Tashmarine: Gem of the Silk Road

A gem miner's life, the grown-up version of a treasure hunt, is by nature a gamble. But your first look at this particular mine may make you question the sanity of the six men who come each year to this way-station on the ancient Silk Road in search of Tashmarine®, the first major gem find of this century.

Not that a look at the mine is a casual thing. It takes days to reach this remote corner of Xinjiang province in China. Kazakhstan lies directly to the west, the Taklamagan desert to the south. After leaving Asku, the capital of the region, the foothills of the Tianshan Mountain range makes travel by jeep slow and arduous. Everyone has to get out and push occasionally, especially when fording the rivers that make the road impassable in the rainy season. Actually, part of the way, the riverbed is the road.

The Tashmarine® deposit is at 8,000-feet elevation, and the mining season lasts only from April to October when the snows and bitter dry cold abate. It is cool here even in the summer: the mountain range has several glaciers with eternal snow, a welcome source of melt water in a dry district. The miners have a greenhouse to allow them to grow vegetables despite the nighttime frost.

Life at the mining camp is basic, with a few wood and stone cabins. A clothesline stretches in the yard and chickens scratch in the dirt. Forty-Niners might have lived in a camp much like this in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of course the Forty-Niners didn't have a satellite dish. The landscape around the camp looks much the same as it looked thousands of years ago, when the Silk Road caravans passed by here on the overland route to China.

The gem deposits are located at the most inconvenient place in this remote valley: at the top of the very steep mountainsides. Every morning begins with the climb from the camp to the working face high above. It’s a fairly dramatic morning commute.

Before the miners can begin work each season, they have to disassemble and then haul an air compressor, tanks, and rock hammer up a 60-degree slope with ropes. Then they have to put the equipment back together again. Once the equipment is in place, progress is slow and the deposits are inconsistent.

Through slow determined labor, the miners have dug small caverns in the hillside, following seams in the rock. One pocket will yield spectacular crystals and then days, weeks, or months will go by with no luck. The mine covers an area of about three square kilometers. It's a very large and craggy haystack.
How could all this effort possibly be worth it? Well, the scenery is spectacular, but the beauty that makes it all worthwhile is more portable in nature: a soft pistachio green gemstone with remarkable brilliance.

Tashmarine® is a completely new variety of diopside, found only in this place. The only previously known gem variety of this mineral is chrome diopside, a Siberian gem in a beautiful deep saturated forest green that darkens in color as it gets larger so that cut stones of about three carats are extremely rare. One of the characteristics that surprised gemologists about Tashmarine® is that it keeps its lively color even in cut stones as large as 50 carats.

A shepherd tending his flock was probably the first to discover the sheets of transparent mica that originally brought prospectors to these mountains. The perfectly formed amber colored sheets of mica miners uncovered here were ground up to add sparkle to paint.

"When we were mining the mica, we found these beautiful green crystals and we were very excited. We had to find someone who knew about gemstones to see if it was as exciting to them. This led us to the Shenzhen cutting factory and Columbia Gem House" the mine owner, Wong Jia Ming explains.

A bag of 72 kilos of the pretty green crystals ended up at Columbia Gem House's Shenzhen cutting factory in March 2002. The stranger who brought them couldn't say for sure what they were and she declined to indicate where they came from.

The factory director, Lam Nai-Kai, liked the look of the rough. He recommended taking a chance on it. "When I inspected the rough, I realized that I had never seen it before. It was different from the usual crystals of aquamarine and tourmaline that are commonly found in Shenjiang, the Northwest part of China," Mr. Lam said. "I suspected that the rough might be kunzite at that time.”

CEO Eric Braunwart, back in the company's U.S. head office, didn't even get a chance to see the crystals in person or submit them for gemological testing before making a decision. It was all or nothing and he only had 72 hours to decide whether to commit a considerable sum to the unknown gem.

Braunwart decided to go for it. The risk paid off. Gemological testing confirmed that the gem was a new variety of diopside. Yields were lower than expected, only between 2 and 5 percent, but the finished gems were spectacular enough to make up for it, especially when cut into the factory's trademarked concave faceted Radial Cuts. All that remained was to convince others that this new gemstone was worth a gamble.

First Eric had to find a name. Although Columbia Gem House and its jewelry manufacturing arm, Trigem Designs, are brand-name gem specialists, this was their first opportunity to name a completely new variety. Braunwart and his wife Kathe, who designs jewelry for Trigem Designs, wanted something easy to remember that still paid tribute to the gem's roots in Xinjiang.

The name Tashmarine® came from the combination of Tash, the word for stone in many of the Pharsee-based Central Asian languages, with marine, the Latin word for ocean. Tashmarine®, then, means ocean colored stone in a combination of languages that pay tribute to the ancient Silk Road, where east met west. Tash also commemorates the Braunwarts' daughter Natasha, whose nickname is Tasha. This is family justice of sorts as Natasha's older sister Alixandra already named the company's most popular gem, Grape Garnet®, after her favorite juice.

In June of 2002, the new gem was launched with fanfare at the industry's largest trade show in Las Vegas. Would the nation's jewelers be interested in a new green gem?

Columbia Gem House didn't have to wait long to find out. The company's faceted Tashmarine® supply quickly sold out, particularly in sizes between 2 and 5 carats, perfect for ring center stones. Matched pairs in smaller sizes also sold well for earrings.

"Tashmarine® is a wonderful stone to work with; first of all because it's a new stone and new is exciting," explains retail jeweler Barry Nichols of Paradise Jewelers in Naples, Florida, who decided to stock some of the new gems in his store. "It appeals to me that it is a stone that is not treated in any way and that makes a big difference with some of my customers. The color is unique and not a color that is easily found in gems. Women like to accessorize and Tashmarine® offers them a color that has not been offered before."

Trigem Designs set much of the new mine's production into contemporary jewelry designed by Kathe Mai. Tashmarine's® soft tones work well when set in either white or yellow gold. "Tashmarine® blends beautifully with cool tones like lavender and blue, but it also blends with warm yellows and oranges," Mai says. "It has a versatile personality that plays well with other gems. And the color really does go with everything in your closet."

By the summer of 2002, consumers could see the gem in their local retail jewelry stores and even on television via the ShopNBC channel.

But with demand and awareness growing, the original Tashmarine® supply was soon depleted. The 2003 mining season proved disappointing, with much less production than hoped.

Will this year's season bring more Tashmarine® to a public that is learning to appreciate this new gem? For that we will have to again rely on the luck of the miners, this time with the assistance of a modern geological survey. "We will do everything we can to find that next seam of Tashmarine® but, in the end, it is a matter of chance," Braunwart says.

And what about the original Tashmarine® crystals in the stranger's bag? They found a good home. Most were cut in one to five carat calibrated sized gems sold in jewelry stores across America. However, two exceptional crystals were cut into glorious thirty-carat gems by lapidary artist Richard Homer, who uses concave faceting to create gems of unparalleled brilliance. Those two, along with an uncut crystal from the original bag are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution for the whole nation to see: a testament to the luck of the gem miner and the serendipity of nature's gifts.