Local Color: Our Inside Guide to Gems and Jewelry in This Season’s Hottest Hues

JCK preps you on gem prices (high), trends (have we mentioned blue?), and best buys ­(small stones) so you can shop the ­Tucson shows like a rock star

It’s February: Let the Tucson gem shows begin! The annual Arizona gathering of the world’s gem dealers, rock hounds, crystal sages, and purveyors of gem and mineral bric-a-brac kicks off at the beginning of the month, meaning it’s time to dust off your cowboy boots, put your diet on hold (the local Mexican cuisine is a must), and prepare your open-to-buy.

Besides the big story on ever-increasing gem prices, expect to encounter the same gemstone treatments that have been percolating for years—lead- and silica-glass–filled rubies, beryllium-diffused stones, titanium-­diffused synthetic sapphires (sold as natural stones), and cobalt-coated tanzanite (to enhance color). Not everything, however, is same same. Below we bring you five timely topics to keep in mind as you peruse the shows in search of color.

Expect Sticker Shock

Necklace in 18k gold with 24.69 ct. oval-shape Paraiba tourmaline and 8.71 cts. t.w. diamonds; price on request; Vianna, Miami; 888-679-3088; viannabrasil.com

The big story heading into Tucson? Prices. They’re high—as if you didn’t know. There’s a simple reason: When mining production drops, costs rise, and everything coming out of the ground grows more expensive. “Nothing is in abundance and everything is getting harder to restock,” says Jason Stephenson, gemologist and salesman at Pala Gems in Fallbrook, Calif.

Evan Caplan, owner of an eponymous firm in Los Angeles, couldn’t agree more. “Pricing on everything is crazy!” he says. “I talk to dealers in Sri Lanka six nights a week and prices are constantly going up.”

Three years ago, Caplan sold fine blue sapphires for $3,500 per carat; at the 2013 AGTA Tucson GemFair, prices had risen to $6,500 per carat. By June’s JCK Las Vegas, prices hit $7,000 per carat. “It’s kind of scary,” he adds. “There’s less supply, more demand, and very strong prices for the nicer material.”

At Sheahan Stephen Sapphires in Portland, Ore., Sri Lankan sapphires are seeing similar increases. “For 2 to 3 carats, prices are up 25 percent over last year. For heated stones that are 3 to 7 carats, prices are up 30 to 50 percent. And for unheated stones, the prices are through the roof,” says owner Sheahan Stephen.

For buyers who don’t have limitless budgets, the new way to get the look of a natural unheated ruby is to buy spinel or rubellite, or buy a treated ruby, albeit one that’s been treated as little as possible.

“Once clients hear a price for an unheated natural ruby, they start considering heated stones,” says ­Stephenson. “Then you just have to educate them on the breakdown of treatments.”

Go Blue or Go Home

18k gold Evil Eye ring with 0.5 ct. removable rose-cut sapphire and 0.6 ct. t.w. diamonds; $4,250; Loretta Castoro, Beverly Hills, Calif.; 865-789-0690; lorettacastoro.com

Clearly, it’s been a blue year. Brazilian jeweler Vianna has been pushing both Brazilian Paraiba and African paraiba-like tourmaline, admitting that neither is particularly easy to obtain. “Its rarity makes it unique,” says director of sales and marketing Leslie Gusky. “Clients purchase it for customers who already own the big diamond or large pair of diamond earrings.”

Tanzanite also has popped up more in finished collections this past year, no doubt owing to its value-price ratio. Many think tanzanite prices should be higher.

Just how good are prices? “Well below fine natural blue sapphire and well below the levels seen in the ’70s,” says Stuart Robertson, research director for Gemworld International in Glenview, Ill., and JCK contributor. Factor in great name recognition thanks to TV shopping channels—which have made the gem a household name in the past 10 years—and consumers can afford this attractive purplish-blue stone.

Compare Prices Before You Buy

Earrings in 18k gold with black rhodium and 53.87 cts. t.w. tanzanite and 7.49 cts. t.w. sapphires; $10,000; Sutra Jewels, Houston; 713-988-8210; sutrajewels.com

Comparison-shop to ensure you get the best possible deal. “Talk to other reputable dealers and ask what you should be paying,” says Bill Barker, owner of Barker & Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Ruby, emerald, and sapphire still drive most sales in the colored stone market, but the trick now is getting goods you can turn. “You can always buy a stone, but you can’t always buy a stone you can sell,” says Jerry Romanella, president of Commercial Mineral Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz. “There are no steals at the high end.”

Exacerbating the high prices is overseas competition: America is just one market in a growing world of gemstone lovers, and foreign buyers have been known to pay more. “America is not as accepting with the new prices,” Caplan says. A case in point: About six months ago, the dealer had roughly 50 carats’ worth of rubellite cabochons that he was trying to sell stateside for around $300 a carat. But a call to his partner in Brazil turned up a buyer with a better price—$340 a carat.

Consider the Alternatives

Flower pendant necklace in 18k gold with 0.4 ct. t.w. rose-cut champagne and colorless diamonds; $2,100; Vivaan by YNY Jewels, NYC; 212-302-3130; vivaan.us

If the price tags of prebanned Burma rubies or even ones from Mozambique are too high, look to top-­quality offerings in rubellite, rare varieties of garnet, spinel, and tourmaline. According to Stephenson, these gems are the up-and-comers—the next layer of collectible gems that are rising in popularity.

“We’re seeing more wedding rings set with spinel because it’s beautiful, natural, and comes in a range of colors,” he says. “People want natural stones with certificates, so spinel is great, especially when you can’t afford a $30,000 ruby.”

Unlike diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, which have very established prices, a retailer still can profit on level B gems. “Tourmaline comes in a rainbow of colors,” says Stephenson. “That’s where I make my living.”

Even Chris Smith, president of American Gemological Laboratories in New York City, has seen more of these stones in his lab. “As ruby, sapphire, and emerald prices continue to rise, we are seeing more…spinel of various colors, garnets—including spessartite, almandite, tsavorite, and demantoid—aquamarine, tanzanite, and other color gem varieties,” Smith says.

Buy Estate (Even if It’s Your Own)

Ring in 18k white gold with black rhodium and 15.49 cts. t.w. tourmaline, 1.38 cts. t.w. round diamonds, and 0.38 ct. t.w. rose-cut diamonds; $14,650; Supreme, Montrose, Calif.; 800-827-7464; supremejewelry.net

Don’t overlook the gems that have been sitting in your safe. Recently, Ken Ivey, owner of Ivey Gemstones in Prescott, Ariz., began dipping into his 40-year-old stash of rough Burmese spinel to cut cabochons to sell now. “There does appear to be a shortage of higher-quality goods, but we cut our own, so we don’t have that problem now,” Ivey says. Ditto for Romanella, who has been buying good stones from estates, and Stephenson, whose company routinely buys tourmaline, garnet, and spinel from rough or secondhand. “We’ve had stuff in inventory for years that just gets lost—that’s where the deals are found,” he says.

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