GemNotes

Russian Gem Artistry: Building A Business

Question: What do you get when you bring together Russian experts in theoretical physics, biology, ornithology and geology?

Answer: Gem cutters and dealers, of course! An assortment of such experts makes up a new gem group called Geokey.

Geokey sells Russian-flavored gemstones such as blue and green beryl and bicolored topaz from the Ukraine, tourmaline from the Chitta region, quartz from the polar Urals and more at shows around the U.S.

The group originated in the former Soviet Union, but is now based in Staten Island, N.Y. For the past few years, Geokey has been quietly making inroads in the gem business by selling extraordinary gemstones. Though it used to buy most of its rough from various Russian sources, Geokey has started to buy from Brazil, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Far East.

The company’s finished products are unique – gems cut in unusual patterns or asymmetrical facet arrangements with special attention to quality and the detail of finish. Though the products might indicate the company has been cutting and carving for decades, Geokey has been in the cutting business only about three years. Its inspirational story confirms that the spirit of entrepreneurship – given a proper blend of personalities, business savvy and a penchant for artistry – is thriving.

Go west, young man!

In 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed and residents had greater freedom to travel, Vladislav Yavorskii left his country with about $14.75 in his pocket.

He and a partner hitchhiked across Europe with a knapsack full of Ukranian minerals. Their destination: Idar-Oberstein, Germany, where they sold their minerals for a $400 profit. That could have paid for a snazzy apartment in Russia at the time, but they plowed the money back into the business.

Yavorskii, then still a university student, had traded minerals in the Soviet Union for years (selling minerals was strictly prohibited until just before the collapse of the Soviet Union; trading minerals as a hobby was allowed).

“We were a small group of university students who formed a company based on a spiritual friendship and similar attitudes about the world around us,” says Mikola Kukharuk, a Geokey partner. “We loved traveling to the mountains and finding good people. And we all enjoyed trading in minerals. This business grew out of our hobby.”

Initially, Geokey concentrated on selling rough material at shows around Europe, but clearly saw a need to derive “value-added” profits by learning how to facet stones. On a trip to Europe, Yavorskii scrutinized a variety of faceting machines. Back in Russia, he contacted a machinist at a military weapons plant and had a faceting machine built from his memory.

Finding the “right” cutters was the next challenge. In another unconventional approach, Yavorskii sought talented artists who had no experience faceting gemstones then planted them in front of the machines with a few books and articles for guidance. He supplied ample amounts of practice material and told them, “Go to it.” By 1993, he recalls, the artists had produced some “interesting designs.”

Tucson-bound

“The European shows were soon not enough for us, and we kept hearing about the Tucson show,” recalls Kukharuk. “In 1994 we went to Tucson and made a really big sale.” Kukharuk declines to release specific figures, but he says profits from that show were seven-fold over comparable shows they had attended in Europe.

Soon they were supplying orders far above their ability to produce, so they found and took over a small cutting factory in Sri Lanka. “We looked for people without cutting experience; we wanted people with a more creative, open mind to whom we could teach our own style,” says Kukharuk. The supervisor was the original Russian artist, Sviatoslav Grigorienko.

Today, Geokey wants to develop more business in Asian markets and possibly try jewelry manufacturing for its one-of-a-kind gems.

The advantage to retailers who carry these stones? “Almost all of our stones have different facet arrangements, so you can tell a customer he has the only gem of its kind in the world,” says Kukharuk. “Remember that people don’t just buy color. They buy design. They buy desire, emotions and gut feelings.” Geokey Inc.,141 Saint Marks Place 2B, Staten Island, NY 10301; (718) 720-7264 phone and fax.

Maw Sit Sit is Back Back

Maw sit sit has long been misunderstood. And now that supplies of this stunning green gem are available again, one question surfaces again.

What is maw sit sit? We know it is quite rare and found only in Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is opaque to translucent and has an electric green body color punctuated by swirling veins of darker green or black that combine to make it a classic ornamental gem – akin to lapis lazuli or jadeite.

In fact, maw sit sit is found in conjunction with jadeite and is formed under the same high-pressure regional metamorphism as jadeite. This has led to the erroneous belief that maw sit sit is a type of jadeite (for more on jadeite, see JCK, January 1997, pp. 160-166, and November 1996, pp. 60-65). The material has, in fact, been the subject of some debate among gem connoisseurs. Even prominent gemologists have not always agreed on what constitutes maw sit sit.

It’s best to start with what must seem like an odd name. Maw Sit Sit is the name of the place in upper Myanmar where this material is found. When renowned Swiss gemologist Eduard Gübelin first took note of the green stones in 1963, he noted the locals called them “maw sit sit.” The name stuck. Early accounts describe the gem as an aggregate rock rich in chrome jadeite and containing ureyite and natrolite.

A more recent study conducted by Henri Hanni of the SSEF Gemological Laboratories in Switzerland says maw sit sit has six main components: chromite, ureyite, chrome jadeite, symplektite, chrome amphibole and a matrix of lighter minerals. (Before this finding, ureyite was known only to be a constituent of iron-rich meteorites and was called kosmochlor, which translates from Russian as “green from outer space.”)

The hue of maw sit sit is as dramatic as its history. Though the colors can vary, they generally are vibrant light to dark greens and sometimes black. They can be one solid color, spotted or mixed with other colors. White flecks are common. Specific gravity may vary also, depending on the percentage of the component mix, but usually is 2.5 to 3.5. Maw sit sit has a refractive index spot reading that may range from 1.52 to 1.74.

Bill Larson of Pala International, Fallbrook, Cal., and Edward Boehm of JOEB Enterprises, Atlanta, Ga., recently bought 30 kilograms of maw sit sit ranging from 4 carats to 40 carats. Some of the material has already been cut, mainly as thin, ornamental slabs suitable for jewelry. Both dealers say prices should be close to that of lapis lazuli – $10 to $20 per carat wholesale for commercial qualities. Finer goods may reach $30 to $40 per carat. Pala International, 912 S. Live Oak Park Rd., Fallbrook, CA 92028; (619) 728-9121; JOEB Enterprises, P.O. Box 725204, Atlanta, GA 31139; (770) 436-4042.

ISO GRADING PROPOSALS YIELD LITTLE AGREEMENT

The International Standards Organization published its proposals for grading unmounted polished diamonds more than a year ago. Thus far, there’s been little harmonization of opinion on what that common standard should be. Called the “Technical Report ISO 11211: Grading Polished Diamonds – Terminology & Classification,” the document is designed to be the culmination of efforts to harmonize the various diamond grading systems in use worldwide.

Proponents of harmonization see it as a means to:

  • Facilitate communication among parties.

  • Protect consumer interests.

  • Assist trade by removing national restrictions.

  • Improve the quality of life.

  • Economize on raw materials, energy and labor.

However, not all the benefits are obvious when it comes to diamond grading. For this sort of world standard to work, there must be a demonstrable economic benefit, and all parties involved in the harmonization must be motivated to make it stick.

The biggest stumbling block is the divergent interests of diamond manufacturers and traders, gem labs, jewelers and consumers. A good deal of resistance is expected from gem labs. Harmonization would take away their autonomy in making grading decisions without the support of other parties, particularly that of manufacturers and traders.

Publication of the 15-page technical report in December 1995 resulted from five years of negotiations within the ISO framework. The proposed ISO grading standards for diamonds were created by a technical committee comprising representatives of the International Diamond Council, the Gemological Institute of America, CIBJO and ScanDn.

The current document is considered only a technical report, which means the parties involved have not yet succeeded in formulating a joint point of view. The intention ultimately is to publish an international standard.

The key question is whether it’s possible to meet a three-year deadline from the time a proposal is published as a technical document to when it is adopted as an international standard. And there are other concerns. Even if an ISO diamond grading standard is created, for example, gem labs would remain free to use their own standards, though peer pressure would likely lead to compliance. And individual labs could interpret ISO standards differently, leading to potential disputes and misunderstandings.

If an ISO diamond grading standard is established, ISO would set up a system to accredit gem labs to be certain they adhere to quality standards.

– “Russian Gem Artistry” and “Maw Sit Sit” by Robert Weldon, G.G., senior editor. “ISO Grading Proposal” by Peter Borgmans, quality manager of the Certificates Department of the Diamond High Council, Antwerp, Belgium.

WHAT IS ISO?

Founded in 1947, the International Standards Organization is a non-governmental international organization that brings together national standardization institutes from 85 countries.

ISO’s main mission is to create frameworks for international standards, then to approve and publish those standards.

Technical committees are established for each subject for which a standard might be issued. Committee members are representatives of nations with interest in the subject.

More than 10,000 ISO standards have been published covering a wide variety of subjects.