5 Revelations From the Tucson Gem Shows

After spending 15 years writing about the jewelry trade, including three years as National Jeweler’s gem editor, I’d gotten a bit cocky about my grasp of colored stones. I could identify rhodochrosites and spinels, talk beryllium and paraffin treatments, and inquire about the nuances of paraiba tourmalines from Brazil vs. Mozambique.

But last week in Tucson, the trade gently reminded me how much I don’t know about color. Let me count (a few of) the ways:

1. “Pink tanzanite” is a thing.

Los Angeles–based Loretta Castoro designs distinctive fine jewelry with a fun, fashionable sensibility. Exhibit A: her seductive Kiss Me line of lip-shape rings, earrings, and pendants, each centered on a delicious colored stone.

Last week, I passed Castoro’s booth every day as I hit the floor of the JCK Tucson show, and stopped almost every time to talk gems (in addition to designing jewelry, Castoro is an expert at sourcing stones—procurement is her specialty!).

“Do you want to see something really different?” she asked me one afternoon.

(I am always tempted to answer questions like this with a phrase borrowed from an ex-boyfriend: Does Raggedy Ann have cotton tits? Um, YES.)

“Pink tanzanite!” Castoro exclaimed as she flashed a white gold ring set with a pretty, oval-shape purplish-pink stone weighing 4.91 carats (retail: $14,500). She said she’d seen images of some pink tanzanites from the Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines mineral show in France and set out in search of the gem. “It took many months to find it and I bought it in Hong Kong,” she said.

The ring on the right features a 4.91 ct. pink tanzanite ($14,500) while the one on the left is set with a pinkish-violet tanzanite ($10,850)—both designed by Loretta Castoro.

We all know tanzanite—it’s the purple-violet-blue gem that comes from only one place on earth (as far as we know): Tanzania. So how was this stone so pink? Well, it technically belongs to the zoisite mineral family; tanzanite is zoisite with a dollop of vanadium. And given the trade’s loosey-goosey way of handling nomenclature (see item No. 5), I’m guessing that whomever first called it “pink tanzanite” thought the moniker sounded sexier than “pink zoisite”—and they were right.

2. Ethiopia produces black opals.

A few booths down from Castoro, I stumbled upon another designer favorite: Alishan Halebian and his lovely wife, Lydia, who showed me one of their newest rings: a smoke-treated black opal from Ethiopia in a signature 18k yellow gold and silver patina setting (retail: $4,225).

A black opal from Ethiopia graces one of Alishan’s newest rings.

All this time, I thought Ethiopia only produced white opals, but a morning seminar at the American Gem Trade Association GemFair, led by Gemworld International owner Richard Drucker, confirmed that a new find of black non-hydrophane opals had been found in the East African country. Clearly, the market moves way faster than we do!

3. Move over Sleeping Beauty, here comes Kingman.

In last week’s blog, I wrote about my relatively new obsession with turquoise. Well, I found just the right guys to indulge me in Tucson: brothers Matt and Ryan Foutz, the fifth-generation turquoise traders behind Phoenix-based Sterling Turquoise. At their AGTA booth, I spied hunks of mottled green rough from the Kingman Mine in Arizona, a well-known source that’s picking up the slack in the turquoise market now that the famed Sleeping Beauty mine is no longer producing.

Sleeping Beauty and Kingman turquoise under the showcase at Sterling Turquoise’s AGTA booth

Even though the creamy blue gems from Sleeping Beauty are the standard bearers in the turquoise market for their consistency and depth of color, I’m drawn to the cracks and colors of the Kingman material, which features a cool gold matrix. What a killer ring the stone below would make.

A 30 ct. piece of Kingman turquoise priced at $10 per carat at the Sterling Turquoise booth at AGTA

4. From trapiche sapphires to all the colors of zoisite, offbeat gems rule.

At the Mayer & Watt booth at AGTA, I stumbled upon trays of exotic stones that had me spellbound. The first tray contained gorgeous little specimens of trapiche emeralds (the Spanish term describes a grinding wheel used to process sugarcane), which are crystals with dark impurities that appear in a spoke formation. There are also trapiche sapphires and trapiche rubies.

Trapiche emeralds at Mayer & Watt’s AGTA booth

Laurie Watt also showed me an entire tray of zoisites in virtually all the colors of the rainbow. Where has this versatile gem been all my life?

Zoisite in all its beguiling incarnations, at Mayer & Watt’s AGTA booth

5. Color terminology is a complicated, near-impossible thing to standardize—but the trade keeps trying.

For an industry that revolves around color, the gem trade sure has a hard time describing it. For 30 years, various organizations in the trade have attempted to market color communication tools to help people articulate the nuances that distinguish, say, a sapphire that is royal blue from one that is vivid blue or cornflower blue. And even though no system has ever gained industry-wide acceptance, people keep trying.

At AGTA, Gemworld International, publisher of GemGuide, introduced the World of Color communication system, which consists of a book and companion price guide based on the Munsell color system developed by artist Albert Munsell in the early 1900s.

Designed to settle the debates that inevitably arise when two people try to describe the same gemstone, the World of Color book contains 40 pages that each come with their own overlay chart, describing color terms such as moderate purplish red and strong purplish red. The companion guide correlates World of Color selections with GemGuide’s pricing 1–10 scale. Check out the video at the link above for a short tutorial.

Meanwhile, at a neighboring table at AGTA, the promoters of another color communication tool, GemeSquare, promised that their computer-based system was the more intuitive, easy-to-use solution to the gem trade’s longstanding nomenclature problem.

When labs use descriptive color terminology on their gem reports, the difference between one word or another can mean tens of thousands of dollars to the dealers who rely on the terminology to justify charging higher prices. But most people in the trade operate on a visceral basis—color is something they feel in their bones; it’s not something they articulate.

I can see the benefits of an industry-wide color communication tool, and Gemworld’s World of Color system—which is portable, affordable ($495 for the whole shebang), and intuitive—seems like a great option, especially for students and people just starting out. But will it be accepted by the trade, particularly the old-timers? 

Courtesy Gemworld International

A sample page from Gemworld Internatonal’s new World of Color color communication tool

Finally, here’s a brief personal reflection from Tucson.

It’s weird to admit this: The highlight of Tucson Gem Week for me had nothing to do with gems. It was Tuesday morning, and my sister, Julia, who’d driven in from Los Angeles to join me in Tucson, and JCK’s very own Bill Furman decided to start our day with a hike around the mountains behind the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, home to JCK Tucson. We were told the easiest hike was a 45-minute circuit called the Lorraine Lee Hidden Canyon Trail.

What we weren’t told is that emphasis was on the “hidden.” Before we knew it, Jul, Bill, and I were at the top of the mountain staring down at miles of Saguaro-studded hills, wondering how on earth we’d strayed so far, and how in the hell we would get down. We couldn’t even see the trail—until a troop of day hikers appeared on the dirt path down below and stopped to gawk at us marooned way up high on the hilltop.

Hidden Canyon Trail—so hidden that we lost the plot about 5 minutes into our hike.

We had no choice but to scoot down—occasionally on our bums—laughing, joking, and mildly cursing our own cluelessness. How three completely sober adults could miss a well-worn trail I do not know. But looking back, I’m glad we did. What’s life without a few foibles?

My sister, Julia, Bill Furman, and me (aka Survivors) post-hike