A Greenland Ruby Adventure
By Ulrik Hartmann
In the spring of 2018, I was on a shopping trip to Asia in search of precious gemstones, and as usual I brought along several articles about gemstones. I learned from one of them that Greenland Ruby was working on introducing the first Greenland rubies to the gemstone market. I had followed the project with interest, and I knew that the first rubies didn’t reach the market before the former mining company ‘True North Gems’ ran out of money. I also know that it requires deep pockets and great patience to extract precious gemstones.
I immediately emailed Greenland Ruby from my hotel room, and an exciting dialogue began to take shape. The next morning at breakfast, I discussed my thoughts with my colleague Anne Mette, who was very enthusiastic about the project. And just like that, we were talking about designs and storytelling.
And we’re off
In early August, we travelled to Bangkok to see the first production of Greenland rubies. All Greenland rubies are cut and polished in Bangkok, and we met in Greenland Ruby’s office to get a first look at the finished gemstones and raw material.
Three of us from HARTMANN'S were present, all working in production and design. We immediately became very excited about the beautiful deep red and intense colours usually found in exquisite rubies from Burma. Yet we were also deeply astonished by the rubies from our own Kingdom that we held in our hands. Many of the rubies are cabochon cut to make the most of the raw material and showcase the colour in the best possible way. Cabochon rubies have been cut since the 1400s with excellent results.
We ended up selecting 300 carats of rubies in different shapes and colours. We also placed a large order for rubies in selected cuts and sizes for some specific designs. Designs that we had already created in Denmark, and for which we brought drawings. The project was now in progress, and by the evening all three of us were euphoric about the day’s events. We were looking forward to working with the production process and were filled with ideas and enthusiasm.
Invitation to Aappaluttoq
To experience the gemstones and diamonds in their place of origin – in their natural surroundings – is something I find very fascinating. It is also a major driving force of my work in selecting, understanding and purveying exquisite diamonds and gemstones. I want to know and understand their DNA and closely follow the noble gemstone’s fascinating journey – my infatuation has begun!
It was therefore natural for me to explore the possibility of visiting the ruby mine before our agreement was signed. A compelling opportunity opened up at the end of August, just three weeks after we had selected the finest rubies in Bangkok. I received an invitation to Greenland along with Gübelin Gemlab from Switzerland and a German film crew, who would be making a documentary.
In fact, it was exactly 10 years since I was in Greenland with my brother and mother, and I knew that an exciting journey with a spectacular landscape and a fascinating culture awaited me.
Michel van Steinwijk, an old friend and accomplished photographer, travelled with me on this ruby expedition, and we both had a slight case of the butterflies.
Arrival and whales
We landed in Nuuk on a cold afternoon after two flights. We had already booked a tour boat, so that on arrival we could explore and photograph the fantastic nature around the Nuuk area. We hurried to pack our camera equipment and drone and rushed off to the harbour. We departed from the harbour, sailed out on the fjord, encountered the first icebergs and sailed down to an impressive natural meltwater waterfall of several hundred metres. On the way back, we saw a group of humpback whales and one of them slapped the water with its majestic tail just a few metres from our boat. The adventure has begun.
Journey to Aappaluttoq
The next morning, we headed to the ruby mine. The mine is located approximately 180 km south of Nuuk in Fiskenæsfjorden. The journey should take 3.5 hours by boat. There are two ways to visit the mine. Until December, you can sail there. After that, the fjords are frozen until May. Throughout the winter, it is only possible to reach the mine by helicopter. Both modes of transport are only possible if the weather is good. And in Greenland, the weather is very changeable.
We boarded the boat at 8:00 and looked forward to an exciting cruise. For the next few hours, we sailed through the beautiful fjords and past icebergs, narrow passages and vast expanses. It was fascinating to sail through nature that is so harsh and rugged, yet so beautiful and diverse with many different colours of icebergs and rock formations. To my surprise, we encountered only a handful of Inuit hunters and fishermen during the long journey.
Arrival at the mine
The trip took longer than expected and we arrived five hours later at the town of Aappaluttoq, which is also the name of the mine. Aappaluttoq means ‘red stone’ in Greenland. We called in at a makeshift quay and were picked up by a 4W bus that transported us up to a camp a few kilometres from the water. There was a very bumpy dirt road, and only then did we become aware of the difficult conditions under which the mine operates. Everything has been built from scratch, and there wasn’t even any ice or snow at this point. All materials must be brought in by ship from Nuuk.
We arrived at the Camp, which is a series of wooden barracks with a large main building flanked by small pavilions for employees and guests. Each employee has his or her own room with a bathroom and television. There is a wonderful view over the mountains, rock formations and lakes. There is a calmness and tranquillity here that you will not find in many other places. It is pure balm for the soul.
Where are the rubies?
In the afternoon we drove a few kilometres up the mountain to the mine. It took 15 minutes and suddenly we found ourselves in an open-pit mine among rock formations 3 billion years old.
I had expected the mine to be larger. But the mining is conducted by gradually blasting small areas in a large drained lake, then transporting the rocks to the processing plant in large lorries. We walked around and looked at the sheer rock face and could clearly see the ruby crystal deposits in seams along the rock formation. It was fascinating to see such obvious ruby deposits in the rocks. It was actually the first Greenland hunters who discovered that there were rubies in the area. They were caribou hunting in the mountains and could see the red crystals in the rock formations.
I discussed the ruby deposits with Greenland Ruby’s geologist and Gübelin’s gemmologist, and we had an interesting gemmological talk. The area was being prepared for blasting, and a little later we were asked to leave the area for safety reasons. The safe distance is one kilometre! Fortunately, we were allowed to set up a Go Pro camera to film the explosion. ‘Boooooom!’ But rather than a large explosion, this was a controlled explosion to loosen the rock, as it might otherwise damage the ruby crystals.
The processing plant
Before the visit, I was told that the processing plant, located 1 kilometre from the open-pit mine, is one of the newest and most advanced plants in modern mining. I knew that the plant operated in accordance with the best standards in technology, safety and security. But I was nevertheless surprised by the excellent conditions in the massive building. Everything was in perfect order, and most tasks were performed by specialised machines that crushed the rocks and sorted the rubies from the rocks on different conveyor belts.
Rubies that slip out of the sorting machines are taken away by hand by an attentive employee. All staff on the project are native Greenlanders with great pride and professionalism, who are deeply involved in the process.
The sorting room
When the machines had sorted the rubies into different sizes, they entered the sorting room, where 5-7 young Greenlandic women ‘cut’ the rubies out of the rock, to remove any excess rock. Loud music was playing, and the women took turns being the DJ, adding to a great ambience. There were several large light tables where you could take a closer look at the rubies; it is only when the light hits the rough gemstones that you can really see the beautiful and very different hues – from deep red to light pink.
Between 20 and 30 kg of ruby material is produced from the Aappaluttoq mine each week.
Fortunately, we also had time to explore the area and drive around on our own. On scenic walks along the rippling streams, we had plenty of opportunity to enjoy nature with sneaky Arctic foxes slinking around in the background.
I spent two days at the ruby mine and had many chances to talk to lots of lovely and committed employees and hear stories and anecdotes. We found it a little cold while we were there, as the first snow fell at the end of August. The chef, who previously worked on the project, told us that it gets cold and windy in winter, with temperatures dropping to minus 30 degrees. He could remember a time before the Camp was built – when they slept in tents during winter and the sleeping bags froze to the tents. That was a cold experience!
On the last night, I was permitted to give a brief presentation to all the employees about our plans to introduce the rubies to the Scandinavian markets, and say a little about our thoughts, storytelling and designs. I also talked about my visit to their office in Bangkok and how through ‘The Pink Polar Bear Fundation’ I wanted to support the project to give something back and support climate change initiatives in the Arctic. It was incredible to have direct contact with the skilled miners who produce the beautiful Greenland rubies and who happily share their enthusiasm with visitors and each other.
The Pink Polar Bear Foundation
From the very start, Greenland Ruby wanted to create a mining project with meaning.
‘The Pink Polar Bear Foundation’ is a newly established initiative from Greenland Ruby created to support international polar research in all disciplines, especially protecting Greenland’s inhabitants (animals and humans) who are affected by climate change and the accompanying cultural changes.
It sounds almost too good to be true, but it isn’t. Aappaluttoq mine operates with a comprehensive CSR-focused production. ‘Responsible Mining’ is therefore at the top of Greenland Ruby’s agenda. The mine operates to the highest environmental and working conditions in the world, and Greenland Ruby wants to inspire increased focus on these issues.
Hartmann’s chose to take an active role in the project and the newly established foundation right from the start. It was therefore with pride as co-founder of the foundation that I could present a cheque for DKK 50,000 to Hayley Henning, Vice President for sales and marketing, and the Greenlandic miners, as a declaration of our commitment to the project. I can also reveal that Hartmann’s donates 0.5% of the sale price of all ruby jewellery to ‘The Pink Polar Bear Foundation’.
Departure by helicopter
The time had then come for us to return to Nuuk. This time we were fortunate in that a helicopter was ordered to pick us up if the weather permitted. The previous night had been very cloudy, and we could not count on good flying weather.
Luckily it had cleared up the next morning and, after handing in our personal belongings for inspection and control by the security department, we were ready to fly back. A helicopter ride that was to take about an hour.
A Bell 212 helicopter landed in the camp and flew us back with four sealed boxes of Greenland rubies from the previous week’s production.
We flew back over the same spectacular natural area that we sailed through earlier in the week, but now viewed from the air. It offered a completely different dimension, allowing us to see far and wide, and to appreciate how isolated and random it is that rubies were discovered here in West Greenland.
I enjoyed the last hour in the helicopter and chose not to take any photographs. Instead, I was engrossed, looking out over the plains, absorbing the last morsels of the magnificent nature. Imagine being part of an ambitious mining project in our own kingdom, experiencing first hand the impressive and harsh surroundings and dedicated and professional miners, and just think, we now have our own rare gemstone from the Kingdom of Denmark, which also happens to be red!
A special thanks to Peter Madsen (Director of Greenland Ruby, Nuuk) for the excellent hospitality and great help throughout the entire stay in Aappaluttoq. A big thanks to Hayley Henning (VP sales and marketing), Magnus Kibsgaard (CEO) and all the employees at Greenland Ruby for a great experience that I will remember for a very long time to come.