Photojournal: The Rarest Gemstone in the World

Mines in Northern Tanzania are the only source of one of the world’s most coveted gemstones.

By Marcos Guzmán Ortiz

Tanzanite: one thousand times rarer than diamond, and therefore one of the most coveted gemstones in the world.

In an area accessible only by dirt roads, 50km from the nearest town in the Mererani Hills in Northern Tanzania, sits a vast and crowded mining industry. Here, a few hundred meters below the subsoil, exists the only known seam of tanzanite in the world. Discovered just a half century ago, since then this type of zoisite stone has successfully entered the gemstone market as an excellent and cheaper alternative to sapphires. Its strong trichroism characteristic means that it reflects different colors as it turns in the light. Named and brought to fame by the American luxury retailer Tiffany & Co, tanzanite prices have increased every year, and so far as no other seam in the world has been discovered. It is estimated that the existing seam will be depleted in 30 years’ time. The reality behind the stone’s blue and violet sparkles, however, is neither shiny nor glamorous.

In 1971, the mines in the Mererani Hills were nationalized and the land was split to allow large private companies and smaller local miners to extract the mineral. Despite a lucrative wholesale export market ($50 million annually in rough mineral), Tanzania’s government has consistently failed to provide basic civilian infrastructure and safety measures for the workers of the local mining companies and communities.

The Mines of Mererani

As we arrive in the shanty town that houses the workers, we realize how precarious it is to live in the area. Hundreds of shelters and a few restaurants and shops inside huts create the landscape around the mine’s walls, built by local land-owners to restrict access. Once we are within the walls, we see that …

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