Rare and Beautiful Tanzanite Celebrates the 45th Anniversary of Its Discovery

It was exactly 45 years ago when a tailor and part-time gold prospector named Manuel de Souza found transparent fragments of vivid blue and blue-purple gem crystals on a ridge near Mererani in the East African country of Tanzania.

He thought the stones were probably a variation of the mineral olivine (peridot), but that hunch proved to be wrong. The mystery would be solved in short time once the samples made their way to the gem experts in Midtown Manhattan.

D’Souza showed the stones to John Saul, a Nairobi-based geologist and gemstone wholesaler. Saul sent samples to his father, Hyman Saul, who was vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue at the time. The elder Saul brought the stones across the street to the Gemological Institute of America, whose experts conclusively identified the new gem as a unique variety of the mineral zoisite.

Tiffany & Co. was the first retailer to market the new gemstone, but had some issues with what it should be called. It’s official name was “blue zoisite,” but Tiffany’s marketing experts thought it sounded too much like “blue suicide” so they had to come up with something better. They finally settled on “tanzanite” to honor the gem’s country of origin – the only place on the earth where these gems are found.

Tanzanite is mined deep in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. The entire mining area is only four square kilometers wide, and it is believed that the lifespan of the mine is just 30 years. Due to its single source and limited supply, the marketers of tanzanite say that the gemstone is at least one thousand times rarer than a diamond.

Tanzanite’s exquisite color is an intoxicating mix of blue and purple, unlike any other gemstone. The stones come in a wide range of hues, from light blues or lilacs, to deep indigos and violets.

In 2002, tanzanite was added with some fanfare to the jewelry industry’s official birthstone list as it joined turquoise and zircon as accepted birthstones for December. This was the first time the list had been changed since 1912.

Happy 45th, Tanzanite!

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