African Aquamarine

“There are blues that make you happy and there are blues that make you sad,” an old song goes. Until recently, lovers of aquamarine have known mostly the latter. Now there is flood of the former. It’s about time.

Anyone sick and tired of seeing the anemic and powdery blues of Chinese and Brazilian aquamarine for the past few years will be crying tears of joy when they feast their eyes on the aqua coming from Africa in the past two years. These are stones with the deep soothing menthol blues for which this beryl is justly famous.

But don’t expect to see aquas with this kind of tangy, bracing color on shop-at-home television or in discount stores. Superior-quality aqua costs closer to $1,000 per carat in sizes between 3 and 10 carats. That makes it connoisseur material, at least 50 percent of which goes to Japan. There consumers want aqua that lives up to the name-and are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of owning handsome stones.

Who can blame them? For years, there wasn’t much deep-color aquamarine on the market. Then, in the late 1980s, Zambia started to mine goods which rated 9 1/2 on a scale from one to ten. After another dry spell of dark colors in the mid-90s, Mozambique, joined later by Nigeria, began producing roughs with aftershave and mouth-rinse blues in enviable earnest-enough to establish Africa as the all-time leader in quantity and quality for fine aqua. In our talks with dealers, only stones from the Santa Maria deposit in Brazil, which was active in the 1940s and 50s, received higher praise. Yet although it has been more than half a century since Brazil produced aqua that excelled Africa’s best, Africa is only now receiving its due. Ironically, the recognition comes just when supplies from Africa are down sharply and suddenly. What gives?

Pretty in Platinum

Aqua, like many pastel-color gems, has benefited from the popularity of platinum and white gold. Demand is strongest in sizes between 2 and 5 carats between $500 and $1,000 per carat.

Adding to demand is the fact that African goods look very good in even smaller sizes down to 50 points. And here aqua may be one of the best buys in colored stones these days. It is far easier to find better-looking aqua in small sizes than in tanzanite.

But such bargain prices won’t hold if the worrisome decline in supplies of rough since late last year continues much longer. Granted, catastrophic flooding in Mozambique could have disrupted mining for a while.

At present, the two main sources of fine African aquamarine are Mozambique and Nigeria. But Zambia and even Malawi may also be contributing to the pot. Between all of these active producers there should sooner or later be a surge in supplies of rough. The question remains: Will it offset surges in demand?

African aquamarine cut by John Dyer of Precious Gemstones Co.

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