Under a Gold Blanket: Discovery Guide Tours Famed Mine in Minas Gerais

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The City of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold”. It was the largest City in Latin America for a while in the 18th Century, during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the World for it’s preserved, Baroque Architecture.

The city of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold.” It was the largest City in Latin America in the 18th century during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the world for its preserved Baroque architecture.

Brazil is a beautiful country, but not in the same way as the Florida Keys, Hawaii, or Aspen. Everywhere in Brazil you have a wonderful dichotomy between the grotesque and the graceful. The entire country is like an impressionist painting — up close you see sloppiness and imperfection, but if you stand back, all of the colors and textures come together to create a stunning portrait, a portrait based in reality, not contrived. Throughout my July 2015 trip through the state of Minas Gerais, in the mountainous interior of Brazil, I had been awed by the natural beauty of the country, and also with the artificial splendors. I was always amazed by what people who have so little can create with what they do have.

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty.

I was basking in the adrenaline and the charm of exotic travel, but the grotesque crept back into my perception as I sat in a rickety old mine car, suspended above the mouth of a mineshaft on a track with a forty-five degree slope. The rusted mining equipment and dilapidated offices and supply sheds had blended nicely with the mountainside when I first viewed them from across the valley during the train ride over, but up close it was less than dazzling. The only thing keeping us from sliding hundreds of feet into the earth was a steel cable hooked up to a winch probably as old as my grandfather. There were no seat belts in the cart, and the angle of the tracks was so steep, I had to press my feet against the seat in front of me to keep from sliding off. There were no other people visiting the mine — it was only Fernanda and I — and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a sinister reason for that emptiness. I was a bit nervous as the little old lady manning the craft announced in Portuguese that we were about to descend, but then the buttons were pressed, the car slipped slowly and smoothly into the darkness and it wasn’t that bad.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

The trip down was noisy. The wheels of the cart screeched against the steel tracks, and every once in a while the cart would jump on a connection between two rails and snap back down loudly. The sound would bounce off the solid stone walls around us and pound our eardrums. The shaft was dark. Lamps, bare bulbs budding from a ragged wire that crept like a vine along the walls of the shaft, emitted a honey-colored glow that lent the place a very intimidating and volcanic atmosphere. But it was actually quite cool down there. The earth insulated us from the sun up top; we were no longer subject the conditions on the surface.

Our descent into the earth, in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Our descent into the Earth in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Beside us, embedded in the rock walls of the mine, ran a sliver of milky white quartz. The shaft followed it until we reached the bottom of the mine. At the bottom, the path flattened out and the rails ended. Men were laboring with shovels, loading rocks into a pile for transport back to the surface. The mine was not active anymore; these were simply employees of the museum that owned the mine clearing debris for the safety of the guests. Their store-bought, not-too-dirty clothes belied their fortunate position as men who did not permanently work in a mine. Still, they looked tired and unhappy, and generally ignored our presence, which I don’t blame them for. I have often said that I can do physical labor or customer service, but not both.

Milky-white bands of quatz running through the stone walls of the mine.

Milky-white bands of quartz running through the stone walls of the mine.

The vein of quartz that we had followed down was thicker at the bottom of the shaft.  Here it became apparent that it was not just a small sliver of quartz we had seen, but a thin cross-section of an entire layer blanketing the Earth for who knows how far in every direction. Originally, it would have formed as a flat layer, but like a massive, restless sleeper, the Earth had shrugged its silvery blanket during bouts of tectonic activity. The quartz layer had been folded into the Earth’s crust, resulting in a slumped, angled descent beneath the surface. This is why the mine goes so deep. It follows the descent of the quartz vein. The Portuguese had mined near the surface in the 18th century, but with their limited technology, they didn’t go very deep. The shaft we visited was dug much more recently.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

The mine wasn’t a quartz mine. The reason this vein was so important is that very often gold is found in quartz. Down in the mine, we could see no gold, but it was there, trapped in the quartz. The mining companies had cleared the shafts with explosives, creating a maze of passages spreading in all directions. To keep these shafts from collapsing under the millions of tons of sediment above, they left columns of rock standing, like pillars in an Egyptian temple, throughout the galleries. Like the walls of the mine, these pillars had diagonal layers, alternating between rock and quartz, like a layered cake. In these columns, quartz and gold still rested, impossible to get to without collapsing the mine.

At the Bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

At the bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

And although the gold itself was invisible, pyrite (fool’s gold) was everywhere, so in places the mine shafts really did look like they were covered in gold. There were also tourmaline and garnet, a menagerie of natural splendor, though none of them were of gem quality. The good stuff would have been plucked out and sold. Museums around the world buy specimens from Minas, even our museum. A notable portion of the pieces in our Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals came from the region. Our hall is what inspired me to travel there in the first place. Our great collection of gold does not come from Minas, but like the mine I visited, our gold was found in quartz veins. We have a wonderful, natural gold “sculpture” called “the dragon,” a sliver of gold that actually looks like a rearing reptile with spread wings. We have other pieces of gold in all sorts of abstract, contorted shapes as well. Since gold doesn’t grow (unfortunately), the way it acquires these weird forms is by being trapped in quartz. As the quartz grows, it manipulates the gold inside into all sorts of interesting shapes. So originally our gold was trapped in quartz crystals, and was extracted by dissolving the quartz in a mild acid that does not harm the gold. A similar process is used to extract gold from quartz in mines like the one I visited.

My girlfriend and I.

Fernanda and I, overlooking the valley.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris is a Discovery Guide for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

If I Owned a Jewelry Store

Ed. Note: At the age of nine, Joel Bartsch was shown a pyrite crystal, and became fascinated with gemstones and crystals from that point forward. After college, he worked in five museums around the country, returning to his native Houston in 1991, where he is now president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Bartsch founded a gem vault at the museum, which boasts one of the most extensive collections of minerals in the country, including a 1,869-carat natural emerald crystal, the largest ever discovered in North America. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2008 issue of In Design Magazine.

My jewelry store would be a fascinating place to visit.

It would be underground, first of all. When people see gemstones that are cut, polished, and finished, the stones are so far removed from their natural environment that people really don’t make the connection between the fabulous jewel they’re wearing and Mother Nature. So, my store would be located under the earth – if not in a working mine, then at least in a replica. It would have crystals sticking out of air pockets in the walls, just as they’re found naturally. The whole thing would be like walking into an underground version of Aladdin’s cave, with several different caverns – all the rubies would be here, the emeralds here, the diamonds over there – and everything reinforcing the awe and mystery surrounding the origin of crystals.

Gem Crystal
Creative Commons License photo credit: lifelive~

I wouldn’t carry any jewelry that was anywhere near normal. Now, I love white, colorless diamonds as much as anybody. But they’ve become commodities. So I wouldn’t carry ANY white diamonds – only super-fancy colors, like purples and pinks. None of my store’s gemstones would have any enhancements. Really, once you have to explain to customers that it’s been thermally-enhanced, or irradiated, or had a laser treatment to remove inclusions, it sounds like a synthetic production. Again, I want to reinforce the link between these marvels and nature itself, which only adds to the value.

As for my customers, I would allow them in by appointment only… of course, kids are welcome at any time. Kids still have a sense of wonder and excitement about nature. If you show them the simplest piece of amethyst, they react with a big “Wow!” But when you see adults in a jewelry store, they act so unaffected, like they don’t want the salesperson to know that they like anything. So, adults would only be welcome in the store after they’ve passed a written test.

Creative Commons License photo credit:
Stephen Witherden

A test, you say? Let me explain. Back in the 17th century, there were lists of rules for visiting museums. In those days, museums weren’t public; you had to already have knowledge of a subject before you were allowed inside. My store would be the same way.

That may sound harsh, but really my point is that I want people coming in who truly appreciate what jewelry is. Perhaps they’d take a stonecutting course, or goldsmithing, or gemstone panning, all of which I would offer in the store. After all, the best customer is an educated customer. They may still have issues with the price, but at least they will understand how rare and unusual these gemstones are.

Finally, I would have a bevy of jewelry designers available for customers once they’ve chosen a gemstone. The designer would sit down with these customers and sketch out ideas, which would drive home the point that the design process adds more value to a piece of jewelry than anything else. Let’s face it: gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, rubies, emeralds – in today’s world, they’re commodities, like five pounds of beans or 50 pounds of flour. What really creates value is the design process.

Faberge was once asked, “How do you decide how much one of your pieces is worth, compared to your competitors?” He answered, “If you want to know what my competitors’ jewelry is worth, just put it on the scale.” The point he was making was that they had no design sense – that the only value in their pieces was the weight of the diamonds or gold. The reason his jewelry was so highly priced was that it had a tremendous amount of creative value added to it.

At the end of their time in my store, when my customer has a fabulously beautiful piece of jewelry that they helped design, made up of totally natural stones and materials, and they’re doing it down in this crystal cave in a natural setting, not only will they have a grand appreciation for the finished piece, but they’ll have an incredible story to tell about the entire process.

FREE at the HMNS!

3rd Of July
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Feeling a little red, white, and blue? Join the Houston Museum of Natural Science in that patriotic spirit by coming to see an original copy of the Declaration of Independence

What is so special about this copy, you ask? And I’m so glad you did.

Donald Scheer of Atlanta, Georgia just happened to find a lovely countryside painting at a flea market in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the painted scene he was after, though, the frame was what caught his eye. Upon attempting to separate the two the frame fell apart in his hands and out popped a yellowed document from between the two. Upon his realization to what he found he took the document to be appraised. Sotheby’s, the infamous auction house, declared this document to be one of the three finest copies of the Declaration of Independence to be preserved. 

From 10am to 6pm on Saturday, July 12th, you can view this copy of the Declaration, register to vote, enjoy the Independence Cinema, and join in crafts and activities at the Declare Yourself! exhibition!

Also, don’t miss your opportunity to join in the fun with Rockfest on Saturday, July 19th, from 11am until 2pm to view the biggest Guitar Hero 2 contest in Houston, meet rock experts, crack geodes, pan for gold, and much more!

Guitar Hero 3 Tournament @ Apple Store SF
Creative Commons License photo credit: NickStarr

Science doesn’t sleep

And neither should you.

Just kidding. Here’s what went down since you logged off.

In case you haven’t been the victim of a playful (or not so-playful) prank yet, watch out – it’s April Fools. The New Scientist Technology Blog has a fantastic roundup of fun online pranks pulled by Google, NASA and others – plus some recommendations for those of you looking to make the day memorable.

On the other hand, if you’re wondering why – WHY? – someone might feel the need to put your stapler in jello – the NY Times has an answer for you. And we have the recipe.

But seriously…

Creative Commons License photo credit: lordspudz

Some things never change – archaeologists have uncovered the oldest gold artifact in the Americas – and they believe it was created as a status symbol. The 4,000-year-old beaded necklace is about 500 years older than any previously discovered.

New Zealand’s “living dinosaur” – the tuatara, a reptile that has looked the same for 200 million years – is actually the Ferrari of evolution.

Texas Tea may soon be of the green variety – algae, that is. Some types are 50% oil, which is suitable for biodeisel fuels. With oil at $100/barrel, pond scum is looking good.

Happy April Fool’s!