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Luck Be A Lady Tonight –
The Discovery of Malaya Garnet

by Richard W. Wise, G.G.

©2005


The course of the Umba River undulates like an
uncoiling snake as it slithers through the parched East African savanna.

It was at the river, about four miles west of the Tanzanian town of Mwakaijembe, about a hundred meters out from one of those bends where the first signs of Malaya garnet were found. The time-- somewhere in the mid 1960s. “You ask about size and rarity”! Dealer Roland Naftule pauses thoughtfully before responding to the journalist’s question. “Nowadays anything over five carats is rare. All garnet except rhodolite is generally rare above four to five carats. At six or seven you have another jump. Above twenty, very scarce! Over one hundred carats-- it’s a museum piece.”

“But, in the early days of the strike, there were rough pieces-- water worn pebbles the size of golf balls”. That’s how Naftule remembers it. They cut huge pieces! Over a hundred carats! “One hundred eighty, that was probably the biggest”. Campbell Bridges recalls the early days of the strike: “an abundance” of high quality rough up to ten grams (40 carats). Figuring in a 30% loss in cutting, rough of that size yields cut stones of almost thirty carats.

The country rock in this area, just south of the Kenya border, is biotite, quartz, and feldspar gneiss. The deposit was alluvial. Stones were found to a depth of about four feet along a long dead river channel. Traces of Malaya have been found elsewhere, in Kenya at Lunga Lunga and at points along the plain that stretches from the Kenya-Tanzania border to Mgama Ridge in the Taita Hills. More recently Malaya has also been reported in Tanzania at Tunduro.

There is no organized large-scale production at the present time. According to Dr. N. R. Barot, most current production is small parcels brought in by independent miners. A few stones, almost nothing above four carats appear from time to time in the Nairobi market. The original strike was mined out in just a few years and there have been few serious attempts to exploit other potential deposits.

Was it a native prospector or herdsman or a Masai priest named Yacobo who

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Photo: R. W. Wise

Masai mother and child. A society of herdsmen /warriors the Masai are Nomads living on the plains in dung and wattle huts surrounded by a fort of native brambles.

actually made the strike? Accounts differ… memories fade…! The Tsakiris brothers, George and John, as well as the Naftule and Laxman families were among the first dealers to take an active interest in the new discovery.

Georges Papaeliopoulos, a sisal farmer with a flare for prospecting first brought the Umba river stones to the attention of the Naftule family. He brought coffee bags stuffed with kilos of mixed Umba river gravels to Eugene Naftule in Geneva.

Much of it was sapphire in unusual colors. Naftule offered three times the price that anyone else had and bought the rough. This was the beginning! Papaeliopoulos returned with hundreds of kilos which soon built into tons. Besides fancy sapphire and Malaya garnet, other hitherto unknown gems were included in these mixed bags of rough: Chrome tourmaline, yellow and green grossular garnet and green opal.

Known in East Africa as “the ghost”; Papaeliopoulos became chief miner working with the Naftules. Mining was carried on in secret. Tanzania’s government was at that time in league with communist China and not eager to export raw materials. Later, “the ghost” would pay for his audacity with a term in Tanzania’s
Infamous prison system.

The orangy-brown stones were first thought to be Spessartite. After extensive testing they were found to be not spessartite, not grossular nor pyrope but somewhere in between. In Europe the new garnet was initially called Umbalite but, given its disputed parentage is it any wonder that the Swahili term malaya, meaning literally “out of the family” (or more colloquially “prostitute”) was the name that stuck?

Technically the mixture of garnet species that makes up malaya is highly variable: 0-83% pyrope, 2-78% almandine, 2-94% spessartite, 0-24% grossular with no more than 4% andradite. As a practical matter the refractive index of approximately 1.765 overlaps only grossular but, unlike grossular, which has no distinct ultraviolet spectrum, malaya exhibits distinct bands at 504, 520 and 573A c. Stones in the following hues with a refractive index above 1.76 and below 1.78 can be safely termed Malaya.

The color range of Malaya is broader than Spessartite and the orange hue rarely as crisp and pure as the finest of that species. Malaya ranges from a yellowish-brown, brownish pink through a cinnamon to a crisp honey brown and reddish brown to a brick or brown-orange. The rarest and most beautiful are the honey-peach,

cinnamon, tangerine and pinkish-orange. In the very finest stones there is a complete absence of the brownish hue.

Tonally, Malaya can run the gamut from 40% to 85-90%. The norm is 70-80%. 70-75% tone is probably ideal, lending the stone the most attractive overall appearance.

Malaya garnets with tonal values under 60% appear washed out. 85% is definitely overdark. The Guide rates stones in these tonal ranges in the “Brick” or brown-orange range or those with a distinct yellowish secondary hue commercial.

The Guide classifies Malaya garnet as a class II gemstone meaning that larger stones may show eye visible inclusions. In East Africa a majority of the stones offered for sale, though small (under three carats) are eye clean and fairly well cut.

Malaya is a true lady of the evening, a nightstone. The gem holds up well in incandescent lighting and like most East African gems is not intimidated by direct sun. Though not technical terms, nightstone and daystone describe qualities important to judging the beauty of gems. Some gem varieties such as Thai ruby, due, perhaps to its high iron content, are completely undone when exposed to direct sun Indeed, Malaya is both a day and a nightstone holding up well in all lighting environments

Malaya garnet strikes a surprising resonance among consumers. It sold well in the early nineties with the prominence of dark orange and forest green, the so-called jungle fashion colors. The garnet is particularly flattering to women with dark brown to reddish hair and those with ruddy to orangy skin tones.

No longer an outcaste, Malaya garnet is a modern gemstone success story. Since its introduction is the U.S. in the mid 1980s Malaya has not only knocked the accepted garnet classifications into a cocked hat, it has also established itself surprising well among consumers. Given Malaya garnet’s increasing popularity and continued lack of production, can upward pressure on prices be far behind?

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