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Discovery of Tanzanite

There are several accounts of the discovery of tanzanite, named after Tanzania, its country of origin. According to some, the violet-blue stone was first discovered by Masai tribesman, Ali Juuyawatu. Other reports say that Ndugu Jumanne Ngoma first found tanzanite. Yet a further account credits Manual de Souza with the discovery of tanzanite July 7, 1967. Referred to by some as Mad Manuel, this colorful character was well known for his passion for trekking the African bush in search of the unknown, or even the unfindable, as he was wont to describe his activities.

Cushion-Cut Tanzanite Gemstone
Cushion-Cut Tanzanite Gemstone

Born in Goa in 1913, de Souza moved to Tanganika at the age of 20, where he qualified as a master tailor. An adventurer by nature, this trade quickly palled and he began his life as a prospector on the Lupa goldfields of Western Tanganyika, moving on after post-war conditions made gold mining unprofitable to the Shinyanga Diamond Fields. This venture became unviable in the 1960s when a monopoly made diamond prospecting licenses almost impossible to obtain, prompting Manuel to move to the Kilimanjaro area, where he continued to prospect around Lake Victoria, supplementing his income by tailoring.

Manuel de Souza Discovered Tanzanite
Manuel de Souza

Around the Easter weekend of 1967, what he describes as 'itchy feet' drove him to hire a pickup truck to drop him in the bush in an area in the region of Arusha. Serendipitously, the driver refused to go further than Merelani. With no way of transporting his gear any further, Manuel was forced to fossick for gems in that area instead.

Hiring four Masai tribesmen as his porters, he set off to explore, and around noon on July 7th found a transparent blue stone which he first mistook for a sapphire. After testing its hardness, he immediately knew his find was not sapphire. Nonetheless, de Souza took the stone back to Arusha with him where he tried to identify it by referring to a small volume on mineralogy, which was his only source of reference.

Tanzanite Rough
Tanzanite Rough

The closest match he could find for his stone was olivine, and thus the first tanzanite claim was duly registered in his name on July 25, 1967 - as an olivine claim.

It was not long before the gem was revealed to be composed of a different material to olivine or peridot. Likewise, dumortierite, cordierite and zoisite were considered and rejected.

Eventually the gems were sent to the Gemological Institute of America which had the necessary equipment to accurately identify the stone as zoisite. At the around the same time, samples were identified at Harvard University, the British Museum, Heidelberg University, and by a Tanzanian government geologist named Ian McCloud, who is credited with being the first to have made the correct call.

The stones made handsome gems, yet there was no established market for this material. The head of the jewelry department of Saks Department Store in New York declined to stock the stone. Finally, two rings that had been made out of the original find were shown to the Vice President of Tiffany & Co., who was so impressed by the beauty of the stone that he christened it tanzanite. Thus a new market was created.

  • First Published: May-24-2008
  • Last Updated: January-22-2019
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    Reproduction (text or graphics) without the express written consent of GemSelect.com (SETT Company Ltd.) is strictly prohibited.
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