Do You Love, Lust, Or Run From Tanzanite?

Hey there, 

Have you ever been hesitant in choosing between several options? 

You know, one of those days where you don’t know which way to take? 

Yes? Thank God I’m not the only one. 

This was me trying to decide about which gem to write about. 

It’s not that we don’t have enough gems in the world but deciding on which one to focus, was a bit of a chaos.  

I was all over the place and totally undecided between a gorgeous yellow gem due to that big sun in the sky this time of the year, the delicate pink kunzite due to a recently resurfaced class memory, or even a majestic red ruby.  I’ll admit that ruby almost won given that we’re in July, and rubies are described on all commercial listings as being the gem for July. But in the end, I decided to go in a totally new direction and go for another one of my favorite gemstones.

TANZANITE!  

I know, I know… For someone involved with colored gemstones, it’s a bit of a cliché to say I lust Tanzanite, but whatever… I’ll own it!

I’m a big fan of tanzanite! Ever since I began reading about it, everything in it screamed luxurious to me. What can I say… I do love blue gems. 

 And yes, I did write luxurious. Don’t you find it too? With all those blue to purplish tones… I just love it!  

I do have a couple of them in my collection. Tinny ones of course, because good colored tanzanite tends to be priced really, really high! The ones I have are not top-notch gems, and I got them before the Tanzanian government decision of limiting its exporting. The real good stuff can reach a price as high as $1900 a carat. I’m talking about those crystals that get everyone excited, and especially if they’re above the 5ct mark.   

Now, apart from its undeniable beauty that got the whole jewelry world upside down, what’s super about tanzanite’s that it was only “recently” discovered and so it’s still possible to track things back into its discovery in northern Tanzania, in a landscape habited by the Masai and where Mount Kilimanjaro settles as a backdrop. 

African Elephants in Amboseli National Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. Photo by M. Disdero; Wikimedia commons.

Tanzanite was formed about 585 million years ago due to high temperatures and tectonic forces in action at that region, but it only became known in 1967 thanks to a Portuguese. As you might know by now, I’m also Portuguese and so, when I heard that a fellow countryman had discovered this gem my curiosity spiked.  

His name was Manuel d’Sousa, he was a tailor by profession, that made a living for himself by selling uniforms to the army. He was also interested in mining gold and gems in Tanzania, where he was living at the time.  

In one version of the events, he spent years searching for the original source of some blue crystals he had seen hanging around the necks of some local Masai chiefs. According to this version of the facts, he spent lots of time trying to get those locals to tell him where those blue gems could be found, but they would always refuse and say that it was sacred to them; that no stranger to these lands should have its hands on a powerful crystal “able to contain a flame inside.”  

Now that’s one of the versions. Another one of the stories claims that he was prospecting near the village of Mtakuja, southeast of Arusha when he came across a transparent blue stone sitting on the surface of the ground and registered his claim.

In Portugal, we say “there’s no two without three,” and so I’ve found a third version of the facts in which a member of a local Masai tribe – Ali Juu ya Watu – showed him some beautiful blue crystals and took him to the area where they were scattered on the ground.

Manuel d’Sousa in Tanzania – photo by Tanzanite One

What we also know for a fact’s that that location proved to be the only one on the planet where this gem can be found. An area of approximately 17 square kilometers which, according to some, can still be exploited for about a decade.  

But returning to our Portuguese Manuel d’Sousa… at the time of the discovery, he couldn’t correctly identify the type of mineral he had found. After all, it had never been studied or seen before…. His first official requests for an exploration license on a mineral mention “olivine” (another word for peridot). 

It was Ian McCloud, a government geologist from Tanzania who correctly identified the mineral as being “zoisite.” Something later confirmed by international laboratories. When our Portuguese tried to submit a new exploration license, this time under the name of the mineral “zoisite,” the word of a shiny gem was out because others had already done the same and had started exploring this precious treasure. Tanzanite fever was on! 

Tanzanite selection. Photo gently provided by Tanzanite Foundation

By October of the following year, in 1968, these gems are presented to the world by Tiffany, at the hands of Henry B. Platt -the great-grandson of Louis Comfort Tiffany and later president of Tiffany & Co. of New York.

For Henry, the name “Blue Zoisite” (though gemologically correct) was insufficient to describe such beauty, so he suggested changing it to “Tanzanite” in honor of the country of origin. Between the two of us…. Finding a more striking name was also useful in terms of marketing. You see, the name “zoisite” caused some discomfort among those that wanted to market it because when pronounced, it sounded quite similar to the English word for suicide.  

Unfortunately for Manuel d’Sousa, his tanzanite adventures were short because he ended up dying in a car accident in August 1969. He failed to survive and see the roaring success of Tanzanite, but his legacy is forever. 

Now, if you’re new to tanzanite, you might wonder what makes it so different from other gems, and that’s a great question.  

The most striking feature of Tanzanite is its color that can vary from deep blue with a slight violet tint to violet with a bluish touch, the first being considered more valuable. The unusual coloring of this gem is due to a chemical element called Vanadium, and to the fact that it is strongly pleochroic. A big word, I know. It basically means that these crystals will show you a different color according to the direction in which they are observed.

Look at the video below, and you’ll see what I mean. This is real-time footage of a raw and unheated tanzanite crystal rotating in front of a laptop monitor.  The video was made by Joe Henley, from Joe Henley Rough. Joe’s a really nice guy that you should be following online if you like both rough crystals and traveling the world!

At first, it was Tiffany’s who got to market this gem in a regime of almost exclusivity. However, today, it belongs to the world, and many designers use it in their pieces. Here’s an example by the Brazilian jewelry company Leticia Linton that reflects an elegant taste in the mixture of colors and gems.  

A ring and pair of earrings with tanzanite and other gems, by Leticia Linton. Photo gently provided by Tanzanite Foundation.

Most of the crystals that come from the ground have a brownish color. They are then subjected to gentle heating of approximately 500 ° C to reveal all of their pleochroism in shades of blue and purple, or violet. This heat treatment is generally undetectable but commonly accepted by gemologists as the color change is stable and could also have occurred by natural means.  The blue crystals initially found by the Masai must’ve been an exception because they would’ve received the same treatment naturally.

Coincidently, there’s a legend in which the blue crystals were discovered after a massive fire caused by a lightning storm. In that legend, that “magical fire that came from the sky” turned some of the stones blue making them precious to the locals. To them, they have “magic flames” inside. 

Tales aside, I once had a stone over 10ct in my hand with the deepest of blues and touches of violet in it, and I kinda understand what they call “magic flames.”  However, to me, it looked more like some sort of lilac haze that seemed to flow inside the deep blue as I moved that gorgeous gemstone in my hand. 

Fascinating, right? 

Now, before you take off into the nearest jewelry store to buy some tanzanites for yourself, will you tell me what you think about tanzanite?  Let me know in the comments if I’ve been successful in making you a fan, or if you were already fanatic about tanzanites.  Deal?

And remember, good gems like tanzanites elevate your jewels and will help you enjoy your treasures for many, many years. 

Until next time,