By Thorn Mulli
In 1947, international corporation De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. that specialises in diamond exploration was seeking the perfect advertising slogan to boost the sale of its wares after the Great Depression.
Their search ended thanks to the creation of copywriter Mary Frances Gerety who worked for a marketing agency in Philadelphia who coined that phrase "A Diamond is Forever" that came to epitomize the place of gemstones as forever-promising endless romance and companionship.
Gemstones have long held cultural significance in the fashion world as dazzling accessories and signifiers of important milestones. From classic sparkle to exotic hues, gemstone jewellery can amplify personal style, perfect an outfit, and make a meaningful gift or keepsake.
It is worthy to note that while diamonds are probably the most coveted gemstones, there exist other rarer gemstones of higher value including but not limited to Black opal, Jadeite, Alexandrite, Red Beryl, and Taaffeite.
Kenya boasts ten known precious coloured naturally occurring gemstones. This comprises pink rubies from the Baringo area, colour-changing garnets in Taita to the spectacular Yellow Sapphire mined in the remote Garbatula region of Kenya.
With this fact in mind and February having bagged the dibs for being the ultimate month of love courtesy of Christian martyr, Saint Valentine of Rome, another writer set out to fish out the perfect Valentine’s Day gift from the navel of Kenya’s gemstone capital.
Mining in Kenya began as far back as 1954 but no other region has owned the gem narrative better that Taita-Taveta County. With the help of a local-based tour company Shades of Africa who are pioneers of these tours domestically, we embarked on a safari like no other.
The essence of the Tsavorite Experience tour
Mined only in Kenya, Tsavorite is an ancient gemstone that is exceptionally rare. Also known as green grossular garnet, Tsavorite boasts a vivid radiant green which makes it so desirable. Trace amounts of vanadium or chromium provide the green colour.
Tsavorite is neither burnt or oiled and does not need any treatment. Only a small amount of fine Tsavorite crystals are found each year and many of these are no more than chippings. Good-sized 1-2 carat fine stones are difficult to get and the 2+ carat fine Tsavorites are very rare indeed. The caliber of this beautiful green January birthstone is that which heirlooms and unique souvenirs are made and a must-have in any jewellery lover’s collection.
As expected, this gem does not come cheap with good quality pieces at the top retail end going for as much as Sh800, 000 per carat. The Tsavorite experience is a full-day tour that introduces the history of this magnificent mineral, including how it was discovered and first mined. You will enjoy the opportunity to see for yourself how each precious gem is graded and cut. Savour the opportunity to ogle Tsavorite up close and handle rough and polished stones.
Once you have a true appreciation of this gem, you can spoil yourself by purchasing a genuine, well cut and certified piece.
Scottish-born Kenyan gemologist Campbell Bridges discovered Tsavorite in 1961 in Zimbabwe. In his words, “So one Sunday, when I was off duty, I set out to explore an area near the top of these hills.
As I was making my way up the edge of a steep gully, an old rogue buffalo charged out of the bush at me. I jumped down into the gully. The buffalo followed me in a menacing manner along the edge of the ravine for a while, then gave up and went off into the bush. I continued upward, inspecting the rock exposures in the bottom and sides of the gully.
When it neared the top of the hill, I found an outcrop that contained small bright green crystals. This was my first encounter with green garnet.”
Campbell would later encounter the gem in 1967 in Tanzania 100 kilometers southwest of Kilimanjaro near an area called Komolo. He would later move to Kenya after losing his claim following nationalization of mines where he encountered similar occurring hills to those of Komolo and continued with his mining exploits.
According to Campbell, Henry B. Platt, then President of Tiffany & Co., had taken a keen interest in his discoveries and figured time was ripe for its naming. Since modern mineralogical nomenclature dictates that the naming of a mineral must end with “ite” and Tsavo the obvious locality choice, the duo named the magnificent fiery green gemstone “Tsavorite.”
The year was 1973. But as is the case with most novel ideas, the romantic tale of this inimitable find more or less ended with the naming of the gem. What followed in the following half-century after the naming is stuff of the movies.
We are talking rags to riches stories punctuated by chilling undertones of witchcraft, vested political interference, and forceful gangland-style takeovers of mines that culminated with the murder of Campbell on August 11, 2009.
Voi Gemstone Cutting and Value Addition Centre
My tour began at a gemstone cutting and value addition centre located in Voi town. While the Sh50 million center is yet to officially begin operations (was scheduled to start operations in May 2019), it welcomes visitors who are keen on learning more about gems mined from the locality.
Once fully operational the center is to offer stone cutting and polishing, a gemstone laboratory, an exhibition, as well as booths where buyers and sellers can trade safely under the watchful eye of Big Brother.
Noteworthy is that this is the only public centre in the country where value addition will be done before the sale of minerals. Certification, as well as transport services, will also be available. On hand to receive us was the centre’s director, Geologist Mr Edward Omito who explained the mandate of the centre and conducted a tour of the facility.
According to Mr Omito, the center is the government’s way of lawfully recognising small-scale miners who have in the past received little support. Their exclusion has come at a steep price as the nation has lost significant tax revenues from the gem that is shipped out of the country in illicit trade. It is not strange to find other nations passing of as theirs, a gem possible only in Kenya.
As this writer would learn from the chair of Taita Taveta Artisanal Miners association, Mr David Mwakazi Zowe, there exist three categories of miners in Kenya. You have your large-scale miners who are often giant multi-nationals, small-scale miners who have been running the Tsavorite trade since its discovery and artisanal miners who employ rudimentary techniques for mineral extraction and often operate under hazardous, labour-intensive, highly disorganized and illegal conditions.
What we laymen considered small scale miners were, before the mining act of 2016 came into effect, considered illegal miners. This bunch consisting of mostly peasant miners termed offensively as ‘Mazurura’ bore the brunt of the law for engaging in mining without permits.
That was nothing compared to the systematic ripping off by brokers who were the only link to the market. A new dawn awaits with this centre that is in talks with markets likes Alibaba who will stock the precious commodity.
Impressively, the center with the help of respected volunteers drawn from the gemstone world is already training women on jewellery making for free as well as youth interested in the cutting and polishing. The highlight of the trip was the cutting room where faceting, tumbling, cutting, heating treatments and related activity of raw stones fashions them into valuable pieces ready for setting on jewellery.
Daring into dark mining pits
The current blanket of green enveloping the landscape from Voi to gemstone rich Mwatate can be deceiving because Taita Taveta County is largely semi-arid with the exception of a few highland patches like Wundanyi and sections of Taveta where farming is conducted. As a result, extensive ranching of camel and beef cattle, wildlife tourism and the blessing of the Mozambique Belt are the viable economic activities.
Thanks to the persistent rains, the only evidence of real situation on the ground is the ubiquitous sisal plant that dotted the expanse. So inhospitable is the region that our guide musingly announced that no sane Mtaita willingly worked in the area.
While his statement reeked stereotypical undertones, I could not help but agree to his observation that the majority of workers working sisal farms are drawn from Western Kenya, that most of the miners from Eastern Kenya, and that the herders drawn from Cushite tribes of northern Kenya.
43 kilometres on, one wrong turn, and we arrived at our destination-Mkuki Ranch-where innumerable mines are based. Our interest was Mkuki Mine where several hundred artisanal miners eke a living under the umbrella Community-Based Organization (CBO) named Chawia Minerals Association.
After introductions, the organising secretary Stephen Mwadime, went on to explain the kind of gemstones mined in the area as well as helped us appreciate the uphill process of retrieving them from the pits.
After the theory lesson, it was time to find out whether I was claustrophobic by daring a tour of one of their mining pits stretching two hundred metres underground. No human is limited immediately came to mind as I stood in the belly of this marvel fashioned entirely by human hands.
Chisels, headband lights, hammers, mattocks and spades are the tools of the trade here.
Maize and bean-based meals are the choice of food to supply the energy needed to cut into stubborn rock following the ‘eye’ that leads to pockets of the precious stones. Clearly this line of work is not for the faint-hearted because apart from the pipes feeding oxygen into the pits I could not but help notice the lack safety equipment such as helmets, gloves and breathing apparatus should they dig too deep.
Mr Mwadime who asserts that he cannot imagine himself doing anything else apart from mining highlights the successes of the project that in its heyday earned at least 3, 000 thousand youth an honest living. The area was also self-regulating, requiring no police intervention, with drug and alcohol abuse prohibited.
So successful was the initiative that the area did not require propping from the Constituency Development Fund as they catered for fees of needy students from the locality. While he insists that mining is not seasonal, Mr Mwadime admits that they have fallen on hard times because the depth of the mine is harder to deal with manually.
While mining is ongoing, they are still keen on investment to modernize their operations. Their only plea is that more Kenyans show interest in mining and that the value addition centre devolves its operations to cut out the brokers or ‘papa’ as they are referred to in street lingo.
As we left the mines, I could not help but wonder why Taita Taveta County has zero mining budget while other counties that have little to no mining activity have plump mining budgets. So, before you walk into a jewellery store in search of a Valentine’s Day gift or the perfect engagement ring, why not consider this tour to appreciate the process and settle on an ethically sourced jewel.
Where to stay
During my two-day tour, I stayed at Vacani Resort located on the highway close to the turn off into Voi town. The 40-room resort in its third year of operation boasts a swimming pool, a van for hire and the chicest nightclub. With prices beginning at 5, 000 for a standard room it is the perfect base from which to explore the Tsavo and its riches.
The final step
In the Western tradition, birthstones evolved from a story in the Bible, from the book of Exodus chapter 28. The prophet Moses decreed that a breastplate should be made for Aaron, the High Priest of the Hebrew people.
That breastplate featured twelve gemstones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Later, these twelve stones were likely also linked to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Eventually, they also became associated with the twelve months of the calendar year.
Throughout history, there have been many myths and legends associated with birthstones. Many cultures have believed that birthstones have magical healing powers or bring good luck. Not all cultures have agreed on which stones correspond to which months, though, so you can find different lists of birthstones over the course of time.
Today, most jewellers agree on this basic set of birthstones:
January-Garnet: Safety during travels-second year anniversary gift
February-Amethyst-Courageous-sixth year anniversary gift
March-Aquamarine-Healing power-19 year anniversary gift
April-Diamond-Enduring symbol of love- ten, 60, year anniversary gift
May-emerald-love though it carries the further meaning of fertility-20 year anniversary gift
June-pearl-purity-third year anniversary gift
July-Ruby-Ward off evil-15 year anniversary gift
August-Peridot (Sometimes called an “evening emerald” due to the light green colour) –strength-16 year anniversary gift
September-sapphire- associated with royalty and guards against evil especially poisoning-fifth year anniversary gift
October-opal-faithfulness and confidence-14 year anniversary gift
November-topaz-love and affection-fourth year anniversary gift
December-turquoise-luck and success- 11-year anniversary gift
The Four C's of Gemstones
It is no secret that rarity, durability, beauty, and size contribute to the price of a gemstone. If you've been doing some engagement ring shopping, you also might be familiar with the "four C's" as they apply to diamonds.
However, the value of every gemstone is also determined by the 4 C's: colour, cut, clarity, and carat weight. Choosing a gemstone can be a process, but learning the 4 C's will teach you how gemstones are valued and allow you to narrow down your options.
COLOUR: A gemstone's colour is broken out into three categories: hue, tone, and saturation. These categories and criteria determine colour quality and price. Typically, vivid hues and medium tones make for the most sought-after gems, but it's important to remember that colour preference is personal. Colour preference is personal. Industry standards might not align with what you're looking for, so always purchase the gemstone you love rather than the one you think you should love.
CLARITY: Gemstone clarity is determined by how visible a stone's inclusions are and whether there are any foreign inclusions within the stone. Because of the way gemstones form in the earth, many stones naturally have inclusions. Inclusions are any foreign objects such as dust, air pockets, liquid, insects, or other minerals that have been enclosed within a gemstone during its formation.
Gemstones with few to no inclusions are considered quite valuable, whereas more inclusions typically drive down the price and value of gemstones. A few exceptions to this rule are certain inclusions that make gemstones rarer, such as sapphires that have inclusions that look like a star.
Clarity is the second most important of the 4 c's when considering Tsavorite quality. The most universally accepted and most documented system is the GIA system but there are also numerous other trade based systems in use. Tsavorite is classed as a Type 2 gemstone by the GIA, which means it is graded less strictly than Type 1 gems like Tanzanite, but more strictly than Type 3 gems like Emerald.
CARAT WEIGHT AND RARITY: Gemstones are sold by weight, not size. The carat is the standard weight measurement used, which converts to one-fifth of a gram. Because each stone is made up of a different mineral, the density varies from stone to stone.
For example, a one-carat emerald and a one-carat ruby will weigh the same, but the ruby will be smaller because it is a denser stone. Certain gems are rarely found in large sizes. This means you can expect to pay much more per carat for stones like ruby, sapphire, spinel, alexandrite, garnet, and emerald.
Tsavorites are not generally available in large sizes and even one carat fine stones are rare. On average, it takes over one tonne of gem bearing rock to extract under five carats of fine one carat pieces. Fine stones over two carats are rare and over three carats they become very rare in the fine qualities. Many stones are cut to retain weight and sacrifice quality for size so be careful when buying large stones that you are not buying simply for size and that the clarity and colour are also fine.
Carat weight affects the price generally as weight increases stones in the same quality bracket will cost more per carat. In Tsavorite, because of the huge rarity of large stones, this price jump is marked.
CUT: A gemstone's "cut" refers to the way it has been faceted and styled to refract light. Unlike simply tumbling and polishing stone, jewellers use faceting to amplify a stone's brilliance by geometrically cutting multiple flat facets into the gem.
Cut and shape are often confused, but even though both cut and shape are gemstone styling terms, cut is solely focused on faceting a gemstone to showcase its brilliance. The shape is the general outline of the stone when it is viewed from above.
Many retailers use the terms "cut" and "shape" interchangeably. However, noting the difference between the terms is important because there are certain cuts that can be applied to different shapes. For example, the popular brilliant cut is a style of faceting that can be used on heart-shaped, round, and square gemstones.
Although it has the least impact on the value of the 4 C's cut is still important. In the market, Tsavorites are found in a variety of shapes and cutting styles.
Ovals and cushions are the most common, but rounds are also seen, as are other shapes, including emerald cuts, trillions, etc. Cuts should be proportional - you don't want to pay for a stone with a lot of weight in the pavilion for example when this weight will be invisible in a setting.
According to Graduate Gemologist Anthony Zagoritis Tsavorite is a good investment because prices have been on a steady upward trajectory for decades now and the past decade particularly, has seen substantial price growth.
Jewellery Storage: When you aren't wearing your gemstone jewellery, avoid the temptation to toss jewellery into a drawer or on top of a dresser — that's a recipe for scratching, tarnishing, or misplacement. Jewellery should be stored away in a protective, lined jewellery box or a tarnish-resistant pouch. This protects items from sunlight and heat.
Jewellery Cleaning: Before cleaning your gemstone jewellery at home, consult a jeweller to get the best ideas for safe cleaning. Some gemstones require different cleaning processes than others. For example, many coloured gemstones can't withstand the same type of rigorous cleaning that diamonds undergo.
Daily Jewelry Care:
• Put on jewellery after applying makeup, hairspray, perfumes, lotions, and any other cosmetics to reduce your gemstones' exposure to chemicals.
• Remove jewellery when performing tasks like gardening, cleaning, working on heavy equipment, or during exercise. This will prevent any physical damage and reduce the risk of exposing jewellery to chemicals and cleaning fluids. It's also a good idea to remove jewellery before entering the pool or spa. Chlorinated water can cause colour changes and even structural damage to your gemstone jewellery.
• Remove jewellery before bed and gently wipe items with a soft cloth to remove residues. It is best to store jewellery in a case where items don't touch each other. This prevents the harder