To mine aquamarine, the men said, 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.
Rumbidzai Gwinji, Zimbaqua’s mine coordinator, said that the miners still get excited when they find something. “They dance, they sing,” she said, “they are not afraid to show their emotions.”
Depending on the color, aquamarines can sell for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand U.S. dollars a carat. Mr. Rosenkrantz declined to say how much aquamarine the mine has produced, but said that, in April, it yielded a little more than two pounds of gems that could be used in fine jewelry and more than 100 pounds of low-grade stones. The stones are shipped to Bangkok for cutting and polishing, but the partners hope to train some women in the coming year to do the work on-site.
Before the mine even opened, the partners pledged that 10 percent of Zimbaqua’s profits would be earmarked for community projects selected by the women. This year a nonprofit organization, Zimbaqua Vision, is being established so the money can be used for a community center that will house a primary school, a pediatric clinic and a center for craft training.
Snohetta, an architectural firm based in New York and Oslo, is donating its work to design the space in partnership with a local architect. Construction is scheduled to begin later this year, with hopes that the opening will be in early 2022.
“Empowering women in a mining operation is something that would barely be on the radar in the West,” said Craig Dykers, a founding partner of Snohetta. “That is one reason why I find it powerful; it broadens our spectrum of understanding. It’s like the thorn in the lion’s foot, it’s the smallest things that have the biggest impact.”