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Gemstone Underdogs: My Favorite Under-Appreciated Gems

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

I've been buying beads and gems for about six years now, not as long as other addicts, but I buy every week, and I buy direct.  I rarely buy online.  Living right outside NYC provides me with a lot of opportunity to touch stuff, to loupe it, to see how it feels and acts under different lighting conditions.  I have hardly seen everything, but I've seen a lot.  And I think there are still gems out there worth having that haven't gotten the attention they deserve.  Here's a short list.

My Favorite Gem Underdogs (in no particular order):

1. Chrysoberyl: this gem belongs with the family of alexandrite, but it is more durable with a hardness of 8.5 - which even beats corundum.  The yellow color is really pretty, with the nicest specimens being lemon yellow.  The browns are so-so.  When cut well, Chrysoberyl is very brilliant, crisp, and it is still reasonable in price.  I've seen them as low as $20/ct on the web for the smaller and more brown or very light yellow varieties.  But remember that even for Chryso's, the 1, 2 and 3 carat imply shifts in price.  The cat's eye chrysoberyl is also interesting, but in large sizes it is very expensive.  I prefer the faceted gems.  Right now much of Chrysoberyl comes from Tanzania and Sri Lanka.  I like the Tanzanian gems, which are usually brighter, less brown.

Chrysoberyl Lot, The Brown in the Corner is Sri Lankan, the Center is Tanzanian

2. Merelani Mint Garnet: some internet forums say it's just a "lesser" form of tsavorite, and the term "mint" is pure marketing to drive up the price.  False - and true.  The term "mint" for the color is new, and mint garnet is Tsavorite.  But: Merelani mints have to come from the Merelani mines.  I've seen other Tanzanian mints, and they're not as nice.  The Merelanis have no secondary yellow compared to standard light colored Tsavorite.  Right now Merelani mints and Tsavorites are priced about the same, with Tsavorite topping mints in the larger sizes.  Merelani mint production is insanely tiny, and most lighter Tsavorites don't even come close in terms of color, crispness, and beauty.  I'll take a mint anytime over a Tsav.  Tsavorite production is down as well, so I expect both of these to only go up in price as availability dwindles.  I don't think you can go wrong buying a nicer specimen for your collection.

Merelani Mint Garnet Mix, The Nicest is Center Front, 5.8mm, Portuguese Cut
3. Color Change Garnet: forget alexandrite.  Just totally forget about it.  Birthstones are decided by the American Jeweler's Association for marketing purposes!  Color change garnet - the nice, high quality stuff - has a better daytime color.  The most beautiful pieces come from Tanzania and they're a strong teal color (Madagascar is another origin but I prefer Tanzanian).  Some CC garnets are also forest green.  The ones with brown, peach and red daytime colors are less valuable.  Most CC garnets have complete color change to a strong reddish purple, whereas most alex on the market today has only a faint change.  Alexandrite is murkier in daytime color, probably because it is more included.  One carat of the nicer stuff can cost me $5000-10000, so there's obviously no room for markup.  And "Russian" alex is just lore.  That hasn't been produced in over 100 years and production was never high.  Lots of stones marketed as that are fake.  Meanwhile, you can get a 1-1.5 carat cc garnet for about $600-800 per carat (prices change every half carat).  CC garnet should be clean when you buy it, or very close to it, and try to avoid grey mask (lots of the larger stones have grey mask).  CC garnet larger than 1.5 carats is very rare.

Matched Pair Color Change Garnet, Tanzania

Color Change Garnet, Possibly Madagascar

Tanzanian Color Change Garnet Pair in Incandescent Light, the Color Change is Actually Stronger
4. Zircon: low zircon, high zircon... I've never heard that language used among gem dealers, so let's concentrate on what I think matters.  There are lots of origins, I'm not aware of one being better than another, except Cambodia for blues, but that production is finished or nearly finished as far as I know.  Zircon is clean, very sparkly, and the whites, peach, red, brown and honey colors are very reasonable.  I prefer white zircon over any other white stone except diamond.  In the smaller sizes, it might be $20-30 a carat retail. You can heat it at home (see my blog entry). Use the cooler browns and red tones to make peach or white, stay away from the honey colors, they fade back to honey over time.  The blues, today, are exclusively heated.  You have to find old material for unheated and most labs won't be able to tell you either way, they just assume heat.  Some blues fade over time but they can be reheated.  In terms of price, blue zircons cost more in the larger sizes, and the more saturated ocean blue tones are also pricey.  The lighter smaller, pieces are about as cheap as the other colors of zircon.  So anything under 1/2 carat shouldn't cost too much.  The rarest color zircon, as far as I know, is green, with chrome and forest greens being the most uncommon among the greens (most are olive or a light green).

Rare Green Zircon
I have other favorite stones that are not very expensive: sphene, kyanite and apatite are three of them.  But none are very durable (sphene is the best among this list), and they're hard to set.  Apatite can't be pickled, and I'd hesitate with ultrasonic.  Kyanite is liable to split in half lengthwise if the jeweler applies too much pressure folding the prongs (and he should apply pressure so the stone doesn't fall out!).  That limits the options of what can be done with these gems, and it means that if you wear them in jewelry or don't keep them separate in storage, they will chip and crack over time.  An unsuspecting jeweler who offers to clean your pieces might destroy them.

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