Professional Jeweler Archive: Desert Rainbow

April 2004


Desert Rainbow

High- and low-end gems sell best in Tucson this year

During an early February drive from Phoenix to Tucson, AZ, a huge desert rainbow stretches from the Santa Catalina Mountains northwest across the Sahuaro National Park and curves gently down to illuminate not a pot of gold, but a pot of gems – the gem shows held in Tucson each February. Regular visitors say this is when desert storms are most apt to kick up rainbows. As quickly as the multihued miracles appear, however, they can also vanish.

This year’s Tucson miracle: the rainbow stuck around for the shows. Sales were marginally higher on average, certainly better than last year, when sales dipped in tandem with the world economy and jitters about war.

Dealers said high-end gemstones (over $5,000 each) sold strongly, with premiums for one-of-a-kind gems proven to be natural in origin and color. Mid-tier gems ($1,000-$5,000) were less in demand, while lower-end gems sold as briskly as handmade tortillas at the popular local restaurant Café Poca Cosa. Gem experts predict the middle market will rise as the U.S. economy gains strength.

Finished jewelry was available at all shows in far greater amounts than in previous years, with dealers citing jewelers’ growing need to see gemstones already set in jewelry. This tied in with dealers’ own increasing interest in expanding their businesses downstream.

Rainbow of Gems

Tucson’s main focus, however, remained gemstones. Only a few new gem finds were announced at the show this year, and those announced beforehand yielded somewhat disappointing results. Emeralds from Canada’s Yukon Territory remained elusive, as did Guatemala’s jadeite jade, though a few spectacular carved pieces of jadeite were available. The source of the mineral pezzotaite (described as a new form of reddish beryl when introduced last year) in Madagascar has run dry, though several remaining large pieces were shown.

Tanzanite sales were predicted to be robust this year but remained sluggish in Tucson. Retailers blamed prices, which are strong despite weak demand. Dealers reported marginally higher emerald sales, with some significant and important pieces sold at the AGTA GemFair.

Rubies and sapphires once again moved the most. Madagascar was touted as the world’s primary source of sapphire, with plans under way to expand into other gems (p. 37). Myanmar gemstones, meanwhile, have been stifled by a U.S. ban on imports from the country. Little if any new material was shown, giving other sources a fresh marketing angle.

For example, rubies and various colors of sapphire from Malawi in southern Africa were shown by Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, WA, which owns exclusive rights to production. The company mentions the ban in its promotional literature and notes the gems – branded Nyala Rubies™ – are guaranteed to be entirely natural (not treated to enhance color). Company President Eric Braunwart, who’s also AGTA president, unveiled a Fair Trade Gems program that ensures environmental protection and land recovery programs, fair labor practices at cutting and jewelry factories, and protection of the integrity of the gems through tight chains of custody.

Consumers are increasingly educated about the gems they buy, and surveys have shown they’re growing more socially and environmentally conscious (see Editorial on p. 14 for information about a new Jewelers of America Supplier Code of Conduct). Dealers also confirm more jewelers are seeking gems without treatments to offer consumers. Gem dealers who adopt fair trade practices and untreated gem guarantees might well ensure the rainbow of gems, and their appreciation by consumers, will persist into the future.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

All photos by Robert Weldon except where noted.

Topaz crystal and natural-color faceted topaz from Minas Gerais, Brazil, are from Duarte & Duarte Gems, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; (55-31) 3212-8170.
This 6.85-ct. ruby rough from the 2-year-old Biringo Mine in northern Kenya will be faceted by its owner, David A. Brackna of Germantown, MD; (301) 972-2201.
This 23.91-ct. rough spinel and the 10.05-ct. emerald-cut spinel are from a new source in central Tanzania. Yavorskyy Co. Ltd., Bangkok, Thailand; (66-2) 635-2923.
Now known as the mineral pezzotaite, this large, faceted sample is one of the few remaining pieces from the original find in Madagascar. No new material has been discovered. Fine Gems International, Helena, MT; (800) 436-7687.
Garnets, including this tsavorite from Kenya, are increasingly popular with buyers who seek natural gems not treated or enhanced in any way. Tsavorite courtesy of Andre Assaf/The Tsavorite Factory, New York City; (800) 363-6279.
Red sunstone is from a new undisclosed Asian source. Last year similar material came from an undisclosed source in Africa. Commercial Mineral Co., Scottsdale, AZ; (800) 545-4367.
4.42-ct. Nyala Ruby™ from Malawi is completely free of enhancements and conforms to Columbia Gem House, Inc.’s new Fair Trade Gems program. Columbia Gem House, Vancouver WA; (800) 888 2444.

Photo courtesy of Columbia Gem House

“Neon” chrysoberyl is from a new source in southern Orissa, India. Pala International, Fallbrook, CA; (800) 854-1598.

Madagascar Miracle

Plans are under way to make Madagascar a world-class gem source for much more than sapphires. Jacquis H. Rabarison, Madagascar’s new minister of energy and mining, and members of the country’s Export Promotion Council visited the Tucson gem shows on a fact-finding mission. Rabarison says his country is studying how the mining sector can contribute to the country’s development. It’s also working to make commerce easier, safer and more expeditious for gem buyers. “We want to demonstrate that buying gems legally is easier than doing so illegally,” he says.

The government is looking at plans to vastly reduce tax scales over time or institute a tax moratorium. Visa requirements for buyers are to be simplified also.

Also planned is an Institute of Gemology, a lab being set up with help from Charles Carmona of Guild Laboratories Inc., Los Angeles, CA. Also planned are a cutting center and bourse. “We want a one-stop shopping experience for buyers,” says Rabarison.

– R.W.

Jacquis H. Rabarison, Madagascar’s minister of energy and mines, wants to open and modernize the island’s gem mining industry.

Suite of Madagascar’s gemstone bounty includes beryl, corundum, garnet, quartz, tourmaline and pezzotaite. Allerton Cushman & Co., Sun Valley, ID; (208) 726-3675.

Copyright © 2004 by Bond Communications