The purpose of the article is to discuss Australian sapphire with particular reference to the New England gemfields where our own mine was located. (updated January 2016)
SAPPHIRE AND RUBY FROM NSW, AUSTRALIA
Andrew and Leah Lane, Aussie Sapphire
Sapphire and ruby, the gem varieties of the mineral corundum is found in many east coast locations of Australia. Sapphire is found from north Queensland to north-east Tasmania and in NSW is concentrated in the highland regions along the Great Dividing Range. Ruby is less common in Australia but may be found at various sites in NSW, notably the Gloucester area but also near Tumbarumba as well as the Macquarie and Cudgegong Rivers.
Sapphires were first discovered in Australia as early as 1851 when they were found at the Cudgegong and Macquarie Rivers during the Gold Rush period. Sapphire was found alongside gold and tin in many highland regions during prospecting and mining activity.
The largest and most economic sapphire deposits are in the New England region of New South Wales (NSW) around Inverell and Glen Innes, and central Queensland around Anakie and Rubyvale (with a smaller deposit further north at Lava Plains). The New England gemfield is said to produce Australia’s finest blue sapphire with Queensland sapphire renowned for their range of colour (including yellow, green and parti sapphire).
Sapphire was not mined commercially in NSW until 1919 when a rich area on Frazers Creek near Inverell was worked by CL Smith. This encouraged more mining in much of the sapphire bearing area of Glen Innes and Inverell which continued for 10 years until the Great Depression. Large scale commercial mining did not resume until 1959 when prices for rough increased due to a shortage from the traditional sources in South East Asia.
At the height of the sapphire boom in the 1970’s, there were well over 100 mining plants operating in the New England region (Mumme, 1988). There was some consolidation of the industry during the 1980’s in response to lower prices and exhaustion of some of the very rich alluvial sources in the area. Market conditions have continued to be difficult resulting in a decline in mining activity within the region there are now only a very small number of commercial miners still operating. Within the New England gemfield, sapphires typically occur in Quaternary and Tertiary alluvial deposits in both present day watercourses and fossil drainage systems. The sapphire-bearing gravel layer (or wash) varies in thickness and depth but may be up to a few metres thick in some palaeo-alluvial channel systems. It is thought that most of the sapphire was derived from the weathering and erosion of volcanic ash deposits (volcaniclastic rocks) that were erupted onto the earth’s surface during early explosive phases of volcanic activity (Facer & Stewart, 1995). These deposits were then distributed and concentrated along drainage channels.
Within the New England region, these processes have combined to create major sapphire deposits along Reddestone Creek, Wellingrove Creek, Kings Plains Creek, Horse Gully, Frasers Creek and Swanbrook (see map). In these areas, sapphire is commonly found in association with pleonaste (Black Spinel MgAl2O4) and zircon. Australian sapphires are typical of corundum formed in iron-rich alkali basalt terrains and they have similar gemmological properties to those from other such deposits found in Thailand, China and Cambodia. The colour is quite saturated compared to sapphires found in some other resources, for example the Geuda sapphire of Sri Lanka which is extremely pale before heat treatment to intensify colour. Colour zoning is also common in Australian sapphire and may appear as hexagonal crystal growth patterns or parallel to the prism (Mumme, 1988; Sutherland and Webb, 2000).
Photos 1, 2 & 3. Colour zoning in sapphire crystals from Reddestone Creek
The sapphire is also often strongly dichroic with a strong blue colour on the main axis and lighter blue or green from the other direction being common. Sapphire from the Reddestone Creek in the New England is known for producing a higher proportion of sapphire that shows blue on both axes or blue with a greyish cross – these sapphires that possess a blue “cross table” are locally referred to as “blue on blue” and command higher prices than those with a green cross or less desirable colour. Yellow sapphire is relatively rare in the New England resource compared to Queensland although Wellingrove Creek in particular was noted for producing some very fine yellows.
Photos 4 & 5. Sapphires with Blue cross table (Photo 4) and Green cross table (Photo 5)
Photos 6, 7 & 8. Parti colour sapphires strong blue and light yellow zones in the 9.3 carat stone in Photo 6, a strong yellow corner in the 33 carat stone in Photo 7, and distinct yellow triangular patch in Photo 8 – all were mined on the Reddestone Creek.
Photo 9. Fine yellow sapphire of good size (natural and untreated) found in the Inverell district and cut by Sorn Lim of Glen Innes.
Gem quality corundum makes up only a very small proportion of all mine production with most corundum found being opaque, translucent or heavily included. Due to the volcaniclastic nature of these minerals, size tends to be relatively small compared to some very large corundum specimens found in other locations. Corundum specimens larger than 200 carats are rarely found in the New England gem field and gem quality sapphire above 30 carats in weight may still be found but are now considered rare.
Photos 10 & 11. Corundum specimens – 10 is opaque weighing 255 carats and 11 is translucent weighing 190 carats
Photo 12. Sapphire crystal (green cross table) weighing 85 carats, found on the Wellingrove Creek.
Sapphires often occur as tapering hexagonal pyramids and are known as dog tooth crystals. These often show distinct colour zoning as striping along the crystal or lighter zones at the tip. Crystals may be round and smooth or may have distinct faces in a hexagonal shape. Occasionally crystals may be found that are fused together or barrel shaped with double terminations. The following photographs show some typical examples, all found within the Reddestone Creek within the past decade.
Photos 13, 14 & 15. Examples of dog tooth sapphire crystals illustrating colour zoning and crystal habit
Ruby is less common in Australia but may be found at various sites in New South Wales, including the Macquarie and Cudgegong Rivers and the Tumbarumba area. The major source of gem quality ruby is in the Gloucester-Barrington area, in the drainage of the ancient Barrington volcano. In this area, rubies are found in association with sapphires of various colours. Australian rubies tend to be very small (usually less than a carat) and in most deposits are alluvial in nature (Sutherland and Webb, 2000). Due to the rarity of ruby in Australia, there has only been limited large-scale mining activity.
The only commercial ruby miner in Australia was Cluff Resources Pacific (an Australian public company) Cluff undertook extensive exploration within the Gloucester area and produced some ruby and sapphire from their mine from around 2005. It was a relatively small operation and although the company reported that a large resource has been mapped, the mine is no longer in production and the company is non-operational. Interest in this operation was very high, perhaps enhanced by the association with the landowner who owns the mineral rights -the Packer family of PBL (Australia’s largest diversified media company). It is possible that investment in this project was influenced by the association and original negotiations with the late Kerry Packer, a very successful entrepreneur well known for his business acumen. The rubies and pink sapphires were marketed through Ellerston Gems – named for the property where they were mined. This operation is currently not producing so there is now no commercial ruby mining in Australia at the moment.
New South Wales in Australia is an important source of gem quality corundum (mainly sapphire) with large areas of untested ground with encouraging inferred yield. Improved market conditions for sapphire could easily result in a significant increase in mining activity. Environmentally friendly production methods and a stable long term supply give the Australian sapphire industry new opportunity to market these gems.
- Facer, R and Stewart, R. (1995). Sapphires in New South Wales. Department of Mineral Resources, Sydney.
- Mumme, I. (1988). The World of Sapphires. Mumme Publications, Port Hacking.
- Sutherland, FL and Webb G (2000). Gemstones & Minerals of Australia. New Holland Publishers, Sydney.
- Sutherland, FL, et al. (2002). The Tumbarumba Basaltic Gem Field, New South Wales: In Relation to Sapphire-Ruby Deposits of Eastern Australia. Records of the Australian Museum 54: 215-248.
Copyright Notice: All photographs were taken by Aussie Sapphire (A & L Lane) and are not to be used without permission. Source of Figure 1 is aknowledged above. All rights reserved (2006).