'Tanzanite: Born From Lightning' Celebrates December's Birthstone on the Eve of Its 50th Anniversary

In 1967, Maasai tribesmen discovered shockingly beautiful bluish-violet gems in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Samples were entrusted to a prospector named Manuel d’Souza, who shared the crystals with distinguished gemologists. Originally thought to be sapphires, the spectacular gems turned out to be an unusually vibrant blue variety of the mineral zoisite.

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The mesmerizing mineral quickly caught the attention of Tiffany & Co., which launched a campaign to market the gems as "tanzanite." The name honors Tanzania, the only place on earth where tanzanite can be found. Tanzanite is one of the official birthstones for December.

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A Maasai folktale recounts how tanzanite came to be. Once upon a time, the story goes, lightning struck the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, scorching the land. In the aftermath, a spectacular blue crystal was left shimmering in the ashes.

That tale provided the subtitle and inspiration for a new coffee-table book, Tanzanite: Born From Lightning. Written by Hayley Henning, former executive director of the Tanzanite Foundation, and Didier Brodbeck, publisher of the French magazine Dreams, the 208-page book features dazzling jewelry from the world's top brand names as well as first-hand accounts of how tanzanite was discovered and brought to market.

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The book showcases superb creations made by Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Chanel, Chaumet, Chopard, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Wallace Chan and more. There are also photos of uncut specimens weighing 100 carats or more.

In 2017, tanzanite will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its discovery. Once a mineral oddity, tanzanite has evolved into one of the most desirable gemstone varieties — thanks to the efforts of Tiffany and the rest of the jewelry industry. Tiffany's marketing campaign earned tanzanite the noble title of "gem of the 20th century" and, in 2002, the American Gem Trade Association added tanzanite to the jewelry industry’s official birthstone list. Tanzanite joined turquoise and zircon as the official birthstones for December.

Tanzanite is said to be 1,000 times more rare than diamonds due the fact that tanzanite is mined in only one location on earth. The area measures 2km wide by 4km long and the remaining lifespan of the mine is just 30 years.

“There are no gemstones that fall into the same category as tanzanite,” Henning told Rapaport Magazine. “There is nothing that comes in really big sizes, gemmy, rare, velvety, gorgeous and affordable. Tanzanite has all these fantastic elements that make it so special and that is why designers love to work with it."

"I am sure in time, as tanzanite becomes less and less available, people will understand just how rare and special it is," she continued. "If you were to show consumers these gorgeous images in the book and ask them, 'What do you think this gem costs?' people would expect it to be so much more.”

Credits: Book cover by publisher 24 ORE Cultura S.r.l.; Tanzanite crystals by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; Faceted tanzanite by Gemologos2009 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.