Gemstones from Africa
The traditional sources for colored gemstones are in Asia and South America, especially Burma, Sri Lanka and Brazil. But these days Africa is generating most of the the excitement in the gems world. Looking at our own inventory of over 35,000 gems, about 50% of them originate in Africa.
Our business is based in Chanthaburi, Thailand, one of the world centers for cutting and trading colored gemstones. Not surprisingly, Chanthaburi has a significant foreign population. But the foreign population is largely African, not western, as so many African gem traders are active here.
Everyone knows Africa as the source for diamonds, but the colored gemstone business is increasingly important, even though colored gem production is spread across small mines in more than half a dozen countries. The main gemstone producing countries are in southern and eastern Africa, stretching from Namibia in the southwest through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania to Kenya in eastern Africa. Madagascar, the large island off the coast of Mozambique, is geologically part of this same gemstone-rich area, known as the Neoproterozoic Mozambique Belt.
Colored gemstone production from the African mines is constantly changing and smart buyers have learned to "buy it while you can" since gems that are plentiful one year may hardly be found the next year. This happened with the fine spessartite garnet from Namibia, for example. While there is still some supply from Namibia, it is difficult to find and most of the better spessartite is now coming from Mozambique.
The most important producers recently have been Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. Madagascar is famous for recent discoveries of ruby and sapphire, though a number of other gemstones have been found, including tourmaline, aquamarine, chrysoberyl, andalusite, apatite, citrine, iolite and kyanite. Tanzania has enormous potential and gemstone mining there already employs more than a half of million small-scale miners throughout the country. Tanzania is especially famous for tanzanite, but this year we've bought very fine Tanzanian spinel in large sizes, marvelous rhodolite and tsavorite garnet, and some unique colors in unheated zircon.
Mozambique is producing excellent tourmaline in a wide range of colors, and we have also bought fine spessartite and red garnets in impressive sizes. Mozambique has recently become famous for its high quality paraiba tourmaline, and most of the world supply of paraiba is now coming from Mozambique since the Brazilian supply is so limited.
Nigeria, the large west African nation, is the one important gemstone producer not in the Mozambique Belt. Nigeria has produced respectable blue sapphire as well as large quantities of fine tourmaline. Nigeria is also known for pyrope and almandine garnet, aquamarine and topaz.
Given the state of development in most of the producing countries, we expect African gemstone production to increase in the coming years. But the supply from most of these mines is very limited, and in our experience one has to be an opportunistic buyer when supply is plentiful.