Gem Notes

Report from Tucson, Part II

Both the quality and the quantity of colored gems and diamonds at the Tucson gem shows were up again this year, giving retail jewelers one of their best buying opportunities ever. In fact, the shows were so outstanding that we couldn?t provide complete coverage in last month?s issue and are continuing it here, with reports on emeralds, tanzanite, fancy sapphires, garnets, peridot, pearls, moissanite, blue jade, and other unusual gems.

Emeralds. It looks as if emeralds? downward slide has stopped. The large number of dealers offering enhancement disclosure appears to have done the trick?this year?s emerald sales were steady, and prices held their own. ?I was glad to be an emerald dealer this year,? says Andrew Hodgson of Equatorian Imports Inc. in Dallas. ?Last year was completely different.? Ron Ringsrud of San Francisco says, ?I take nothing for granted anymore. I?ve been in the emerald business too long to do that. But the trend is definitely up.?

Ringsrud says he saw it coming. ?When I was down in Colombia for 10 days in December and then for two weeks in January, buying for Tucson, what elevated my spirits was seeing that the Italian buyers were all back.? (When palm oil treatments turned white after a few years of wear, the baffled Italians stopped coming to Colombia.) ?The Italians like the clean, bright, lively look that was exactly the stuff that could be ruined by palm oil treatment,? notes Ringsrud. Since 1998, when the World Emerald Congress promoted cedarwood oil as the treatment of choice, palm oil is out, and the Italians have returned. ?Italian taste and fashion lead world fashion,? says Ringsrud. ?That?s got me feeling good about emeralds.?

Chinese pearls. One new trend at the American Gem Trade Association GemFair was particularly striking: Most colored stone dealers were also pearl dealers. David Ohlgisser of King Plutarco Inc. in Los Angeles, a wholesaler of top-quality Tahitian and South Seas pearls, estimates that more than half the AGTA show booths displayed some kind of pearl product. And a quick stroll down two random aisles lent credence to his conjecture. Even a booth supposedly dedicated to tanzanite showed a pearl necklace with tanzanite enhancer.

The move to pearls is exemplified by Freeman Gem Corp. (mentioned in our April Tucson report). Owner Marc Freeman added a new name?Freeman Pearl Co.?to his business, which turned out to be a prescient move. His first-day sales of high-luster, spice-color Chinese freshwater pearls outpaced last year?s entire sales. Freeman planned to return to China immediately after the show to stock up again. Meanwhile, C. Link, the Japan-based pearl company that first displayed top-quality round Chinese freshwaters two years ago, operated this year from a double-sized booth at the Gem and Lapidary Dealers Association show in the Holiday Inn City Center.

Tahitian pearls. The quality and quantity of Tahitian black pearls were also up compared with those seen last year. To help promote top manufacturers and designers of Tahitian pearl jewelry in the United States, G.I.E. Perles de Tahiti cosponsored an evening fashion show, complete with native Tahitian dancers. Among the Tahitian pearl jewelry modeled informally were pieces by award-winning designers Robert Lee Morris and Ella Gafter. More than $30,000 worth of Tahitian pearl jewelry was given away as gifts to visitors at the event.

Tanzanite. Tanzanite, which outpaced emerald in gem sales, was the talk of the show. It was nearly impossible to find a lot of top-quality calibrated goods at reasonable prices anywhere in Tucson. As for individual stones, single top-quality goods were priced high, too. Tanzanian locals are holding onto the gems as a hedge against the country?s double-digit inflation, which is decreasing supply to the gem and jewelry industry and raising the purchase price of rough.

Fancy sapphire. Bill Barker of Barker & Co. in San Diego notes that there were ample supplies of blue sapphire from Madagascar as well as Ceylon. With so many Sri Lankan dealers in Madagascar, though, it may be difficult to pinpoint the origin of ?Ceylon-blue? sapphire.

Fancy colored sapphires (anything other than blue) also were abundant. Pink sapphires followed last year?s trend and sold quickly. In the Gem & Jewelry Exchange tent, colored stone manufacturer Menavi International of Ramat-Gan, Israel, was sold out of pink triangles by the end of the first day. Margit Thorndal of Madagascar Imports in Laurel, Mont., which sells the Menavi gems, notes that custom designers have been interested in pink sapphire for a while, and now more manufacturers have begun adding it to their lines. ?Supply seems to be good,? she adds, but because of recent storms in the mining areas, she?s taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Garnets. Barker sold a lot of ?super clean? Nigerian rubellite (red tourmaline) and spessartite (yellow-orange garnet) during the show. Buyers remained steady throughout the event and included manufacturers looking for large lots as well as small mom-and-pop shops seeking larger single stones.

Besides the new Nigerian spessartites, rhodolite ?grape? garnets again were a top seller, according to Barbara Reese, gem sales manager for Columbia Gem House of Vancouver, Wash.

Madagascar Imports showed a few of the ?new? garnets, blue color-change stones called ?aurora? that transform from a teal blue to a violet red. ?There was a lot of interest in that,? notes Thorndal, who also reported curiosity about the pyrope-spessartine ?champagne? garnets. Similar to Malaya garnets in color, the champagnes have a color shift from taupe to a rosy pink color. ?They make good accent stones, especially in rose gold or platinum,? says Thorndal.

Richard Shull from Out of Our Mines in Arcata, Calif., was looking over Charles Vargas?s newest selection of andradite garnets from San Carlos, Ariz. Vargas, owner of Apache Gems, has been finding andradites, including demantoids, for the past five years. He believes that it?s the high chromium content in the new garnets that creates such a strong and beautiful color shift from yellow to green. ?Try finding that in the gemological literature,? Vargas says.

Chrome diopsides. Because of tanzanite?s popularity, bench jewelers are becoming accustomed to working with the softer gems. The surge in popularity of chrome diopsides, which have a hardness of 5 to 6 on the Mohs scale, makes the point. Because of these gems? saturated dark green color, low price, and ready availability, both individual and manufacturing jewelers are buying chrome diopside. Prices range from approximately $35 to $40 per carat.

Peridot. Supplies were plentiful. ?This year I saw some exceptionally fine large stones, one even as large as 10 cts.,? says Barker, referring to Arizona material. Typically, the large, clean material is from Pakistan and Myanmar. The Apache peridot from Arizona, on the other hand, often is small and full of lily-pad-like inclusions.

Blue jade, white turquoise, and other unusual ?gems.? One of the more unusual materials found in Tucson this year was blue jade. It?s a fibrous, sometimes chatoyant (having a cat?s-eye effect), sometimes botryoidal (having a grape-like growth structure, seen as a circular pattern in polished minerals) nephrite. It was found in 1949 by a well-known California rock hunter named Vonsen and is known as Vonsen blue jade. Anders Karlsson of Rocksarkana in Petaluma, Calif., has reopened the original Vonsen mine, located on dairy farmland north of San Francisco, near Petaluma.

?We?ve been mining it now for about three years,? says Karlsson. ?Not much has been mined since ?49 or ?50. The farmer who owned the land didn?t want anyone up there. Not until his son took over the farm were we able to go and look for the gem. We go in sometime in the late spring. Mining is all done by hand.? What Karlsson finds has a color like light robin?s egg blue. He describes it as having a ?steely look.?

Another unusual gem material at Tucson this year was ?white turquoise.? The blue or green color of regular turquoise comes from copper in its chemical structure. But what if turquoise has no copper or is masked by aluminum? Is it still turquoise? One of the dealers showing white turquoise was Larry Cooley, a well-known turquoise expert from Sparks, Nev. Cooley has been collecting and working in turquoise for many years, but the white material stumped him along with everyone else. ?Nobody seemed to know exactly what it was, but they called it white turquoise,? says Cooley.

The material comes from Dry Creek mine, located north of Austin, Nev. The mine produces a cream-white stone, but it?s available only in small quantities. The spider-web matrix is typically a light-gold or brown-gray to gray-black color. Nevada prospector Lynn Otteson also has found white turquoise at the White Buffalo mine, located in the Gilbert Mountain range between Tonopah and Mina.

Many gemologists thought white turquoise might be howlite, a common turquoise substitute (hardness 3.5) that?s dyed blue. But the white turquoise shown at Tucson has a hardness of 5.5 to 6, which allows for a much better polish than can be achieved with howlite. According to Cooley, some mineralogists thought it was planarite, a member of the turquoise series, but planarite is too rare and not white enough to fit the bill. Otteson notes that, like turquoise, it lies in veins surrounded by black chert (an opaque variety of quartz). ?Until someone can prove differently, we?re going to call it white turquoise from the White Buffalo mine,? Otteson says.

Cooley recently sent a piece of white turquoise to the University of Nevada, Bureau of Mines and Geology, to have a sample tested. The results show that ?White Buffalo? consists of ?major amounts of quartz, calcite, and alunite [an aluminum potassium sulphide] with turquoise.?

White turquoise was priced from $0.27 per carat for the most common material to $1.35 per carat for matched pairs.

Bruce Barlow of Barlows in Phoenix notes a ?big swing toward drusys,? so he?s expanding his selection to include Brazilian agates and nodules and natural colors like pumpkin citrine and natural black. Dendritic drusys also are popular, and there are even red drusys?clear crystals on top of red agate. The rough is hard to obtain, but gem cutters who can get their hands on some are designing exciting new shapes, especially in art deco forms.

Assembled designer gems. David Brackna showed examples of his ?optical inlays? in Tucson, and the response was enthusiastic. Brackna places an opal in the culet area of the faceted gem, and the opal?s colors reflect throughout the stone. For his early examples, he used standard faceted stones, but today he uses an apex crown, which he says doubly magnifies the opal. It also helps hide inclusions as well as any bubbles in the glue layer. The results are extraordinary.

Like most cutters at the show, Brackna enjoyed strong sales, about 20% higher than last year?s. His ?new stuff??holograms in quartz?was a hit. His tanzanite sales also were good, as were sales of color-change garnet from Madagascar. ?I didn?t even have it out on display,? says an amazed Brackna. ?People were asking for it.?

Brackna goes to Tucson not only to sell but also to buy. He needs rough, but this year it was difficult to find. ?As far as rough goes, it was weird,? says Brackna. Brackna found what he needed, but the pickings were slim compared with past years.

Synthetic moissanite. Charles and Colvard, previously known as C3, was showing off its colored line of synthetic moissanite and moissanite jewelry. Blue and green moissanite display the same high dispersion and high luster as the near-colorless material. Green moissanite was the first to be synthesized. Near-colorless gems, which result from removing color, required years of research and development.

Technology. Wayne Prentice, an award-winning gem cutter from Santa Barbara, Calif., marveled at the new Model Master, a CAD/CAM (computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing) program used to make wax models for castings. ?You can take a crude drawing of a heart, turn it into a perfect 3-D image, change the contours, note the size of the diamonds you want to use, press a button, and it will carve a perfect heart with all the diamond seats,? he says. ?It?s neat!?

Most consumers want something made by hand, yet they want it to be perfect. The question is whether you want art or precision, says Prentice. ?Just think about it. You can sit down with your customer, show her the ring you?ve designed on screen, and then within minutes, have a wax [model] for her to try on.?

Prentice saw the Model Master two years ago and realized it could be adapted to cut gems. Today, Model Master carves cameos. You can take a photo, create a 3-D image, and have it carved?exactly the way it looks in the photo?in hard stone. The Model Master works well with all agates, shell, chrysocolla, and optical quartz.

Mike Adams, a member of Model Masters? research and development team, notes that his fellow employees are all jewelry-oriented, with backgrounds in the jewelry industry. ?We have approximately 300 systems out there,? he says. ?Eighty percent are with shops which employ less than five people. And of those small shops, 50% of them work out of their home. Some pretty big names, too.?

If You?re Going Next Year?

If you haven?t been to the Tucson shows recently, you might be amazed to see how big the scene has become. This year saw a record 28 shows, with a 29th?for diamonds only?scheduled for next year. The main shows are still centered on the American Gem Trade Association?s GemFair.

The Gem and Jewelry Exchange tent (set up in the convention center?s overflow parking area) and the Gem and Lapidary Dealers Association (set up at the Holiday Inn City Center), together with AGTA?s GemFair, constitute Tucson?s ?big three.? If you can attend only three shows, these are the ones.

If you?re looking for an introduction to gems, try ?Jump Start,? a group of smaller motel and tent shows along Interstate 10. These shows, although mainly rock-, mineral-, and lapidary-oriented, include some fine gemstone dealers who were unable to break into the already full AGTA, GLDA, and GJX shows.

The Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, sponsored by the local Tucson Gem & Mineral Society, takes place at the convention center after AGTA has closed up. This is the show that began what turned out to be the world?s largest gem fair. The show, a typical gem and mineral exhibition, is open to the public.

Mineral show purists can attend the pre-Jump Start event in the town of Quartzite, about a two-hour drive west from Phoenix. It?s a veritable Winnebago city as rock hounds crowd the small Arizona town to scrutinize rocks and minerals.