Crystal Balm

Despite the faltering economy and a decline in attendance, buyers at this show bought.

Many exhibitors not only survived but also surpassed their expectations.

There were groans of pain amid the sighs of relief, however, with some exhibitors reporting 20, 30, and even 40 percent drops in sales from last year. Aisles were often devoid of buyers, and open exhibitor areas dotted the show floor, evidence that several dealers didn’t make it to Tucson.

The American Gem Trade Association noted that attendance at its GemFair was down compared with last year’s figures. The show “saw a 19 percent drop in attending buyers; 7,640 this year versus 9,402 in 2008,” says AGTA chief executive officer Douglas K. Hucker. “Buying was conservative, with buyers primarily restocking traditional inventory.”

Rui Galopim de Carvalho, Portuguese gem expert with Labgem.org and executive liaison ambassador for the International Colored Gemstone Association, said that both the AGTA and GJX shows were missing many of the usual attendees and that most buyers had “orders in the bag” or were looking for opportunities. “Some booths were busy, and some were almost reminiscent of the Sonora desert,” he noted. “The general feeling with the dealers was that the show was OK considering.”

Robert Kane, president and CEO of Fine Gems International, also noted that attendance was dramatically down but said buyers were serious. “In terms of total sales, we had our best show ever,” says Kane, who had just purchased an important collection of fine jewelry and gemstones, including 50 extraordinary Van Cleef & Arpels pieces. “The 250 loose gems included four magnificent Brazilian Paraíba tourmalines weighing a combined total of nearly 40 cts., a 137 ct. faceted tsavorite, and an untreated 17 ct. Colombian emerald,” Kane said. “While we didn’t write that many invoices, we sold several very expensive items. Buyers are looking for superb quality at fair prices.”

In one hopeful trend, AGTA reported an influx of new buyers and noted that many exhibitors said they had opened more new accounts compared with previous years.

Following are some of the highlights of this year’s shows.

The Tucson shows were less about what was selling and more about what was available. Ethiopian opal, a cross between Australian white and Mexican orange fire opal, appears to be an up-and-comer. Tsavorite explorer Campbell Bridges brought in newly mined Kenyan tsavorite garnets, and Columbia Gem House unveiled a recent discovery of andradite garnet and transparent rhodochrosite. Their numbers, transparency, and saturated color made them both standouts.

In the “old as new” category, spinels and tourmalines were more prevalent this year, along with a few more demantoid garnets. Moonstones, zircons, black opal, and anything unheated and untreated were the gems on the move. One standout was an extraordinary suite of unenhanced Colombian emeralds, on display at Fine Gems International.

Award-winning gem cutters offered new designs in more materials. John Dyer hit his stride with a new Vortex cut in ametrine, danburite, morganite, topaz, and tourmaline.

In his annual “Best Buys” seminar, Richard Drucker, of Gemworld International, noted that 2009 isn’t a year to specialize in one stone or one color. Blue sapphires will still be a best seller, he said, with emeralds a close second. The budget conscious should look for natural gem substitutes, like zircon for sapphire and spinel for ruby, Drucker advised.

Other seminar topics included treatment of andesine (i.e., diffused or not); how Mozambique cuprian tourmalines would be labeled (Paraíba or not); and the proliferation of synthetic quartz and spinel, whose cost to identify is substantially more than the value of the gems themselves.

Among the rapidly proliferating gem materials, the most curious was lead-glass-filled ruby, with price tags as low as $1.25 per carat. Plastic soup bowls filled with thousands of carats sat atop showcases. “This is the material that looks good from afar, but is far from good,” says Stuart Robertson, Gemworld’s research director. “You may not be able to tell treatment without a loupe, so ask what’s been done to it,” Robertson advises.

As in years past, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History displayed a portion of its gems and minerals collection, along with this year’s donations, at the entrance to the main exhibit floor of the AGTA GemFair. The Smithsonian’s Jeffrey Post, curator of gems and minerals, and Russell Feather, museum specialist, welcomed donations of rough cut and mounted gems for their internationally renowned collection.

Brochures touting the collection included a wish list noting that the museum has no faceted diamonds from Canada or China or fancy colored sapphires from newly uncovered deposits in East Africa. “A large alexandrite from Russia would nicely fill a void in our collection,” states the Smithsonian’s flier. “Nigerian tourmaline or kunzite would be appreciated!”

Among the donations were a 2.53 ct. Madagascan spessartine garnet, from Tom Cushman, Allerton-Cushman; a 40.01 ct. Tanzanian fluorite and an 8.48 ct.Tanzanian calcite, both from Dudley Blauwet; a 1.93 ct. Kenyan tsavorite from Campbell Bridges; two Ethiopian polished opals (8.86 cts. and 33.15 cts.) and a 643.90 ct. specimen from Opalinda & EyaOpal; a 35.38 ct. Tanzanian moonstone, from Bill Larson, Pala International; corundum in matrix, from Israel Eliezri, Colgem Ltd.; a 3.20 ct. Brazilian quartz with anatase inclusion, from Luciana Barbosa, Gemological Center; a 0.43 ct. Japanese pentahydroborite and specimen, from Yuko Tanaka; and a Bolivian phosphophyllite specimen, from Lois Berger.

On the pearl front, larger Chinese freshwater cultured bead-nucleated and tissue-activated rounds, off-rounds, and baroques were strong. But the larger (9–12 mm) tissue-activated, high-end, metallic-luster, natural-color rounds have become even more rare and inconsistent, driving a few specialists to expand into other categories in order to have inventory.

Clusters, created when cultured pearls grow together, have reached a new peak as Chinese production has grown to a state of overcrowding. Fireballs—bead-nucleated off-rounds with comet tails—were prevalent, affordable, and attractive.

Plenty of non-nucleated cultured pearls were available. These byproducts of the culturing process are known as Keshi pearls. The larger Keshi were produced in Chinese freshwater mussels. Traditional Keshi pearls—small byproducts of the saltwater akoya culturing process—were available but much less prevalent than the Chinese freshwaters.

Akoyas, Tahitians, and other South Seas cultured pearls appeared to be in decline. Tahitian size and quality were inconsistent throughout the shows compared with years past. That may be partly the result of the elimination of the Perles de Tahiti pearl promotion and quality control offices.

As a group, the German exhibitors, mostly from Idar-Oberstein, moved into a new extension of the GJX tent. Ekkehard Schneider showed lilac and deep purple Mozambique cuprian tourmalines. Constantin Wild had his usual impressive store of hauyne (the rare, shockingly blue gem from Germany) and Mexican opal. Both Berndt and Tom Munsteiner had, as always, an impressive array of wearable gem art, raising the bar once again for everyone.