GemNotes

The Year of the Dragon

As Chinese carvers move from ivory to hard stone, many of the finest have begun working in jadeite. Jade expert Don Kay, president of Mason-Kay Inc. in Denver, says he’s seeing more fine-quality jadeite carvings than ever before. That might not be a coincidence—jadeite claims a strong connection to the year 2000.

This is the Chinese year of the dragon, and the dragon is the symbol of China’s Jade Emperor. Moreover, jade traditionally has been used to honor important events, such as dynastic changes—or the advent of a new millennium. Put it all together, and dragons carved in jade have especially strong symbolism this year.

In Chinese astrology, the dragon is considered a paragon of strength and good fortune. It’s also good-natured, energetic, self-confident, and inquisitive, qualities that enable it to face any challenge.

People born under the sign of the dragon have a spirited, intellectual nature. They enjoy spending money, but when serious matters arise, they know how to cope. Dragons love excitement, and they’re sometimes unpredictable. They’re decisive and self-assured but also romantic and charming.

Carving a Niche in Pearls

After two decades of honing his craft on hard stone, gem artist and carver Bart Curren of Vancouver, Wash., has turned to pearls. “We’re still trying to figure out which ones are good to work with,” Curren says. “They’re incredibly soft, so the carving goes very fast.”

The technique involved in pearl carving is different from his usual modus operandi, Curren says. “You have to have a much lighter touch. Otherwise, you could be destroying a perfectly good pearl by carving too deep.” He uses Chinese freshwaters because of their thick nacre layer.

Curren’s pearl designs are all free-form—“sort of organic; not the angular stuff I’m known for recently, but more like the stuff I’m known for from a long time ago.” Carving out blemishes can affect the designs. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes the blemishes get worse as you go, some go away,” he explains. He does note one advantage carved pearls have over hard stone carvings: “Most are already drilled, which means there’s a way to set them.”

Curren says he hasn’t heard of anyone else carving pearls. “I’ve seen real small cameo- or intaglio-type things, and of course, the faceted pearls,” he says. Faceted pearls, which look like tiny versions of the reflecting globes suspended from the ceilings of discos, were displayed in Tucson two years ago by Pala International.

Curren has finished 21 pieces in preparation for the Tucson gem and mineral shows next month and has shown some to clients. “Overall, I think the reaction has been pretty good. Like anything, there’s going to be a little bit of a period for gaining acceptance in the beginning.”

Collector Shares His Rare Stones

Jim Houran’s fascination with gems began at the age of 10, when he would watch his neighbor, a lapidary, cut and polish gemstones. “I never got into the lapidary part, but I appreciated the final product,” Houran says.

He appreciated the “final product” enough to start collecting it, but only the rarest examples. “It’s stressful being a collector,” he says. “You want one of everything. So I made a commitment to focus mainly on rare stones with gemological significance—something that’s been written about.” All 25 stones in his collection have been the subject of scholarly articles focusing on their gemological significance.

Houran, who lives in Springfield, Ill., likes to share his rare treasures with others. “The people I acquire stones from can actually request them back for study or display,” he says. “I’m on a crusade to acquire when I can and then display it and let others have access to it.”

His collection includes a 3.46-ct. emerald-cut staurolite. His is much larger than most and has an unusual dark red-brown color. The gem is relatively transparent—a rare quality in any staurolite—which makes it one of the rarest of the rare. Although pricing of rare gems is difficult, Houran estimates the value of such a stone at $150 to $200 per carat, primarily because of the cutting difficulties involved. Gems with a history, of course, usually fetch a collector’s premium.

Taaffeite (pronounced “TAR-fight”) is not only difficult to find but also tough to identify. Its gemological properties are so close to spinel’s that most are mislabeled. Houran’s Sri Lankan taaffeite is a 1.07-ct. cushion triangular brilliant. “There are only two others like this one,” he says, referring to the stone’s high zinc content. “And it’s an 8 in hardness—wonderful for jewelry!” The stone’s estimated value is around $1,000 to $2,000 per carat.

Houran’s 4.45-ct. pollucite (from Maine, a state best known for tourmaline) rates 6 in hardness. Its main constituent is cesium. Most pollucites are colorless; Houran’s is yellow and transparent. Most range between 1 ct. and 2 cts.; his weighs nearly 4.5 cts. This “one-of-a-kind piece,” as he calls it, could command $1,200, based in part on the time it takes to cut such a gem.

Houran’s 7.18-ct. phenakite could be worn as jewelry, but its scarcity makes this Russian gem more a collector’s item. Phenakites are found in the Ural Mountains and tend to be colorless, which makes his yellow gem especially rare. “There are probably no more than 50 or so like this,” says the collector. “This is the biggest and cleanest.” Its value is in the neighborhood of $100 to $150 per carat.

New Zealand Species Yields ‘Blue Pearls’

New Zealand abalones produce pearls with incredible iridescent blue and green colors, but attempts to use the species (known in New Zealand as the Paua) for pearl culturing in the past have met with only moderate success. Now large seabeds for future mabé abalone pearl cultivation are being developed, reportedly by Roger Beattie, managing director of the Eyris Blue Pearl Co. in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Until 1989, only natural abalone pearls were available. Then Beattie did extensive research on the life cycles of the various types of seaweed abalones feed on. It’s those seaweed varieties that help create the remarkable spectrum of pearl colors. Beattie’s studies, including predictions of weather patterns that affect the seaweed, helped him grow and culture Paua. Eyris’s parent company, Sea-Right Investments, has provided about $180,000 in funding for a research project on seaweed—giant kelp.

Water temperature and salinity affect the health and beauty of abalone shells. In 1991, too much freshwater in the culturing inlets reduced salinity, killing most of the mollusks. As a result, the operation moved to a new location, where heavy rains and wind are less prevalent. Then in 1996, an algae bloom wiped out almost 50% of the Paua. Algae blooms deplete oxygen from the waters and suffocate the animal. The latest destination for the pearl farm is Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds. With three locations, Eyris hopes future losses will be minimal.

New Zealand abalones undergo greater fluctuations in water temperature than Japanese akoyas do. Such fluctuations can determine the layering of nacre and conchiolin (an organic binding agent) and affect the intensity of pearl color. During the winter months the mollusk lays down a protective conchiolin layer, and in the summer it produces smooth, iridescent nacre. The process is similar to that of South Seas and Tahitian pearl culturing, but opposite the Japanese process. For Japanese akoyas, winter is best for laying down nacre—the colder water causes the mollusk to create thin layers, generating a finer luster.

Eyris, which saw its first commercial harvest of blue pearls last May, uses its mollusks to produce mabé pearls. These semi-spherical pearls result when a half-bead is attached to the inside mother-of-pearl shell, just under the living mantle tissue. The Paua deposits nacreous layers over the bead, and with any luck, in 18 to 24 months, a blue pearl will result. The pearl is sawed out of the shell, which is no longer gemologically useful.

Only one out of five Pauas produces a blue pearl. Only one out of 50 produces a “nearly perfect” pearl.

What constitutes a perfect pearl? According to Eyris, “the larger the pearl, the better.” A well-shaped pearl has blue, green, or red body color, a mirror-like surface luster, and minor blemishes—a very rare gem, indeed.

ISA Launches Appraisal Course

The International Society of Appraisers has just introduced its “Core Courses in Appraisal Studies.” Twenty-seven lessons, packaged in two large three-ring binders, cover appraisal theory, law, business practices, current regulations, and report writing.

“One of the major benefits is that we teach practical report writing and give examples,” says James Poag, chairman of the ISA Education Committee. “This is an important feature. When I took my first course years ago, we were told what to put into the report, but not how to word it and organize it. Once I completed the course, I spent hours trying to put together an appraisal document without ever knowing whether the end result was accurate.”

Lessons 1 through 8 cover appraisal theory, delving into topics such as values and value characteristics, costs, and markets. Lessons 9, 10, and 11 detail the functions of appraisals and include sections on contributions, inheritance tax, and equitable distributions. Lessons 12 and 13 deal with ethics, standards, and professional conduct and discuss ISA’s rules and policies concerning appraiser responsibilities.

Lessons 14 through 17 provide detailed notes on the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice and provide a historical perspective. Lessons 18 through 21 get to the specifics of how to write a standard appraisal report, providing checklists and several examples. The final chapters address identification and authentication, market and value research, legal aspects of appraising, appraising practices, and techniques. Lesson 27 is a workshop that gives students an opportunity to describe personal property and compose a complete appraisal. A glossary and an index, placed up front, should help students plow through the wealth of material.

ISA accepts students who have fulfilled specialty knowledge requirements as evidenced by a GIA Graduate Gemologist title (G.G.), Fellow of the Canadian Gemmological Association title (FCGmA), or Fellow of the British Gemmological Association title (FGA). Those who qualify can take the course at their own pace, provided they complete the lessons within one year.

Each student is assigned a professional appraiser as an instructor. Cost of the courses is $1,200 for both modules, or $700 for each module.

ISA is located at 16040 Christensen Rd., #102, Seattle, WA 98188; (206) 241-0359, www.isa-appraisers.org.