The Gem of Kilimanjaro

The story of Tanzanite, a rare and beautiful stone that has mesmerized gem lovers all over the world

By: Colton Bartel

In the Eastern part of Africa, in 1967, sits the “Rooftop of Africa,” Mt. Kilimanjaro. In its shadow, a beautiful gem sparkles bright blue and purple through the rough ground for a Masai tribesman to see. Shortly after showing his find to local gem hunters, mining claims were filed, hoping it was a new source for sapphires. It would take research scientists two years to figure out that this newly discovered stone was not sapphire, but a type of transparent Zoisite we know today as Tanzanite.

To this day, the area near Kilimanjaro called Merelani is the only place gem-quality Tanzanite can be found. In the gem world, Tanzanite is very new, having been found only a few decades, rather than centuries, ago.

When it was first discovered, miners and cutters alike had some resistance selling the new stone. For the most part, they were finding dirty brown-looking stones that no one really wanted; however, they found out that by carefully heating the stones, they could bring out the beautiful blue to blueish-purple that the stones are known for.

Supply was not an issue initially, but bringing an unknown new stone to the consumer was going to be a big challenge. That was the case until Tiffany & Co. named the gem after its home country and promoted it with an exotic theme and story. The public went crazy over it, and its popularity soared! Almost immediately, the Tanzanian government saw its potential and began strictly regulating the export of the gems. This move greatly affected the supply and caused the prices to skyrocket and the demand to nearly vanish.

A few years later, in 1980, the government lost its control and thousands of miners inundated the market with stones, which did get people buying again, but also dropped the prices. It would be more than a decade before compromised regulations took back control and leveled out the supply and prices.

Since its discovery, Tanzanite has been a big player in the jewelry industry and has mesmerized gem lovers all over the globe. Its exotic origin mixed with its somewhat limited supply keep prices and demand steady. Some commercial calibrated stones make it into the mainstream market through mass production for some chain stores, but the highest-quality stones are usually found in unique pieces specifically designed for them. These custom or limited pieces are more frequently found in high-end boutique stores, as well as high-end independent jewelry stores.

Buying a Tanzanite can be a really fun and exciting process. Each stone seems to have its own personality based on its color and cut. Quality stones will have good saturation of color, and will be even in tone throughout. The best shades of Tanzanite are a near “sapphire” blue to slightly violetish-blue.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at the color of the stone is to evaluate its color only based on its “face up” color. Tanzanite is what we call a pleochroic stone, meaning it can display different colors based on viewing direction through the crystal. In simpler terms, Tanzanite can look blue face-up, purple from one side and light grey or reddish purple from another side. Cutters try to show off the direction that displays the most blue in each piece they fashion, but what you find beautiful is most important.

The cut or shape of the stone is another big factor when buying. The shapes of the rough crystals lend themselves to fun and unconventional cuts. Because there are many different cuts and shapes, buyers are encouraged to pick those that reflect their personality best. Couple an unusual shape with a uniquely designed piece of jewelry, and the entire design becomes a conversation piece.

As with any stone, when it’s time to shop and eventually make that purchase, be sure to buy from a reputable source. Be sure that the jeweler is knowledgeable and well educated in gemology, so every aspect of the stone and the piece you intend to make for it can easily be explained to you. Staying informed and getting that information from a reliable source is key to any jewelry purchase, but it’s even more important when it comes to more rare and exotic stones such as Tanzanite.

From the foot of Kilimanjaro through its crazy path to your jewelry box, Tanzanite will always be an intriguing stone that will surely be enjoyed for generations to come!

Colton Bartel, G.G., A.J.P., is a GIA graduate gemologist and bench jeweler for Susann’s Diamond Jewelers. For more information or to see this stone in person, please contact Susann’s at 361-991-7565, go online to or visit Susann’s at 4254 S. Alameda in Corpus Christi, Texas. Current videos and discussions about jewelry and gemology can also be found on the Susann’s Facebook page.

Photos courtesy of Susann’s Diamond Jewelers