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What is Tanzanite?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 June 2014
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Tanzanite is a rare gem which has been celebrated as one of the most exciting finds of the 20th century. Manuel D’Souza discovered the gem in 1967 in Tanzania. He was directed to a cache of stones by Maasai tribesmen, so original credit of discovery should really go the Maasai. D’Souza at first believed that he would be uncovering a new and rich supply of sapphire, but was surprised instead to find this beautiful and rare gem.

At first, tanzanite does not seem all that impressive, resembling a brown slab of glass. When heated, however, it becomes a brilliant blue, sometimes with shades of purple. The best quality stones have been likened to the color of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes.

Though Tanzania’s government controlled most of the mines in the 1970s, by the 1980s, numerous unscrupulous miners were stealing mine sites and employing unsafe mining practices that risked and often cost the lives of their workers. There were also territory fights over mines resulting in bloodshed. As such, tanzanite has garnered an unsavory reputation. Tiffany & Company, which had been the major exporter of tanzanite in the early 70s, stopped purchasing it, as the corporation did not want to support illegal trading in gems.

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Tanzania regained control of most mines by the 1990s. Thus, current tanzanite gems are not tainted by the dirty practices of the 1980s. Although greater control of the tanzanite industry has led to safer mining practices, tanzanite remains a rare gem because of the initial strife and struggle surrounding control of the mines.

The rarity of exceptional quality gemstones translates to considerable expense. Stones of the deepest blue tones are the most prized, and are the most important consideration when purchasing a stone. Inclusions in gems reduce price, and clarity is graded the following way:

  • WS means virtually no inclusions;
  • VS means very few inclusions, which are not visible without magnification;
  • SI1-SI2 stands for slightly included gems, where flaws may be noted without magnification:
  • I1, 2 and 3 are low quality representations replete with flaws.

    Best quality loose stones range in price from 400-500 US dollars (USD) per carat. Some people disregard the darker colors in preference to the violet tones of lighter stones. When lighter tanzanite is WS or VS grade, carat price may be approximately 300 USD. Prices and availability vary because of unstable production. Tanzania is not using the most advanced mining equipment to acquire the stones.

    Since tanzanite is such a new gem, there is little lore associated with wearing these beautiful stones. Tanzanite did, however, become a new birthstone for December in 2002. It has not replaced blue topaz or turquoise, but has been added as a third option for those born in December.

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