Another Golden (Gem) Anniversary: Tanzanite Turns 50

EditorsDec 12, 2017

Another Golden (Gem) Anniversary: Tanzanite Turns 50

Five decades after the discovery of the popular blue gemstone, here’s where the market is today.

A 10.39-carat cushion-cut tanzanite from gemstone cutter Roger Dery

Tanzanite turned 50 this year, and there are a number of reasons to celebrate and highlight the stone: a fine quality tanzanite can compete with some of the best in color, and the gemstone’s story is so interesting because it shares such a strong connection to its place of origin.

In 1967, a Maasai tribesman came upon blue crystals in northern Tanzania. He alerted a local prospector named Manuel d’Souza, who figured out that it was, in fact, a new gemstone that had been discovered.

Campbell Bridges, known for his discovery of tsavorite garnet (which also celebrated 50 this year), then helped bring the stones to the West and to the attention of Tiffany & Co., which named tanzanite after its country of origin and brought it to the gem market with an official launch in 1968, according to the Tanzanite Foundation.

The stone has risen in popularity in the colored stone world and, in fact, was added to the birthstone list in 2002. And yet even today, the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro remain the only place where tanzanite is mined.

There are very few instances where a gemstone is so closely tied to the land from which it is sourced, making tanzanite unique in the world of gems. Because the gem is sourced solely in that area, it’s also closely tied to the political climate in Tanzania and there’s a significant amount in flux there right now.

The Current Events
In May, President John Magufuli fired the mining minister and the chief of the state-run mineral audit agency, according to Reuters, after an investigation into the possibility that some mining companies weren’t declaring all exports in order to evade taxes.

Then in September, the government ordered the military to build walls around the tanzanite mines to control the supply as it leaves the mining site. This came, it said, in response to an investigation that found many cases of smuggling.

That same month, Magufuli announced that he had signed into law new mining bills that required the government to own at least a 16 percent stake in mining projects.

The law also increased duties on gold and minerals, which, among other things, increased the taxes on rough gemstones to be exported from the country.

Gemstone cutter Roger Dery, who travels to Tanzania a few times a year, said he thinks the government’s move to be more stringent

in collecting money where it’s due could elevate prices a bit in the future. This might be especially true for dealers who are trying to export early next year to have pieces in the United States in time for Tucson, he said.

Still, he doesn’t think that the increased duties and prices of tanzanite will act as a deterrent for sellers, especially those dealing in larger stones.

After all, demand for the stone is still high, he said, especially for him: “Within the past year, I’ve sold more tanzanite than I can ever recall.”

Bruce Bridges, son of Campbell Bridges, said via email that he’s seeing a lower supply of tanzanite right now, due in large part to what’s happening on the ground over there.

He said all of these actions have led to a decrease in confidence in the gem sector there. “When confidence is down, investment in mining goes down, which leads to less supply.”

Additionally, he noted another factor coming in to play.

All of the hurricane activity the Caribbean saw this fall, and the devastation that came to so many islands as a result, has had a massive impact on tourism to the area. Since a decent amount of tanzanite is sold through cruise ship tourism, which has been so affected by the hurricanes, there are fewer potential buyers of tanzanite.

So due to a combination of factors--a decreased supply accompanied by a decreased demand--Bridges said prices are fairly stable.

This picture of Campbell Bridges (left) and prospector Norman Matthews looking at a tanzanite sample in front of Mount Kilimanjaro appeared in Life magazine in May 1969.

Alan Hackman of Intercolor echoed that, noting that because the tanzanite mining sector is controlled by only a few--and even fewer who have a strong enough financial backing to hold on to material instead of releasing it as it comes to sell--there’s a lot on the market, so prices are stable. 

He also said that while he does think the hurricanes could have an effect on demand, he thinks it will only be a short-term issue. 

The Opportunity of Fine Gems
These days, there’s a “reasonably consistent” quality standard across the board, Bridges said. And though that’s accompanied by a slight decrease in the larger, finer materials, no one should have too many issues currently in getting what they need, even if that comes in the form of older stock. 

For Intercolor, the biggest change in quality of supply lately has been in the colors; Hackman estimates that 95 percent of the tanzanite they’re seeing now displays more purple than blue. 

Given the fact that they believe when tanzanite is cut from the purple axis, the yield is higher--as opposed to cutting from the blue axis, which he believes is weaker and more prone to damage--this change is not necessarily a bad thing, he said.

For Dery and designer and carver Naomi Sarna, getting their hands on the quality they want hasn’t been an issue.

Sarna started working with tanzanite in 2013, telling National Jeweler that she thinks it’s the “most beautiful of the blue stones.”

In addition to her love for the stone, which she says is shared by her customers, Sarna also has a strong connection to Tanzania. She often travels to the country to source gems and currently is part of a project that teaches Maasai women how to make wire-wrapped jewelry as a source of income.

Her most recent venture is to sell “L’heure Bleu,” a carved tanzanite weighing 725 carats. All of the profits from the $500,000 price tag will go toward much-needed eye care for Maasai women.

She’s eager to help provide the seed that will help support a program for these women and the Tanzanian people, who she said are “eager to improve their lot in life.”

Her involvement there provides an example for one of the major conversations in the colored stone sector right now: establishing sustainable practices and livelihoods in gemstone communities.

This support is especially important for a place like Tanzania, where tanzanite and the community around it are so interconnected that every change has a direct impact on the gemstone community.

“Government actions concerning mining, licensing, import and export in the near term will have a resounding effect on the industry and sustainable futures of these gemstones,” Bridges said.

He added: “There is a great history behind tanzanite and a wonderful worldwide market that has been developed. It would be very sad, indeed, if the Tanzanian government were not to help nurture and honor this gemstone’s continued development in a constructive way.”

Brecken Branstratoris the senior editor, gemstones at National Jeweler, covering sourcing, pricing and other developments in the colored stone sector.

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