You’ve heard of Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that everything in the material world is a more or less imperfect copy of its original, ideal form stowed in eternity? Well, let’s suppose he had sold gems on the side. And let’s suppose he’d received a parcel of top-grade emeralds from the Sandawana mine in Zimbabwe. How close to the ideal, or archetype, would he have thought these stones?
As close to perfection as emerald gets. That’s why Sandawana emerald, discovered in 1956, quickly reached cult status among dealers and has never wanted since for fervent admirers.
Those fortunate enough to have sold these southern African emeralds talk about the finest of them with the rapture and reverence reserved fro Kashmir sapphires and Burmese rubies. Just listen to this emerald specialist: “The finest emerald I’ve ever seen was a 3-carat Sandawana stone shown me in 1980. It’s owner, an Indian dealer, wanted a mind-boggling $60,000 per carat. But eventually he got it.”
Granted, 3-carat stones of that caliber from Sandawana are extremely rare-so rare that it is possible many precious stone dealers have spent their entire careers without seeing a large Sandawana stone like it. On the other hand, seeing stones of comparable beauty in small sizes was a common occurrence during the two decades when this mine flourished. In fact, Sandawana challenged every aesthetic notion about emerald by proving this beryl could boast a depth and richness of color thought possible only in larger sizes (the result of ultra-high concentrations of the greening agent, chromium). What’s more, stones were remarkably clean, crystalline and fracture-free-the latter virtue so pronounced that oiling, a common touch-up process for emerald, was usually unnecessary.
No wonder dealers who sold Sandawana stones during their brief heyday in the 1960s and 1970s long for their return to these shores.
A DREAM FOR ONE
The first love affair began shortly after Rio Tinto bought the Sandawana mine in 1958. Seven years later, when it decided to switch to a distribution system based on the De Beers single-channel market model for diamonds, it put sales of rough and cut stones in the hands of French gem dealer Jean Rosenthal. He assigned five dealers, himself included, exclusive franchises in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Americas.
For New York dealer Maurice Shire, who oversaw sales in the U.S. from 1965 until 1983, it was a business arrangement as close to ideal as the product itself. Once every 10 to 12 weeks for over 18 years, Shire flew to Paris where he bought the equivalent of a ‘sight” in Sandawana goods, the most desirable small emeralds in history. While these offerings cost him, on average, $300,00 to $400,000, “they were,” he says, “worth every penny.”
At least for the first 10 years. Then the assortments gradually tapered off in terms of quality and quantity-without a corresponding drop in price. In 1982, the government of Zimbabwe stepped in and insisted buyers come to Africa. By then, prices for Sandawana melee were more than twice ($1,600 versus $700 per carat) those of decent but hardly legendary stones from Zambia being dumped on the market. Unable to compete with the onslaught of these African goods, Shire gave up the U.S. concession for Sandawana emerald in 1983.
As if solely an answer to a pressing need for majestic emerald melee, fifths, quarters, plus a smattering of thirds and halves, 90 percent of Sandawana’s production is of small stones between 2mm and 4mm. The remaining 10 percent are stones above a half carat. Amazingly, even run-of -the-mill stones have a warm, balanced green. But superb color is not this emerald’s only virtue. Because Sandawana stones are exceptionally well-crystallized, they are, Shire says, easier to set and polish. Looking at them in bracelets, both solo and combined with diamonds, one is struck by their resonant color and lustrous appearance. No wonder the Japanese, probably the world’s most ardent devotees of fine emerald, took to these stones immediately after they hit the market.
Will future Sandawana production light as bright a torch among dealers? Keep your fingers crossed. Since 1986, a second Zimbabwe mine at Machingwe has also been producing goods. While many dealers believe the Sandawana mine is largely played out, the shortage of fine material in recent years may have had far more to do with politics than geology. Citizens of Zimbabwe are prevented from accumulating large amounts of foreign currency, as well as transferring significant sums of money out of the country. As a result, gem smuggling has long run rampant.
But not everyone believes Sandawana emerald is history. “There are 27 miles of the claim that haven’t been touched yet,” a former mine owner says. “That’s why I think Sandawana has far more of a future than a past.”