Emeralds seek the "De Beers" treatment

Wed Jun 13, 2012 6:33pm EDT
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By Manuela Badawy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year ago, Heraldo Casas found a 32-carat emerald on the outskirts of a mine near Bogota that he sold for $170,000 to a vendor.

It was enough money for the poor miner to buy his family a house in the Colombian capital. And Casas says his lucky find got him hooked on working for virtually nothing, scouring the countryside for more of the green, precious stones.

In Colombia, the world's largest producer of raw emeralds, the story told by Casas is no anomaly. Many of the country's poor work without a salary for several local emerald mining concerns, hoping to pocket a few stones along the way and make their own small fortunes.

It's no easy way to earn a living. But for these poor Colombians, there's hope that better days may be on the horizon.

Some investment experts see growing demand for the stones in places such as Asia and the Middle East, where for religious and astrological reasons emeralds often have more appeal than diamonds or other precious gems.

Colombia, which has the largest emerald deposits in the world, is particularly well-positioned to benefit from this increased demand. Several countries in Africa also have large emerald deposits.

"I would look at emeralds as a way of playing the huge demand for luxury goods from China and the Middle East," said Caspar Trenthard, investment director for UK smaller companies at Standard Life Investment.

Standard Life is a shareholder in Gemfields PLC (GEM.L: Quote), a small company trying to position itself as the leader in emerald mining. Gemfields wants to move the business beyond its local-miner image and onto a bigger stage.   Continued...