CROWN POINT| Loose gravel shifted underfoot with every step Crown Point jeweler Steve Moriarty and photographer Matt Bigelow took while descending hundreds of feet into a dark, claustrophobic mine in Afirca.
Headlamps furnished the only dim illumination. The rope from a pulley system was all they had to grab onto to steady themselves. Glitter hung in the stale air.
Moriarty, the owner of Moriarty's Gem Art on the courthouse square in downtown Crown Point, and Bigelow, a photographer he brought along to document one of his many trips abroad, journeyed to the world's only source of Tanzanite, an extremely rare gemstone that's found only in the Merelani Hills and prized for its bright sapphire blue and violet coloration that can change in the light.
"The color strikes everybody," he said. "There's a wow factor."
Late last year, they took a trip to find the glittering gems in Tanzania, where the largest mine recently closed but several others are still going. Moriarty has made repeated visits to foreign countries such as Tanzania, Madagascar, Kenya and Brazil to find gems that are cut into custom fine jewelry at his store at 126 S. Main St. in Crown Point. The family-owned business, which started as a wholesaler 40 years ago, has more than a half-dozen employees and also operates online jewelry retail sites that include OpalLust.com and TanzaniteJewelryDesigns.com.
Tanzanite enjoyed a surge in popularity during a production boom in the 1990s, and it's been one of the signature gems at Moriarty's Gem Art, accounting for as much as 30 percent of its overall business.
Moriarty travels directly to the source to procure high-quality gems at lower costs than what he could get through middlemen. He would buy them directly from miners, dropping by on lunch breaks when the miners would buy water that vendors would bring in black plastic bags. A swarm of straining arms would thrust uncut gems through his car windows, urging him to assess the quality in the hope of making a sale.
He spent much of the trip assessing the clarity of rough stones, making sure there were no chips or cracks inside, sifting through the stones in car seats, in dealers' offices and right outside the mines.
"You can get an absolutely fabulous stone if you're willing to pay a lot for it before it went through a lot of hands," he said. "But we were able to find stones nobody else saw."
There's competition. The Chinese have muscled into the gem market in recent years to serve the country's growing middle class, and they will buy up hundreds of stone in bulk because they can still turn a profit on one that sell for just a few dollars, which Moriarty can't do since they take as much as eight hours to cut into custom jewelry.
And supply is dwindling. Major mining company Richland Resources pulled out of Tanzania, leading to speculation that the world's Tanzanite supply must be at risk, since they accounted for 50 percent of the gems, Moriarty said.
But Moriarty has a connection who won a mine block in a lottery four years ago and has been trying to hit a pocket. Moriarty brought dynamite during his trip in case they struck a vein and needed to open it up. He has several employees and is always looking for investors for his operation. Sandbags are a major cost, since a pulley pulls them up through a knife, which slices them open so workers can scour through the dirt for gems.
At the end of the trip, they brought back a haul that included sun and moon stones, but less Tanzanite than Moriarty hoped for.
"It was amazing to see it come straight from the source to where they're cutting and polishing it to make pedants for customers," Bigelow said. "It's super cool how he literally gets the rough unfinished product from the mine and then comes back to make something here to give the customers."