Naming new-found gem and mineral species after those who discovered them or in honor of important mineralogists and geologists has been accepted practice for at least a century. But in 1911, the mineral world made a notable exception to this custom for a pink beryl that had recently been discovered on the African island of Madagascar.
At the urging of gemology and jewelry kingpin George F. Kunz, the new stone was called “morganite,” ostensibly to honor banker/financier John Pierpont Morgan for his many donations of gems and minerals to the American Museum of Natural History. Among Morgan’s gifts to the museum: the much-celebrated 16,000-piece Clarence Bementh mineral collection bought in 1900 for the then-princely sum of $100,000.
But, in actuality, paying tribute to Morgan for his munificence was a secondary reason for the name choice. Kunz was far more likely paying an IOU to Morgan incurred in 1903—for an earlier failure to honor his generosity. At the time, Morgan was perhaps the most distinguished patron of Tiffany’s, the much-heralded jewelry store for which Kunz worked as a vice president. Kunz had often arranged for Morgan to buy collections direct from Tiffany, or with the store acting as intermediary, that the tycoon would then donate.
To show his appreciation, Kunz, according to a 1922 article that he wrote, proposed that a new species of pink spodumene discovered in California in 1902, be named “morganite.” But when Morgan supposedly couldn’t be reached to OK the name, Charles Baskerville, a professor with whom Kunz collaborated on the first gemmological studies of the new gem, suggested, instead, the name “kunzite.” Kunz expert Lawrence Conklin doubts that much persuasion was needed to get him to accept the 1903 name snub. “Kunz was a very clever man and something of a promoter,” Conklin says. “I think he wanted that spodumene named after himself in the worst way.” If so, did a guilty conscience eight years later prompt Kunz to christen the next pink gem he was instrumental in identifying “morganite”?
We’ll probably never know the answer. In any case, the beryl’s trade name is a reminder of Kunz’s unparalleled powers in the gem world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What’s more, it is fitting that the trade names of two many-times-confused pink gems—kunzite and morganite—should bear indominy in stores thanks to Tiffany’s turn-of-the-century hegemony in colored stones.
The Deepest of Pinks
By 1911, when the new pink beryl entered the marketplace, Tiffany had already scored marketing triumphs with the pink shades of two other gem species: tourmaline and spodumene. Now it could give the public a triumvirate of choices in this color.
The first African morganites were spectacular, sporting in the words of authorities John Sinkankas and Peter G. Read, in their 1986 book Beryl, “a unique magenta tint that suggests the color of high-quality kunzite.” It is fitting that some of the most prized specimens of cut morganite from Madagascar can be found in the American Museum of Natural History, which owes so much to Morgan.
(Unfortunately, Madagascar is no longer an active producer of morganite. Today the world has to make do with paler rose-pink beryls, mostly from Brazil. To get some idea of the general color strength of modern-day morganites, imagine lighter tones of morganite’s very common blue sister species, aquamarine. At their best, these stones exhibit a very sweet blush-on-pink that could not be confused, as older stones from Madagascar might be, with the deep lilac hues of the top-grade kunzites currently coming from Afghanistan. As a result, says Brazilian stone specialist John Ramsey, Ramsey Gem Import Inc., San Diego, “you’ll need 15- to 20-carat sizes for good body color. The color in smaller stones tends to wash out against the skin.”
Finding decent-color morganites in larger sizes isn’t easy. Morganite aficionados, many of them dealers, are willing to pay up to around $120 per carat for what Ramsey calls “museum-quality” stones. More usually, however, decent stones don’t justify prices too much above $60 per carat, especially in smaller sizes. To compensate for faint color, morganite boosters like Pala International Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., stress brilliance achieved through fine cutting. “Stones that are well cut,” says Pala’s Cynthia Rodrick, “have a wonderful glow in subdued light.”
From Peach to Pink
When Brazilian morganites are first mined, many have a peach-orange color that is often so attractive that it has generated its own market. In fact, many connoisseurs will tell you that no morganite collection is complete without a first-rate example of peach color.
But watch out. If such stones are subjected to prolonged sunlight through everyday wearing or even being left on a window sill for as little as a week, they will turn a permanent pastel pink. That’s why many of the morganites one sees today are products of the heat-treater’s art. They started life a peach color but were then put in an oven to turn them pink. “Those who want their peach morganites to stay peach had better consider them as evening stones,” warns Ramsey.
This fact may be a wonderful selling point in morganite’s favor. Pala’s Rodrick certainly thinks it is. “One of kunzite’s greatest drawbacks is its color instability,” she says. “Morganite’s pink is more stable.’
And while we’re on the subject of morganite’s advantages vis-a-vis kunzite, we might as well remind readers that kunzite is plagued by cleavage problems. This makes it a much riskier ring stone than morganite. Nevertheless, we don’t want to build up morganite at kunzite’s expense, especially since today’s mainstay pink morganite rarely rivals today’s mainstay kunzite for color saturation. Even if it did, there would still be no contest in terms of production. Although far from abundant, kunzite is blessed with its greatest availability in years. Morganite on the other hand, is so scarce it remains a curiosity. Ramsey notes there was a gap of 15 years before miners in Brazil recently hit a pocket of truly worthwhile morganite. “And that material was gone in almost no time at all,’ he says.
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 137.01-carat pink morganite and the 235-carat peach morganite shown in the header image are courtesy of Ramsey Gem Import Inc., San Diego.