UBC Research Drives Canada’s Fledgling Emerald Industry

UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun.
5, 2003

Former student makes a dazzling discovery

By Michelle Cook

It was late August 1998 when Bill Wengzynowski spotted something
green while prospecting in a remote area of southeastern Yukon.

He was looking for copper and zinc and he thought the green
patches might be malachite, but on closer inspection the UBC
graduate suspected he had found something far more surprising
— and significant. Emeralds.

Wengzynowski had obviously paid attention in mineralogy class
and no one is happier about that than Lee Groat, an associate

professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Ocean
Sciences who taught Wengzynowski while he was at UBC.

“He remembered enough of his mineralogy to determine
that the samples might be something rarer,” Groat recalls
with a smile. “He called me and said he had something
he’d like me to look at.”

Wengzynowski, who was conducting the exploration for Vancouver-based
Expatriate Resources at the time, asked Groat to analyze the
samples to determine the source of their brilliant green colour.
Groat confirmed his former student’s hunch. The minerals
were high-quality emeralds — the first to be found in Canada.

The dazzling discovery raised a lot of scientific questions
for Groat. Why were the emeralds there? Were there more to
be found? And where was the best place to look?

In a quest for answers, Groat along with other UBC researchers,
students and graduates have been the driving force behind
the development of Canada’s fledging emerald industry.

Rarer and more valuable than diamonds, emeralds have been
prized for centuries. The Inca and Aztec Indians of South
America worshipped them as holy stones. Cleopatra had her
own emerald mines, now long exhausted, near the Red Sea, and
the Roman emperor Nero was said to have watched gladiators
fight through emerald lenses.

The world emerald market is currently estimated to be worth
more than US$5 billion with most stones mined in Columbia,
Brazil, Zambia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As he opens boxes of emerald samples from around the world,
Groat says that, at first, the Canadian emerald find seemed
to be an anomaly.

“I was pretty excited when I first saw the samples.
I knew there was beryl up there, I’d seen it on previous
trips. What I hadn’t put together is that there could
be emeralds, too” Groat says.

Emeralds are a type of beryl, a mineral made of beryllium,
aluminum, silicon and oxygen — all elements common in the
continental crust. While ordinary beryls are colourless, emeralds
are green because at some point in their formation, some of
the aluminum was replaced by the elements chromium or vanadium.
Emeralds are rare because these elements belong to a completely
different chemical family from beryllium and the two drifted
apart billions of years ago.

Once Groat confirmed that Wengzynowski had found emeralds,
he wanted to find out how the elements necessary to form them
had come into contact with each other in a wind-swept corner
of the Yukon.

In the summer of 1999, Groat spent 10 days collecting samples
in the area, now known as Regal Ridge. Back at UBC, he pulled
together a team that included fellow UBC Professor Jim Mortensen,
the university’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit, and international
researchers with various scientific specializations to help
analyze the samples.

What they found was that the area around Regal Ridge is made
up of slices of oceanic rock — called accreted terraines.
More than 100 million years ago, when continents were colliding
in massive tectonic shifts to form mountains, slabs of ocean
floor, containing chromium and vanadium, got caught between
colliding continental plates. When those patches of oceanic
rock were forced up against the continental shelf, they came
into contact with continental rock containing beryllium.

“Initially Regal Ridge seemed to be different from other
emerald deposits,” Groat says. “But as we learned
more about it, we saw that the Yukon deposit has similarities
with those in Zambia and Afghanistan.

“Now, just knowing the geology up there, I’m confident
that there are more deposits. It’s not going to be easy
to find them, but with science we can target them much better.”

UBC’s initial research helped to spark a staking rush.
This summer at least seven companies will be in the Regal
Ridge area doing exploration work, but Groat says more analysis
is necessary before researchers can be certain of the area’s
feasibility for emerald mining.

In terms of their colour, Groat says Canada’s emeralds
rank with the world’s best, but it is still unknown whether
the deposits will yield stones big enough for profitable commercial
mining. To date, the largest stone found has been only a half
carat in size. Stones of at least one carat are necessary
to make mining worthwhile.

This summer, with funding support from the National Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), True North
Gems Inc. (the Vancouver company which purchased the Regal
Ridge property from Expatriate Resources), and the Yukon government,
Groat is heading back up north with two students to do additional
analytical work at Regal Ridge. They’ll also visit another
site, called Lened, in the western Northwest Territories where
emeralds have also been found. Although paler in colour, the
Lened deposits appear to resemble Colombian deposits, which
produce the world’s finest quality emeralds. Most of
this summer will be spent working on a regional study outlining
the likeliest places to look for emeralds.

Grout hopes to finish the analytical studies on Regal Ridge
and Lened by early to mid-2004 and complete the regional study
by 2006. In mining terms, the project is still in its infancy,
but Groat expects it will soon be possible to tell whether
full-fledged mining is feasible at Regal Ridge.

“I think we will know whether or not there will be a
mine at Regal Ridge by next year. It basically depends on
what True North Gems finds this summer when they go underground,”
Grout says. “What will be really exciting is if someone
else, maybe us, makes another discovery.”

Grout is mindful of the gap between discoveries and actual
production, but points out that only a short while ago people
said there were no diamonds in Canada.

“We’re the second largest country in the world
so we should have these gemstones,” Groat says. “I
certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Canada producing
emeralds in the future and like our diamonds, Canadian emeralds
would command a premium.”