If It’s February, This Must Be Tucson

If you thought the economic slowdown would mean easy-to-navigate, bargain-filled gem shows in Tucson this year, you were in for a shock. The aisles of the major shows were filled with retailers and designers looking at well-stocked gem cases and familiar prices. Outside, long lines of show-goers waited to register, and parking lots overflowed. Bargains were few, unless you wanted moderate-quality pearls, including the Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. In fact, the Chinese pearls were downright cheap. And with no other “stone du jour,” that’s the real story of Tucson.

CFWCPs. For the past three years, the industry has been watching as the size, quality, and quantity of Chinese freshwater cultured pearls (CFWCPs) all increased. As some predicted, those increases are now affecting prices. Most of the CFWCPs were selling for $20 or less. Taj Company, with booths at four different shows, was selling “rice krispie” strands for 50 cents a strand. A visit to Majestic Pearl Co. in the Holidome tent revealed round and button strands by the pile. Nice graduated 16-in. strands of off-rounds with nice luster for $18 were more than plentiful. There were dyed colors, buttons, faceted buttons, off-rounds, and baroques available in hanks and bags of hanks.

Even some of the better-quality buttons and off-rounds were relatively inexpensive.

C. Link, considered a quality leader, was showing 18-in. strands of nice-quality (but not top-quality) flat-back buttons, drilled through the diameter, and strung with a 14k gold clasp for $250 on the first day, which increased to $300 by that afternoon. The company had trays of 6.5- to 7-mm spice-colored off-rounds for $15 per gram, and 7.5- to 8-mm egg shapes at $10 per gram.

C. Link also showed a strand of 10- to 12-mm creamy near rounds that cost $10,000 in the morning and $12,000 by the afternoon (after correcting a yen-to-dollars calculation). This seemed comparable in price and quality to a fine strand of 9-mm Japanese akoyas displayed at the American Gem Trade Association show, priced at $10,000 for the strand.

While prices held steady for top-quality CFWCPs, there was little that was new. The lower-quality, smaller sizes were too plentiful, and prices dropped fast. Dealers seemed to be dumping their low-end goods and trying to sell off their high-end goods, but with little or no discount.

Pearl nucleation. Two questions dominate the CFWCP market: When will the market be over-saturated? and How do they grow them so fast? Judging by the downward-spiraling prices at the shows, supply may already have outstripped demand. As for fast growth, pearl-nucleated pearls may be one answer, as Fred Ward and Antoinette Matlins have claimed. Mantle-tissue-nucleated pearls take a year or two longer than pearl-nucleated pearls to grow to the same size.

But the burden of proof has been elusive—until now. Lois Berger, G.G., NJA, an appraiser for Fuller & Associates in McLean, Va., and research assistant for The Guide, a gem-pricing publication, was scouring the CFWCP markets in Tucson when she came across a faceted button CFWCP necklace. A broken pearl in the middle of the strand revealed the proof of what Berger, Ward, and Matlins have predicted—pearl-nucleated pearls.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Berger. “I wanted to buy the strand just for the broken pearl. It’s proof that they’re pearl-nucleating pearls.” Berger showed the pearl to a few attendees and pearl suppliers, and only one supplier thought her find might not be a pearl-nucleated pearl. Says Berger: “Looks like a pearl inside a pearl to me.” Since the show, Berger has sawn in half another button pearl from the same strand and found another pearl-nucleated pearl.

What does this mean for Chinese freshwater pearls? Maybe not much, says Ward. The Chinese are using whatever works to nucleate pearls. Using older pearls just speeds along the process. Berger’s broken example, however, may indicate that pearl-nucleated pearls are not as durable as mantle-tissue-nucleated pearls. The question is, who can tell? In the most recent study of Chinese freshwater cultured pearl nucleation, Gemological Institute of America and American Gem Trade Association labs X-rayed more than 40,000 pearls and found none to be pearl-nucleated. Some point out that the study examined pearls from just one source. Whatever the case, Berger’s Tucson find may explain the dramatic increase in CFWCPs at Tucson this year.

Other pearls. To compete with the abundant Chinese freshwaters, prices of moderate-quality pearls in all other categories were lowered. A small number of faceted Tahitian pearls made their debut. But prices of higher-quality pearls in all categories held their ground. A strand of 10- to 12-mm true golden cultured pearls from Indonesia, displayed at Adachi America Pearl Co. in the AGTA Gem Fair, was priced at $40,000.

Namibian demantoid. Two full showcases of demantoid from Namibia were on display in the Gem & Jewelry Exchange (GJX) tent, and the blast of dispersion from these fiery green gems was hard to miss. Jeffrey Hayat and Sam Bamberger of Gem Demantoid displayed hundreds of carats of demantoid (mostly medium slightly yellowish green) alongside a handful of other colors of andradite garnet, mostly yellows. The most impressive demantoid in the case was a dark, very slightly bluish green 10-ct. pear shape. Considering the rarity of the gem, the approximately $5,000 per carat price tag seemed reasonable. Other demantoids, including saturated greens from Russia and a few light colors from Mexico, were also available at the show.

(A note on rarity: Plentiful displays at the Tucson gem shows often make rare gems seem common. Don’t be fooled—even with the new Namibian production, demantoid is still a rare gem find.)

Sapphire. Not so rare were pink and blue sapphires from Madagascar, most probably all heat-treated. Sri Lankan material also was plentiful. In the Sri Lankan mix were a handful of exceptional (reportedly unheated) pinks. Dozens of nice padparadschas were seen this year, most disclosed as heat-treated. But even heated padparadschas are a treat for the eyes.

Buying enhancement. Heat treatment didn’t prevent jewelers from buying. On the contrary, it was enhancement disclosure that led jewelers back to the AGTA Gem Fair (where disclosure was mandatory) after “window shopping” the outlying shows. Jewelers said they felt more confident buying there, and many didn’t mind possibly paying slightly more at the convention center. In fact, some dealers in the GJX tent said they hoped to be back in the convention center next year, for just that reason.

No stone most talked about. No single gem was the subject of major buzz at the show. Although everything seemed to be available, some categories, like top-quality tanzanites, were scarce at $400 per carat or less, but plentiful if you were willing to pay more. There were Nigerian spessartites and Nigerian tourmalines, Cambodian zircons, and Burmese peridots, but none overshadowed any other. There were more Paraíba tourmalines at the shows this year than in years past, but supplies were still limited. (For more on Paraíbas, see Gem Notes, p. 38.)

There was more than a fair share of black opals and black opal doublets. It was assumed that with slowing markets worldwide, the Japanese stronghold on the top Australian black opal market is finally easing up, with the United States the recipient of the Japanese excess.

Orbicular orbs. One of the more interesting finds at the shows was orbicular jasper from Madagascar, also called “ocean jasper.” It’s mined in shallow coastal waters at low tide and loaded onto boats resting on the beach. The boats are launched at high tide to take the material to be processed. The material, which shows colorful pastel circular patterns, was on display as cabochons, polished spheres, and carved leaves. Bill Heher at Rare Earth Mining Co. had them priced at $300-$400 each.

Chilean opal. Common opals from Chile, first encountered in Tucson three or four years ago, also made the scene this year. Enough material has been available recently to put together a nice display of variously shaped beads. With a hardness of approximately 6 to 6.5, these opals have greater durability than play-of-color opal. Out of Our Mines, at the Gem and Lapidary Dealers Association show in the Presidio (formerly the Holiday Inn City Center), showed a good display of the material. Dealers Richard and Helen Shull were almost completely sold out of the necklace beads.

“Tucsonite.” Dyed-black, platinum-plated Brazilian agate drusies, named Tucsonite, are the brainchild of Bill Heher, who noted that a percentage of the sales proceeds will benefit Casa de los Niños, a home for abused children in Tucson. Priced at around $125 per piece, Tucsonite got a favorable response from designers.

Look for more on the Tucson shows in the May issue of JCK.