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Tsavorite favorites

This bright, durable green garnet from East Africa is giving emerald a run for its money.
Aug 5, 2020 5:19 AM   By Richa Goyal Sikri
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Like a heady cocktail, the rich and varied green hues of tsavorite are intoxicating. Its color has long earned it comparisons to the more widely recognized emerald, and indeed, both get their coloring from trace elements chromium and vanadium. However, tsavorite’s cubic crystal structure, durability, higher refractive index and superior light-dispersion capabilities set this rare gem apart and contribute to its vibrant appearance.

The where and the what

Geologist Campbell Bridges first discovered tsavorite in 1961 in what is now Zimbabwe, and later found more in Tanzania and Kenya. He and former Tiffany & Co. president Henry B. Platt named the material after Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, and today, this stone is a top choice among jewelry designers, lapidary artists and connoisseurs.

Tsavorite is the green variety of the grossular garnet family — one of the five species of garnet that have commercial importance as gems, according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Pyrope, almandine, spessartine and andradite are the other four, and tsavorite has joined the likes of demantoid (the green variety of andradite) and mandarin garnet (spessartine) as a highly valuable material.

“It’s a playful gem, combining the rich green color of an emerald with the shine of a diamond,” says tsavorite specialist Joe Belmont, cofounder of KV Gems. Its refractive index is 1.74, compared with emerald’s 1.57/59, and its light dispersion is double that of emerald at 0.14. Technicalities aside, these characteristics mean that “when properly faceted, tsavorites radiate electric energy [as opposed to] the sleepier glow of an emerald,” Belmont explains. “Its distinctive character (singly refractive of light) works well with another popular gemstone: spinel.”

Tsavorite’s rarity is due to the way it forms, according to geologist Cedric Simonet. “Pockets of tsavorite are the result of the transformation of small masses of mineral salts that originally formed in dried up lakes on the surface of the earth,” he explains. “When mining underground, predicting the next tsavorite pocket is akin to figuring out the location of the patch of salt in a surface environment 700 or 800 million years ago, an almost impossible challenge.”

From Tiffany to today’s designers

The discovery of a gem deposit is incomplete without a formal route to market and professional storytelling to draw in potential buyers. Bridges — who was also the first person to bring tanzanite to the US — understood this. That’s why he approached Platt with his new find in 1967. Tiffany & Co. became the first jewelry brand to use tsavorite in its collections and was instrumental in educating consumers and popularizing the gem in the 1970s. Since those early days, a new generation of jewelers has fallen under tsavorite’s spell.

“The bright green color of tsavorite is a favorite of mine to pair with black opals containing a blue-green flash,” says St. Louis-based designer Adam Foster. “It is a gemstone that often gets overlooked in favor of emerald, but I find it more wearable (in terms of hardness and durability) and brighter.”

Echoing Foster’s views is Sweta Jain, founder and creative head of New York-based jewelry brand Goshwara. “I love tsavorite for its color, luster and its brilliance. I especially love using it when creating a tone-on-tone effect,” she says. “Tsavorite feels like a sibling of spinel in terms of how underappreciated it is despite its exceptional beauty and ease of use. I find it particularly useful in pavé-settings because it has less breakage. Compared to emerald, it is inexpensive and yet so stunning. As a designer, I have had more success selling tsavorite in the past few years than ever before, perhaps due to a greater demand for unique pieces.”

The allure of color

Another reason for its recent popularity may be the overall movement toward colorful jewelry. With consistent growth in the self-purchasing segment, women are gravitating toward jewels that let them express their distinctive personalities. Besides design-led jewelry, colored gemstones are the perfect medium for self-expression.

“I love garnet in general for its range of color and the fact that it is natural and never treated,” says artist and self-confessed jewelry anthropologist Temple St. Clair. “The brilliant green of tsavorite is vibrant and different from other green gems such as emerald, tourmaline and sapphire. I’ve been using tsavorite often for the last 10 years or so. My collectors love it and now recognize it.”

Packing a mean punch, this relative newcomer has impressed the industry with its resilience, natural beauty, exotic origins and good value. With supply dwindling, tsavorite’s rarity and aesthetic appeal will continue to make its value appreciate, adding to its desirability.

A tale of discoveryThe late Scottish geologist Campbell Bridges (pictured) is credited with discovering tsavorite in Tanzania in 1967. However, the story of this rare green gem began six years earlier in Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).

“My father was working for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in Zimbabwe in 1961,” recalls his son Bruce. “Being a second-generation geologist, he set off one weekend to investigate a range of hills that exhibited very interesting geology.” While walking up one of the hills, Bridges found himself facing a charging Cape buffalo. “My father knew how dangerous these bovine warriors could be...and managed to jump into a steep ravine in the nick of time. He continued coursing up the ravine, making his way to the top of hill. [There], he caught a glint of green in the sunlight. On further investigation, he realized the flash of color was mineral in nature and had the crystal makeup of garnet, but [was] unlike anything he had ever seen.”

Before Bridges could do much about his discovery, the Atomic Energy Authority transferred him out of Rhodesia. Six years later, his continuous prospecting and geological knowledge brought him to a range of hills outside the village of Komolo in Tanzania, similar to the ones he had seen earlier. Once again, the green garnets caught his eye, and he was able to develop that deposit properly. When political shifts led to the nationalization of Tanzanian mines in 1970, the ever-resourceful Bridges used old colonial maps and eventually discovered tsavorite across the border in Kenya later that year.

Bridges reached out to Tiffany & Co., hoping the company would fall in love with his discovery and give tsavorite an international platform. It was a success, enabling Bridges to invest and develop formal mining operations in Kenya. However, decades later, “antisocial elements” began mining illegally on his family’s concession. In 2009, he was with Bruce and four Kenyan employees when a mob of 20 to 30 illegal miners attacked them in broad daylight. While the others survived, the 71-year-old Bridges succumbed to his injuries (four of the attackers were later convicted). Keeping the family tradition going, Bruce still holds the largest collection of fine-quality tsavorite in the world.
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