Lexi’s Lessons: Batu Manakarra, One of 2017’s Hot New Gemstones

Okay I’ll admit it . . . I’m a sucker for magnificent gemstones, just ask anyone who knows me. Each year I drag my weary self home from the Denver and Tucson gem shows with a backpack full of beautimous new stones awaiting new designs. I anticipate hours with my sketch book . . . or just playing with them . . . or lusting over them like Silas Marner and going “oooooohh, ahhhh“ over each stone. Every year I impatiently look forward to the upcoming treasure hunt, like I need more stones. But it’s a creeping sickness, and (hanging my head) I am a rock addict.

Last year I didn’t make it to Tucson, but I got a great surprise in the mail. Tucson came to me in the form of several new gemstones that Mark Lasater, owner of The Clamshell, sent after I picked a few from his photo on Facebook. Among the gemstones was one I didn’t order . . . a funky, unusually vivid purple stone that I fell in love with on sight. It made me immediately want to go buy a bottle of grape juice. He sent a note saying, “Can you do anything with this?”

Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine November 2016: Lexi Erickson's batu manakarra (grape agate) jewelry on cover

The rest is history. The piece ended up on the cover of the November 2016 Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, along with a step-by-step inside. It also became my favorite piece I had ever made and opened up a whole new set of aesthetics for my designs. Everywhere my students were asking questions of where it came from, and exactly what was it? So many people have fallen in love with this mysterious gemstone, so here is the back story on Batu Manakarra.

Gemstones News: Introducing Batu Manakarra

Sometime in mid to late 2013, a geologist named Joel Izey of IndoAgate wandered into a garage in Indonesia where a guy was holding a cluster of “orbicular agate.” Another man was washing it off with a pressure washer, like those used in car washes. The rock looked so fragile, with little purple balls and blue-green mud washing off of it, that the geologist thought it too fragile for slabbing. Exit one uninterested geologist.

A few months later, Joel noticed the stone arriving in stone warehouses by the truckload! Basically 95% was of poor, beat-up quality and a bland gray and brown color. Ground up, it might make good kitty litter. Even the few pieces of purple were patchy, dull, and uninspiring. An extremely low percentage had any real nice purple.

batu manakarra gemstones

Batu Manakarra gemstones. Photo courtesy of IndoAgate.

In a brilliant move, Joel sent the few good pieces to Mark Lasater, who loves cutting unusual and difficult material. Mark had a few samples at his AGTA booth in Tucson and sent a few pieces out to check people’s response. I was just lucky enough to be the proud, but somewhat confused, recipient of a piece. I’d never seen anything like it, and as beautiful as it was, I let it sit on my bench for a few months. Consternation followed as I had no idea what to do with a gemstone that looked like . . . well, grapes.

batu manakarra gemstone cluster

Photo courtesy of IndoAgate.

Soon the specimens coming from the mines were more purple, and vibrant, intensely colored gemstones were being found. Well, nothing to do now but for Joel, being really curious, to set out for Indonesia and see this site for himself.

Hunting for Gemstones in Indonesia

Originally found on the beach and just collected by rock hunters, the collectors started following the path of the stone as it moved up the mountainside. What Joel found was a rugged, mountainous terrain, accessed by crawling into steep, dangerous volcanic breccias (sharp rocks), not to mention attempting some death-defying rock climbing. Oh, did I mention it’s in an earthquake/tsunami zone?

While climbing the treacherous walls, Joel and a guide fell into a hornet’s nest and tumbled down the mountainside into the creek below. Bruised, bitten, and losing their momentum for the day, they hiked and biked many kilometers back to their tents and nursed their many wounds. These guys are tough! I would have already given up at the first really steep hill and found the cushiest hotel in the area, hoping for air conditioning and a cool adult beverage . . . or two.

The next day, after being grilled and quizzed by police and soldiers looking for a lost miner, the team made it back up another mountain on the search for more precious gemstones. Heavy rains and floods of the previous day had our adventurous twosome crossing deep, fast-moving rivers filled with all sorts of creatures and “climbing over boulders the size of cars.” Oh, and the threat of crushing rockslides and avalanches was ever present. No, you can’t make this stuff up.

After six teeth-jarring hours of climbing and hoping to avoid another frog-strangler of a rainstorm, they arrived at the site.

Joel Izey mining for Batu Manakarra gemstones in Indonesia

Joel Izey at the Batu Manakarra gemstone mines in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of IndoAgate.

What Joel found was that the miners followed the blue-green clay as it led to pockets of the grape clusters of gemstones clinging to the hillside. These clusters can extend 35 meters (over 114 feet) into the hillside where the miners were digging. That’s deep and dangerous work, and they are doing it with primitive hand tools, sometimes working alone, sometimes in teams. Remember, some holes are dug and the miners find nothing . . . just “dry holes” after excruciating hours of effort. Makes Indiana Jones sound like a real wussie, huh? Sometimes the miner will report and share his findings to a broker in town, who high-grades the gemstones. Though the pale lavender is easy to spot, the real gemmy, luscious, juicy gemstones are extremely rare.

batu manakarra gemstones

Batu Manakarra gemstones. Photo courtesy of IndoAgate.

I’ve been told by reputable sources that today, Manakarra is going from $400 to $2,000 a kilo. That’s pretty pricey for 2.2 pounds of rough, uncut stone, but it’s worth it. However, we don’t know the reliability of the future of this stone, since the climate for mining is months of pouring rain–or hellish heat. Plus we don’t know how much longer before these mines will play out. We’ve seen this happen with so many beautiful gemstones in the past . . . so I advise that if you love it, bite the bullet and go for it. One great Manakarra is worth 10 (or more) so-so gemstones.

So as you sit beaming at whatever gorgeous gemstones you buy, give it everything you’ve got design-wise. Can your design improve on what Mother Earth has provided? What can you design to make those miners–barefoot, chilled and rain-soaked, or digging in the harsh and blistering tropical heat–say that they are proud of what you have done with “their” stone? Make each piece your masterpiece, for these gemstones deserve it. Only you can speak for that stone.

See more of this stone and Lexi’s project in the November 2016 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Want to learn more about the discovery, mining, and chemical composition of this hot new gemstone? Read on for Joel’s story, including the lab analysis of Batu Manakarra.

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