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South American Amethyst

At last count, four South American neighbors—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay—are producing, at the very least, 75 percent of the world’s most popular affordably priced gem: amethyst.

Nevertheless, it is Russia and Africa that capture most of the kudos for this gem as far as quality goes—even though the former is a long-inactive source, the latter an erratic one. Instead, South American is stereotyped as a quality producer, better counted on for bulk than beauty.

Now, however, South America may be shedding that stereotype as connoisseurs discover that South American amethyst comes in a wide diversity of strains, some superb. While Brazil remains the gem’s main source by far, still typecast for middle and lower grades, next-door Uruguay vies for contender status with Africa. That kind of comparison is rather high praise in the extremely origin-conscious world of gem dealers and aficionados.

How can a plentiful quartz costing so little be prized on the basis of locality? The answer probably has a lot more to do with the gem’s past than its present.

Caviar Class

To most jewelers, amethyst has forever been a semiprecious stone. In reality, such a notion is of relatively recent vintage. For most of jewelry history, amethyst, from the Greek word amethustos (meaning: “unaffected by drink”), has had a soaring reputation as a precious stone.

Its standing only capsized after the discovery of rich deposits in South America during the 19th century. Writing in 1904, the pioneer gemologist Max Bauer still thought it important to note amethyst’s reeling loss of stature and value among connoisseurs. To back his point, he cited the fate of a magnificent amethyst bracelet belonging to Queen Charlotte of England. Valued at 2,000 pounds early in the 19th century, Bauer estimated that it would scarcely fetch 100 pounds by its end.

No wonder, then, that South America in general and Brazil in particular are associated with the gem’s decline from, in Bauer’s words, “a costly material for superior jewelry” to a gem meant for use in “simpler and cheaper ornaments.”

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South American Amethyst