Tales from the four corners – PT 2 Ouro Preto

Ouro preto – a gem hidden away in the jungle

Arriving at the Belo Horizonte Airport, one is greeted by 77°F (25°C) and a humidity of around 75 percent. “It is a nice change compared to the windy and cold weather in Germany around winter,” says Alexander Kreis. Due to the fact that Brazil is located below the equator and Germany above, the two countries are reversed when it comes to the yearly seasons. Belo Horizonte is the main capital of the Brazilian province Minas Gerais. This area is renowned for gemstones such as tourmaline, aquamarine, and imperial topaz.

A heritage of art

“Walking through ‘Ouro Preto’ … you can feel the history. She is a companion at every step of your way.”

Headed towards the southeast, the city of Ouro Preto, dating from colonial times, will appear. Nestled into the lush vegetation of Brazil and surrounded by mountains makes Ouro Preto a hidden gem. “We drove for quite some time. The only thing we saw was the Brazilian jungle. Only until around 1.2 miles (2 km) before reaching Ouro Preto, the city appears. Driving there for the first time was quite a surprise”, Alexander Kreis reports. He continues:  “Walking through the city and its beautiful buildings from the 18th century, you can feel the history. She is a companion at every step of your way. This is probably why it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.”

Ouro Preto is Portuguese for “Black Gold”. The name is a reference to the gold rush the city experienced in the 18th century. This rush is also the reason Ouro Preto has so many opulent buildings and displays of wealth. “It played a major role in the Brazilian Baroque era”, Alexander Kreis explains, “and we can still see the historic remains they passed on.” He explicitly refers to the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Designed by one of Brazils’ leading artist at the time, Antonio Francisco Lisboa (Aleijadinho).  The religious buildings are more opulent in their interior and deviate from the conventional architectural design in Europe. The reason is an edict of the Portuguese Crown to prohibit the establishment of religious orders in Minas Gerais.

A celebrated discovery

But this is not the only peculiarity of the area surrounding Ouro Preto. “In 1768, King Joseph I celebrated the discovery of imperial topaz. This gem has hues from red, orange, to orange-red. It is an extraordinary rare gemstone especially in high quality”, Alexander Kreis notes. As the Gemological Insitute of America (GIA) reported, “only one to two percent of all the material recovered from Ouro Preto’s mines is of faceting quality”. “Since then, imperial topaz has been found in Pakistan and the Ural, but nothing has shown any color as intense as the gems found in Ouro Preto. In this regard those stones are unique”, explains Vanessa Kreis, a gemologist at KREIS.

After 250 years, mining of this gem around Ouro Preto is of no significant scale. “They simply didn’t find any material that would justify the high costs of mining. Because of this, finding natural imperial topaz became a very difficult challenge throughout the last couple of decades”, explains Stefan Kreis.

More about imperial topaz on the GIA website.