Jaimeen Shah of New Era Gems, Grass Valley, California, has a simple test to determine if a spessartite (less commonly but more properly called spessartine) garnet deserves the varietal name Mandarin. First, fill a glass with Fanta—and only Fanta—orange soda pop. Second, plop a gem purported to be a bonafide Mandarin stone into the glass. If it’s the real deal, it will disappear. If it’s got strong overtones of red or brown, you’ll still see the gem
Sure, it’s not exact science. The stone might even be a fire opal, which also has that pure orange color many find so desirable nowadays. But Shah’s point is clear. For a garnet to be considered a Mandarin sub-variety of spessartite, it’s got to be Fanta orange the way true jadeite has got to be Prell green. The joys of using high-recognition branded substances for color identification!
Not all adhere to the Fanta standard. We’ve seen some fireball orange garnets being offered as Mandarins. But don’t you dare call attention to the red. When I asked one dealer at Tucson selling strongly reddish stones that reminded me of Imperial topaz if they qualified as Mandarin, he denied any secondary tones. “This is genuine Mandarin garnet,” he insisted, offended I would suggest otherwise.
The Fanta color standard for top-grade spessartite is relatively new, dating from the discovery of pure-orange material in Namibia around 1993. When Namibian goods flooded Tucson in early 1994, the feeding frenzy reminded me of that for Paraiba tourmaline. Prices didn’t chase those of Paraiba to the moon, but they made an attempt to orbit the earth—hitting, if memory serves, heights around $1,000 per carat for superb large stones. Those were big bucks for garnet, especially when you factor in the dollar’s far greater strength at the time.
As important, Namibia challenged the traditional hue-ideals for spessartite. In the past, classic color for this garnet was that seen in California and Madagascar material. That meant hot-ember or burnt orange. But according to Shah, you can’t charge as much these days for fireball as you can Fanta orange.
Is this a temporary or permanent pricing phenomenon? That depends on future supplies of Fanta color. Since last October, the world has been swimming in pure-orange spessartite from Tanzania. Shah expects the orange eddy to continue for at least another year, maybe two, but he cautions, “We’re dealing with an alluvial deposit. These just don’t have unlimited lifespans.” In the meantime, we’re living in a brave, new pure orange-colored world of spessartite.
THE TANZANIAN TRADE-OFF
The Fanta color standard is purely African. After the Namibian deposit of Mandarin garnet played out, Nigeria came to the rescue in 1998. Many of these stones strike me as a bit reddish, but no one would deny the primacy of orange in them. Indeed, some firms like Barker & Company, Scottsdale, Arizona, still specialize in Nigerian gems. But strong international demand, says Ann Barker, has driven prices to the point where these stones are now memo rather than cash-and-carry goods. As a result, Barker is being very picky about the rough it buys.