/ Travel Like An Artist: Sourcing Gemstones with Melanie Katsalidis /
This edition of Travel Like An Artist takes us to Central Queensland with Pieces of Eight Director, Melanie Katsalidis, as she recounts sourcing gems for her recent collaborative exhibition, CHROMA. This exhibition used unusual gemstones that were custom cut to reference Phillip Low's acrylic sculptures, and took viewers through a diaphanous transition of hues.
Standing in front of this old mining truck gives you an idea of scale - it's pretty big and from back in the golden days of sapphire mining in Australia which boomed in the early 1980s. The industry is much smaller now.
I loved spending time in the region of central Queensland on the Tropic of Capricorn where these beautiful gems are found. I met lots of people who are really addicted to the treasure hunting aspect of mining and spend the year travelling to different parts of the country with their partners or families to fossick or work their claims.
This is an image of the Tomahawk Tiger, one of the most famous and valuable sapphires ever found in Australia. Discovered in 1979 at Tomahawk Creek near Rubyvale in Queensland, the story is it was found by a local boy on his way home from school. It weighs 2,020 carats and is green with amazing blue 'stripes' which are the result of differing concentrations of titanium as the crystal formed. It's being held by the caravan park owner in Anakie who is the proud owner of this and several other very valuable sapphires. He loves to show them to anyone who is interested and tell the stories behind each stone. This one was my favourite.
Parti sapphire is a gemstone I have been especially fascinated with these last couple of years. It's not a widely recognized type of sapphire but I love it for it's colour banding and the way it can be green, blue and golden all in the one stone. It reminds me of what I really love about Australia: the ocean, sky and earth. We have such a special kind of bright light in this country; I think a well cut parti sapphire is the perfect stone to conjour up all these things for me.
Sourcing rough gems is something I did on this trip as there was a gem fair on during the time and I was able to connect with dealers who had some excellent rough from all over the world. It's quite remarkable to see gems in this state as they look like coloured glass or little pebbles. Once you hold them to a light source you're able to make an assessment as to whether they are suitable for cutting and what shape they might take. It's a bit of a gamble as it is hard to know until you start - there's certainly a lot of serendipity that comes into cutting gemstones as well as skill!
When I attended the Sapphire gem festival, one of my favourite experiences was meeting an elderly couple who were doing their last Gem Fest (having been there for the last 14 years). Norman and Lorraine were selling the collection of gems they'd amassed over the years; many were mined and cut by Norman himself. They had been married for sixty years and were such a delightful pair. It was a wonderful experience to spend time with them pouring over their gem collection and making a selection of stones I loved the most. Relationships and experiences are, for me, an important part of being a jeweller and this interaction is a great example of this.
I was able to tour an old sapphire mine that is now inactive but was successful in the early 1980s. It was great to learn about the process which is all about following the seam of the ancient riverbed where the sapphires are deposited, along the path of where water once flowed. It's cool and quiet underground and the techniques for mining now are more efficient and safe than they were in the early days of Australian gem and gold mining during the nineteenth century.
It was great to be able to attend a local market in Rubyvale where you see a lot of equipment for mining being sold and traded. It was also great to see the locals out in full force and meet some interesting people in this small tight knit community.