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Tanzanite is the blue and violet variety of the mineral zoisite (a calcium aluminium hydroxyl sorosilicate), caused by small amounts of vanadium. Tanzanite belongs to the epidote mineral group. Tanzanite is only found in Tanzania, in a very small mining area (approximately 7 km (4.3 mi) long and 2 km (1.2 mi) wide) near the Mererani Hills.
Tanzanite is noted for its remarkably strong trichroism, appearing alternately blue, violet and burgundy depending on crystal orientation. Tanzanite can also appear differently when viewed under different lighting conditions. The blues appear more evident when subjected to fluorescent light and the violet hues can be seen readily when viewed under incandescent illumination. In its rough state tanzanite is colored a reddish brown to clear, and it requires heat treatment to remove the brownish “veil” and bring out the blue violet of the stone.
The gemstone was given the name ‘tanzanite’ by Tiffany & Co. after Tanzania, the country in which it was discovered. The scientific name of “blue-violet zoisite” was not thought to be sufficiently consumer friendly by Tiffany’s marketing department, who introduced it to the market in 1968. In 2002, the American Gem Trade Association chose tanzanite as a December birthstone, the first change to their birthstone list since 1912.
In July 1967, Manuel de Souza, a Goan tailor and part-time gold prospector living in Arusha (Tanzania), found transparent fragments of blue and blue-purple gem crystals on a ridge near Mirerani, some 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Arusha. He assumed that the mineral was olivine (peridot) but, after soon realizing it was not, he concluded it was “dumortierite” (a blue non-gem mineral). Shortly thereafter, the stones were shown to John Saul, a Nairobi-based consulting geologist and gemstone wholesaler who was then mining aquamarine in the region around Mount Kenya. Saul, who later discovered the famous ruby deposits in the Tsavo area of Kenya, eliminated dumortierite and cordierite as possibilities, and sent samples to his father, Hyman Saul, vice president at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Hyman Saul brought the samples across the street to the Gemological Institute of America who correctly identified the new gem as a variety of the mineral zoisite. Correct identification was also made by mineralogists at Harvard University, the British Museum, and Heidelberg University, but the very first person to get the identification right was Ian McCloud, a Tanzanian government geologist based in Dodoma.