In a mine beneath Tanzania’s Merelani Hills, workers are busy hunting one of the rarest treasures on planet Earth. Suddenly, they stumble upon a record-breaking find: two vast gemstones, each bigger than a man’s fist. Worth a small fortune, it’s a discovery that will change lives in this impoverished community.
As the owner of a small mining operation, Saniniu Laizer spends his days hoping for a great discovery. In fact, so do many people who inhabit this region in northern Tanzania – the only place where a valuable gemstone can be found. And with the help of more than 200 people, perhaps Laizer has a chance of striking it big.
Near the slopes of the highest mountain in Africa, both subsistence miners and large corporations scour the depths of the Earth for deposits of this rare resource. But in June 2020 a team headed by Laizer, who’s also a local cattle farmer, hit the jackpot. Now, he hopes to use the windfall to transform his community.
What Laizer and his team had discovered was tanzanite, a rare blue-purple gemstone named after the country in which it is found. Furthermore, the gemstones discovered were the largest examples of the mineral ever to be recorded. Worth a fortune by any standards, their value could provide a vital boost to a country where some 35 percent of people are living in poverty.
Today, tanzanite stands alongside sapphire and aquamarine as one of the most popular blue gems in the world. But unlike most of the precious stones that we know and value today, this eye-catching mineral has a relatively short history. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that jewellers began to realise its potential.
Technically speaking, tanzanite is actually a type of zoisite, which can range in color from clear to shades of yellow and pink. But when experts realized that they could create a crystalline, blue-purple gem by heating the mineral, a new precious stone was born. And in 1967 the jewellers Tiffany and Company prepared to launch it onto the market.
Because tanzanite was unknown at the time, Tiffany needed to educate both the public and jewellers about the new discovery. But ultimately, the gamble paid off. And more than 50 years later, it is considered one of the most desirable gemstones in the world, loved by celebrities and royalty alike.
Now, one of the most attractive things about tanzanite is that it’s a trichroic, meaning that its color changes when viewed from different angles. So in some positions the stone appears blue, but while rotating it can create a violet or yellow hue. Additionally, the shade of the gem also shifts depending on the lighting conditions.
Just like the majority of rubies and sapphires, most tanzanites are heated in a laboratory to improve their dazzling color. However, the most valuable gems are those that have achieved the same result through natural processes. For the finest stones, sellers can expect to fetch as much as $750 per carat on the market.
In recognition of its growing popularity, tanzanite was designated an official December birthstone in 2002. And over the years, the gems have made a number of dazzling public appearances. For example, in 2015 the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out wearing a pendant featuring the stone, and a number of celebrities have followed in her stead.
Although zoisite can be found around the world, the blue variant, as its name suggests, is mined exclusively in Tanzania. Specifically, it comes from an area in the north of the country just eight square miles in size. Known as the Merelani Hills, this spot is located in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro in the country’s Manyara region.
Today, the export of tanzanite makes up a significant part of the country’s economy. However, the mineral’s path from underground to marketplace has never been straightforward. In the early days after its discovery, when Tanzania was still a socialist nation, the mines were owned and operated by the state. But when the political landscape changed, so too did the trade in this precious stone.
Yes, after the fall of socialism in Tanzania, the government split the tanzanite mining area into four sections. And while two of these blocks were given to large companies, another two were allocated to locals operating on a smaller scale. However, it wasn’t long before this arrangement gave rise to conflict in the Merelani Hills.
You see, in 2004 a company known as Tanzanite One took over mining operations on one of the blocks of land. Largely staffed by workers from South Africa, the enterprise was seen by many as a drain on local resources, diverting profits from the Manyara community. Furthermore, their advertising heavily implied that only their gemstones, and not those sourced by small-scale outfits, were authentic.
As well as tough competition from large corporations, Tanzania’s smaller, subsistence miners also have to compete with illegal activities. In fact, prior to 2018 experts believed that as much as 40 percent of the region’s gemstones were being smuggled out. In an effort to combat these losses, a wall was constructed around the site in the Merelani Hills.
According to reports, the wall seems to have worked. Because in 2018 the Tanzanian government stated that the mining sector was on the rise and profits began to improve. Around the same time, the country’s laws were adjusted to ensure that at least some of the money made from extracting tanzanite would benefit the local community.
Currently, mining companies not based in Tanzania are required to hand over 16 percent of their profits to the local government. But even with these measures, life is often difficult for the subsistence miners working in the Merelani Hills. And while some of them do utilize modern technology, others venture into deep holes equipped with little more than a ladder and some rope.
For these small-scale miners, insufficient equipment can be just one of many difficulties associated with this work. According to reports, conditions are often challenging, and the job requires spending long hours underground. To top it all off, some may come home with nothing to show for their labor at the end of a long day.
Apparently, this is because many of Tanzania’s small-scale mining operations take place on a profit-share basis. So if the group gets lucky, each worker will get to take home a portion of the spoils. But if no tanzanite is found, no wages can be paid – sometimes for a month or more.To counteract this, many miners in the region have second jobs.
According to records, there are approximately 700 different operations active in the area that are for small-scale outfits. And each of these requires a Primary Mining License, or PML – a permit issued only to Tanzanian citizens. In this way, the government has had some success at ensuring that at least some of the country’s wealth is kept within the local population.
While some of these operations are profit-share enterprises operating with minimal equipment, others more closely resemble the large corporations that mine elsewhere in the Merelani Hills. Take Laizer’s outfit, for example. Having initially grown some wealth thanks to a successful farming and cattle business, he decided to branch out into the tanzanite industry.
Although some news outlets have rightly called Laizer a subsistence farmer, he’s also the head of a fairly sophisticated operation that employs around 200 people. In a June 2020 interview with The Guardian, one of his managers, Kiria Laizer, explained, “He has logistics experts, engineers, geologists who help him in the planning of the operations. He doesn’t himself go to the pit to dig.”
“It’s a really challenging experience,” explained Kiria of the mining itself. “It’s tough of course, working in this dusty area. We inhale a lot of dust and get sick, but we haven’t lost the determination to work.” Such were the conditions in June 2020, when the hard labor of Laizer’s miners paid off in spades.
For you see, that month a team was excavating underground when it made an astonishing discovery. Indeed, the workers found two record-breaking tanzanites of remarkable size. According to reports, both measure almost 12 inches across and are around four inches thick. Moreover, each is a vibrant blue-violet in color.
Before this latest discovery, the largest known tanzanite stone was a specimen that was discovered in 2005. Measuring some 8.6 inches long by 3.15 inches across, it weighed in at more than 6 pounds. However, this record was smashed by Laizer’s gems, which have a combined total weight of almost 32 pounds.
According to reports, one of the gems is heavier than the other, at just over 20 pounds. But even the second, at more than 11 pounds, is far weightier than the previous record-beating stone. And as soon as Laizer’s workers found the specimens, they must have known that they were onto something big.
Then, just days after the discovery, on June 24, the Tanzanian government stepped in to purchase the stones. Apparently, President John Magufuli himself ordered the move, wishing to keep the record-breaking rocks in the country. Moving forwards, he plans to have them displayed in a museum in Dar es Salaam, the former capital city.
“This is a confirmation that Tanzania is rich,” Magafuli explained in a statement. And it’s not the only thing that is. According to reports, Laizer’s company received a staggering 7.74 billion Tanzanian shillings in return for the gems – the equivalent of around $3.35 million. In a country where the average salary is around $19,000, it’s a life-changing amount.
To mark the moment, a ceremony was broadcast live on Tanzanian television, during which Laizer was presented with a cheque. Reportedly, he even received a telephone call from Magafuli, who congratulated him on his record-breaking find. Meanwhile, among the miners the mood was jubilant.
“We feel grateful that our boss has finally got these stones,” Kiria Laizer told The Guardian. “We are planning to have roast meat together when we return to the site.” And if the man in charge is to be believed, the workers should have plenty to celebrate in the coming months.
According to Laizer, ten percent of his earnings from the sale of the gems will be split between the workers, a sum of around $1,670 per person. Additionally, he planned to host a celebration to mark the occasion. In a June 2020 interview with the BBC, he said, “There will be a big party tomorrow.”
After the excitement has died down, however, there is hope that some of Laizer’s windfall might be used to achieve lasting change. In fact, the entrepreneur plans to invest in improving facilities in Simanjiro, the Manyara district which he calls home. Speaking to the BBC, he outlined his ambitions for the future.
“I want to build a shopping mall and a school,” Laizer explained. “I want to build this school near my home. There are many poor people around here who can’t afford to take their children to school.” Although the mining boss did not receive a formal education himself, he hopes that his children can learn how to run his business.
Thankfully, there should be plenty of opportunities for Laizer’s business acumen to run in the family. As a husband to four wives, he currently has 30 children. But even though he is now a rich man, he does not think that his life will change drastically in any way.
In fact, Laizer claimed that he was not planning any extra precautions to protect his new-found wealth. Speaking to the BBC, he said, “There is enough security [here]. There won’t be any problem. I can even walk around at night without any problem.” Moving forwards, he hopes to continue life as normal, caring for his 2,000 cattle and managing the mining operation.
Of course, Laizer is far from the first person to make his fortune thanks to a particularly valuable gem. In fact, his $3.34 million windfall pales in comparison with some other discoveries around the world. Take, for example, the stone known as the Bahia Emerald, a 1.7 million carat that was discovered in Brazil in 2001.
Unfortunately, the history of the Bahia Emerald is murky, and whoever mined the stone does not appear to have benefitted from its full value. According to experts, that could be something in the region of $400 million. Meanwhile, there are other gems that command high prices despite their comparatively small size, such as the red diamond.
Considered the rarest gemstone in the world, red diamond is typically valued at more than £1 million per carat – meaning that even the tiniest gem can be worth a small fortune. And in 2011, the largest known example sold for a staggering $8 million. However, the title of the most expensive gemstone is currently held by a stone known as the Pink Star Diamond.
Weighing in at almost 60 carats, the Pink Star Diamond fetched more than $70 million at auction in 2017. But like many other expensive gems, little of its eventual value filtered back to the miners who had pulled it out of the ground in South Africa 18 years before. So does Laizer’s approach herald a welcome shift in attitudes?
At the moment, the people of Manyara can only wait and see if Laizer’s promises materialize. Meanwhile, those hoping to follow in his footsteps should note that tanzanite is a dwindling resource. And although emptying mines mean soaring values for existing gems, they also spell uncertainty for the workers who depend on these windfalls to survive.