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Africa’s Only Mine to Employ an Entirely Female Work Force

Zimbaqua employs 25 women many of whom have little or no formal education. It sells the gems they dig to international wholesalers and to jewelry designers like the New York-based Renna Jewels. Gem and gold mining has long been a mixed blessing in Africa, providing much-needed income but — at unregulated or badly managed mines — creating dangerous working conditions and harm to the environment. As a result, some jewelry companies have left the market entirely, including Pandora, the world’s largest jeweler by volume, which said this month that it would stop using mined diamonds in favor of lab-grown ones. To mine aquamarine workers first remove the plants and topsoil (putting them aside so they can be replaced later) and then dig down to rock, a combination of feldspar, quartz and mica called pegmatite. Aquamarine usually is embedded in pegmatite, so the women drill a couple of feet into the rock and then use gel explosives to blast it apart. They use hammers — which weigh about 16 pounds — and chisels, jackhammers and hand-held rock breakers to free the gemstones.