Style Trends – Tsavorite Africa’s Green Ambassador

A 19 ct. Portuguese cut Tsavorite. Photo Courtesy of Wilds Global Minerals.Com, Bangkok
A 19 ct. Portuguese cut Tsavorite.
Photo Courtesy of Wilds Global Minerals.Com, Bangkok

What does it take for a gem to gain the status of being desirable beyond the power of reason? When a gem becomes mainstream, it is coveted for more than just the appeal of its appearance and its properties. It takes time for it to become the stuff of legend that associate it with, say, the invincibility of a ruler, or certain magical powers. The status of unquestionable desirability is attained only after the critical mass of mythological significance is reached.

In 1961, Campbell Bridges was prospecting for beryl deposits in Zimbabwe on behalf of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), because it was believed that beryl was the best metal to line nuclear with at the time. All on his own in the bush, Campbell Bridges was charged by an African Cape buffalo. He had to jump into a gully where his pursuer could not follow him and climbing back out, he came across some bright green crystals he would identify as grossularite garnet, or what would come to be known as Tsavorite.

Six years on, Bridges began mining for green garnet in northern Tanzania, some 60 miles (100 km) southwest of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was about that time when he was approached about some blue crystals found nearby in the hills of Merelani. As he did not consider himself to have the resources for a reliable identification, he took the initiative to forward those specimens to a laboratory in New York, where they would be conclusively identified as blue zoisite, or Tanzanite.

Meanwhile, work was progressing at the mine, and the official year of discovery for this variety of green grossularite garnet is

To keep out of reach of Tsavo's notorious lions, Campbell Bridges took to living in tree houses like this one. Photo courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite
To keep out of reach of Tsavo’s notorious lions, Campbell Bridges took to living in tree houses like this one. Photo courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite

frequently set to 1967. Some fabulous green crystals were being produced. Unfortunately, it was not long before Tanzania took progressive steps toward socialism and Campbell Bridges lost the mine to nationalization. But this would not deter a geologist of his resolve. In 1970 he relocated north of the border to Kenya where capitalist enterprise was not frowned upon. There he knew of geological formations that were similar to the ones he had left behind in Tanzania. Before the year was up, he had succeeded in finding green grossularite crystals and staked his first claim 1971 near Tsavo National Park, some 135 miles (215 km) south-east of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The resourcefulness and sustainability of his methods is remarkable. To keep out of the way of wildlife, particularly the lions of Tsavo, he built himself a tree house to live in. Nevertheless, the one unforeseen guest to the Bridges household was a leopard who insisted on devouring his kill on Campbell Bridges’ bed when he was out during the day. Since the locals had a more-than-healthy respect for snakes, he had a python guard his gems.

As production increased, so did the attention inside the jewelry trade. In 1973 Bridges teamed up with Henry B. Platt, then President of Tiffany & Co., in search of a trade name that was

Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite
Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite

accurate, yet amenable to marketing this new gem. Platt was no stranger to that kind of procedure. Five years prior, he had played a pivotal role in the creation of trade name for Tanzanite that proved hugely successful. The following year CIBJO (The World Jewelry Confederation, or Confédération International de la Bijouterie, Joaillerie, Orfèvrerie des Diamants, Perles et Pierres) accepted the trade name Tsavorite, which had been carefully chosen to evoke the wilderness of Tsavo National Park. Tsavorite was well on its way.

What was it that made the gem so successful? The first criteria of appeal and desirability for any colored gem are its color. Green grossularite garnet ranges from the more common and affordable yellowish green over a pure grass green to a bluish green. The more saturated and vivid the color, the greater the desirability and the rarity, i.e. the price.

What then, might you ask, are Tsavorite’s weak spots? Depending on where you stand, there’s only one downside, which some might actually call a benefit. In an age where commercial jewelry production requires increasingly close matching of colored stones and in increasing quantities, Tsavorite can be a challenge. Since it is not heated, variations in color are as normal as variations in fingerprints from one person to another. While this has been an impediment for Tsavorite in the field of volume-produced commercial jewelry, it also means that it is tailor-made for unique, one-of-a-kind custom pieces.

Since there is an overlap in the color range between Tsavorite and emerald, it is only natural for Tsavorite to be something of a stand-in

Photograph Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite
Photograph Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite

for emerald, which has become beleaguered by scandal involving oiling and fracture filling and Columbian emerald in particular, has yet to emerge from the long shadow cast by the domestic politics of violence and the drug trade. There are, however, some significant differences between the two. The first is in manufacturing and daily wear: although emerald is noticeably harder than Tsavorite, it is significantly more brittle and therefore more vulnerable. Ask former emerald owners and stone setters alike, and you will hear stories that range from heartbreak to pure frustration over absolutely fabulous emeralds that chipped, broke or shattered from insignificant mechanical impact. It is a bad idea to attempt cleaning an emerald in an ultrasonic cleaner. But there’s nothing to worry about with Tsavorite in an ultrasonic cleaner. As with many colored stones, however, you do want to avoid exposing Tsavorite to thermal shock, typically when taking it out of a near-boiling hot ultrasonic cleaner and rinsing it in cold water, or a steam-cleaner.

The one limitation of Tsavorite is the potential stone size. Due to the tremendous forces at work during and after its formation, large crystals have been reduced to fragments and grains. As a result, fine cut stones of more than 2.50 ct. are quite rare and prices increase

Rough Tsavorite ready for facetting.  Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite
Rough Tsavorite ready for facetting.
Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bridges/Bridges Tsavorite

accordingly. Fine stones above 15 ct. are so rare and should be considered world-class. With these considerations in mind it comes as little surprise that Tsavorite is the highest priced member of the garnet group. Nevertheless, comparable qualities of emerald are several times the price of Tsavorite. How can that be?

The answer brings us full circle with the original question. Tsavorite is a relatively recent find and, in spite of everything it has going for it, still has to cover some ground before attaining the mythological significance that will put it up there with the likes of more established gemstones. Think of it as a business that is in the early phases of building its brand. It is competing with many established styletrendsParallelstsavoritebrands, and while it has just as much to offer and perhaps more in some aspects, it’s all about perception. You can’t blame anyone with a penchant for green gemstones to see this as an opportunity.– Robert Ackermann, G.G.

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