By Ashley Bailey
, Sunday, August 06, 2006 12:00 AM
Tanzanite was only discovered around 1965. Tiffany’s took an immediate interest in the newcomer, naming it, then marketing it worldwide in 1969. Yet the gem never caught on with public until the 1990s when oversupply brought prices to their lowest point ever—and made tanzanite an attractive alternative to sapphire.
At its best, tanzanite resembles very fine sapphire. Indeed, the best of it has a deep, velvety violet-tinged blue that many mistake for Kashmir sapphire—the most coveted variety of this blue corundum. Unfortunately tanzanite has a hardness of only 6 to 6.5—far less than sapphire’s 9 rating.
But that doesn’t stop people from buying it in enormous quantities.
In November 2001, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles about al-Qaeda purchases of tanzanite to help raise money for its terrorist activities. Tiffany’s, followed by Zale’s and QVC, announced immediate cessation of all tanzanite sales until the government of Tanzania could assure it that all future purchases by the group would be prevented. Only when the U.S. State Department launched its own investigation of the Journal’s charges and announced in February 2002 that it found them largely unsubstantiated did the American retailer boycott of tanzanite end.
Since the scandal, the government of Tanzania has done much to prevent a recurrence. It has taken greater control of selling, operating several auctions of rough a year and withholding lots of goods for cutting in its own country. These policies have driven tanzanite prices sky high, but demand remains strong. Just when or if stiff price resistance will set in remains to be seen.
One thing for sure, tanzanite has become as much a gem staple as sapphire—an amazing feat for a gem with so little history behind it.
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