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What’s in a name, you ask? Quite a lot when it comes to gems. Try getting excited about the likes of zoisite or grossular garnet. But rechristen these two gems as “tanzanite” and “tsavorite” respectively and you’ve done for gem marketing the equivalent of changing the name “Frances Gumm” to “Judy Garland.” “Tanzanite” and “tsavorite” are the trade names Tiffany’s taught the world to use back in 1968 and 1970 when it debuted these two East African gems to wild acclaim.
So it was hardly surprising that when sugilite, a new gem from South Africa, made its American market entry in 1984, it had as many trade names as a generic drug.

Aware the name “sugilite” doesn’t conjure up any of the gem’s attributes—such as its majestic deep-purple color and its remote single origin in the southern Africa’s Kalahari desert—marketers dubbed it variously “wesselite,” “royal azel,” “royal lavulite” and “cybeline.”

It never caught on under any of these aliases.

Nor has it yet to catch on under its real name.

Sugilite’s trouble, one a catchy name can’t fix, is that it is more mineral than gem, suitable for cabochon cutting rather than faceting. With the exception of turquoise, lapis lazuli and black onyx, few opaque and semi-translucent gem minerals attract the attention of consumers.

May we suggest a second look? Sugilite has three big pluses going for it: beauty, affordability and a helluva story line. We will start with the last.

Marketing Manganese

Sugilite is named after Professor Ken-ichi Sugi, the Japanese petrologist (a specialist in rock formation and composition) who first discovered it in southwestern Japan in 1944. Although later noted in India, the first sugilite suitable for jewelry use wasn’t recovered until 1979 from a South African manganese mine in the Kalahari desert near Botswana. Later one ambitious marketer of the new gem would dub sugilite “royal azel” after the mine’s nearest town, Hotazel (jokingly pronounced “hot as hell” by locals since daytime summer temperatures there reach 100 F).

The area in which sugilite is found is known as the Kuruman manganese field. Although this region is dotted with manganese mines, only one, the Wessels mine, produces gem sugilite. To honor its sole source, some early sellers called the newcomer “wesselite.”

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