Stunning “Blue Eyes” Labradorite exclusively quarried by Inuit in northern Labrador, in demand at home and around the world
According to legend, an Inuit shaman went hunting one day in northern Labrador and discovered lights imprisoned in the rocks. With an intense blow from his spear, he struck the rock and sparks flew into the sky and became the northern lights. Some of the light stayed in the rocks to become what we now know as Labradorite.
So goes the story of Labradorite, as told by Leander Baikie, sales and marketing manager for the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation. The stunning semi-precious gemstone, admired around the world for its ethereal light-catching crystals – blue, green, gold, purple, pink or a combination of all ¬– is at the root of one of the corporation’s most successful commercial operations.
While Labradorite may be found in a number of northern countries, Baikie is specifically interested in the rare version of the stone called “Blue Eyes.” Found only in northern Labrador, Blue Eyes ranges in colour from a light powder blue to a dark, rich indigo. What may look like a rather ordinary piece of granite from one angle bursts with mysterious and deep hues from another.
A hot item on the world market since the early 1990s, now Baikie wants to ramp up Blue Eyes business closer to home.
“We’ve got a unique product, found locally,” he says. And it’s in limited supply, Baikie continues, because the sub-Arctic quarry, on Paul’s Island, on the south shores of Ten Mile Bay, is only operational in the short summer season.
For an average 16 weeks a year, between 15 and 25 Inuit work to cut massive blocks of Blue Eyes from the mountainside. The rest of the year sees heavy ice conditions in the area, making transportation impossible.
Torngait Ujaganniavingit (Inuit for “stone workers”) Corporation, or TUC, has been extracting the remarkable stone since 1992. Owned entirely by the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation, the business and development arm of the Nunatsiavut government, TUC employs the quarry workers and owns and operates a stone processing plant in Hopedale.
While the Hopedale plant produces polished slabs, memorials and specialty cuts for the local market, the vast majority of the raw material is shipped across the Atlantic – sometimes returning in finished form. Thanks to a successful partnership with an Italian processing and marketing firm, Demetra Italia, Blue Eyes has been reaching global buyers for years.
“All of these years since 1992 we’ve been shipping overseas,” says Baikie. “I want to bring it back home, starting with our local market, then into Canada, then onwards.
“Blue Eyes is such a unique material, unique to this province. Many here haven’t been aware of our own material, our own stone. We’d like to see more Blue Eyes countertops, tiles, coffee tables and so on in Newfoundland and Labrador homes and businesses. “Wherever you put Blue Eyes, it will shine.”
The Blue Eyes quarry in Nunatsiavut is the most northerly active dimension stone quarry in Canada. Above the 56th parallel and 230 miles north of the nearest road network, the quarry is only accessible by sea during the operational season. Those are extraordinary months for the region, with frequent sightings of polar bears, pods of whales, and an abundance of Arctic char.
The nearest settlement is Nain, population 1,400, six miles northwest of the quarry. Employees spend the operational season in that town – commuting via a 30-minute boat ride – or stay in a nearby camp.
Though the quarry is isolated and, as such, far away from most human eyes, Baikie says every effort has been made to keep the site “environmentally consistent,” staying true to the Inuit’s great pride and sense of responsibility for their land. Baikie also promotes the company’s hiring practices, held to high human rights standards – and no employing of children.
Indeed, it’s the combination of traditional Inuit skills, as well as specialized training received in Canada and Italy – known as the forerunners in the granite industry – that has allowed the quarry to thrive under a reputation for quality, consistent work.
Blue Eyes is considered granite for the purposes of the natural stone industry. It’s known geologically as a plagioclase feldspar anorthosite – anorthosite being the same type of rock as found on the moon.
“It’s the reflected blue sparkles of Blue Eyes that people are attracted to, it’s different from all other rocks,” Baikie says. “It’s one of the strongest granites on the market … and granite is forever.”
Currently, Baikie says most of the stone from Labrador ends up in homes and businesses in the United States and Europe. With more planning and new partnerships, he hopes to see more used in renovations and construction at home.
“We’re entering a new phase,” says Baikie. “We want to expand our processing facilities and relationships on this side of the ocean so the material is more readily available.
“This is the starting point of a new dimension for the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation, and I think it’s a very exciting one.”