I haven’t written much about Mandarin garnets because I don’t really like orange as a color, and so I’ve ignored this gem for a long time. But now I think I didn’t do it justice.
Spessartite, the garnet group that Mandarin garnet falls under, has only been on the gemstone market for a little over 10 years. Although tiny amounts have been found in Germany, California, and Sri Lanka, among other places for a couple of hundred years, it was so rare that it was considered a collector’s stone. Marketable quantities have only shown up in Namibia, then Nigeria and Mozambique in the last decade or so. In 2007, there was a find of facet grade Spessartites of beautiful bright color near the town of Loliondo, Tanzania (it's basically a location in the bush, some 10 miles off of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere). A gemologist friend of mine travelled there a few years ago and got some nice crystals – a dangerous journey that necessitated an ample supply of weapons for security.
|Spessarite "Mine" near Loliondo, Courtesy of Jentsch Mineralien|
The color of spessartite ranges from a light orange to a deep reddish brown, with the bright and pure neon-color oranges being the most desirable and the most expensive. The trade has termed them “Mandarin” garnets. Initially these garnets came from Namibia, and then Loliondo, Tanzania.
|Here's a sampling of my purchase, the stone with the best color is the second to the left|
Like most garnets, Spessartites are mostly smaller in size, but 1-3 carats are available, 5 carats and above are rare. While a brown Spessartite under 1 carat can run as low as $20/ct, a well cut Mandarin in that size can cost 10 times that much. Recently prices have been on the upswing because the mine in Nigeria is no longer up and running. Originally, prices were low but world demand drove them up very quickly. As a result, smart dealers that had overbought at the time stashed their parcels away. Indeed this was a good move, because after staying steady for a few years, prices have recently doubled because supply is now dwindling. This is in part why I acquired some pieces.
Design wise I was surprised how well the bright orange looks in rose gold, and in particular when pink gems, like mahenge spinel and pink sapphires, are added into the mix. I also love the combination of red, orange, and yellow (i.e. yellow sapphires and Burma spinels). Mandarin garnet, as opposed to pyrope garnet, also has excellent performance in incandescent light. In fact, I find that they look their best when the light does not hit them directly, but when it is subdued. Then a good quality piece can almost look neon-orange, despite the occasional tiny white inclusions that are called “sugar” in industry. That neon color is what drew me in the most. Extra fine Mandarin ovals can look more orange from one angle, with flashes of reddish orange from another angle. It’s really quite beautiful.
|Mandarin Garnet ring with Burmese Pink Sapphire|
This not-quite-red yet not light orange color is extremely rare. I’ve seen large parcels from the Loliondo mines with perhaps just one or two stones that looked like that. In fact, I went through every parcel at my gem dealer’s office in the smaller, more affordable size, and pulled out all the most neon pieces I could find. These days, most mines no longer produce that color at all. Recent reports indicate that only low quality rough is being offered in Nigeria, and one source has told me that because of political tensions among locals, the Nigeria mine is no longer operating now. And so it goes until we find some more elsewhere on the African continent.