Emmanuel Merishiek Mollel, a Maasai tailor and part-time gold prospector living in Arusha (Tanzania), found transparent fragments of vivid blue and blue-purple gem crystals on a ridge near Mererani, some 40 km southeast of Arusha. He decided that the mineral was olivine (peridot) but quickly realized that it was not, so he took to calling it “dumortierite”, a blue non-gem mineral.
Map of Tanzania and southern Kenya, showing the major gem localities. The tanzanite mines of Merelani are located just south of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Click on the map for a larger version. Map © R.W. Hughes.
Shortly thereafter, D’Souza showed the stones to John Saul, a Nairobi-based consulting geologist and gemstone wholesaler who was then mining aquamarine in the region around Mount Kenya. Saul, with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., who later discovered the famous ruby deposits in the Tsavo area of Kenya, eliminated dumortierite and cordierite as possibilities, and sent samples to his father, Hyman Saul, vice president at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
Hyman Saul brought the samples across the street to the Gemological Institute of America who correctly identified the new gem as a variety of the mineral zoisite. Correct identification was also made by mineralogists at Harvard University, the British Museum, and Heidelberg University, but the very first person to get the identification right was Ian McCloud, a Tanzanian government geologist based in Dodoma.
A beautiful piece of rich blue tanzanite.
Officially called “blue zoisite” it was marketed as tanzanite by Tiffany & Co., who wanted to capitalize on the rarity of the gem, then only found in Tanzania, but who thought that “blue zoisite” (which might be pronounced like “blue suicide”) wouldn’t sell well. From 1967 to 1972, an estimated two million carats of tanzanite were mined in Tanzania before the mines were nationalized by the Tanzanian government.
The world’s largest faceted tanzanite is 737.81 carats. One of the most famous large tanzanites (242 carats) is the “Queen of Kilimanjaro”. It is set in a tiara and accented with 803 brilliant cut tsavorite garnets and 913 brilliant cut diamonds. The piece is part of the private collection of Michael Scott, the first CEO of Apple Computers.
VVS1 6.07ct Cushion Cut Natural AAA D-Block Violet Blue Tanzanite. Video © D.J. Smith.
Tanzanite has quickly become one of the world’s most popular gemstones. You will find tanzanite is available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Rarely pure blue, tanzanite almost always displays overtones of violet. In smaller sizes, it tends toward lighter shades of lavender and periwinkle, while in sizes above ten carats, tanzanite can show richer, more intense blue colors.
The Tanzanian government recently introduced legislation banning the export of unprocessed tanzanite (like many gemstones, most tanzanite was cut outside of the country). The ban has been rationalized as an attempt to spur development of local processing facilities, thereby boosting the economy and recouping profits.
A company called TanzaniteOne Ltd, a fully owned subsidiary of Richland Resources Ltd listed on the AIM (RLD), have control (in partnership with STAMICO the State Mining Company) of the portion of the tanzanite deposit known as “C-Block” (the main deposit is divided into four blocks with “C” being the largest block). The artisanal miners work the blocks “B & D” either side of TanzaniteOne Ltd. sharing in the wealth that is called the Blue-seam of Mererani.