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.