Slim Pickins in Pailin

Story & photos by Alex Mossman

Headed to South East Asia, Madagascar, maybe South America? All you have to do is go to one of the gem mining towns, pick up a big sackful of raw sapphires and rubies for a few dollars, and you can pay for your trip by selling them when you get back!

Who hasn’t been tempted by the prospect of a free lunch? This particular variant is easily overheard in gem shows and collecting circles, and is also the story of many a street scam. “You can sell these in your country for thousands of dollars, but for you, I make special price..”. But being the son of a geologist/gemologist, and having been a junior mineral collector and lapidary, I figured I had a better chance than most of pulling it off. So when I headed to Cambodia for a one month trip between engineering jobs, I decided to test it out.

Prior to the trip, most of my knowledge of Cambodia came from the movie “The Killing Fields”. It’s the country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, shattered for a decade by the murderous social experiment of the Khmer Rouge. Only recently has it emerged from isolation. Also know for the stunning temple ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia continues to struggle with problems of corruption, poverty and unemployment that plague developing countries.

Cows through the windshield on the road to Pailin.

The Pailin district of Cambodia, famous for its sapphires, was the remote wilderness stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Logging and gem mining allowed them to sustain a protracted guerrilla war long after they lost power. As a result the area is full of minefields laid during that conflict. Geriatric leaders of the regime reside in the area’s picturesque valleys, stalked today in slow motion by international justice, as a UN genocide trial picks its way through a different kind of minefield.

Alex and Selena on the road to Pailin  

There is no bus or train to Pailin. Travelers can take a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang, followed by a four hour “taxi” ride through an incredibly lumpy dirt road labyrinth. Forget four wheel drive “offroad” vehicles; a beat up Toyota Camry was more than equal to the task. Of the nine passengers crammed into its interior, I and my fiancée Selena were fortunate to score the front passenger seat, perhaps because we were the only foreigners making the journey. The Camry fared remarkably well in the skilled hands of our driver--we only bottomed out once in the whole trip. After surviving herds of cows, logging trucks, bottomless potholes, and grisly landmine warnings, we pulled into Pailin at dusk.

I felt like a penniless farmer who had just made it to the Klondike.. eagerly scanning the gravel at my feet for the blue glimmer of sapphires as I stumbled out of the car, jealously eyeing my fellow passengers lest they see the treasures first. Yeehaw, I’m gonna be rich! Eventually giving up on finding the mother lode in the muddy parking lot, we made our way to a row of covered market stalls.

The fantasy of encountering an illiterate peasant happy to part with a bag of flawless stones for a dollar was quickly erased. Over the next day and a half I examined stones proffered in market stalls, hotel lobbies, and in town gemstone stores. The locals were no pushovers; they knew they had something of value. I used my headlamp to illuminate the stones as I scrutinized them through my inverted binoculars, and subjected each to a hardness test against a piece of topaz brought for the purpose. The pickings were slim; the stones were small, mostly below one carat, of poor, pale colour, of shallow cut, and generally flawed. On top of this, the prices were quite high, although they did yield slightly to hard bargaining. Either the local mines had been completely worked clean, or else someone else had arranged to get first pick so that only the second rate stones were available locally.

Gem dealer in Pailin. Pleased after making a sale.

The stones available in Cambodia were of two distinct sorts. The first were the pale dregs I found in Pailin. But the souvenir stores at Angkor Wat had great trays of a second sort of stone: huge, of superb colour, perfect clarity, and flawless, and a deal at ~35 US a carat. The friendly staff insisted that they came from Pailin. I suspect that they came from farther afield. Maybe from a lab in Russia..

The free lunch from casual gemstone trading is itself a minefield of sorts. First there is the danger of buying outright fakes, perhaps coloured glass. But this danger is easily defused through a rudimentary hardness test. Next comes the risk of buying poor quality stones at inflated prices. But by far the worst problem is the recent development of high quality synthetics, which seem to have saturated the market even in faraway places like Cambodia. These new fakes have none of the telltale swirl patterns or bubbles that gave away the earlier efforts of the verneuil process. The new synthetics are so good that distinguishing them from natural stones is all but impossible in the field, even if you are a seasoned professional. It takes a well equipped lab, and can cost a substantial fraction of the stone’s potential value. Add the cost of faceting, and you can wipe out your trip profits pretty quickly, even if you did manage to avoid the first few pitfalls. You can’t help wondering why, if they look identical even to a trained eye, why it matters if they came out of the ground or not.

My small haul of sapphires from Pailin is valuable since I will always remember being tumbled for four hours in that car ride. Selena’s engagement ring will have a Pailin sapphire from this trip, the experience making it more than a bauble from the jewelry store. Will it be a genuine natural stone? Maybe, but I won’t be paying the lab to find out.

The Author on Main Street in Pailin.

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