The decade of the ’90s put spessartite garnet on the map. Once a rare collector’s gem, the brilliant orange garnet burst on the scene in 1991, when a deposit was discovered in the rugged mountains of northwestern Namibia, and again in 1999, with a seemingly bottomless find in the remote bushlands of Nigeria.

Spessartite Garnet
80.08 carats Spessartite garnet

Suddenly, enough spessartite was being produced from these and other sources to market it to mainstream jewelers. Prices dropped and jewelry lines began to feature the stone. Unfortunately, this dealer’s dream ended almost as quickly as it began, as by 2001 the African alluvial deposits had mostly dried up. Today, spessartite is again rare, and prices are rising as supplies dwindle.

Back to square one? Not quite. Miners, dealers, and jewelers exposed to the remarkable beauty of spessartite are determined to further promote this once obscure garnet. And, while mining efforts have lapsed in some countries, like Paktan and Nigeria, new efforts are underway to mine spessartite again in Namibia, Madagascar, and Brazil.

“These stones are so very special,” says Ekkehard F. Schneider of Ekkehard F. Schneider Edelsteinschleiferei in Germany, one of the first dealers to handle the Nigerian spessartite. Not only are they beautiful, he says, but they are relatively hard and completely untreated. “The only thing is, they don’t have a long history like emerald, so some don’t know the stone.”

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“Every month I get a call” from a customer looking for spessartite, says San Diego gem dealer Tom Schneider. However, supply is no longer keeping up with demand. Schneider recently returned from East Africa, where the only spessartite he saw was small, brownish red garnets from southern Tanzania. The Nigerian deposits are pretty much worked out. “Zero stuff is coming out of the ground,” says Schneider. Any traders showing spessartite are showing “old stuff that has been picked over.”

Before the Nigerian find, fine spessartite cost $700 to $800 a carat, says Brian Cook of Nature’s Geometry in Graton, California. “Nigeria brought the price down significantly, but now it’s creeping up again…. Pre Namibia and Nigeria, spessartite was so obscure and rare, only collectors knew about it. Now it is definitely on the map.”

B.N.: Before Nigeria

Spessartite has been known to the world for less than 200 years. The garnet was discovered in the mid 1800s in Spessart, Bavaria, and soon afterward in the Rutherford Mines in Virginia. In the 20th century, it has been mined in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Brazil, Australia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Pakistan, often mixed with other gems. Because production has been so unreliable, the stone was never mass marketed.

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While many deposits are older, it was the discoveries in Namibia that sparked spessartite’s reputation for beauty.

Those garnets were first found in 1991, where the Kunene River flows along the mountainous Angolan border in northwestern Namibia. Embedded in mica in a schist, the spessartite was perfect: It had almost no inclusions and little or no trace of iron, giving it the classic orange color.

Local African miners brought the mysterious stones they found to Alan Roup, now of G.E.M., Ltd. in Jerusalem, who at the time was mining amethyst and tourmaline in Nigeria.

“I knew it was a big discovery,” recalls Roup. He sent a sample to Richard Liddicoat at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, who identified it as spessartite. “It was hardly known in the world …. The biggest problem was where to sell the stuff. Something unknown, no one wants.”

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To promote the material, Roup brought in Israel Eliezri of Colgem Ltd., based in Tel Aviv, as a partner in charge of cutting and marketing for the Namibian Mineral Development, owner of the claim.

“The stone is very, very special. It may be the only pure, pure manganese spessartite in the world without any iron…. It’s very, very brilliant orange, pure without any brown,” says Eliezri, who is also president of the International Colored Gemstone Association. Eliezri at first dubbed the Namibian material “hollandine” in honor of the 19th century Dutch explorer who discovered the Namibian spessartite. But that name already belonged to an obscure metal, so they settled on “Mandarin garnet” a term that today is often applied to all spessartite, regardless of origin.

Several hundred kilos of rough were produced, but the operation stopped within three years when the surface supply dried up. Today, Colgem still has a large supply and sells the material mostly as calibrated stones or single pieces for designer jewelry. Encouraged by the improved world market and the depletion of the Nigerian glut, the original owners are considering reopening the Namibian mine, Eliezri says.

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In the meantime, Roup left the original group of investors in 1993. Within a few years, he bought four claims at another mine, 28 miles south of the first one, under the partnership GEM Namibia, later Gem Exploration Mining (G.E.M.). One of the claims was very productive, but was extremely remote, and Roup was experiencing health problems that limited his involvement. In addition, the surface stones were marred by tremolite inclusions, and hard rock mining would be required to reach the cleaner stones under the surface. The mine was closed in 1998, but reopened soon after for another year and a half. Speaking in early January, Roup said that he is completing a contract with a South African company and hoped to reopen the mine in early February 2002.

The Namibian mines actually produced fewer than 50 kilos of quality cuttable material in the past 10 years, says Chris Johnston, an American gem dealer who lives in Namibia. Johnston has sold spessartite from both mines to the Japanese market.

The future of spessartite mining in Namibia “totally depends on someone making another discovery,” he adds. “‘Ibis material, unlike spessartine from other localities, is not pegmatitic. It is metamorphic…. Given the topography in the area, this makes for a brutal exploration model. Also bear in mind that in many ways, Mars is closer to civilization than this place is. If you were to break a part on your air compressor and not have a spare, it could take you two weeks to get out of there, get to the nearest city, get the spare, and get back. If it happens to rain in the meantime, you are buggered.”

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Other mines have influenced the spessartite scene, too. For decades, perhaps the best known spessartite source was the Little Three Mine and Hercules Mine, located on a single pegmatite dike near San Diego, California. First claimed in 1903, Little Three was mined until 1912. Since 1950, it has produced topaz, tourmaline, and aquamarine as well as spessartite in small sizes.

Although Little Three is better known, most of the spessartite is actually located in the Hercules mine, says its owner, Dean Webb of Pan Geo in Warner Springs, California. The Hercules claim was surface mined for spessartite for one season in 1997, but it could not compete with Namibian or Nigerian production. Deterred by the high cost of permits, bonds, insurance, and equipment, Webb stopped development of Hercules and has invested in a Brazilian mine along with Cook of Nature’s Geometry.

“They’re mining friendly in Brazil. Here, they give you so much bureaucracy, you throw up your hands,” says Webb. “Labor is cheaper [there]; you don’t need big tractors or fancy equipment because there is more labor.”

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Brazil has for years been a reliable, if sporadic, source for small pieces of spessartite. The problem is finding a location to mine exclusively for spessartite in sizes large enough to market, says Webb, who believes he has found such a site in the Alto Mirador pegmatite dike in the state of Paraiba.

In 1999, Webb and Cook hit a pocket filled with spessartite and gahnite (green spinel). They excavated 30 kilos of spessartite in sizes ranging from 1/4 gram to 23 grams; most with 90 percent manganese or better. Development of the mine halted after the Nigerian discovery in 1999, but will begin again in the second half of 2002.

In terms of unpleasant mining conditions, however, nothing beats Madagascar.

It’s a “damned unpleasant place,” says Tom Cushman of Allerton Cushman & Co. in Sun Valley, Idaho. He’s referring to his alluvial mine, located near the city of Maevatanana in northwestern Madagascar. Mining there is controlled by the very aggressive Antandroy tribe, which he calls the “Apaches of Madagascar.”

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Madagascar spessartite is often a byproduct of gold mining and is generally brownish, with a high iron content. Cushman has produced more than 10 kilos over two years, with much less coming out in the last two or three years. However, Cushman is not abandoning his efforts; he has finished the paperwork on the claim for a second mine near Antsirabe in central Madagascar.

The Big Hit

In late 1998 and early 1999, spessartite garnet began to show up in parcels of rubellite tourmaline coming from the area around lbadan, Nigeria. Although the spessartite find seemed small in comparison to the deluge of Nigerian rubellite that began hitting the market in 1998, the effect on the spessartite market was revolutionary.

Nigeria was far from being the only source of spessartite, and it tended to be much more yellow than the Namibian material. But the size and availability of the Nigerian stones brought prices down and awareness up, giving spessartite from other sources access to a market that had never existed before.

As with most deposits, after the initial discovery and flood of material, supply tapered off. Today, most Nigerian spessartite on the market is lower grade material sold in Thailand as polished stones and cabochons. Dealers are holding onto their stock of large stones until prices go up, which is already happening.

“We tried to buy as much as possible of the good quality [of Nigerian spessartite],” says Ekkehard Schneider. “I thought, ‘Something like this happens once in your life because it is so very rare.’ We bought as much as possible, as long as the bank said [it was] okay.”

No one knows if any more spessartite is being found at this moment in Nigeria. Local traders keep appearing, “and saying this is the last parcel, then they come back in a few months with more,” says Caesar Habib of Kaiser Gems. “There definitely isn’t as much available, but it’s still coming out. I bought a kilo a week ago.”

Alexander Wild of Wild & Petsch in Idar Oberstein, Germany, believes the supply of Nigerian spessartite will continue; his company has bought an estimated 30 kilos from Nigerian traders. “Production always fluctuates, depending on the season, with Ramadan and Christmas,” Wild explains. “In general, there’s a fairly nice supply from Nigeria.”

Despite the expanded market, there’s still more than enough spessartite to meet demand. “I have invested a couple hundred thousand in spessartite in the last two years,” says Habib. “I’ve sold a maximum of $30,000.”

The problem, he maintains, is that the public is still unaware of this remarkable garnet. The price is too high end, and most consumers outside of New York and Los Angeles are not familiar with the stone.

“I don’t know if I’m being a devil’s advocate, but there isn’t enough marketing … the Midwest doesn’t know about it. You have to educate them.”