By Lauriane Lognay
If someone had told me 20 years ago ethical practices in the jewellery industry would not only be possible, but attainable, I probably would have laughed and called it wishful thinking—little did I know!
Today, responsible sourcing is perfectly achievable. We have access to varieties of recycled precious metals, and are seeing less waste, a reduction in toxic products at the bench, and, notably, an increase in locally mined and cut gemstones. Indeed, for gemmologists, there are plenty of ethical gems on the market, including Montana sapphires and Oregon sunstones, along with an array of options sourced in Canada. It’s all at the tip of our fingers.
In this column, I will be discussing one of my favourite stone and locale combos: Greenland ruby. Greenland is the largest island in the world, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This icy giant has its own autonomous government and economy within the Kingdom of Denmark.
A precious discovery
Recovered from formations which are nearly three billion years old, Greenland rubies are among the most ancient in the world. Mined in Aappaluttoq (ah-puh-lu-tok), the source boasts beautiful shades of red and pink, along with some blue and colourless sapphires. Aappaluttoq (which translates to ‘red’ in Greenlandic) was named for the enormous amounts of red corundum crystals present in the earth.
The site is operated by LNS Greenland A/S—a sister company of Greenland Ruby, which is in charge of sorting, selling, and marketing the material. The current mining operation is estimated to have at least 10 years’ worth of supply for the market in ethical gemstones. At least two other deposits have been identified, but not further studied or exploited.
In 2019, Greenland Ruby became the first coloured gemstone miner to join the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). The membership recognizes and certifies responsible practices in its mine and processing plant, as well as within the site’s human operations. In the coloured gemstone industry, this distinction is a source of great pride for the company as a whole.
Aappaluttoq’s ruby and sapphire deposit was first discovered in the 1960s by the Danish Gemological Survey; permits to mine, however, were not approved by the government of Greenland until 2016, with mining operations officially launched in May 2017. The years of commitment to the cause were what allowed this seemingly impossible project to come to fruition. These are the only gemstones mined in Greenland.
A little about geology
The rubies and sapphires in Aappaluttoq’s deposit occur in the same genetically related lithologies as the other corundum deposits in the area, forming along a prospective line from the Canadian coast and extending below the continental ice sheet of Greenland.
The key process for the creation of those mineralized ore bodies is an extensive rock-fluid interaction through thermal events between an altered ultramafic rock body and layered magmatic bodies with a high content of feldspars (Labradorite and moonstone family!). Those metasomatic fluids set a low-silicate environment and allow to leach out aluminum out of the feldspars and the chromium out of the ultramafic body.
The chromium content dictates the saturation from a pale pink sapphire to a deep red ruby. This specific chemical reaction is highly variable and the perfect conditions to form the gems change drastically over a few centimetres in the deposit. The ore body looks like a pseudo-vertical pinch and swell volume, folded, and following the alteration zone at the contact between the two lithologies. The corundums may form spatially in an ore-envelope in and around the alteration zone. Thanks to a little erosion rate during billions of years, we can still find the gems in their original amphibolite host rock.
Due to the region’s sometimes-extreme weather systems and cold temperatures, it took extraordinary measures for the mine to come to be. Alas, heavy machinery was transported through harsh conditions via helicopters and boats to create a state-of-the-art mining operation in the middle of an icy paradise. The miners were at the mercy of temperature and climate for the construction of the entire site, making the resulting success all the more precious. Even today, the deposit remains an every-day challenge.
Local residents make for the majority of the workers in the mine and live on-site. Once the sorting process is completed in the processing facility, the ruby rough is sent to the nearest Greenland Ruby office in Nuuk, where it is cleaned and washed with hydrofluoric acid. This allows for a more thorough sorting process, and gemstones are organized by colour, size, and clarity.
Most of the production out of the mine are pink sapphires, followed by red (rubies), and, finally, blue sapphires, which account for the smallest percentage. White, purple, and black gems are also recovered in small numbers. Sorted gems are sent to Chanthaburi, Thailand, for a traditional heating treatment.
All of the gems out of the mine are heat treated with borax, which unearths the true potential of the Greenland colours. This treatment is used to heal fractures, stabilize the stones for cutting, and ready them for the market. After undergoing the process, the gems are sent to India or stay in Chanthaburi for cutting. The material is sent to Bangkok as a last stop, where rubies are sorted (again) based on quality, clarity, and colour.
Most cut gemstones from the mine are cabochons, as this is its speciality, but faceted gems are also available for purchase. The material produced tends to be included, so we have yet to see flawless faceted rubies of notable size on the market from Aappaluttoq. The quality for the majority is medium to commercial; the quantities, however, are certainly there and ready to be bought.
Transparent material (i.e. the quality that becomes faceted gems) is available, but the bigger quantities are in the translucent and opaque varieties.
The price of corundum from the Greenland mine is attractive—it’s more cost effective than other sources, as well as less expensive than the heat-only treatments traditionally available. (Borax heating treatment is typically well accepted in the United States, but is not as known in Canada. This would be important to divulge to clients prior to completing a sale.)
The gems are traceable from mine to market, offering a transparency to consumers rarely seen, but much appreciated. Each mined gem has a unique identification number, and most come with a report about authenticity and origin. The fact the supply chain is controlled only by one company (which also chooses its partners to resale) makes the gems even more traceable.
Rubies recovered in Greenland also have a set of unique inclusions, allowing laboratories to detect and verify the origin of the gemstones. This is akin to detecting if a sapphire or ruby is from Kashmir or Burma—except now we also have Greenland as a source for our precious red and pink gems.
Greenland Ruby takes great pride in adhering to ethical and socially responsible practices—even going so far as having its own non-profit group, the Pink Polar Bear Foundation. The organization, through which part of the company’s profits and its partners’ participation are donated, supports research for animals, plants, and humans impacted by climate change in the Artic, Greenland.
While these gems are not yet available to every market, jewellers can search approved Greenland Ruby suppliers in Canada or elsewhere in the world.
Beauty in the eyes of the beholder
Greenland rubies may not be the most transparent coloured gemstones on the market, but the transparency of the block chain they offer more than makes up for this. Indeed, these special gems encourage jobs locally, and are a breath of fresh air in the ethical world of gemstones—which is still so small, even today. This, combined with the company’s conservation efforts through the Pink Polar Bear Foundation, creates a fabulous combination of responsible mining and buying. This small step for ethicality is a huge step for Aappaluttoq and its people.
Be responsible. Be fabulous.
Lauriane Lognay is a fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA), and has won several awards. She is a gemstone dealer working with jewellers to help them decide on the best stones for their designs. Lognay is the owner of Rippana Inc., a Montréal-based company working in coloured gemstone, lapidary, and jewellery services. She can be reached at email@example.com.