What is tanzanite and should I buy it in Africa?

by Jill W.
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Blue tanzanite
Blue tanzanite
  • Technically a blue form of zoisite, Tiffany and Co. chose the name tanzanite, drawing on its country of origin, to market this newly found 'gem of the 20th century.

What is tanzanite?

When visiting Tanzania, you might be tempted to purchase tanzanite, a mesmerising deep blue gemstone that is only found in one place on earth, the Merlani foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Traditionally used as a symbol of new life among the Masai Tribesmen, tanzanite is a thousand times rarer than diamonds and greatly prized for use in jewelry. Technically a blue form of zoisite, Tiffany and Co. chose the name tanzanite, drawing on its country of origin, to market this newly found 'gem of the 20th century.

About tanzanite

Rough tanzanite is a dull reddish-brown color but once heated to 600 degrees Celsius, it becomes a brillant blue-violet. Tanzanite was discovered by accident in 1967 when Masai tribesmen out on a bushwalk discovered a mineral deposit in which a lightning strike had caused a bush fire and heated the tanzanite to show its purplish hue. Because of its rarity, quality Tanzanite is considered a 'blue chip' investment; however, most visitors purchase it as a special souvenir of their visit to Tanzania.

Should I buy tanzanite?

While there is no question that tanzanite is a beautiful gemstone, concerns are often raised regarding the ethics of the mining industry. Currently, the majority of the mining interests are owned through Richland Resources by a company called TanzaniteOne, a company that has undergone much international scrutiny. TanzaniteOne has an excellent safety record, employs no child labour, and has collective wage bargaining for its 650 employees.

In 2001, ABC news reported of a possible terrorism link with tanzanite funding operations such as Al Qaeda, but no solid proof was found to substantiate this claim. Since 2003, the Tanzanian government has disallowed the sales of unprocessed tanzanite; gems are cut and polished in local facilities which provides an economic benefit to the community. As part of the government regulations of the mining industry, a portion of proceeds from all tanzanite sold is earmarked for social upliftment projects in Tanzania.

Where can I buy tanzanite?

As with any significant purchase such as precious gemstones, one should always do one's research in advance. Know your seller and learn how what practices they employ to ensure the quality of the product and the relationship with their suppliers. To be sure you have the real deal, your tanzanite should be graded by an Independent Gemological Laboratory (separate from the vendor's own lab) and should be accompanied by a certificate. You should also look for the non-profit Tanzanite Foundation's Mark of Rarity, which ensures both the quality of your purchase as well as its ethical route to market. There are no shortage of vendors in Arusha and beyond, but always be sure that you have found the gem you truly wish to take home and own.

Is tanzanite sustainable?

Tanzanite is very rare and supplies are not expected to last more than a few decades. While tanzanite is a recently discovered precious mineral, the fact that is is only found within a four kilometre square area means the potential supply is severely limited by geography and geology. New mining techniques may allow deeper mining to be done, but there is still a finite amount of this mineral that can be made available. The Tanzanian government carefully monitors mining operations for the best possible economic benefit and sustainable mining practices for as far into the future as the mines can last. Conditions do not exist to create tanzanite elsewhere or by other means, making tanzanite truly a uniquely African souvenir.

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