Out of East Africa

June 1998

Gemstones & Pearls:News

Out of East Africa

The gems are still there, but they're harder to get

The rains are over and gemstone production is in full swing again in East Africa, but it's been a long time coming. "Due to El Niño weather patterns, African gem mines in Kenya and Tanzania that should have been as dry as toast in December were still flooded by March," says Jim Walker, in charge of sales and marketing of TsaVorite, based in Great Falls, VA.

The weather curtailed production of tanzanite, garnet, sapphire, chrysoberyl and beryl. Production began only in late March, so East African gems should come into their zenith in time for midyear shows in the U.S. It's a good thing, because U.S. retailers experienced one of the healthiest Christmas seasons on record in 1997, and impressive Tucson gem and mineral shows set the stage for restocking.

A heightened interest and concern about East Africa's gemstones has resulted from this need. The lack of tanzanite caused general frustration, as dealers say tanzanite has become a "mainstream" gemstone in the U.S. Prices for fine, large tanzanites should rise 30% to 40% over last year, say dealers, while observers say tanzanite is at record low levels at the mines.

There's also been an unusual increase in quantities of one of Africa's rarest gems, tsavorite, duly registering a decrease in prices for commercial qualities. Tsavorites larger than 3 carats are holding their prices and in some cases increasing. Some retailers are turning to tsavorite as an alternative "green gem" because it is not enhanced.

However, in Tanzania, the years of plenty are over. No longer do you see cans brimming with rough gemstones, as once showed up routinely in Arusha, a trading center. "The gems are still here," says Abe Suleman of Tuckman Mines & Minerals, Arusha. "What has changed is that the easy pickings are all gone in the known deposits, and mining has become more difficult and expensive."

The Tanzanian government restructured the gem business in mid-1997, saying it had lost control of production. Gems from Tanzania invariably ended up in Thailand, say observers. The Tanzanian government wants to build its business back up - revenue is down and 60% of the independent miners in the gem-rich area of Tunduru were out of work in early 1998. Suleman says tax incentives and laws favorable to joint ventures have been designed to nurture the mining and cutting sector, so no one group can monopolize gem supplies. Sales taxes, withholding and royalty taxes have been eliminated to bolster local cutting and to create value-added products. Dealers say however, that Sri Lankan influence over the East African gem supply is rising. (Sri Lanka is a major gem cutting center.)

"There is an ongoing dialogue about this in Tanzania," says Suleman. He says the World Bank has also gotten involved in a project to search for new and existing gemstone sources. Suleman believes the long-term effects of these policies will enhance the supply and qualities of cut gemstones emerging from Tanzania. Steady supplies and repeatability is what U.S. retailers demand.

by Robert Weldon, G.G.


Right: Gems above include aquamarine, rhodolite, grossular garnet, tsavorite, color change garnet, chrome diopside and yellow idocrase. Gems courtesy of TsaVorite USA Ltd. Great Falls, VA.

Left: Tanzanite is faceted by and courtesy of Stephen Avery, Lakewood, CO.

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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