Gemstone donations to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, are not uncommon, but an extra-large and special gem landed there this spring, complete with its own unveiling ceremony.
The Lion of Merelani, a square cushion-cut, 116.76-carat tsavorite, was unearthed in the Merelani mines of northern Tanzania in 2017. In its rough form, the Lion weighed a whopping 283.74 carats. Once word of its discovery reached miner Bruce Bridges of Bridges Tsavorite, he acquired it to honor the memory of his father, Campbell Bridges.
The elder Bridges was the first to discover tsavorite, spotting the distinctive green gem in Tanzania in 1967. He eventually set up mines in southern Kenya, but in 2009, he was murdered at his mines by a mob. Acquiring the massive Lion — tsavorites exceeding 10 carats are extremely rare — seemed like a fitting tribute to the legacy he had left in the gemological world. Bruce Bridges planned to document the entire cutting process and decide later where the gem’s permanent home would be.
Making the magic happen
When Bridges’s friend Shelly Sergent heard about the remarkable stone, she and the owners of Somewhere in the Rainbow (SITR) — the private gem and jewelry collection she curates — expressed interest in involvement. SITR’s aim is to use the exceptional pieces in its collection to educate and delight gemological groups and museums nationwide. This mission made the Lion an incredibly appealing potential acquisition.
At SITR’s urging, Bridges brought the rough to the Tucson gem shows in 2018, where he shared the wonder of it with peers and wrapped up interviews with possible cutters.
Though Bridges’s business cuts a lot of tsavorite, a specimen of such size requires a unique setup and skill set. He ultimately tapped Russian-born master cutter Victor Tuzlukov for the job due to his experience handling important stones. Sergent even introduced the pair.
“Victor was so excited [when he got the job], he stayed up all night working on the concept of cutting the stone,” recollects Sergent.
To help Tuzlukov — who currently lives in Thailand — succeed, Bridges recreated the cutter’s work station stateside, near his own home in Arizona. Above the bench was a photo of Campbell Bridges, overseeing the handiwork being executed in his name.
More company came later when the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) sent a film crew to interview both men. Bridges also documented the journey daily.
To prepare for cutting the Lion, Tuzlukov warmed up with two test tsavorites: a 31.57-carat square cushion cut, and a 58.50-carat cushion cut. Though he had ample expertise, tsavorite rough can be tricky because of the way it forms. The high pressure and temperature fracture tsavorite during formation, creating linear shards of material that make cutting square shapes a difficult task.
“We wanted to minimize any potential issues that could arise in cutting,” Bridges says. As for the stone’s name, “Lion” was Campbell’s nickname in Africa. They chose to combine it with “Merelani” for the gem’s place of origin.
Once complete — but still homeless — the Lion entertained another special visitor: longtime Smithsonian mineralogist Jeffrey Post, curator-in-charge of gems and minerals at the museum. This meeting took place during the 2019 Tucson gem shows, and Post’s gut reaction was one of pure joy. At that point, Sergent and the SITR owners moved forward with the idea of donating the Lion to the National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals.
The Lion hits three major milestones, according to Bridges: It is the first square cushion-cut tsavorite over 100 carats, the first 100-carat-plus tsavorite ever cut in North America, and the largest precision-cut tsavorite in the world.
“It is also an approximately 100-carat upgrade from our previously largest tsavorite gem,” observes Post, who placed the Lion in the National Gem Collection gallery alongside other iconic stones like the Hope Diamond.
The stone’s unveiling was packed with invited guests and the public. Aside from Sergent and the SITR owners, attendees included Tuzlukov, the Bridges family — among them Bruce’s mother, Judith — and Smithsonian director Kirk Johnson.
“All of our public unveilings of new gems generate great excitement, but this time was particularly special in that most of the people attending were part of the story that brought this gem to the Smithsonian,” says Post. “It is rare that we can assemble such a group for a public event.”
About AGTA The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) is a Dallas, Texas-based not-for-profit serving the colored-gemstone and cultured-pearl industry since 1981. Members are trade professionals based in the US and Canada. AGTA’s activities include education, trade shows, and upholding the highest ethical standards and practices with government officials and other jewelry trade groups. AGTA is widely regarded as “the authority in color.” agta.org
Image: The 283.74-carat Lion of Merelani rough tsavorite. (Jeff Scovil/Bridges Tsavorite)