Green with jade
The Jade West mines in northern British Columbia
present many challenges to miners, but also promises a
rich reward of large deposits of the mineral.
(Photo: Jade West)|
It's difficult and expensive to mine, so it's a good thing jade's cool green beauty is uncontested.
Story by Matthew Talbot
Setting out from Dease
Lake, the settlement nearest their mines, Kirk
Makepeace and his Jade West crew have little time to waste
in the quest for beautiful green jade. Due to the combination
of northern British Columbia's extremely rugged terrain
and the winter weather conditions at the mines, their
mining season lasts a mere 90 days. (Most mines operate
for a full 12 months of the year.)
The Jade West mines, which Makepeace compares more to
quarries, are about 100 kilometres east of Dease Lake.
The process of removing the massive jade boulders — some
weighing as much as 40 tonnes — and shipping them
back to the lake settlement is accomplished with the use
of enormous trucks and expensive diamond saws. But it
wasn't always that way.
Back in the glory days of jade mining's beginnings,
the miners would drill cores into boulders using small
diamond saws they carried on their backs. The core
was used to determine if a boulder contained jade
and was worth staking. These boulders were marked
with tall poles, in order to be retrieved later. In
the winter, a team of Big Cat tractors would work
its way over the frozen ground from the highway, find
the marked boulders and pry them out of the ground.
Then they'd pull, roll and slide them the 140 kilometres
back to the highway.
How jade is mined
Today, most of those boulders have been tested and jade
is now mined from enormous deposits, in a process very
similar to removing rock from a quarry. First, miners
expose seams of jade and use diamond-tipped core drills
to pull out samples, ensuring that they meet the gem-grade
requirements. Then, choosing only the best areas to
focus on, the process begins.
Hydraulic spreaders are inserted into cleavage points
in the rock face and the jade is broken away — a
difficult process, Makepeace notes, because jade is
the world's toughest stone. Unlike granite, which has
a crystalline structure, jade is made of tightly woven
fibres, similar to a fistful of human hair, which gives
it its legendary strength.
Once the boulders are broken away, they're taken to
diesel-operated, water-cooled diamond saws that chew
into the boulder, splitting the jade into more manageable
Diamond saws are impressive machines. They are large
blades, converted from old sawmills, and tipped with
diamonds, which are used because they're tougher than
jade. The saws need a constant supply of water to keep
the diamonds cool; if they don't remain cool, about
$10,000 worth of diamonds could be lost in a matter
After the cutting, the boulders are hauled out along
the jade trail on articulated rock trucks — huge
vehicles that bend and twist in the middle to traverse
the rocky, rolling hillsides of northern British Columbia.
The extracted jade is stored in Dease Lake until the
end of the season.
The cost of jade mining
Starting in mid-June and ending in mid-September, jade
mining happens quickly and on a shoestring budget. In
this short time, using what little resources and heavy
equipment they have, miners for Jade West can remove
more than 100 tonnes of jade. Makepeace, who is CEO
of Jade West, calls this "pocket mining."
Jade mining is very different from other types of mining
in Canada — and it gets much less notice. Makepeace
notes that jade mining has been around for a while — the
first boulders having been found in gold mines in the
1930s — but not much is known about it.
There's a lot more money in other types of mining, like
gold and diamonds, but jade mines are subject to the
same regulations. Jade West is governed by environmental
bonding requirements to ensure they reduce disturbances
and return the land to its original state: any trails
they create must be re-formed and any pits must be refilled.
This is one of the higher costs in jade mining.
Aside from using diesel to power their heavy equipment,
only water is used to cool the diamond saws. Makepeace
says there is no acid rock drainage or other environmental
concerns with jade mining. A large jade deposit mined
for 10 years may disturb land no bigger than a football
field, and once the jade is extracted the land is re-formed.
Jade is one of Canada's least-recognized exports. It
is shipped as far as China and is used in large carvings,
traditional jade items, statues and more. Soon, Makepeace
says, for the first time in the history of China's jade
industry, jade will be available to the average consumer.
To date, the jade deposits in China have all but been
exhausted, while Canada, and particularly British Columbia,
has vast reserves that haven't been tapped. Yet that
may not change: Makepeace says the reserves are locked
away in the mountains, making them difficult and expensive
Makepeace says the industry was born of easily accessible
jade. Still, although it's a small part of our multi-billion-dollar
mining industry, as long as the world needs it, Canada
will continue to export this beautiful green rock.