Selling Beautiful Gems with Ugly Names

Salespeople know that gemstones with names like bixbite, diaspore, and Paraíba tourmaline can be tough sells – not because the gems lack appeal, but because their names stop customers cold.

“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would Shakespeare have used the soliloquy if the rose were popularly known as Rosaceae, its Latin family name? So why would we expect mineralogical names for gems to be any better?

If colored stones were sold only on their beauty, we would see a greater variety of gems in retail stores. Many gems, however, do not have the fortune of having both good looks and a pleasing name. Most of these can’t even be described in terms of history or tradition, since they have been discovered within the past 30 years. They must rely on their beauty – and good salesmanship (see page 123).

Customer confusion. Take zircon and spinel. Here are two names that definitely do not do justice to

the gems. Richard Homer, gem cutter and owner of Gems by Design in Kent, Ohio, agrees. “Zircon is tough to sell because it sounds too much like cubic zirconia,” he notes. Spinel could have had a rich history, but it was originally misidentified as ruby. Now, spinel has the misfortune of being frequently confused with its synthetic twin found in high school class rings. People love the look, but they are reluctant to buy the name.

With relatively new gems, half the battle is getting customers to pronounce the name correctly. Iolite becomes “eye-light,” rhodolite is corrupted as “rodeo-light,” and demantoid turns into “demented.”

With apatite (“appetite”), there is a different problem: Although everyone can pronounce it, the name isn’t believable.

“Apatite is such an inferior name for so many beautiful teal colors,” says Mike Romanella of Commercial Mineral Co. in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s not quite the worst, but it’s certainly not one of the best.”

Television home-shopping programs have been very good at marketing new and unusual gems – Ceylon sapphires, Tunduru Tanzanian sapphires, and Kan Chanthaburi Thai rubies, to name just a few. However, when viewers try to repeat the names touted on TV, something is often lost in the translation. Consumers may enter your establishment looking for “Salon” sapphires. Tunduru garnets become gems from “Tandoori” (as in the Indian spiced chicken). And the names of Kan Chanthaburi rubies and sapphires from Thailand are often garbled beyond all recognition – even by well-rehearsed TV marketers.

Some gem names can be misleading. Boulder opal, for example, does not come from Boulder, Colo. – although Idaho (which is relatively close by) does have opal, found in a place appropriately named Opal Springs. “Boulder” refers to the fact that the opal is found in boulders of ironstone.

Name recognition. Good marketing can help get customers past the name barrier and focused on the stone’s beauty. Tanzanite is a perfect example. Adding the suffix “-ite” to the geographical name Tanzania may not seem like a marketable idea, but so far it has worked well.

“ ‘Ite’ sounds too chemical or technical,” says Dana Schorr of Schorr Marketing & Sales in Santa Barbara, Calif. Nonetheless, hundreds of gem names use either a person’s name or a locality with the suffix“-ite”; amazonite, binghamite, charoite, greenlandite, hiddenite, and indicolite, for example. While some of these names meet consumer resistance, “tanzanite and tsavorite have enough presence in the trade [that] people will accept the name,” Schorr says.

Gems by any other name. What do you do with a beautiful gem that has a lousy name? Talk to Ray Zajicek, owner of Equatorian Imports in Dallas, and he’ll advise you to change it: “I don’t care what the mineralogical name is.” Take red beryl as a prime example. Its mineralogical name is bixbite (not to be confused with bixbyite, a black opaque, massive cubic crystal that is found in the same Utah mountain range as the red beryl). Zajicek calls his red beryl “red emerald.” And while purists may quibble with the use of the color “red” alongside the name “emerald,” Zajicek retorts, “try telling that to the retail jeweler who has to sell it.”

Bixbite or red beryl – whatever you call it – is a manganese-colored beryl, related to the emerald in that it is in the same mineral species and has the same chemical composition and crystal structure. It has become much more popular with its new name, “red emerald.”

Renaming was also successful with Mayan Skystone. This is a beautiful ornamental gem material containing chrysocolla with cuprite and shattuckite. Although chrysocolla is not an unpleasant-sounding name, cuprite and shattuckite could never compete with the more marketable designation of Mayan Skystone, a name trademarked by Craig Marinovich of Gem Shapes in Sausalito, Calif.

What’s that called? Are there any gorgeous gems that have been in your store for quite some time that you haven’t been able to sell simply because “nobody knows what it is”? Here are some pretty stones that lost out in the name department.

Diaspore. “The worst name has to be diaspore,” says Romanella from Commercial Mineral, which stocks dozens of colored stones.

“Sounds more like a skin condition,” object some potential clients.

With a hardness of 6 to 7, this beautiful gem has a durability that’s fine for jewelry. Its color is very nice, usually occurring with a change from medium brownish-pink to grayish-green.

Scapolite. This is actually a group of minerals, with marialite and meionite at opposite ends of its gem range. Mizzonite, pronounced Ms.-en-ite, is the intermediate scapolite member. “Sounds like a stone for the liberated woman,” notes Si Frazier, a mineralogist and gem dealer in El Cerrito, Calif.

Chrome diopside. Because of its relatively low cost and its extremely rich green color, this gem is faring well in spite of its appellation; it’s currently quite popular.

Hauyne. A rare collector’s stone like hauyne, pronounced hau’-ween, will sell despite its name. It is an incredibly vivid medium greenish-blue. “Of all the gem names which should be honored, hauyne should be at the top of the list,” says Frazier. Hauyne was named after Abbé René Just Hauy (1743-1822), author of what could be considered the first modern scientific journal on gemology (1817). “He actually founded the science of gemology,” Frazier explains.

Hauyne is not a new find. The gem, discovered in archeological digs of ancient ruins, has been known since the Roman era.

Although he notes that he’s sold a lot of hauyne over the years, Frazier laments, “of course, I’m not driving a Bentley.” He might have been, if the stone had a more romantic name.

Paraíba tourmaline. With this stone, as with hauyne, color is everything. The stone’s strikingly vivid blue/green hue is the signature of the Paraíba variety. There also may be some mystique connected with the name Paraíba, the northeastern Brazilian state where the gem is found. But the moniker may hurt sales of Paraíba tourmaline, especially among those who aren’t able to pronounce it. Bear Williams of Bear Essentials, a fine gem dealer in Jefferson City, Mo., recalls one customer who said it “sounds like a gum disease.”

Green zoisite (chrome tanzanite). This stone is named for Baron von Zois, a rich mine owner from Austria. Mineralogically, it is known as “sausalpite,” after the area in the Alps where it was discovered – called Sausalpe, or “female pig mountain.”

While the mineral zoisite was initially unearthed in the Alps, the first transparent, gem-quality variety of zoisite was uncovered in Tanzania. It was brown and, when enhanced by heat, changed to blue/purple. This is the stone known as tanzanite.

In 1988, a green gem variety was uncovered. In an effort to honor Dr. Edward Gubelin, distinguished jeweler and gemologist in Geneva, for his outstanding contributions to the trade, a group of gem wholesalers presented a proposal at the International Colored Gemstone Association Congress to name this new gem “gubelinite.”

I admire Dr. Gubelin as much as the rest of the gemological community, but outside of the Gubelin jewelry store and Switzerland, try selling that name. The Tanzanian government was not pleased at the thought that non-Tanzanians would name their gem, and ended up naming it chrome or green tanzanite.

Purists may feel that the only true tanzanites are blue-purple in color and that the words “green” and “tanzanite” should not be placed together. But the gems sell better that way.

Ammolite. There is something spectacular about the multitude of iridescent colors reflecting off a fossilized mollusk known as an ammonite. The stone is obviously the shell of a once-living creature – and indeed, the name makes it sound like a fossilized, spiral-shaped critter. Korite, the Canadian company that markets ammolite, notes that it has been selling the stone for some 20 years.

Back in the late 1970s, the gemstone was known as Korite because ammonite shells were discovered on Canadian farm property owned by the Kormos family. It was officially renamed ammolite by the International Confederation of Jewelry, Silverware, Diamonds, Pearls and Stone, known by the acronym CIBJO.

Sugilite. Purple is one of today’s most popular colors, be it in automobiles, dolls, candy, or gems. Sugilite, like amethyst, could capitalize on the purple craze if it only had a more likable name. Discovered in Japan, it was named in honor of Professor Kan-Ichi Sugi. The gem material is translucent to semi-transparent and can be a fantastic accent for other, more ornamental gems.

Maw-sit-sit. This is a combination of two gems, albite and jadeite. It is one of the more popular jadeites, owing to its fantastic saturated color. Its name comes from a locale in northern Myanmar (Burma). Maw-sit-sit appears as a dark to very dark green, with black or very dark patches. Most colored stone suppliers insist that they have no problem selling the unusual jade with the unusual name.

Malaya garnet. Malaya is an East African gem that is mineralogically confused. It is a combination of three garnets: almandite, pyrope, and spessartite. The malaya’s typical color is a medium dark, moderately strong saturated reddish orange. It is a beautiful gemstone. The name comes from a native African language, vaguely referring to this mix of garnets, meaning “outside the family.” Its literal translation is prostitute. Now, how do you sell a gem with a name like that?

Sharpening your sales technique

How do you sell gemstones with wacky names?

  1. Spend more time on the color. After all, this is what people like about colored gemstones. Describe it in many ways, using not only names of colors – for example,“yellowish-green” – but also common comparisons, like “apple-colored yellowish-green.”

  2. Whenever possible, use a more appealing gem name, such as “red emerald” for red beryl. This suggests a strong, saturated color, like a fine emerald, but tells you that the gem is red. “Red emerald” also tells the customer that the stone is related to the emerald.

  3. Give your customer as much information about the gem as possible, but avoid data overload. Mention the interesting background: where it comes from, how hard it is to find, or how difficult it is to cut. These facts make gems better appreciated.

  4. Then put on the show. Treat your gem with as much care as you would a diamond, emerald, ruby, or sapphire. Pay attention to the details, such as color of the background on which you are presenting the gem. Clean the stone before the customer views it, and if the gem is loose, be sure to have some way to present it to your customer without dropping it.