The fabulous adventures of the blue stone from Arusha

January 29, 2009

tanzanite

 

My first stone crush and to this day still one of my favorite stone story, is tanzanite. This lavender blue poem of a stone.

To start with, tanzanites are mined in only one place in the world, in Tanzania’s Merelani hills, near Arusha. While you might find emeralds in Zambia and Colombia, tourmalines in Brazil and Madagascar, you will find tanzanites only in Tanzania. Which makes them, in a way, rarer than diamonds.

The legend of its discovery only adds to the charm. There are many stories about that summer of 1967, but here is what I have gathered from my research. In 1967, a massive storm hit the Merelani hills. The lightnings struck so hard that they started up fires all over the hills.When the Masai tribesmen who lived in the hills came back after the storm, they noticed strange blue pebbles on the ground. They picked them and brought them to Arusha.

A tailor by trade, prospector by passion and overall adventurer called Manuel de Souza examined the stones. He couldn’t identify them so he showed them to his friend John Saul, a Nairobi-based gem wholesaler who, clueless, sent the stones on to his father in New York, Hyman Saul, vice-president of Saks Fifth Avenue, who in turn sent them across the street to the Gemological Institute of America. The GIA identified them as a blue variety of zoisite. The Masai had never noticed them before because they are originally of a brownish color. Only when heated at 600°C  – like when struck by a lightning – do they become blue. However, this propriety is different from the common practice of heating stones to enhance their color. Tanzanites change color at 600°C (instead of just getting darker like, say, chalcedony), and they remain so (whereas heated chalcedonies lose their color after a few months).

Someone in the US got wind of this discovery. His name was Henry B Platt, owner of Tiffany & Co. He fell in love with the blue zoisite of Tanzania and decided to launch it worldwide. But before, the name had to be changed. Blue zoisite wasn’t an attractive name, it sounded too much like “suicide”. So Henry Platt rebaptised it. Since it was mined only in Tanzania, it would be named tanzanite. The launch took place in 1969, and for a while everyone went crazy about tanzanite. Then it slowed down in the eighties after terrorist groups got linked with the tanzanite trade. It never really got wild again for tanzanite, even though they are pretty popular.

But one day, there will be none left. When the Arusha mines close, not one single tanzanite will be mined again.

I can’t help but daydream when I think about tanzanite: from a storm near Kilimanjaro to Fifth Avenue. What a journey.

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