Fire in the Desert

April 1999

Gemstones & Pearls:News

Fire in the Desert

What's hot? Colorful and affordable pearls; pink, blue and green gems; and Madagascar's riches. Tanzanite hit highs; emerald prices firm up

Tucson teemed with gemstone dealers, buyers and aficionados who blazed through the almost two dozen shows held throughout the city in February. All were asking the same question: "What's hot?"

Pearls generated that heat, while demand for emerald started to warm as prices firmed up. Color trends favored pink, blue and green gems – bright and pastel shades. Tourmaline, garnet, sapphire, beryl and quartz were most popular because of the wide range of colors available.

Tucson is more than just a market to buy and sell colored gemstones. It's an educational event where "finds," sources and prices are researched and discussed. The big action takes place in the "golden triangle" – the name coined to describe three of the main shows: the American Gem Trade Association's GemFair, the Gem & Jewelry Exchange and the Gem & Lapidary Dealers Association Show. Here's a look at the news from Tucson.

Untapped Sources
Madagascar has become a powerhouse in gemstones. "It's an amazing place," says Tom Banker of Gem Essence Co. Ltd. based in Thailand. "It's speculated to be the richest place on the planet in gemstones, and production is just starting." Corundum in all colors; beryl in all colors; chrysoberyl and garnets (including a stunning array of tsavorite colors); tourmalines, such as parti-colored liddicoatite; zircon; diamonds; and quartzes are appearing in rich and spectacular qualities.

Meanwhile, Brian Cook of Nature's Geometry, Graton, CA, and Dean Webb of Pan-Geo, Sebastopol, CA, announced the reopening of a spessartite mine in remote northeastern Brazil. "The pure orange rivals the hues of the fabled Little Three mine in Ramona, CA," says Cook.

Nigerian tourmalines from Ogbomosho in red to peach were displayed lavishly for the first time by Barker & Co., Phoenix, AZ, and Pala International, Fallbrook, CA.

Bill Barker of Barker & Co. says interest in Nigerian tourmaline is high because of moderate prices and clean stones.

The 1999 Tucson shows marked the first time Canadian-mined and -cut diamonds were shown since the Ekati mine opened in the Northwest Territories late last year. These were on display at the Barker & Co. booth.

Plenty of Pearls
The gem and mineral shows were awash with pearls. Beautiful and affordable Chinese cultured freshwater pearls dominated the scene. Dealers showed all shapes, sizes and colors (natural, dyed and irradiated). Pearls were "the buy of the show, especially in multicolor strands and graduated-color strands," says Michael Randall of Gem Reflections, San Anselmo, CA.

The big selling point for these pearls: they're tissue-nucleated – making them nearly all nacre. They are produced in a wide range of natural colors, from pink, lavender and mauve to peach, gold and cinnamon; in shapes from semiround to round; and in sizes as large as 11mm.

Prices are affordable: strands of 8.5mm-9mm pearls range from $1,000-$1,400 wholesale. "This product gives retailers the opportunity to make nice margins," says Randall. Chinese pearls are giving other pearls a run for their money. For example, Japanese akoya sales were off in Tucson. "I couldn't give my akoyas away," says James Peach, president of United States Pearl Co. in Hermitage, TN. He sold his 40% below his cost.

Even South Sea cultured pearls, which have maintained a reign of popularity for several years, were slower movers this year. In fact, increased competition and soft demand throughout Asia caused prices to drop for commercial-grade black Tahitian pearls.

Emerald & Green Alternatives
Emerald's crisis of confidence continues, though some dealers say sales have started to increase. "Last year was the worst year for emeralds; business was off at least 30% over previous years. Emeralds basically got a one-two punch with slower demand in Asia and controversy over undisclosed treatments," says Robert Linder of Lindeau Gems Inc., New York City. "But emerald prices are no longer in a free-fall. Since the New Year, calls for fine untreated emeralds have escalated dramatically, though we explain that most emeralds are oiled." Paul Jacquemart, of South American Imports, Seattle, WA, says his sales of emeralds are increasing also. "But fine emeralds we once sold for $4,500 per carat now go for as little as $2,500 a carat. Prices for retailers have never been better."

Zambian emeralds sold particularly well in Tucson. "And emeralds from Israeli sources treated with a colorless paraffin oil are well-accepted in the market," says Pini Pinchasi of Harpez Gems, an importer in New York City. "The material is stable and the color is rich and bright, though the supply is limited."

Dealer Ray Zajicek of Equatorian Imports, Dallas, TX, did well with Colombian emeralds treated with Gematrat, a stable colorless polymer. "It's the best process to date," Zajicek says. "A big selling point for this treatment is that it can be extracted if something better comes along."

Among other green gemstones, tourmaline sold well. Nice material from Nigeria sells for about $60-$80 a carat wholesale, says John Dyer of Precious Gemstones, an importer in Zumbrota, MN. Afghanistan also is a good source of tourmaline up to 3 carats.

Ravenous buyers also found plenty of bright green peridot from China and Arizona. Tsavorite garnet also was a favorite; production of smaller sizes recently increased, especially in Kenya, bringing more calibrated goods to the market. "Interest in tsavorite has really picked up in the past year," says Daniel Assaf of The Tsavorite Factory, an importer in New York City. "Many retailers are looking for a non-treated green alternative because of all the negative press about emerald. Tsavorite is not a problem stone. It's bright, doesn't have a cleavage and ranks 7-7.5 in hardness."

Sapphire Out of the Blue
High-quality blue sapphire from Madagascar sold for less than 30% the cost of Sri Lankan material, says Joseph Menzie, a New York City importer. (Sapphire also satisfied buyers' desires for pink and purple shades. A steady supply from Madagascar rivals Sri Lankan material at half the price, says Menzie. Buyers also saw more fancy-colored sapphire from Tanzania's Tunduru region).

For those who love icy pastel blue, aquamarine is a cool choice. Limited quantities of better-quality goods from Nigeria in deep colors sell for about $100 a carat. Lighter shades from Brazil are plentiful and more affordable. Aquamarine in powdery tones from China sells for $5-$6 per carat.

Aquamarine also comes from new sources in Mozambique and Zambia. "Aquamarine has been growing in popularity for the past three years." says Stephen M. Avery, a gem cutter in Denver, CO. Designers and manufacturers are looking at aquamarine and green tourmaline as alternatives to tanzanite as it weathers supply woes.

Also in the blue-green family, a new find of indigo rhodolite color-change garnet from Madagascar was introduced in Tucson. Supply is consistent and nice material in the 1.5-2.5-ct. range sells for $600-$850 per carat. "It's unusual because garnets don't commonly appear in this color," says Menzie. "Its change from blue-green in fluorescent light to purplish red in incandescent light is better than alexandrite at one-tenth the cost."

Amethyst, a real purple people pleaser, made news with continued production of good material in Arizona. Commercial Mineral Co., Scottsdale, AZ, in joint venture with Four Peaks Mining Co., is working a deposit discovered at the turn of the century 40 miles east of Phoenix. Supply is plentiful, with volume in stones under 3 carats and prices from $6-$28 per carat. "It's the easiest product to sell," says Jerry Romanella of CMC. "It's a U.S. gem that's popular."

Many Rubies & More Reds
Ruby prices are hovering low – there are just too many of them. Rubies from Myanmar's Mong Hsu deposit as well as African, Vietnamese and other sources have contributed to a glut, says Ted Themelis, an author and gem expert. This is compounded by the soft market in Asia. "The good news is that things are picking up again in Thailand. Rubies are everywhere at the main ruby markets in Chanthaburi," he says. A new tract north of Myanmar's fabled ruby and sapphire city of Mogok has just been opened. All around Tucson, bright but heat-treated rubies sold for as little as $50 per carat.

Meanwhile, buyers were tickled pink over a new tourmaline find in Nigeria. "This is probably the finest find of tourmaline I have ever seen," says Bill Larson of Pala International, Fallbrook, CA. "The best material is a luscious rose that doesn't need heat treatment." Quantities of big, clean goods from light pink to burgundy are on the market. Much of the material is dark and must be heated, say dealers. Prices are $45-$90 per carat. Nice pink tourmaline from Mozambique and Brazil has hit the market also.

Another show-stopper in this color category is rhodolite garnet. "We've been banking on its success for years," says importer Daniel Assaf of New York City. "There's a lot of interest from independent jewelers and designers to large manufacturers in this non-treated gem." Raspberry-colored material from a new mine in Morogoro, Tanzania, is especially popular – it reveals a strong shift from pinkish purple to pinkish red in direct sunlight. The average is $10-$15 per carat for smaller goods, $30-$50 per carat for big gems.

Undersupply of tanzanite yanked the rug from under a market that's become accustomed to reasonable prices. Since devastating flooding and mine closures in Tanzania last year, prices have risen on a meteoric scale – in some cases close to 80%, say dealers. Even though the mines have reopened, fine-quality tanzanite is scarce, as are supplies of small, calibrated tanzanite.

"The easy pickings for tanzanite are over," says Abe Suleman of Tuckman Mines and Minerals, Arusha, Tanzania. "A nice 4-ct. stone that sold for $350 a carat last year now sells for more than $500 a carat," he says. Escalated prices kept retailers from buying as much as they want. Moreover, they are forced to accept lighter shades than they prefer to replenish stock. Many dealers say they'll wait to gauge market fluctuations before buying any more new material.

Nevertheless, unsubstantiated murmurs about a takeover of one of the main tanzanite blocks by a well-financed company abound; some gem pundits predict production may be in full swing by summer.

Among the highlights at the Tucson gem and mineral shows was this 56-ct. boulder opal exhibiting a fiery splash of color. Courtesy of Eileen P. Weatherbee Co., Los Angeles, CA.

 Some blue sapphires from Madagascar have been compared with Kashmir stones because of their hazy, deeply saturated appearance. Madagascar is shaping up as a major gem source in the century ahead. Gem courtesy of Allerton Cushman & Co. Sun Valley, ID.

 The unusual and creative use of gems includes this faceted tourmaline bead bracelet shown by Timeless Gem Designs, Los Angeles, CA.

This 26.88-ct. ametrine, 11.50-ct. tourmaline and 17.53-ct. golden beryl are but a small example of the spectacular cutting seen during the Tucson shows. This work is by award-winning cutter Larry C. Winn of AJS Enterprises Inc., Grand Junction, CO.

A spessartite garnet mine in northeastern Brazil produces bright orange gems such as the rough crystal shown and the cut gem mounted in a pearl and Paraíba tourmaline pin. Courtesy of Nature's Geometry, Graton, CA.

 Exceptional works included this Oregon sunstone carving by Charles Kelly, shown at the Dust Devil Mining Co., Beaver, OR.

Tuscon Talk

Dealers attributed a great show to a rising demand in premium colored gems and other large-ticket items. "This year it's gone in spurts, but we've sold some very important pieces, including an exceptional cat's-eye chrysoberyl and some fine Tahitian cultured black pearls."

– David Cohen, Rafco International Gem Corp., New York City

"There may be fewer buyers this year, but we are way ahead of last year. It is indicative of what the industry at large is doing; we're seeing much more consolidation of the business."

– Eric Braunwart, Columbia Gem House Inc., Vancouver, WA

"The smart money is coming back into the market seeking top goods. Important buyers are buying important pieces."

– Robert Linder, Lindeau Gems Inc., New York City

– by Robert Weldon, G.G., Peggy Jo Donahue and Deborah Yonick

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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