Most gems are found in several places in the world. Emeralds come from Colombia but also from Zimbabwe; there's amethyst on almost every continent; and diamonds—although associated with Africa—are mined in Russia and Australia, among other places.
Not tanzanite. The stone, which is often likened to blue sapphire but is more brilliant with violet overtones, was discovered only 40 years ago, and geologists are convinced that it occurs in only one place in the world: Africa's Rift Valley, 25 miles from the base of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, in a little place called Merelani.
Twenty minutes down a dusty unpaved road, about 30 miles east of Arusha, past Masai herdsmen in traditional dress, is the guarded entrance to the mines. Ahead, teams of donkeys are carrying drinking water to the miners. At a glance, you can take in the entire four-mile stretch where the tanzanite is buried in maddening folds deep below the earth's surface. It's hard to get an exact fix on how much is there—geologists recently updated their models and project a 15-year supply. Of course, it depends on all sorts of variables. Whether the biggest companies produce to capacity; whether hundreds of small local miners, without the sophisticated machinery or the credit lines of the big guys, can continue to tunnel ever deeper to follow the vein. Whether plucky independent owners like Money A. Yousuph—who hasn't pulled out any tanzanite since 2002, when he sold a 2.2-lb. chunk for $275,000 at a Las Vegas trade fair—get lucky. "I'm about to," he says confidently.
My first encounter with tanzanite, however, was not in Africa but in Jaipur, India, where many of the world's colored gems are cut and polished. After merrily emptying canisters of emeralds, a local dealer there, Ashok Chordia, abruptly signaled his assistants to close the wooden shutters overlooking his competitors' offices. In the dark, he flipped the lids of two metal boxes filled with nuggets he identified as tanzanite. "Very, very rare," he said mysteriously. "More precious than diamonds."
For months I asked everyone about tanzanite. Industry insiders mentioned a connection with the New York City jeweler Tiffany. Several jewelry manufacturers warned that it was a very fragile stone and difficult to work with. Precious? They're selling it on QVC. A Google search identified the Heart of the Ocean sapphire hurled into the sea in the film Titanic as tanzanite (this is often repeated but apparently false). More serious were references to American jewelers temporarily suspending sales of tanzanite amid charges of links to al-Qaeda financing in 2001 (the U.S. State Department subsequently investigated and found no such connection). An American friend raved about a ring her mom bought on a Caribbean cruise. But most people I asked had never heard of tanzanite, and no jewelry stores in Paris, where I live, seem to sell it. In Johannesburg, though, it's said to be all the rage.
"People are attracted by the beautiful blue," explains Donald Greig in a telephone interview. He and two brothers are the fourth-generation owners of Charles Greig Jewellers, with six stores in South Africa. "It's a color that looks good on everyone, which is not the case for emeralds and rubies." Seven years ago, he says, tanzanite was difficult to come by, but today it represents an astounding 20% of sales in his stores, equal to watches and topped only by diamonds, which account for a third of his sales. "It is by far our most important colored gemstone," Greig says. "We are not pushing tanzanite, but that is where the market is taking us."
That market tug has been a decade in the making. The biggest miners, dealers and a marketing organization they finance called the Tanzanite Foundation are gearing up to try out some of the strategies that worked in South Africa on other markets, beginning in London and New York City. The timing is good: in the wake of the film Blood Diamond, jewelry consumers are asking more questions about origin, which is easier to trace for tanzanite than diamonds and other gems. Also the tanzanite industry has been eager to position itself as modern miners, environmentally responsible and energetic in helping finance schools, roads and water management for surrounding communities. Jewelry-design team Anthony Nak of Austin, Texas, last year created a 12-piece collection featuring the stone to raise money for Tanzanite Foundation projects because they looked to the future. "The discovery of tanzanite changed the way the nomadic people there live forever. In 15 years when that supply runs out, what's going to happen to them?" says Anthony Camargo, half of the Anthony Nak team.
In the Nasinyai Masai village is the new junior secondary school, where 220 11-to-14-year-olds start their day at 5:30 a.m. with "water fetching," then study English, science, social studies and HIV/AIDS awareness. "We have high rates of infection because it's a mining area. Where people are thinking about money, you always have more unsafe sex," says one of the teachers. Lenganasa L. Soipey—a member of the Nasinyai village council and son of the Masai chief who permitted the first tanzanite mining on Masai lands—draws the school layout in the sand. "We built an enclosed school because we thought our children might run back to the fields or to business," he explains. "If you get a small piece of tanzanite and sell it, you might not come back."
Although tanzanite was formed some 585 million years ago, it was not "discovered" until 1967. Nomadic Masai tribes had pried balls of the stone from outcroppings on the surface of the earth, but it was only when outsiders noticed that the stone took off. One of them, Manuel D'Souza, an Indian tailor living in Tanzania who was a hobbyist prospector, helped bring it to the attention of Tiffany, and the New York City jeweler signed on for an exclusive. Tiffany is said to have named the stone tanzanite—after judging the technical name, blue zoisite, to be too close to the English word suicide. The company promoted it for several years, but mining rights were poorly managed by the Tanzanian government, supplies were erratic and Tiffany moved on.