Gemstone Communication ‘Forest Green’: Is It Enough?

“Weeeellll, it’s pink,” says an uncertain voice at the other end of the telephone. “It’s got a hint of purple. You know – bubble-gum pink!”

You’re trying to buy a pink tourmaline from an out-of-state dealer, but his description of color is open to interpretation – very open. Bubble-gum pink? Some bubble gum leans toward fuchsia, other bubble gum toward purple. Remember, too, that tourmaline is transparent; bubble-gum is not. So, are you and the dealer imagining the same shade?

This inexact “science” of describing color has grown disturbing as colored gems become more popular and customers become more educated about them. It points to a need for the colored stone industry to communicate color more effectively and precisely, as the diamond industry does with well-established color grading sys tems. “The growth of our business depends on un derstanding and communicating color more effectively,” says Doug Parker of William L. Kuhn Inc., New York, N.Y.

C. R. Beesley, president of American Gemological Laboratories, New York, N.Y., agrees. “It’s beyond a wavering shadow of a doubt that the industry needs a formal way to communicate color,” he says. “Just how do you think the world would function without a diamond grading system? Hasn’t it ultimately benefitted dealers in the diamond arena, or are they still willing to call a stone simply ‘white’ and ‘eye-clean’?”

But the colored gemstone industry has dragged its feet when it comes to color grading systems. Despite the strong support for color grading systems by some in the industry, the vast majority of retailers and gem dealers that JCK interviewed recently are comfortable with current color communication methods.

Is that due to complacence? Or fear of the unknown or the new? Or do retailers think that making color com munication more precise would allow colored gemstones to follow the path of diamonds – away from descriptions that evoke romance and toward the harsh reality of price sheets – with all the attendant worries about loss of profit margin?

This brings us to the crux of the matter. What is color communication? What makes it such a difficult and emotional is sue? And what are the pros and cons of maintaining the status quo – or changing it? Here are the main issues.

The problems with color: Several factors affect the interpretation of color. They include:

  • The human factor. The human eye, via a complex neurophysiological process, can distinguish 6 million to 10 million colors and color combinations. Translating the variations into a language everyone can understand is complex. In addition, people perceive the slight nuances in color variations differently. In fact, health, rest and medication can cause the same person to perceive colors differently. “I find myself calling a gem something one time and having a different color description the next,” says Tom Tashey, chief executive officer of European Gemological Laboratories, Los Angeles, Cal. “You need a standardized comparison system to check yourself.”

  • Gemstone cut. If a gemstone isn’t cut proportionately, it will have dark blotches where light leaks out through the pavilion (called extinction). That will have a definite effect on the way the overall color is graded and how the gem is priced. A slight recut may improve the color significantly, thereby raising the price per carat.

  • Key color. The “characteristic” color of a gemstone when viewed face-up is called key color. Determining key color isn’t always practical, especially in improperly cut gems where you may catch just a glimpse of what you think is key color in the crown area of the faceting. Key color often needn’t be determined in phenomenal gemstones such as opals and cat’s eyes or multicolored gems such as agates, quartzes or tourmalines. The rule of thumb here is that while color and color saturation are important, they may not be as important as the gem’s overriding characteristic of interest.

  • Jewelry mountings. It’s difficult to determine the color of a mounted gemstone. A stone can take on characteristics of the metal it’s mounted in, so laboratories will grade only unmounted goods.

  • Light temperature and quality. Just as your surroundings look different at dawn, midday and dusk, gemstones look different when viewed in different types of light. For this reason, the position of lighting in relation to the stone, the age and intensity of bulbs and the background should be the same when determining and communicating color. These variables are the among the hardest problems to overcome when communicating color – with or without a color system.

  • Human subjectivity. No matter how trained or sophisticated the viewer, visual determination of color is a subjective opinion.

  • Color language. For two or more people to communicate, they must share a common language. The same is true of color communication. Many industries – including plastics, publishing and fabrics – use CIE (the international Commission on Illumination) color language. Artist Alfred H. Munsell developed another system in 1905; in it he described color in terms of hue, value and chroma, all in a three-dimensional model of color space.

Present-day communicating: The gemstone industry’s language is colorful, but loose. Smoky quartz. Pigeon-blood red. Forest green or Gatorade green. Black as the inside of a water buffalo (as someone once creatively described a Victorian jet bead necklace).

Sometimes geographical origin is uttered as a blanket assessment of color quality. “It’s a silky Kashmir blue,” “Is it a Burmese ruby?” or “Find me a good Muzo color,” we say. Such terms imply an idealized color range or color space. And that creates a problem. If a gem from one of these sources is placed on a pedestal even though its color isn’t good, the buyer can end up paying more than it’s worth. At the same time, a buyer who insists on a gem from one source may bypass one of superior color from another source.

One sure way to communicate color is simply to show the stone in person. Retailers do it all the time for their customers. Gem dealers also do it all the time for retailers – via memo. Often dealers will memo a selection of stones from which the retailer may choose. However, this can result in lost sales opportunities while the stones are out of the dealer’s inventory for days or weeks. One dealer who doesn’t want to be identified says his memo costs run into the tens of thousands of dollars yearly. This doesn’t even include the cost of lending his inventory and doesn’t account for the risks involved in mailing gems back and forth.

Is this system of continually memoing gems until the “right” one is found an efficient way to communicate color? Even though the cost is great, dealers and retailers polled by JCK still like this method because it allows them to see the stone in person. In hand, the retailer can evaluate the entire package, including color, cut, inclusions and general appeal.

How important is it for retailers to get an exact color description from dealers? In longtime business relationships, loose descriptions are enough, say retailers. Many of these gem portraits have been used for centuries, they say, and dealers and retailers who have a longterm relationship have already refined their communication techniques. In addition, descriptive terms such as those already mentioned add romance and lore to a gemstone, offering subliminal hints of intrigue and excitement (“blood-red,” “electric blue”) and tastiness (“cinnamon,” “cognac”). These may help to define a gemstone’s image and increase its value. It’s an entrenched view fed by decades – even centuries – of expressing color a certain way.

For these reasons, not all gem dealers think an organized color communication system would be good for business. “There’s a system to describe colors in gems that is very easy to use and light to transport,” says Maurice Shire of Maurice Shire Inc., New York, N.Y. “All is in our memory. It is the computer God gave us long before IBM came into existence. Machines and other systems are simply crutches for those who do not know [gems] due to a lack of experience in handling [them].

“Colors are like feelings. How can a machine convey a feeling or sensitivity?”

Ron Ringsrud of Constellation Gems, Los Angeles, Cal., agrees. “The systems are irrelevant,” he says. “It’s not the color alone that sells the stone. It’s a synergistic combination of color, cut, transparency or sleepiness, the location of key colors, the life and feel of the stone that sell it!”

Alexandria Rossoff of Fox’s Gem Shop, Seattle, Wash., is among the retailers we polled who favor a loose form of color communication. She and other buyers at Fox’s rely on their memory of the total appearance of a dealer’s inventory, then ask to have individual gems sent to them. “We like getting the gemstones in, handling and feeling them – this is what keeps us close to the essence of a gemstone,” says Rossoff.

Ron Beauchamp of Beauchamp & Co. Jewelers, Albuquerque, N.M., agrees. “The best way for us is to receive a stone on memo,” he says. “You can look at a certificate, but it never means anything until you open a paper and look at the gemstone. I rely greatly on my own emotional response because there is so much more to see in a gem than its color. This is not a mathematical business.”

Many retailers also rely on their “street smarts” when communicating color. Cheryl Joseffy of Lux Bond & Green Inc., West Hartford, Conn., says she keeps informed by reading trade journals and by speaking with people in the industry. And above all: “You need to look at gems every day,” she says.

But the question remains. Is a loose form of communication accurate enough when a gem’s monetary value may fluctuate thousands of dollars per carat depending on a slight shift or nuance in hue, tone or saturation? Clearly, the answer is no.

Are we there yet? In this age of the information superhighway, computer graphics capabilities are gaining momentum and could provide a solution to color communication challenges. Even skeptic Ron Ringsrud of Constellation Gems admits that high-resolution computer images might eventually work.

A majority of those polled for this story share this sentiment, though barriers such as synchronizing and calibrating color monitors remain. Still, computer experts say we’re almost there.

Color communication has been a focus of many individuals and organizations over the years. It took a big step forward in the 1940s with the invention of the colorimeter. The pace to find the “right” system has stepped up in the past decade with advances in spectrophotometry and accompanying translations into languages we can understand.

The fear of the unknown is being eliminated by user-friendly systems such as the LambdaSpec ISP-9400, a spectrophotometer that translates sophisticated spectrophotometry into Microsoft Windows-based CIE and Munsell languages. In turn, these can be cross-referenced to systems such as GemDialog, GemSet and others already used in the industry.

LambdaSpec ISP-9400, which was introduced at the 1995 gem and mineral shows in Tucson, Ariz., includes a high-resolution monitor that shows the tested gemstone and allows the viewer to assess color, shape, proportions and overall cut. Producers say the non-subjective system produces repeatable, accurate results by providing precise pinpointed or average readings of a gem or portions of the gem. It obtains a “spectral response graph” from more than 300,000 points of a gemstone. The image can even be transmitted over telephone lines.

The $50,000 price tag targets the system to the most sophisticated users – mostly laboratories. But Lambda- Spec president Randy Wagner says a $10,000-$15,000 system is in the offing. LambdaSpec Instruments, 2015 E. Newport Ave., Suite 605, Milwaukee, Wis. 53211; (414) 962-9741.

Other user-friendly systems – which are subjective (color determination is made by individuals comparing colors visually) include:

  • GemSet, which our poll indicates is the most popular color communication system for jewelers. It features 324 portable plastic color tabs that are approximations of transparent round brilliant-cut stones. The tabs are cross-referenced to ColorMaster notation and descriptive abbreviations. And they represent 31 hues, seven tone levels and six saturation steps. A light source to provide repeatable results may be bought separately. GIA Gem Instruments, 1660 Stewart St., Santa Monica, Cal. 90404; (310) 829-2991.

  • ColorMaster, a non-portable instrument that produces color images of faceted gemstones by using calibrated mixtures of red, green and blue quartz light. An area with a gem-holder allows comparison in daylight equivalent light. It can be changed to incandescent to check for color change. A manual helps you to find the appropriate color notation. GIA Gem Instruments, 1660 Stewart St., Santa Monica, Cal. 90404; (310) 829-2991.

  • Color/Scan. Though production of this system has been suspended for almost a decade, C.R. Beesley of American Gemological Laboratories says a new generation of Color/Scan using color control technology is in the offing. The set consists of portable color grading cards that represent an array of colors for stones such as amethyst, emerald, peridot, ruby, sapphire and tanzanite. By viewing a simulation of pavilion facets in a colored gemstone through oval-shaped holes in the cards, you can visually compare color and tone variations. To place your name on a waiting list for the new product, contact American Gemological Laboratories, 580 Fifth Ave., Suite 706, New York, N.Y. 10036; (212) 704-0727.

  • GemDialogue, a “Color Descriptive System.” It consists of a checkbook-size binder of transparent color comparison strips that are cross-referenced by descriptive terminology and CIE color language notation. Each chart shows pure colors that are gradational from strong to weak. Included are gray and brown light-to-dark color masks (for gems affected by these color modifiers) and an opaque black-to-gray mask (for opaque gems). Sliding masks back and forth over the pure colors creates a combination of up to 60,000 colors. GemDialogue Marketing Co., P.O. Box 7683, Rego Park, N.Y. 11374; (718) 352-0009.

  • The World of Color, the newest system on the scene. This two-volume book marketed by Gem Quality Institute Inc. is essentially a rearrangement by Tom Tashey of the Munsell Book of Color. The system presents some 1,200 color standards arranged on 46 opaque, constant-value charts. Nine value levels are available for each of the principal hues represented (red, yellow, green, blue and purple). Gem Quality Institute Inc., 550 S. Hill St., Suite 1595, Los Angeles, Cal. 90013; (800) 235-3287 or (213) 622-2387.

Are jitters justifiable? A few of the gem dealers polled for this story acknowledge a need for color communication systems. But most say such systems cost too much, are too limited in color range or contain colors that are too good to be true. “Some systems employ colors that are out of the realm of reality,” says Dick Greenwood of A.F. Greenwood, New York, N.Y.

They do have their uses, say some dealers, but they often aren’t used correctly. “Many of the systems are an excellent aid in communication for trained salespeople who also have market awareness,” says Cynthia Marcusson of Cynthia RenÇe & Co., Fallbrook, Cal. “Commonly, however, the systems are used improperly by salespeople who have untrained eyes for color and can mislead the consumer into believing certain colors are available.”

And we must remember that no system can represent all the colors in the visibile spectrum. So in order to notate color, the systems have to establish boundaries in what is really a continuum of different levels of hue, tone and saturation. In other words, the systems have to decide at what point one color notation becomes another. The point to remember is that these artificial boundaries are just reference points; they should be used as a range or indication of color.

Many of those polled for this story are concerned that formal color communication systems will lead to color grading. In a sense, the answer is obvious. Colored stones are often categorized on a grid or scale. Placing them in categories, in essence, assigns a grade. Though these grades are not as widespread or as universally accepted as they are in the diamond

industry, such publications as The Guide, Gemstone Price Report and Gemstone Market Monitor and the Polygon computer network have been providing these services, some for more than a decade.

Still, retailers and gem dealers fear that formal color communication may lead to further price grids and categorization of gemstones. “I am concerned that any color communication system will be tied to a color grading system, making less-rare but still beautiful gemstones undesirable,” says Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Wash.

Adds Dick Greenwood, “Colored gemstones are a very personal choice, and the wide variety of colors in each material adds to their salability.”

Maurice Shire feels that price grids and grading could lead to investment scams like those that characterized the diamond business in the early 1970s. “Price grids would then become a vehicle for non-professionals – such as drug-store clerks – to enter the business,” he says.

However, Richard Drucker of Gemworld International Inc., Northbrook, Ill., publisher of The Guide, feels differently. He says most colored gem investment scams involve false identification reports or appraisals. “I would not be concerned by having a color grading system on the reports,” he says. “If anything, this would make it easier for the consumer to find out that a particular grade would never sell for anything close to the inflated appraisals used in scams.”

Gemstone laboratories, in fact, view the communication of color as becoming more and more of a necessity. Color communication has long been a priority for GIA, from its early work on grading the color of diamonds to current forays into digital technologies. Regarding the colored gem industry’s hesitation to embrace a formal color communication system, Tom Moses of the GIA Gem Trade Laboratory points to GIA’s work in refining visual color communication. “We have a responsibility to investigate and assist the trade via better and better methods of color communication,” he says. “It’s a service to the trade and ultimately to the consumer. And the consumer should be the ultimate concern of all of us. We must maintain the consumer’s trust and confidence”

(GIA doesn’t provide color grades on identification reports at this time, but it appears to be heading in that direction. A number of other laboratories in the U.S. and abroad establish color grades based on their own criteria.)

Control and economics may be the major reasons so many in the industry fear color communication systems, says C.R. Beesley of American Gem Laboratories. “[Color communication] hits at the core of gemstone economics, and people are panicked,” he says. “They are letting panic rather than logic prevail.” Beesley acknowledges that color communication isn’t necessary for every stone. “But at higher levels, retailers and consumers need some sort of protection and confidence in knowing exactly what they are getting,” he says.

Howard Rubin of GemDialogue points to another practical aspect of communicating color effectively. “If you are trying to replace a stone,” he says, “you don’t have to go through the aggravation, expense and security risk of sending the whole bracelet by mail in order to get one stone replaced.”

Will color communication systems do away with romancing a gemstone? Grading is one thing, romance is another, says Rubin. “And even in romance you need a common language.”

Tom Tashey of European Gem Labs agrees that grading and price lists are an inevitable result of a color communication system. “We live in an information age and people want to know,” he says. “Customers are getting more sophisticated. When they buy stones, they want to know the specifics of what they’re buying.”

Appraisals: Appraisals open another chapter in the need for effective color communication.

Every aspect of appraisals should be specific because the appraiser is representing a mostly uninformed third party – the consumer – says Martin Haske of the Adamas Gemological Laboratory, Woburn, Mass. When writing an appraisal for insurance purposes, for example, determining color by a variable such as place of origin, price per carat or a descriptive term is insufficient. An insurance company that must replace a ruby that cost $1,000 per carat assuredly will not find the same caliber of gem unless the description is precise.

Superlatives won’t work either. “If you list ‘fine blue sapphire,’ what’s fine? What’s blue? The terms become meaningless!” he says. Haske points to the diamond industry’s technical use of color ranges and notes that even in the defined colorless range (D, E, F), there are great variations in price. “It becomes important to communicate color effectively if you are buying a stone – you want to know exactly what it is,” he says. “For many people, the terms get a lot fuzzier in selling. Without proper parameters, the ultimate consumer ends up on the losing side.”

The best kind of color comparison system would be an infinite number of tabulated master gems with which to compare gems. Indeed, those who specialize in a single gemstone – emerald, for example – often have a small collection of emerald masters. But unlike diamonds – which can be color-graded with a relatively small collection of master stones – colored gems have too many variations and subtleties to make master stones really practical. Those who use conventional portable color communication systems complain that they contain too few colors, that colors may change over time or that they don’t really look like gems. Others are just too bulky to transport or are too expensive for the average gem dealer or retailer.

In laboratories, where the quantification and exact repeatability of color analysis are more crucial, far more sophisticated instruments are used. A need to factor out human error in judgment and subjectibility becomes important, too. This is where the use of spectrophotometers and colorimeters comes into play. While accurately portraying spectral and absorption characteristics for a wide variety of gemstones, the systems generally are very expensive, unwieldy and delicate – certainly not practical for most jewelers or dealers. Knowledge of spectrum analysis also requires sophisticated training and an understanding of how the information translates into a commonly understood color language such as CIE or Munsell.

Experts say other problems occur with the systems. Haske points out that tristimulus colorimeters have difficulties sensing highly saturated hues in the blue and green range. “These boundary areas at the top are the areas where color is most important in terms of value.” Often color characteristics in gems are not quantifiable in any system. “The direction of the optic axis, whether a stone is dichroic or trichroic, whether it has strong or weak color zones and inclusions are all relevant when using machines for color grading, and a human must always be in the loop to determine key color,” says Haske. “There just is no panacea. Much depends on the subjective opinion – based on training – that a person has.”

The future: In a sense, the future is already here. Other industries have adopted color standards and use them effectively.

Subjectivity of the individual and standardization of color language may well be the focus of future developments in gemstone color communication. The JCK poll indicates that many dealers and retailers believe the future looks bright for computer-based or spectrophotometric communications, provided that computer monitor values and colors also are standardized. And that development may not be be so far away.

But will such technological advances spell an end to romancing gemstones? Assuredly not. Color remains a matter of individual preference, and our understanding of color in gems will always remain tied to human sensation and romance.

Today, increasingly educated and knowledgeable consumers demand accountability for color and how it affects gemstone values. And while a great many gem dealers and retailers still do business as usual, using often ancient techniques to describe color, many also acknowledge that a wind of change is beginning to sweep the industry. The message in that wind: The need to communicate color more efficiently, dependably and correctly.