentions that "in places the Shans dive in the Uru chaung [river] in search of the precious stone."[6] Mining methods do not appear to have changed much over the years. One change noted by Hughes, et al (1996-97) during their 1996 visit is that, while in the past "miners employed fire and water to break away pieces of the jade," since the peace accord miners have been able to use dynamite, allowing them to blast through rock that with "a day's worth of drilling might only penetrate 12 inches."

During their 1996 visit to the jadeite mining area in Burma, Hughes, et al (1996-97) visited Maw-sisa, among the most active jadeite mines in the Hpakan region:



Maw-sisa is, in many respects, the quintessential mine, with jade recovered from alluvial deposits in the Uru river conglomerate. This formation is as much as 1000-feet deep in places, and present mining has just scratched the surface. Thus jadeite hoarders should take note--from what we could see, there is a good millennia or three's worth of material remaining to be extracted. Each mining claim is just 15-feet wide; to keep from encroaching into the neighbor's area, a thin wall of earth and boulders is left as a partition. When seen from above, the result is spectacular --several square miles of stair-step like benches, resembling nothing so much as a massive archeological dig. But diggers here do not search for mere bones or shards of pottery. Instead, they seek the Chinese holy grail, small pieces of heaven... At Maw-sisa, diggers were mining a black layer, locally termed ah may jaw. While jade is said to be richest in this layer, it can occur anywhere in the conglomerate. The first step in mining is removal of the overburden, taung moo kyen (literally 'head cap removal'). Since the overburden is also conglomerate, it may also contain jade, so the workers must search this, too. We saw people working about 50 feet into the conglomerate, which is stripped away with primitive tools. Miners were asked how often they find jade. They said it depends on luck. While some days they might find up to 25 pieces, other times they might go for days without finding anything. In terms of size, some boulders are 200 300 kg, some even as big as a house, but most are less than 1 kg.



Hughes, et al (1996-97) describe a somewhat different style of mining near Hweka, the center of jadeite mining in the Hweka Makabin area: "At the top of the mountain, ingenious mining pools have been excavated. When enough water accumulates, a gate is opened, allowing water to rush down and "sluice" the hillside below. Later, men will come to examine the boulders thus uncovered, looking for that special texture and feeling that sends the pulse racing--jade."

One especially interesting aspect of jadeite mining is how miners determine that a boulder in fact contains jadeite. Hughes, et al (1996-97) discusses this at length:



... miners look for something which, in the vernacular is called yumm, a fibrous texture. Ordinary boulders show a reflection of mica or sand, while jadeite is smooth, with yumm, and without particle reflections. In addition to the fibrous texture, jadeite also tends to stick slightly to one's hand or foot under water. It also has a different sound when struck with a pick, as well as having a greater heft (density) than ordinary stones. Miners also look also something called shin, which, from what we could gather, is the type of sheen seen on schist. Black shin is said to "damage" the stone, apparently being an indication of increased iron content (chloromelanite). They also look for the show points, where the jade color shows through the skin.



Hughes, Galibert, et al (2000: 11-13) provide additional descriptions of jadeite mining in Burma:



Dike Mining. Unlike secondary deposits, where the miner has to determine which of the myriad boulders is jadeite, the dikes contain readily recognizable material. Historically, miners started a fire near the dike and then threw water on the rock to crack it. Today, at Tawmaw, often miners first must use backhoes, scrapers, and other earth-moving equipment to expose the jadeite dikes, or rudimentary digging to create shafts to reach them. Shafts observed [in 1997] reached depths of approximately 10–20 [meters]. Once a dike is exposed, miners use dynamite and jackhammers to break the jadeite apart and away from the country rock...



Boulder and Gravel Mining. The workings at Sate Mu and Maw-sisa are, in many respects, typical of secondary jadeite mines. The Uru Boulder Conglomerate is as much as 300 m deep in places, and alluvial mining has barely scratched the surface. It appeared from the open cuts that there is a huge quantity of material remaining to be extracted. We saw people working about 18 m down into the conglomerate, stripping it away with primitive tools.

The first step in mining the conglomerate is removal of the overburden, taung moo kyen (literally, "head cap removal"). Since the "overburden" (... a layer of alluvium of variable thickness followed by a pebble-gravel layer over the Uru Conglomerate) also may contain jadeite, workers must search this material, too. Each claim is only about 5 m wide; to keep from encroaching onto the neighbor’s area, miners leave a thin wall of conglomerate as a partition. Eventually the walls themselves weather away; nevertheless, when seen from above, the result is spectacular – several square kilometers of step-like benches, as if an ancient city were being excavated. At Maw-sisa, diggers concentrated on mining a black conglomerate layer called ah may jaw, where jadeite is said to be richest.

At Hpakangyi, more than 10,000 workers excavated an area that had reached hundreds of meters deep. Waste was piled into a waiting truck, and then emptied directly into the river that bisects Hpakan. At the dump, jade pickers scrambled over the riverbank to search for jade overlooked at the source. Along the banks of the Uru River, large mounds of boulders attest to two centuries of mining. When the water level is high, the river is worked by divers breathing via crude air pumps.



Relatively little cutting of jadeite is done in northern Burma, where most of the raw material is mined. Usually traders simply bid on the rough boulders. Ward (1996: 44) refers to this as "the ultimate Chinese gem gamble." While jadeite traders commonly claim that they can predict what is inside of such a boulder through careful examination of the outside, Hughes, et al (1996-97) are skeptical: "anyone who has ever seen boulders sawn open can prove the lie in that old wives' tale. Even for experts, much guesswork is still involved." Chhibbner (1934: 81) notes that "sometimes before a boulder of jade is sold, if it is promising, certain portions are polished to expose clearly to view the more valuable parts of the stone." Walker (1991: 24) refers to this as being 'mawed': "that is, a flat of about 1 x 1 1/2 inches (2.5x4 cm) is cut and polished on the material in an attempt to reveal the boulder's interior colour." This is still the practice at government auctions held in Yangon. Johnson and Koivula (1998) warn that such "windows" (as they are commonly called) should be checked for artificial coatings or other tampering, which may give a false impression of the material within the stone. Sometimes the jadeite rough is simply cut in half to expose the interior. However, a great deal of care is required prior to cutting open a boulder. The cutter runs the risk of cutting through and ruining a good area. Hughes, et al (1996-97) note that "before cutting, the surface is carefully examined to select the best place for sawing. While it is difficult to see through the skin, some cracks can be seen. This is important, as fractures can have a dramatic impact on value. There is no specific formula for cutting--it all depends on individual judgment and the rough's features." Lee (1956) describes a more careful means of evaluating jadeite boulders that involves grinding away the skin. Hughes, Galibert, et al (2000) report that "alternatively, some owners gradually slice the boulder from one end (perhaps the thickness of a bangle, so that each slice can be used for bangles or cabochons) until they hit good color. They then repeat the process from the opposite end, the top, and the bottom, until the area of best color is isolated."

Chhibber (1934: 83) briefly discusses jadeite lapidary work prior to the Second World War. He notes that, even in Burma, "the methods employed in the cutting of jadeite... are really Chinese." In Burma most cutting was done in Mandalay, although some was done at Mogaung and a very small amount at the mines themselves. Cutting jadeite in Burma was limited to "surface carving and bead-making." Otherwise more complex carving was done in China: "it appears that jade cutting and carving is a very extensive industry in China, the most important centers being Canton, Shanghai and Peking, though some cutting is done in Hong Kong also." He also mentions cutting being done in Teng Yueh in Yunnan.

With the communist seizure of power in China in the late 1940s, jadeite cutting and carving came to be centered in Hong Kong. Hong Kong remains the world center for cutting and carving jadeite. As for Burma, Hughes, et al (1996-97), visiting the jadeite mining region of northern Burma in mid-1996, comment: "Considering the large quantity of jade taken out of the ground in the Hpakan area and the tremendous difficulties involved in its transportation, it is surprising that so little seems to be cut on site... Other than one market just outside Lonkin, we saw no cutting in the Hpakan area. Instead, most jade is hauled out for cutting elsewhere. Mandalay is by far the biggest cutting and trading center for jade in Burma, but there is also a jade market in Mogaung." Some Burmese jadeite is also cut and carved in China and Thailand.

Within Guatemala, jadeite is currently being mined in the Motagua River Valley and it is being cut elsewhere in the country. The largest company engaged in this mining is Jades, S.A., although there are many smaller operations as well.

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