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Blue zircons from Ratanakiri, Cambodia

Blue zircon from Ratanakiri, Cambodiazircons mines in Ratakaniri, CambodiaRatanakiri is one of the wildest and least visited regions in Cambodia. Ratanakiri is located in the north-east side of the country, bordering Laos and Vietnam. One can find there jungles, waterfalls, wildlife and ethnic minorities... and also mines of blue zircons.

The District of Bor Keo (Borkeo) is located about thirty kilometres from the regional capital Banlung and that's where the zircons are mined. As in many regions in Southeast Asia, deforestation is an important issue here. Plantations of rubber and cassava have greatly altered the landscape.

zircon mining in Cambodiazircon miner in Borkeo, CambodiaParadoxically, rubber plantations facilitate the work of zircon miners ... The rubber is planted in rows spaced ten meters apart and it is in these open spaces, between two rows of rubber, that the miners settle their camps and dig, protected from the sun during the hot season.

Mines are simple holes, 80 cm diameter, which is enough to let a man go up and down. The holes have a depth of 15 meters, they are not shored up, but have only small notches on the side to allow the miner to place his hands and feet and climb.
zircon crystal from Borkeo, CambodiaThen the miners build horizontal galleries to expel the dirt, which is then searched to extract the crystals of zircon. As a matter of fact, zircons are found only below 10 or 12 meters from the surface. Since the roots of the rubber only reach 5 meters deep, the farmers tolerate zircon mining activities. When a mine is totally drained, the miners seal back the holes and dig 5 or 10 meters away. Therefore mines move all the time, from one month to the other their position changes.

Heat treated blue zirconsAccording to miners and residents, no accident has ever occurred in this type of mining structure. Miners are easy to recognize: when they leave their camp, they are as red as the soil that contains the valuable zircons.
 

Cut orange zircon from Borkeo, CambodiaThe zircons you discover are loose crystals in this gritty red soil, which results from the erosion of the rock in which the gems were formed originally. They are very dark orange red coloured and measure up to 5 cm. Near the mines you’ll be sometimes surprised to see a sports car parked on the path : this is a buyer who came to select some zircons.

Blue zircons ready to be cutNo blue zircon is ever found in these mines.
Zircons are brought to Banlung and undergo a heat treatment that makes them blue. The crystals are placed within a crucible, which is sealed and heated for a few hours and then cooled slowly one day long. Once the crucible is opened, the majority of the zircons have turned blue, some others have not changed colour.

Cutters: the cut of the zircons in CambodiaThen the stone cutters select the zircons, cut them and carve the facets manually. The colour varies from the “blue lagoon” hue to a very vivid and intense “petrol blue” hue. Blue zircons from Cambodia are brighter than blue topaz, which is the sole gem featuring a similar blue colour.

In Cambodia, blue zircons are worn by both women and men. The new roads that have been recently built and those under construction will facilitate the access to this beautiful region. This year, the famous "Death Highway" linking Mondulkiri to Ratanakiri is becoming "passable" during the rainy season.