Getting to Know The Bangkok Fair

The 24th annual autumn Bangkok Gems and Jewelry Fair offered plenty of “hot new designs”—this year’s theme—and a number of elaborate new booths to showcase them. Thai trade representatives touted the progress of local jewelry designers and said the quality of this year’s merchandise was “much improved” over past years’. The seventh annual “Jewel Award,” this year featuring rubies and a “wedding ring for endless love” theme, also promoted jewelry design.

Did the designs live up to the promotion? In fact, they were quite modern and salable. “We are an industry trying to become everything for everyone,” says Sanit Vorapanya, director general of Thailand’s Department of Export and Promotion (DEP), one of the fair’s organizers. Sunee Sriorathaikul, president of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association (TGJTA), the fair’s other organizer, agrees. She notes that this year’s show was expected to improve market prospects and support expansion of the Thai gem and jewelry industry.

Unfortunately, the new attitude seems to have run up against the old guard, especially when it comes to buying colored gems. For each International Colored Stones Association (ICA) member showing labeled loose gems and candidly answering enhancement questions, there were just as many dealers with little or no credible information about their goods.

Although a large proportion of ruby and sapphire comes from local mining, Thailand also imports colored gems from other Third World nations, such as Brazil and Colombia. Both the domestic and the imported gems are set in Thai-manufactured jewelry and passed directly to U.S. buyers, with no mention of identification or enhancements.

Vorapanya says there’s no need for U.S. concern over enhancement disclosure. “We tell them ‘natural’ and ‘treated’ on high-value stones.” As for the remaining gems, Vorapanya says, “Buyers should know what they are buying.”

Pornsit Sriorathaikul, president of Beauty Gems Group, one of Thailand’s largest manufacturers, concurs. “We promote fine cutting,” says Sriorathaikul. “Fine cutting promotes jewelry and gemstones, whereas things like ‘glass-filled’ and ‘heat-treated’ do not.”

“Gemstone cutting has been a supplement to farming for generations,” says Vorapanya. To support gem cutting, the Thai government eliminated any tax burden on the industry. Beauty Gems is one of the many Thai companies promoting the “Bangkok cut” as an example of fine-quality cutting.

But a tour of the Beauty Gems factory turned up little evidence of fine-quality cutting. The factory uses a more modern version of the old jam-peg faceting machines. And while the Thais talked about quality cutting, the only well-cut gems at the show were from Paul Wild of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, who also has a cutting firm in Bangkok.

Blue and yellow sapphires were in great abundance. Much was local Thai material, but supplies from Sri Lanka, Australia, East Africa, and Madagascar also were on hand. Thai ruby was difficult to find in quantity, but the Mong Hsu Burmese stones were plentiful. There were a few purported natural-color gems, but most of the corundum was of average quality, and heated. Exhibtors displayed ample quantities of the new red tourmalines from Nigeria and a few nice true-color padparadschas (pink-orange sapphires) from Sri Lanka.

The Bangkok Gems and Jewelry Fair has undergone some welcome improvements, especially in the area of design. But it still has work to do before jewelers will be persuaded to add Bangkok to their list of trade show destinations.

Tahitian Vs. Chinese Pearls—Revisited

In our 1999 Tucson report (JCK, April 1999, p. 28), we compared black Tahitian pearls with the latest “black” Chinese freshwaters. Pearl expert Avi Raz of A&Z Pearl in Los Angeles realized we had used a photo of color-enhanced Chinese pearls and challenged us on our claim of similarity between black Tahitians and the Chinese freshwaters. Now, thanks to Nadiene Nelson of Mississippi Pearl Jewelry Co., we have photographs of both natural Tahitian black pearls and natural-color Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. Back in April, we said that the black Chinese freshwater cultured pearls are “no match for the black Tahitian pearls, but only time will tell if the Chinese can perfect the product.” And as you can see from the photographs, the colors of both are strikingly similar. Thanks, Avi, for the challenge. Thanks, Nadiene, for the pearls.

Gem Artists Show Their Stuff

A spectacular diamond necklace with a 68-ct. champagne-colored pendant headlined the recent second annual gem and mineral show at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Organizer Marc Wilson borrowed the Victoria-Transvaal necklace from the Smithsonian Institution’s gem vault. Also on display were a necklace owned by Merle Oberon, with 29 graduated baroque emeralds, and a 1924 Cartier clock of rock crystal, onyx, and jade.

Gem Artists of North America was well-represented at the show. GANA members Elizabeth Beunaiche, John Hatleberg, Glenn Lehrer, Kreg Scully, Helen Serras-Herman, Sherris Cottier Shank, Lawrence Stuller, and Slava Tulupov participated, and Philip Louer displayed the work of a number of other GANA members, including Gil Roberts, Michael Christie, Susan Allen, and Thomas McPhee.

Lehrer had praise for both the show and its organizer. “It’s a wonderful venue. All the big dealers were there. Marc Wilson is a very strong supporter of the gem artist.”

GANA also maintains an ongoing, revolving exhibit of gem art at the museum. Exquisite pieces created by the organization’s members are on display in the gem and mineral hall throughout the year. One, “Bahia,” is the largest cut gemstone in existence. Glenn Lehrer and Lawrence Stoller executed the work, a sculpted piece of rutilated quartz from the province of Bahia in Brazil, where the stone was mined. The piece weighs more than 400 lbs.

Mineral collectors such as Bill Larson of Pala International and Wayne and Donna Leight of Kristale also participated in this year’s show. Local jewelers Chappel Hills, Henne, Joden, Levine Designs, and Orr’s displayed gems and jewelry, including antique and estate specialties.

Here Comes Moissanite, Big Time

Cree Research, the North Carolina creator of synthetic moissanite, recently shipped 3-in.-diameter crystals to C3, the producer of synthetic moissanite gemstones. Until now, C3 has been unable to distribute large quantities of gemstones owing to the small sizes of available crystals.

“It’s faster than we ever expected,” says Jeff Hunter, chairman and CEO of C3. And the quality is much better than we anticipated, too. We’re cutting bigger sizes and more shapes, including radiant cuts, with better color.”

C3 plans a national advertising campaign, so having enough gem material is critical. “This gives us confidence we can have a steady supply of moissanite gemstones available,” says Hunter. C3’s ad campaign, slated to start soon, will include print and TV, perhaps beginning in local markets but eventually expanding nationwide. “We intend to design and build a powerful brand identity,” says Hunter.

C3 already has established a small line of moissanite jewelry. Its Italian distributor is currently marketing “Gioielli Moiss,” 18k yellow and white gold jewelry exclusively for moissanite. The merchandise is being sold in Italy and other parts of Europe as well as Australia. Expect to see one or two more lines from international distributors in the months to come.

Conch Pearls—Not What They Seem

Conch “pearls,” depending on your definition, may not be pearls at all. But they’re extraordinary gems by any definition and make delightful additions to a pearl collection.

They come from the conch mussel, a giant sea snail whose spiral shell you may have held to your ear to hear the “sound of the ocean” or seen being blown by native islanders in movies like The Hurricane or Aloma of the South Seas. The conch is a univalve organism; the “true pearl” producers, like the Japanese akoya and South Seas maxima, are bivalve Pinctadas.

The bead found within the conch mussel is a hardened mass of calcium carbonate. It’s found inside the living organism, in a pearl sac but within the mantle tissue. The method of formation is still unclear. True pearls grow inside a pearl sac within the mussel’s internal organs. During growth, smooth layers of calcite and aragonite crystals, called nacre, are deposited on top of an irritant, protecting the host organism and producing a pearl.

Experts believe that conch pearls also are made up of calcite and aragonite produced when the creature’s protective system covers an irritant. But that’s where the similarity to true pearls ends. Conch pearls aren’t made of nacre—there’s no evenly layered deposition of crystals.

The most striking feature of the conch pearl is its unique “flame structure,” a radiating pattern of white markings seen in some pink and pink-and-white pearls. Conch pearls without the pattern can be confused with pink and white coral beads.

The pearl triangle. Conch pearls are harvested only in waters stretching roughly from Bermuda to Mexico to Trinidad and Tobago. But the goal of conch fishing is edible meat, not beautiful gems—conch pearls are too rare to spawn a separate industry. Some say it takes 10,000 conchs to find a single gem-quality pearl.

Southeast Asia produces some large conch-like gems in orange and yellow called melo-melo pearls. The name derives from Melo amphora, the mollusk species. The shell is also known as the Baler shell. Melo-melos can reach 100 cts. and more.

“Pink pearls.” Conch pearls have been popular since the late 1800s, especially in Europe, where they’re used with drop earrings and pendants. Also known as “pink pearls,” conchs are now coming into fashion in the United States.

To judge quality, look for even color, even flame structure, and smooth shape. And, although conch pearls have no nacreous layering, look for a lustrous surface, best described as a porcelain-like finish.

What to pay for such a rare organic gem? According to Gina Latendresse of American Pearl Co. in Camden, Tenn., current wholesale prices for small conch pearls to 1-ct. “ballerina pinks” range from approximately $1,000 to $1,500 per carat; orangy pinks range from $1,500 to $2,000 per carat; and the rare red-pinks range from $2,000 to $2,500 per carat. Larger conch pearls are even more rare and are priced accordingly.