Hiker Finds Over $300,000 Worth Of Buried Treasure In The Alps

Mont Blanc Alps
Tom Fahy, Flickr

It sounds like something out of a movie, but a mountaineer scaling the Alps has come across a valuable stash of jewels including emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, buried in the snow — a treasure trove estimated to be worth $332,000.

The French climber stumbled across a metal box while scaling Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, earlier this month. Upon opening it, the hiker discovered colorful gemstones, some of which were wrapped in pouches marked “Made In India.”It’s believed the jewelry ended up in the Alps following one of two Indian plane crashes in the region — one which took place in 1950 and another that occurred 16 years later. Other cargo and belongings from those plane crashes have previously been discovered in the area, but this latest discovery could be one of the most valuable stashes to be uncovered.

The mountaineer handed the loot over to French authorities who are working to track down the owners of the lost treasure. However, a local police officer told the AFP that under French law, the valuables could be handed over to the hiker if the owners or heirs of the jewelry are not found.

Fake gems and minerals sold to tourists in Namibia


More and more adventure travelers are discovering Namibia, a nation in southwest Africa that offers deserts, beaches, safaris, and hikes. Unfortunately this rise in tourism has led to a rise in tourist scams. Namibia’s Mines and Energy Minister, Isak Katali, has warned miners to stop selling fake gems and minerals to tourists. Mining is big in the country, and many miners are independent prospectors who scratch out a difficult and hazardous living from the rock.

One way to make extra money is to sell their finds to tourists. This has proved too tempting for some, and they’re using their specialized knowledge, and the average tourist’s cluelessness, to fob off colored glass as precious stone. While most miners are honest, buying minerals and gems in Namibia has become a tricky game. Mr. Katali says this has already hurt tourism and the country’s reputation.

Namibia is certainly not the only country where cheap imitations are fobbed off to unsuspecting visitors. People will fake pretty much anything if they think it will sell. When visiting the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in Syria, I was offered a “genuine Roman coin” made of aluminum! Back in 2008, Italian police broke up a gang selling fake Ferraris.

Have you ever bought something overseas only to discover later it was a fake? Share your tale of woe in the comments section!

[Image courtesy Arpingstone]

East of Africa: Sapphire of Ilakaka

After hours of driving through untouched landscape, a speck of civilization appears on the horizon. It’s a sizable town; modest in structure, but full of activity and commotion -even at a distance.

A patchwork of low-grade wooden structures stem from a single main road. Electrical wires criss cross each other in all directions, connecting small shanty homes with restaurants and makeshift offices with pre-fabricated Zain mobile phone shops.

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The main road is filled with pedestrians. A man with a turkey slung over his back fervently tries to make a sale with a local butcher. Several children pile onto a improvised sled, transporting an oil barrel that’s adorned with a hand painted message in English: “God is Good”. Next to them, three Chinese men in business suits carry large black briefcases into a shiny building that is marked as a gem brokerage.

It feels like we’ve rolled into a strange, Malagasy version of the Wild West, minus the cowboy boots and the saddled horses. This is Ilakaka, population: 30,000, and home to Madagascar’s booming sapphire trade.

As soon as we stop on the side of the road a few hawkers approach us. I try to explain in French that we’re not here to buy anything, but they insist that I come see their shop. Curiosity gets the best of me and I follow them to a small stall where a few men are clutching tiny plastic zipper bags filled with purple and blue stones.

There’s nothing elaborate about the presentation of the stones. They clear a bowl of meat for sale off of the table and empty the contents of the bags for me to inspect. An aging Indian man with a long beard sits behind a metal grille and counts out the prices for the stones. When it’s apparent that I’m really not going to buy anything, the bags get packed away as fast as they were dumped out.

I’m told that the Sri Lankans, Indians, and Thais control most of the gem market here, with a majority of the mining done by poor Malagasy father-son teams. They are lured by the dream of making over $10,000 USD in one find; truly a temping proposition in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

In the past eleven years, Ilakaka has been subject to an expansion that could be compared to California’s gold rush of the 1800’s. Sapphire deposits were discovered in 1998, when only 40 people inhabited the area. Now, 50% of the world’s sapphire comes from Madagascar, and Ilakaka is at the heart of the fever. The current official reports document 30,000 inhabitants, but locals insist that there are closer to 60,000 people in the town…a number that’s hard to track amidst high turnover in workers and unreported children belonging to working families.

Walking further down the road, I notice that the diversity for such a concentrated population is striking. Apparently, each of Madagascar’s 18 ethnic groups are represented in Ilakaka; and businessmen from all over the world come here to buy Malagasy gems. But because of the profitable nature of the business, violence has become prevalent in the rogue town.

The word on the street is that one of Osama bin Laden’s relatives was gunned down last year because of his visible success in sapphire trading. Another victim was shot in his hotel room only months ago while carrying a sapphire worth nearly $25,000. The local police claim to be attempting to control criminal activity, but low salaries and high bribes seem to be getting in the way of any tangible results.

But the violence doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone from coming to Ilakaka just yet. There are bars, brothels, and casinos…plenty of economic activity. But there are no established banks or sources of electricity from the national grid. Most of the shacks that the miners camp out in have no running water or sources of light; which on one hand, is good news for the ToughStuff sales team.

Within an hour, they’ve negotiated several deals and have even captured the interest of some of the wealthy gem brokers. They say that Ilakaka will be a good opportunity for trade and entrepreneurial expansion; undoubtedly a familiar sentiment in this dusty, lawless town.

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!

Shopping in Manhattan’s Diamond District

Manhattan is a great place to find the best of something. Best theater, best food, best art — and definitely best shopping, as long as you’ve got some padding in your bank account. One of the greatest places for a girl to shop in Manhattan is on 47th St between 5th and 6th Avenues, also known as the Diamond District.

New York’s Diamond District is a full city block of sparkly goodness, and whether you want to buy or just gawk, this is the place to come for fine jewelry. With over 2,600 independent businesses in the Diamond District (seriously!), you have no excuse not to shop around. If you get a bad vibe from someone, stay away — you have plenty of other options. Some jewelers have shops of their own, but most operate booths in large jewelry exchanges, which can have hundreds of different vendors all under one roof.

If you want to have a good experience and not get ripped off, start by dressing the part. The more money it looks like you’ve got, the more attention you’ll get. And the more knowledgeable you appear, the less likely you’ll be ripped off. Don’t just throw around buzz words, though. Diamond vendors can tell when you’re just regurgitating some pamphlet on the four C’s. If you want to really know your stuff, take a good look at the Personal Gemologist series at AisleDash. Learn how to tell quality from crap. If a vendor describes something in terms you don’t understand, don’t buy it. While you may be looking at a very pretty ring, you may be buying a synthetic stone, or artificially enhanced piece of jewelry. Find more helpful shopping tips on the Diamond District website here.

Lastly, it’s not in the Diamond District, but your Manhattan jewelry experience isn’t complete until you visit Tiffany & Co, located at 57th St & 5th Ave.

Cash and Treasures: Digging for gems in Brazil

The last two weeks of The Travel Channel’s Cash and Treasures on Wednesday night haven’t included kids at the dig sites, a quality I was impressed by early on. Still, I continue to be hooked into this show. This week, I stuck around for the back to back episodes because host Kristin Gum headed out of the United States for points south in what worked as a double feature. Normally, the first half hour show satisfies me. The episode right after the first usually has a totally different theme.

Episodes: Digging for aquamarines, morganites and more.

What are they? Gems that can be worth beau coups bucks. Aquamarines range from dark green to a light blue, like clear water. Morganites are light pinkish. Gum found an aquamarine worth $3,000 and a morganite worth $1,481, once they were cut and polished.

Location: In the mountains and hills of Southeastern Brazil before the jaunt to Rio de Janeiro for the cutting and polishing. The first episode was shot in Governardor Valadares in the state of Minas Gerais at the Jaco Mine. The second episode was at the Rio Doce Mine near Rio Doce.

Getting to the Jaco Mine involved first taking a train and then a jeep on an unpaved road with 32 switchbacks. The bonus of the effort, besides the gems, was the gorgeous scenery. Gum was given mining tips by the mine’s owner and his son. The snaking tunnel of the mines where the walls shimmered turned up nothing, but once Gum sifted through the tailings using a large screen, she found several aquamarines. One of them was large piece that was turned into the $3,000 beauty. The others were the type you’d put in a collection and were not considered valuable.

Even though finding an aquamarine most probably will happen at the Jaco Mine, as the son said about looking for gems, “It’s gotta be hard to be good.” You’re also not guaranteed to find a valuable one like Gum did. There’s a reason why quality gems are expensive.

The Rio Doce Mine is owned by Jerry Call, an American who has mining and gems in his blood. His sister owns a mine in North Carolina with the same name. [see Web site] Gum unearthed the morganite in Call’s mine.

Even if you don’t find terrific quality gems, the variety of what can be found in Brazil is astounding. Sixty-five percent of the worlds’ gems come from here. If I heard right, 100% of the different types of gems are here.

During her digs, Gum also found tourmaline and assorted other rocks and minerals like feldspar, mica and quartz.. If you want to go mining in Brazil, the Cash and Treasure’s Web site has a link to Chang Express, a travel agent that the show recommends.

Because the focus of the show is more on what you can mine than the culture of the country where the episodes take place, Brazil wasn’t presented much more than a miner’s delight. There was drinking juice out of a whole coconut, soccer playing and eating various meat dishes that Gum found divine.

Cost of mining: $100 per wheelbarrow