It is fascinating as a gem and as a gem product. I fell in love with the stone on my first encounter with it in the early 1970s when it was brought by a customer to my gem lab. I don’t really care in what color it is normally found in nature (brown) and that a short and not very sophisticated heating process turns it into beautiful blue.
This gem has sent me for the last 30 years, for months on end, to Kenya and the mines in the Merelani hills in Tanzania where conditions used to be terrible in the early days, buying in the bush from the Masai miners and exporting it to the west.
I spent years trying to refine my tanzanite heating process, including a custom-made computer-controlled oven with many stages and properties, only to find, fairly late in life, that my gem behaves best when cooked on a fire or gas stove packed in a cigarette paper.
The history of tanzanite begins in the late 1960s when Christie’s introduced this fine stone to the international market by launching a campaign. The stone was accepted with great enthusiasm and fetched very high prices, well over $1,000 a carat for fine, large pieces. But due to unstable supplies, the market was limited mainly to collectors.
When we first arrived with calibrated tanzanite in the US market in the late 1970s, many dealers were reluctant to look at this soft gem. One even told me that the gem was so soft (6+ on the Mohs scale of hardness) that it can crack even if one sneezes on it, which is a gross exaggeration, but come to think about it, not so far from the truth. I once had a 15 carat gem that lost its corner when I accidentally dropped it on the table. (Don’t try it at home!)
The 1980s saw a surge of supply from the mines, which resulted in greater recognition and appreciation of the stones. By the late 1980s, supply and demand were both high. Prices were reasonably low resulting in many designers using this remarkable stone as a centerpiece for their jewelry. The 1990s saw the golden era of tanzanite as a commercial product.
Outstanding tanzanites were used for fine quality jewelry, but on the other hand, inferior qualities of tanzanites, pale or too violet, which were once considered to be too poor for use in jewelry, are quite commonly used today. Parcels of tanzanite cut in calibrated sizes are in high demand.
One should not forget that a fine blue tanzanite of 10 carats could cost today about $5,000-$10,000 a piece, whereas a similar color of sapphire weighing 10 carats could cost anything between $30,000- $100,000 a piece. Because color is so dominant in jewelry today, big, colorful, sapphire blue, natural stones at a reasonable price is only feasible using tanzanite.
In 1997, for no apparent reason, the price of tanzanite collapsed with the gems dropping in value by the day. This caused many people, including your humble servant, to lose lots of dollars because of his love for, and loyalty to, the gem. They say it was a flood of gems from the mine. The prices were down for two years, then from mid-1998 up to mid-2001 they rose sharply, bluing many jewels and reigning over many TV shopping evenings.
And then came 9/11 and the false rumors that the gem was generating funds for terrorists... and the prices died for a couple of years. Since then new players have been in the market, some trying to stabilize the market and create some kind of a controlled environment.
Let’s not forget that tanzanite does not have the 1,000 year history and record of sapphire, hence it is more sensitive to changes. However, I believe that the fact that there is only one locality in which the stone is found, coupled with the relatively small supply, and the ever-growing demand and interest of the world market, and the fact that the Holy Bible mentioned only one big flood, tanzanite’s place in the gem-world is secured for many years to come.
As for myself, my love for the gem is as strong today as the first day I set eyes on it...
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In our European Gemological Center, we hear on almost a weekly basis stories along the lines of: “This is a rare gem that has been in my family for centuries” or “My great, great, great-grandfather sold two large factories in Persia and got this gem for it”. Sometimes we are flushed with immense excitement prior to opening the parcel in which these gems come when a customer describes to us a red diamond the size of his fingernail (and most have big fingernails) that has been in the possession of his family for generations, only to find out, a few minutes later, that he has a nice piece of garnet worth a few dollars...
Sometimes we end up with tears in our eyes when told a heartbreaking story of a family walking in the desert for months with a gem hidden in the children’s clothes - “a stone that was in the possession of a famous rabbi centuries ago”. We in the lab know that just by touching it we are going to be blessed forever, only to find out that the holy gem is a fairly newly cut (40-50 years old) synthetic Veneuil ruby worth nothing.
So you may ask yourselves: How come, after all these years that we have been in the gemology business and the thousands of imitations and synthetics that have passed through our hands we are always very excited every time we receive a phone call of such stories of gems.
Several years ago I received a call from an old lady who insisted on talking to me and only to me. She said that she had seen my two-volume book about gems in a shop and I probably understood gems well. I thanked her for the compliment and asked her if this was the only reason she was calling. She replied: “No, I have a green stone and red stone that my grandfather received when he sold his land and house in Russia many years ago” (sound familiar?)
When I asked her to come and have them checked in the lab she said she was too old to travel and that she hated Tel Aviv. I did not want to start explaining to her that we are actually situated in Ramat Gan (next to Tel Aviv) and asked her to describe the stones to me to which she said: “One is the size of an old half Israeli Shekel coin and the other is a bit larger. My father told me that his father said that one is “Smarugt” and the other “Rubit”, one changes color like a lizard and the other glitters like red clean glass on fire”. Anyone who knows the old Israeli coins realizes that the lady was talking about large gems, and anyone who knows anything about gems knows that she probably meant alexandrite and ruby. And anyone who knows about “glittering old clean red stones knows that they are for sure, glass or synthetics and since when can an alexandrite of this size be hidden in Israel, in an old lady’s home for so long?
I explained to her that the gems that she was describing were most likely to be imitations, because alexandrite and ruby of these sizes are so very rare and that I never leave the lab to check gems on house-calls. To which she replied: “Do you think my grandfather was an idiot?”. I ended up packing my microscope and small portable lab and visiting her little lovely house.
To cut a long story short. The “Smarugt” ended up to be a fantastic more than 20 carat natural alexandrite. And the ruby was a native cut Burmese ruby, natural and unheated. Two top quality gems.
When she asked me how much I thought they were worth and I told her, she was not amazed at all and although the gems were worth several times the price of her house she just looked at me and said: “I knew he was a clever man, now I can buy my grandson a flat.”
I have promised to her not to disclose to anybody the value of these gems. Curious readers should look into prices given for such gems in recent auctions if you are keen to know the value. And as for myself, I learnt again the first rule of gemology, not all that glitters is synthetic, and you really never know...
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Some laboratories were quick to produce thousands of reports for beautiful Padparadcha.
Sapphires, not suspecting the obvious question of how come?
It shook the world of gems, it ruined the faith of some major consuming centers, which are refusing to use sapphires unless free of any treatment. It caused what I call, the ETQ or “excess time for questions” during sale times, when you or your sales person are spending time to explain that your gems are OK instead of concentrating on how beautiful they are. Such is the case now with the new corundum treatment. They take low quality rough semi opaque corundum, full of cracks, fissures and cavities, pre-clean the material from the material in the fissures and impregnate the cracks with lead and some silica. The effect is startling. Those opaque cracks allow the light to travel through the material resulting in a rubylike material, comparable to a ruby worth many folds the ugly rough it originated from. And then came certificates:
In the Bangkok fair a few days ago, I saw a certificate (which was part of a pile of fresh certificates) clearly stating that the stone was a natural ruby, natural corundum and as a comment in the bottom a mention to the effect that some glass (lead) has been found in features.
How far do we have to go with treatments in order to lose the magic word natural? Will a product made out of natural powdered corundum impregnated with glass and lead still be called natural ruby?
We are going way too far.
Well friends let’s clear things up.
A ruby is a natural red corundum with chromium and iron as the coloring elements.
It is not a treated corundum filled with lead. The product is not a natural ruby, it is not even a natural corundum. It should be properly called: treated corundum, impregnated by lead to create an imitation ruby.
Let us protect what is sacred and not abuse the word natural.
Let us protect natural with a separate natural certificate, which will look different from the treated gems certificate.
Let’s cherish those precious gems for that which sets them apart from the crowd - they are natural.
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