What’s in a Name?

Is the recent debate over whether the name Paraíba should be used for all tourmaline sporting a vivid green-blue color or reserved only for stones actually mined in Paraíba, Brazil, a matter of monumental importance—as it is to gem dealers—or simply another example of the semantic nit-picking in which this industry periodically indulges?

Let’s look at some other examples of place-named products. Swiss cheese is a name used generically by Americans to describe any kind of sharp, hard, holey cheese that resembles Emmentaler or Gruyère. But if you ask for Swiss cheese in Switzerland, the clerk will probably give you a puzzled look and tell you that all the cheese in the shop is Swiss. You’d have to ask specifically for Emmentaler if that’s what you want on your sandwich.

Kobe beef, on the other hand, comes from very rare, highly prized Wagyu cattle and must be raised and slaugthered in Kobe, Japan, to earn the name. Similar beef is raised here in the United States, but it can’t be called Kobe beef, only Kobe-style beef.

Many breeds of dogs are also erroneously named with respect to their origins. The French poodle actually originated in Germany, as did the Great Dane. The Labrador retriever originated not in Labrador, Canada, but in neighboring Newfoundland, while the giant Newfoundland dog is believed to have developed from a variety of ancient dogs, not all of which are native to the island.

So should Paraíba be used to describe a color, rather than a locality? Especially given that there is color variation even among stones from Paraíba itself? And should it be used to describe any other species of stone with a bright blue-green color?

The logical solution is to take a cue from the legal world and look at precedent. Place of origin is frequently used as a name descriptor to identify subtle variations in color, clarity, or intensity of other gemstone species. Colombian emeralds are generally understood to have a slightly blue undertone, while Zambian emeralds are generally understood to have a slightly yellow undertone. Both are beautiful, but to a customer with the cool-toned skin of European ancestry, the Colombian stone might be more flattering and hence more desirable. And since Europe was the leader in world trading and jewelry design for centuries, it’s not surprising that European tastes have emerged as the leading arbiter of value. But as the economy grows more global, customers with warmer skin tones might prefer the Zambian green.

The same holds true for other stones. Value is determined by what the market is willing to pay for a particular color, clarity, or intensity, which, at the end of the day, is what really matters. The locale just happens to be where that version is found most frequently.

So if there are subtle differences between Paraíba and African tourmalines, then it makes sense to identify each by their place of origin. But if the gem community wants to use the name Paraíba in honor of the original source of that color stone, it’s appropriate as long as its proper use is decided and voted upon by all members of the gem associations—not just those who deal in tourmaline—and it’s disclosed to the customer when the term is being used as a descriptor rather than a place of origin.

A separate but similar issue is GIA’s recent decision to begin grading synthetic diamonds and its use of the word “synthetic.” I think it’s the right decision. Synthetics exist and they’re not going away. It’s up to the jeweler to sell consumers on the history and romance that give a natural diamond or colored gem its value, but consumers who don’t care where the stone came from as long as it’s big and pretty have a right to buy something they might not otherwise be able to afford. (The semantic battle over the use of the word “synthetic” is another subject, and will be addressed on this page in a future issue.)

As I’ve observed before, we may not like change, but we can’t stop it. We can adapt and make it work, or expend energy fighting it only to discover that it’s happened anyway while we’ve just become irrelevant. The choice is yours.