Although Africa has been producing amethyst for more than a decade, the news was pretty much of a trade secret until only a few years ago. Now, with this deep purple gem very much in vogue, jewelry manufacturers and retailers are specifying the African variety when ordering amethyst.
“Not that they always get it. To the contrary, stones labeled ‘African’ stand more than a 50-50 chance of having originated in Brazil (a beehive of amethyst mining) or Uruguay (a new source). And despite an easy-to-perform test to distinguish natural from synthetic amethyst recently made public by the Gemological Institute of America, Santa Monica, Calif., parcels can still be salted with replicas of nature manufactured in Russian and Japanese labs.
In short, Africa has become even more of a synonym than a source for amethyst of the best color and appearance being found. To be sure, the ideal for this quartz remains that of the Siberian variety. But since Siberia is considered a defunct source, stones from Africa now represent the point closest to the ideal that dealers can hope for.
Even specialists in South American amethyst concede that Africa currently sets the standard of excellence for this gem. “African stones are normally better than South American,” says cutter Caesar Habib, Kaiser Gems, Los Angeles. “They’ve usually got a royal purple with reddish overtones that is very beautiful.” Habib admits he would like to sell African amethyst but says supplies of rough are hard to come by and too expensive when they are available.
Yet other amethyst dealers are willing to pay extra to get African material. “Money really isn’t the problem,” says Abe Suleman, Tuckman International, Seattle. “It’s the waiting.” So it would seem. In July 1985, during a buying trip to Africa, a dealer promised Suleman 100 kilos of Zambian amethyst rough. After waiting 18 months, Suleman received the first fifth of his order—20 kilos—in January 1987. What is it about African amethyst that makes Suleman and others put up with so much to get it?
A Preference for Dark
African amethyst, like African aquamarine, tends to come in much smaller sizes than its South American peers. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in color.
For some unknown reason, it is Africa’s forte to cram in credible color intensity into small crystals. Until African amethyst and aqua came on stream in force in the early 1980s, the market had to make do with medium color intensities for these gems in sizes under 3 carats. As demand for caliberated stones, generally under 2 carats, grew, Africa’s darker-toned amethyst and aqua gave manufacturers small stones that had deep, punchy colors, enough to allow the market to shift its preference in small sizes from medium to dark stones. If anything, African stones were often too dark, plagued by what gemologists at the American Gem Market System, Moraga, Calif., have dubbed “extinction,” areas blacked out due to over-saturation of color.
Alas, small—both in terms of sizes and supplies—is just about all there is when it comes to African amethyst. Stones of 10 carats or more are virtual rarities. And finding fine stones around 5-6 carats requires patience. Come to think of it, routine requests for decent-quality calibrated sizes may call for a search party. And no wonder. Craig Jones, a dealer from Zambia, Africa’s principal producer of amethyst, and one of the two cutters living there registered to buy rough from Mindico, the state-run gem sales agency, reports having been allocated a meager 5 kilos of amethyst for all of 1986! Of this, only 5%, less than 200 grams, was cuttable.
Instead, far more preferential treatment is being accorded to consortiums from countries like Taiwan, Japan and Germany willing to buy in tremendous bulk. As a result, smaller-fry rough buyers like Jones and Suleman are squeezed out of the African market and must rely on secondary sources in places like Hong Kong and Thailand. The goods made available to them from these sources are very often the rejects the consortiums put on the market after sorting through goods and taking the best for themselves.
Luckily for dealers like Suleman, a smattering of Zambian goods is coming on the market, as well as increasing but still minuscule production from Tanzania, Africa’s next great hope for amethyst. Recently, Namibia has pitched in with excellent stones, but production is still limited and future supply a question mark.
No wonder so many dealers give up the quest for bona fide African material and opt for ersatz African amethyst. Usually, this means South American goods shipped to the Far East where they are sold, presumably at a premium, as “Zambian.”
The High Cost of Cheap
Given the scarcity of true African amethyst, prices for it in commercial grades are generally 30%-40% higher than those of its far more plentiful South American counterparts. At present, decent-quality calibrated African goods between ½ and 3 carats, costing single stone and small lot buyers $3 to $15 per carat, are all the rage. Truly fine quality calibrated goods up to 10x8mm will cost the single-stone buyer as much as $40 per carat. Manufacturers are using mostly oval, pear and, recently, heart shapes. But “fancy” shapes such as the trillion and segment cut are coming on strong. This is understandable since amethyst is a strong fashion gem and fancy cuts are a growing fashion trend.
Pause for a moment to ponder the $40-per-carat cost for a top-grade 10x8mm oval African amethyst. Paying such a price for a relatively small amethyst would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now it is becoming a norm.
But if $40 per carat for an amethyst weighing only 3 carats takes your breath away, grab an oxygen mask before you read what some dealers are asking for larger-sized African stones of exceptional quality. African stone specialist Karim Jan, Tsavo Madini, Costa Mesa, Calif., reports an unbudging asking price of $60 per carat for what he describes as a magnificent 8-carat Zambian amethyst. By magnificent, he means a clean stone possessing what he calls “a vivid royal purple with flashes of red.”
Although Jan passed on this stone, he believes it was eventually sold at or very close to the price he was quoted. In any case, prices of $35-45 per carat are now commonplace for finer African amethysts in the 5- to 6-carat range. And as appreciation for this variety of amethyst grows, connoisseur interest will drive prices higher. That coupled with chronic shortages, could easily mean that exemplary large African amethysts could break the once-impenetrable $50-per-carat price barrier very soon.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 5.35-carat African amethyst shown in the header image is courtesy of Tuckman International, Seattle.