Tucson 2004: A Gemstone Cornucopia

Attendance was up and buyers were buying, reports the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), host of the most important of the 38 gem and mineral shows held in Tucson during the last week of January and first two weeks of February.

That news comes as no surprise to anyone who waited in one of the long lines of cars inching toward a parking lot, stood in a crowd at the show entrance before the opening bell, or saw the smiles on dealers’ faces as buyers snapped up loads of top-quality gems, particularly pink sapphire and anything cut well with top color.

Signs of the times. If there was one change from last year’s show it was the increased number of dealers displaying sapphires with labels: “unheated,” “no heat,” “natural,” and “lab cert.” Those carrying heat-treated sapphires noted that fact with either small signs or no signs at all.

Another sign of the times was the number of dealers claiming Burma origin for their goods. Importation of all Burmese goods to the United States has been forbidden since July 28, 2003, but plenty of Burma rubies and sapphires—as well as Burma peridot and spinel—were available (and clearly labeled) throughout the shows. Gems purchased before the embargo are legal, but there was speculation that plenty of the gems on show had been purchased after the embargo. The debate among gem dealers in Tucson focused on who profits from the sale of smuggled Burmese gems. Most agree that the ruling junta profits only through government auction sales and not from the smuggling that commonly occurs across the Thai border.

New gems. There were a few interesting gemstones on view at the shows, such as the newly named pezzottaite. (See Gem Notes, “Surname for New Gemstone,” JCK, March 2004, p. 26.) Despite only two reported pockets of rough, there was more than enough faceted and cabbed material in Tucson to satisfy the curious. However, like its sister variety red beryl, most pezzottaite is both highly included and unappreciated at its current selling prices.

Also seen were a few yellow sapphires from northern Kenya, an area that some mining experts report has the potential to be the next major player in East African corundum.

Master cutter Bill Vance, Waldport, Ore., showed new Namibian demantoid garnet—moderately saturated green gems, somewhat grayish, somewhat bluish, with excellent dispersion. Vance also had a new find of pink zoisite, labeled “pink tanzanite.” Found in Tanzania at the tanzanite mining site just outside of Arusha, this is not the first time dealers have produced such a gem at the show. But with only a small amount available, it’s easy to see why dealers were willing to market it—and take some flak from their peers—using the tanzanite moniker.

A plethora of pearls. As has been the case for the past several years, pearls were readily available, not only from pearl wholesalers but also from colored-gemstone exhibitors who have, over the past few years, incorporated pearls into their standard inventory. Prices for Tahitian blacks, Indonesian and Philippine golds, Australian whites, and generally fine-quality Chinese freshwater cultured pearls have apparently bottomed out and appeared consistent and stable throughout the show.

In commercial qualities, however, prices of these varieties may not have hit rock bottom yet. And nothing compares with the amount and price of the Chinese freshwaters. They were available by the truckload, literally, for sometimes less than $2 a strand—all very wearable goods for teens and less-affluent adult consumers. Said one wag: “The prices are so low that you’re actually paying just for stringing and a clasp—the pearls are free!”

Top-quality Chinese freshwater near-rounds were the only difficult find among the shape categories. On the other hand, production appears to have increased sharply for the larger 12-mm to 14-mm Chinese freshwaters seen in semi-round and baroque mantle-tissue- and bead-nucleated pearls.

The sincerest form of flattery? As if there were a need for even more inexpensive Tahitians and South Sea cultured pearls, there were imitations—dipped mother-of-pearl beads—of 14-mm to 16-mm rounds, selling for a relatively inexpensive $35 a strand. And as if that weren’t enough, the South Sea white imitations were available in two different lusters. A quick glance, especially at the softer lustered beads, could have fooled a number of pearl dealers, and in 9-mm to 10-mm sizes, they might have outsold the real thing.

No stone unturned … or unseen. With the exception of jadeite jade, virtually every species and variety of gemstone was available in nice qualities. Top-quality tanzanites were on hand in all sizes—and all prices. In 5-ct. to 10-ct. sizes, for example, prices ranged from a high of $650/ct. to a low of $450/ct. For slightly lower-quality color, prices ranged from $450/ct. down to $250/ct.

Emeralds were plentiful, but enhancement disclosure signage was rare. And the few notes that did describe stones as not “clean” failed to mention whether they had been enhanced with Opticon, cedarwood oil, or ExCel. Still, most dealers reported that sales were good.

There was plenty of Russian demantoid, black opal, white moonstone, and Brazilian alexandrite. Was it old stock mixed in with new? Were they NFS (Not For Sale) gems that were being saved for a rainy day … and was this the day? “Some of the alexandrite, opal, and moonstone was purchased just before the show, so it wasn’t yet ‘old stock,’ ” notes Cara Williams of Bear Essentials, Jefferson City, Mo. “Our alex is coming out of India, and I suspect much of what you thought was Brazilian material was Indian as well.”

Timing may have had something to do with the availability of so many nice goods. “This year, all the high-end goods were not scooped up early as usual, so more lingered in the cases,” Williams says. She believes buying at the upper end was conservative.

A rare sighting. All four major manufacturers of synthetic gem-quality diamonds took part in a panel discussion at the Accredited Gemologists Association’s daylong educational event. They discussed production figures, manufacturing techniques, and marketing strategy. (The four even wound up having dinner with each other.)

  • Gemesis president Carlos Valeiras explained that his company’s fancy vivid yellows range in clarity from SI to VVS and are cut into standard round brilliants, princess cuts, and modern Asscher cuts. Current production is limited to yellow color, in sizes ranging from melee to approximately 1.8 cts. faceted, from maximum grown rough sizes of approximately 3 cts. (It takes 80 to 100 hours to grow a 3-ct. rough crystal.) The company will grow rough crystals of up to 5 cts. in the future, and blues are a possibility, Valeiras said. Distribution is currently limited to eight retail participants, and Gemesis soon will add one or two manufacturing partners.

  • Quarter-carat and larger faceted goods will be laser inscribed and certified by a major laboratory. However, when asked about melee and whether it was to be sold, and whether these pieces would be lasered, Valeiras was noncommittal.

  • Alex Grizenko of Lucent Diamonds and LifeGems noted that his product can be purchased in yellow, blue, and red colors. Following the growth of the rough crystal, the grown color is modified to create a red diamond. According to Grizenko, LifeGems synthetic diamonds are processed from 100% cremated carbon. Because processing carbon is expensive, the company is considering reducing the amount of cremated carbon used in each gem, which would reduce the cost of the product for the consumer.

  • Morbid curiosity got the better of a few participants who wanted to know how many carats of diamond could be processed from a cremated adult human being. About “500 to 600 carats,” replied Grizenko, adding with a smile that the number could vary for those who come from a family of plus-sized folks.

  • Tom Chatham is the one manufacturer who’s geared up for major commercial production. Working with an Asian producer, he is currently turning out 400 carats per month of synthetic rough, and his producer has the capacity to create up to 3,000 carats per month.

  • Currently marketing blue, pink, yellow, and green, Flawless to Imperfect, and in sizes up to 1.5 cts. to 2 cts. faceted, Chatham Created Diamonds are cut in standard round brilliants, princess cuts, and a few fancies, says Chatham. Typical sizes will be in the 1-ct. to 2-ct. range, priced from $1,000/ct. to $3,000/ct. Easily produced yellows will be priced lower than colors that are more difficult to manufacture, such as pink. Larger sizes are possible, but Chatham believes the created market lies in the smaller range.

  • Robert Linares of Apollo Diamond, which is creating the new CVD synthetic diamond, announced that the company can make up to 8-ct. tablets. Current production is limited to about 20 carats per week, with a potential of 100 carats per week and “four times that later,” says Linares.

  • Because Apollo diamonds are reportedly a more perfect crystal than HPHT-created diamonds (which includes the other three synthetics), Linares claims that his diamonds are brighter. CVD diamond is grown in four grades—tool grade, gem grade, optical grade, and electronics grade—and is more costly to manufacture than HPHT-created diamond.

Chatham’s company will market its diamonds as “Chatham Created,” in keeping with its other lab-grown products. Gemesis is using the term “cultured” in its marketing efforts, and Grizenko says his diamonds are labeled “Ultimate Created Diamond.” Linares hasn’t decided what to call his gems, although “synthetic” has been ruled out as too negative.

During the discussion, Grizenko mentioned enhancement of natural diamond. HPHT enhancement of natural brown diamonds creates near colorless and colorless diamonds, and on rare occasions fancy pink and fancy blue diamonds. Through research on its synthetic manufacturing process, the company has been able to isolate natural diamonds that can be enhanced to vivid pink and vivid red, just as they have been able to do with synthetics. It’s a three-step process involving lots of heat and pressure (HPHT) and a little bit of irradiation, Grizenko notes.

Shootout at the J-BAR Corral. Tucson has a place in the heritage of the Wild West, but no one expected a gunfight to break out at one of the AGTA seminars. No weapons were involved, but sparks flew during the “Appraisal Pragmatics” panel, as professional appraisers Patti Geolat, Barry Block, and Thom Underwood and Jewelers Vigilance Committee chief counsel and executive director Cecilia Gardner were discussing how to make a living providing appraisal services.

The audience, made up of many appraisal professionals, took aim at Gardner, representing JVC’s J-BAR—the Jewelers Board of Appraisal Review. JVC created the J-BAR project to educate jewelers who have no formal appraisal training but who are doing appraisals—and finding themselves involved in legal actions resulting from improper or incomplete work.

But most appraisal organization members object to JVC’s involvement in the appraisal business and believe J-BAR is a much-too-short version of what a professional appraiser should be trained to do. Passing a short final exam is all that’s necessary to receive a J-BAR letter of completion.

Those who spoke out at the seminar complained that J-BAR has overstepped its expertise and has “taken the industry back 10 years” by “dumbing down” the appraisal process. J-BAR’s letter of completion, referred to by many as a “certificate,” is a major sticking point. Many in the room felt the certificate would convince unqualified jewelers that they’re qualified to do professional appraisals.

“It’s like a GIA Diamond Grading Report,” said one appraiser. “Jewelers are not supposed to advertise that they sell ‘GIA certified diamonds,’ but with a vault full of diamond grading reports, they advertise, ‘We sell GIA certified diamonds.’ ” In fact, one Pennsylvania-based appraisal company has already advertised that it is “J-BAR certified.” (Gardner says JVC has sent the company a “cease and desist” letter.)

As for the course itself, Gardner asked, “Could you kindly tell me which parts have mistakes? J-BAR was closely vetted by well-respected jewelry appraisers. It’s the ‘same old, same old,’ ” she says. “It’s the same old points they keep bringing up. It’s old news.”

Is it about turf protection? No, say the professionals. It’s about complete training.

“They say we are qualifying people who are not qualified,” countered Gardner. “First, what the course is designed to do is to inform them about the legal liabilities of doing an appraisal. Second, we teach them to say ‘no’ to things that they are not qualified to appraise. And third, we point them to further education.

“It’s long been the position of some that unless you are fully qualified by one of the appraisal organizations, you shouldn’t be doing appraisals. That completely ignores reality,” says Gardner. “There are thousands of jewelers who are doing appraisals without any education whatsoever.”

Gardner also points out that seasoned appraisers have simply insisted (without taking further action) that these unqualified appraisers stop doing appraisals, but that obviously has had no effect. She says J-BAR is supposed to be a stepping stone that helps jewelers understand that appraising has legal ramifications and that appraisal education is strongly advised.

An in-depth review and critique of J-BAR will be available on the JCK Web site, www.jckgroup.com, and in next month’s issue of JCK.