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 (it is also the February birthstone) 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 originating in Brazil (a beehive of amethyst mining) or Uruguay (a major 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, California, parcels can still be salted with splendid replicas of nature manufactured in Russian and Japanese labs.
In short, Africa has become more a synonym than a source for amethyst of the best color and appearance being found. To be sure, the ideal for this quartz remains 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 a Los Angeles cutter. “They’ve usually got a royal purple with reddish overtones that is very beautiful.” This cutter admits he would like to sell African amethyst but says supplies of rough are too hard to come by and much 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 a Seattle importer. “It’s the waiting.”
So it would seem. In July 1985, during a buying trip to Africa, a dealer promised him 100 kilos of Zambian amethyst rough. He received the first fifth of his order, 20 kilos, 18 months later.
What is it about African amethyst that makes dealers 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 counterparts. 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 incredible color intensity into small crystals. Until African amethyst and aqua came on stream in full force in the early 1980s, the market had to make do with, at best, medium color intensities for these gems in sizes under 3 carats. In fact, pale lilac shades, known in some quarters as “Rose of France,” were often all that consumers got to see. Few knew the deep purple stones that inspired the Greeks to name the gem amethystos, which means “not intoxicated,” and made them earnestly believe that drinking wine from amethyst cups would prevent drunkenness.
All that changed as demand for calibrated stones, generally under 2 carats, grew, and 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, California, 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 rarities. And finding fine stones of 5 or 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. An American dealer living in Zambia, Africa’s principal producer of amethyst, who is one of two cutters in that country registered to buy rough from Mindico, the state-run gem sales agency, reports having been allocated a meager 5 kilos of amethyst for one entire year! Of this, only 5% was cuttable.
Poor Pickings for U.S.
This American might have received more goods if he were a big spender to begin with. Since he isn”t, far more preferential treatment is being accorded to consortiums from centuries including Taiwan, Japan and Germany willing to buy in tremendous bulk. As a result, smaller-fry rough buyers are squeezed out of the African market and must rely on secondary sources in places such as Hong Kong, Thailand and, recently, South Korea, the last coming on very strong as a cutting center for amethyst and irradiated blue topaz.
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 small dealers, a smattering of Zambian goods can somehow be found, 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.