Cecile Raley Designs

The New “Gold” Rush: Colored Gems

The New “Gold” Rush: Colored Gems

If you’ve been buying gems in the last few months, you will have noticed that gemstone prices have been sharply on the rise. Obviously, this is a general trend as supply chain issues, wars, border closures and internal political problems have disrupted the entire world, not just the world of gems.

The Paraibas shown below were worth only 1/3 of their current value when they sold in 2016:

 

paraiba tourmaline

Paraiba cabochon, 2.05 carats, sold in 2016 for $1537

paraiba tourmaline

Paraiba Cabochon, 1.51 carats, sold in 2016 for $2718

paraiba tourmaline

Paraiba Cabochon, .68 carats, sold in 2016 for $679

paraiba tourmaline

Paraiba Cabochon, 2.75 carats, sold in 2016 for $2200

However, in the gem trade in particular, there is more pressure for material than there has been in several decades, and not just the past couple of years since Covid.  Back in the 1980s and early 90s, there was a bit of a boom with amethyst, citrine, red garnet and topaz among others, but it’s been fairly even-steven until more recently.

When I started selling loose gems around 2009, very few buyers were asking for unheated sapphires or unoiled emeralds, and nobody asked for cobalt and jedi spinel, hauyne, benitoite or kornerupine, even Paraiba, although all of those gems existed back then! These days, we see a much more educated buyer who wants to know the origin and treatment of gems, and who is requesting certificates for evidence.

This is likely due to the increase in internet education and direct (international) internet sales, but it is also the result of celebrities buying colored gems. Nowadays, buyers know what kinds of gems are rare and they want to have something unique rather than what they can get in a regular jewelry or chain store at the mall.

 

pink spinel
This neon pink Mahenge spinel pear sold for just $616.50 in 2012

 

This change in consumer behavior has caused luxury jewelry brands to pay significantly more attention when they acquire gems, and that in turn has led to a squeeze as no colored gemstone worth investment attention comes in near sufficient quantities to meet such a demand. In Manhattan we can see this trend unfolding first hand because most of the luxury brands, including but not limited to Tiffany’s, have their main location in NY and operate closely with the Trade on 47th Street.

 

18k White Gold Blue Sapphire and Diamond Ring selling at bluenile.com for $66,000

 

Word on 47th street has it that since 2021, these major jewelry houses are investing significant funds into securing gemstones with fewer treatments and enhancements, and paying a premium for acquisition! Some go as far as refusing to buy any gems from conflict zones such as Myanmar, the Congo, Afghanistan, or gems that have significant treatment like resin treated emerald from Colombia. Even heated sapphires are avoided in the market these days despite the fact that over 95% of sapphires are routinely heated, making unheated sapphires very hard to come by and expensive. This is a very significant development in the trade and I want you to take note of this, both with regard to what you want to buy but also with regard to what you have!

Now, let’s look on the supply side. Here, there has been an opposing trend, with production, availability and international exports actually shrinking. I was told, for example, that diamond prices have increased about 15-20% in just a few months. This has been the result of several major developments since around 2020, mainly of course the pandemic, but that has been by no means the whole story.

But let’s start with Covid 19. Some border closures remain in effect more than two years post the initial lockdowns. Otherwise, entry is subject to long quarantines, as is the case in Hong Kong and Vietnam, which are both facing some of their worst outbreaks since 2020, just as they were getting ready to reopen more broadly and had reduced their quarantine time. While Hong Kong does not produce gems, it is a major center for faceting them and for jewelry production and thus very important to the trade. With increasing pressure from China, many do not expect Hong Kong to be a major player in the industry in the future.

 Map of East Asia

Map of East Asia

 

Gems from Vietnam have gained a lot of popularity lately, in particular, with cobalt spinel but also the somewhat lesser known lavender and pink varieties. But export from Vietnam is still mainly achieved by direct export, that is, by taking the gems or the gemstone rough across the border in person, i.e. by airplane from Hanoi to Bangkok. Needless to say this has been near impossible for over two years now, and things are not yet improving. In addition, the government has banned mining in the Luc Yen region, so while the gemstone market has reopened, there isn’t much new material. I do not know the reason why, unfortunately.

 

cobalt spinel
.39 carat cobalt spinel pear from Vietnam currently in our shop

 

Thailand has just recently eased its restrictions but even though it is richer than Vietnam, vaccine and testing capabilities are not at the level that we can expect in the US, Canada or Europe. This will continue to disrupt trade as Bangkok is one of the world’s leading gem cutting and trading centers. Export has been largely by shipping since 2020 (rivaled by direct export before that). Word also had it that in Tucson 2022, Thai buyers came to purchase as opposed to selling, because, as a Bangkok buyer told one of my sources, some prices on sapphire in the US were lower than in Thailand by as much as 40%.

Also, because of the many border closures, tourism has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic levels, and countries such as Thailand, Vietnam but also Sri Lanka (among many many others) suffer from the lack of tourist income. In fact, Sri Lanka, a world leading producer of corundum, is on the verge of total economic collapse; there are food and fuel shortages, and the government is no longer able to pay back its foreign debt. This has a direct impact on mining because much of the small machinery used runs on diesel.

 

More on the crisis in Sri Lanka

 

But not all supply chain problems in the colored stone industry are due to the pandemic. Political crisis has impacted the government of Myanmar, for instance, when in February 2021, the fledgling democratic government was taken over by the military party, the Junta once again. So Western nations cannot buy gems from Burma (Myanmar) anymore unless they want to buy them from a political dictatorship. The small illegal trading along the border between Myanmar and Thailand is down as well. Already exported Burma ruby and sapphire, but also spinel, have continued to rise in price, while at the same time, the major jewelry houses will no longer buy any ruby from Burma even though it’s not officially banned. As is so often the case, these companies think ahead by more than just a few months, and they do not want to advertise gems that come from conflict zones regardless of when they were sourced.

Moving East along the map, The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its pursuant takeover by the Taliban has resulted in similar restrictions on the trade, impacting imports of emerald, for example. Gems can find a path out of the country via less traveled routes but that, too, has become very difficult. As far as I know there’s no gem purchasing right now on the open market in Afghanistan. Previously, the democratic government supported by the US was making import and export easier.

Speaking of the Asian continent, exports of demantoids and emeralds from Russia have always exacted a price to the government - I’m going to leave you to ponder the ethical distinction between what constitutes a government tax or a government exacted bribe in the case of a dictatorship. It has therefore never made sense for Russian gemstone sellers to bring back their inventory from a show outside of Russia.  Once exported, the gems remain in places like Hong Kong, where they have been since 2020 when travel there became nearly impossible, and will continue to sit now that Aeroflot is grounded and other air traffic to Russia on hold. Russians cannot leave the country, so they also cannot get to their merchandise to sell it.

From Russia, one’s thinking wanders naturally towards the Ukraine, and to the export of natural topaz. I witnessed a sale of natural bi-colored cognac (see video below) and blue topaz in Tucson. The seller was maybe 22 years old, and he had mined the gems together with his father. With poor English but a lot of pride, he was able to tell us exactly the block and lot number of his find for proper block chaining; meanwhile a well-known cutter who also observed the sale weighed in on how he would shape the rough. The deal was done, both parties were happy, and the grapevine tells me that there are further attempts to continue this fledgling business relationship during war time. I don’t know the details, and if I knew I would not share.

 

One of the natural bi-colored cognac topazes referenced above

 

Last but not least, there have been some events unrelated to the pandemic or governmental crises. For example in 2018, the Tanzanian government prohibited exports of facet gemstone rough because it – correctly - perceived that the main profits in colored gems occur after the rough material is faceted, not before. The Sri Lankan and Colombian governments, have long restricted the export of gemstone rough, for precisely this reason. But both countries have been perfecting the cutting trade for many years, whereas Arusha, Tanzania had no more than a few dozen experienced cutters when the then new government suddenly instituted its new law, and despite many of the master dealers meeting with the president directly, the law was upheld for over a year.

When Covid hit in 2020, the Tanzanian president claimed that Covid did not exist in Tanzania and that masks were unnecessary. As a result, a few of the major gem dealers that had helped to build the trade in the 1970s simply retired and some even left the country. The Tanzanian government has since adopted a less strict stance towards gemstone export – partly because its president died in 2021 (from Covid, it appears), and the new president has a different agenda. But the Tanzanian economy has suffered nonetheless because aside from gemstones it mostly lives on tourism. These days, most of the export from Arusha is in the hands of well-funded Sri Lankan families who have tried their luck elsewhere. And many of these goods, in turn, are sold to China and other Asian countries for higher prices than they fetch in the United States.

Sri Lankan traders also happened to be involved in the event that caused the present export blockage in Madagascar that started just a few days post border reopening in November 2021. The story was all over Tucson but I also know some of this from my Malagasy friends who heard the same rumors in Antanarivo. In early November, a passenger boarding a diplomatic flight refused to check in his hand luggage even though it was slightly overweight. The luggage was eventually opened and revealed a parcel of uncut gems with an invoice for garnet for approximately USD 13000. The gems, however, were sapphire, and the estimated value is over a million USD. The traveler was arrested and all airport customs officers were also arrested for accepting bribes. (It’s a very tiny airport so imagine a couple dozen arrests). In addition, five members of the “Departement de Mines” were arrested for accepting bribes. As a result, mining sapphires (from Ilakaka) is forbidden right now and the mining director is currently hiding somewhere on the island.

All this said, keep in mind the following: the French word for bribe used by the Malagasy, is the word “cadeau” which actually means gift. This is VERY telling as it isn’t a word used merely to obfuscate the fact that a bribe is paid, but also because the need to secure food for the family without losing face by admitting one’s poverty is best recharacterized as the request for a voluntary gift. Border officials and mining department employees have very low salaries, but they are uniquely situated to be able to slow down or speed up the export of a rich Vahiny (stranger) by kindly requesting a small present. Really - the presents are small, no more than perhaps $25, which equals a weekly salary (this is a low salary even for Madagascar). Some gifts can go up to $100 but I have not personally seen anything larger than that.

That said, tens of thousands of USD, and an invoice that understates the value by 95%, is another matter entirely, and one where the government will not ignore the issue (in fact one may surmise that the government would express some interest in a more “official” bribe in form of a tax). So, once said Sri Lankan with a diplomatic passport was caught and put behind Madagascan bars, no bribe was large enough to buy him back out. And people in the mining office have decided that returning to work could get them arrested. Not even employees of DHL are willing to send packages with gems now, even if cleared by the mining division. The income even at DHL is pretty low, the substitute income one can expect from working at customs, at an international shipping agent, or a government office (like mining) is now just too risky. So at the time of this writing, these offices are, and remain, closed.

As it always is in economics, the causes for rising prices, and this includes gemstones, is never straightforward, and it involves certain contingencies that one may not have expected, like an overweight piece of hand luggage!

For this particular blog, I conferred with nine knowledgeable people that shared information with me that I would not have otherwise had access to. I, and my readers, owe them our thanks.

Here are a couple of lovely spinel examples currently available in our shop: 

 

Elongated pear-shaped lavender Vietnamese spinel
Elongated pear-shaped lavender Vietnamese spinel

 

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Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

TWO years! That’s how long I had to wait to go to Colombia again. But I did it, and with even more emerald success than the previous time.  After my planned trip for April 2020 went poof, like you, I hunkered down with some of those closest to me and watched the world change on TV.  But this summer has marked a new dawn, with fully immunized and less restricted world travel.  So finally, late last month, I set off to Bogota, armed with loupe, tweezers and money (and yes, other stuff).  I took along my friend Diana to help me, she knows my business well and she speaks Spanish.  I have more of a 100 word lexicon from which I can produce words in no particular order as needed.  I do find myself understanding more than I expect because I speak French, sadly however, my active language skill barely rivals that of a 1 year old.

Once we arrived at our Bogota hotel – the Hotel de la Opera in Candelaria, we were warmly welcomed by my long time travel buddy Jochen from Jentsch Mineralien. Jochen hasn’t been able to come to the US since March 2020 and I had only seen him for one precious day in Germany some time in the fall of 2020.

The Hotel de la Opera, a Colonial style building with tranquil inner courtyards and a spa, rooftop dining and bright spacious rooms, is conveniently located in the historic district and just a 7 minute walk to the Casa Esmeralda where much of the trading for emeralds takes place.  On the way, you walk past dozens of small Joyerias where you can buy emerald jewelry and loose gems until you arrive at the plaza where a couple of hundred men show each other parcel papers with gems and negotiate over them.  Turn right and one block up you’ll find the emerald mall, Casa Esmeralda!

We had decided that on our first day, we would slowly peruse the Joyerias and possibly make smaller purchases, as well as look for some of Jochen’s favorites: “gangas,” emerald crystal in host rock. And of course we also went to my favorite ice cream store nearby: Waffles and Crepes

Bogota is very safe to walk around during the day, in the evening you should watch for pickpockets but the touristy areas are well populated. Still we were grateful for the hotel safe where we could store our purchases and passports when not needed.  As a rule, we never leave anything at a hotel in a less familiar country that prevents us from leaving that country, unless there’s a safe. 

On our first afternoon in Bogota, I also had an appointment with a small shop near the gold museum where I had bought some of my best pieces in 2019.  The owner’s assistant, named Diana just like my Diana – is fluent in English, which makes my life a lot easier!  Diana told us that the shop had been closed for over a year due to COVID-19.  During the closure, Diana had gone back to her small family farm where living was cheap, and the owner stayed back in Bogota trying to make ends meet.  Times were very rough, and our arrival was greeted with tears of relief that business would finally pick up. (And we did our very best to meet those hopes.)

(Side note: I did notice that about one third of the souvenir shops near the Gold Museum had closed down since the last time I was there, and on our final day, my Diana and I did our best to spend a few dollars at each and every shop in the little neighborhood so that everyone had a small benefit.  This is something I always do when I am in less wealthy countries, especially when I am the only one shopping.)

But let’s get back to the main thread.  After making more introductory purchases and discussing mining business here and there (such as which regions are currently producing interesting stuff), we headed back for dinner as we had to get ready for an early morning departure to grab our rent-a-car and get going.  Living out of a suitcase isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even I had forgotten how stressful it can be.  But we were focused on travelling and on buying, and we had three stops to make in five days: Muzo, Cosquez and Chivor.

Jochen is an expert at actually using the four wheel drive of a four wheel drive, and that is what’s needed when you cover the last 20 miles of dirt road and hairpin curves down into the valley of the Rio Minero that Muzo is next to.  So we took an early cab to the car rental place at the airport, inspected our Renault Duster for dings (so that we would only get billed for the dings we would add, if necessary), and headed off.  I did most of the city driving as New York and Jersey City are my homes, so that kind of traffic stresses me much less than it does Jochen, who prefers off-road driving with cows and landslides as the main obstacles.

The drive to Muzo is about 5 ½ hours and GPS instructions and estimates are quite reliable.  Nonetheless you have to consider that not all roads in Colombia are highways and you can easily get stuck behind a truck for 10 minutes until you find a way to pass without risking your life. Or, if there’s construction and the crew is on their lunch break, then you may wait at a construction site for up to an hour. Yes, been there, done that! The final bit of the drive involves climbing nearly 6000 feet over a mountaintop; and then descending back down, on small, very partly paved slalom roads.

Because there’s some tectonic plate movement in the region, and because the dirt in the region is full of flaky shale, there are landslides every time it rains, some very large ones and countless very small ones.  And as it rains often in the tropics, there are landslides every day.  The local towns fix their roads constantly because many of them only have one road in and one road out. 

We had left a bit late that morning, the paperwork at the car rental took a long time, by then we all had to use the loo (and to enter the airport you need to go through passport control which is a long line), so we didn’t get really going until 11 a.m. With some traffic and road closures, we finally descended into the town of Muzo by 5:20 pm.  The 6 pm sundown is abrupt so we didn’t have much time to show our faces to signal our arrival. 

After dropping our luggage at Kolina Kampestre, a camping style hotel that only had cold running water but a big pool and a stunning view; we immediately drove down to the center of town and sat down in the square, where you can order basic food and drink.  A few yards over, we saw several men trading emeralds, so Jochen went up to them and said hello.  Someone recognized Jochen from last time, and within a minute or two a few people came up to him.  Jochen bought a couple of pieces of cheap rock, then explained that we’d be back in the morning.  (This type of news then spreads like wildfire and on the next day you can expect sellers to have populated the plaza or café where you said you’d be when you said you’d be there.  Some of these sellers might have travelled part of the night to meet you.)

As we were heading off to find a place to eat, we were stopped by a man and a woman who suggested that we come to their shop to look at stuff.  My friend Diana whispered to me: “really, is this safe?” and I said “sure.”  And it is.  People come to Muzo for one thing and one thing only, and that’s emeralds.  People who live in Muzo do one thing and one thing only and that’s emeralds.  The gem trade is based on trust.  Trust in people.  While it wouldn’t be wise to stray from the main part of town at night with a purse full of cash, if you go with locals in the gem trade, their primary interest is not to rob you but to sell you something (or try to rob you by getting you to overpay, lol).

Was Diana right?  Was I?  Stay tuned…

 

 

Emerald pair purchased in Muzo

 

 

Emerald Cabochon from Chivor

 

 

Emerald Sugarloaf Suite from Chivor

 

Emerald Cut Emerald from Muzo 
 

 

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Fifty Shades of Green: Colombian Emerald Origins and Varieties Explained

Fifty Shades of Green: Colombian Emerald Origins and Varieties Explained
This Colombia trip was my first real adventure since COVID hit, but after a few days in Bogota and on dirt roads, visiting Muzo, Chivor and this time also Cosquez, I have returned safe and sound.  

On this trip, I dug a bit deeper into the characteristics of emeralds from these locations and learning how to differentiate them.  You'll find me listing our new acquisitions on Etsy over time, but feel free to inquire directly or check out the videos on our YouTube channel as we are continually posting little teasers like the one below!  

 

 

Some of the new treasures are still awaiting batch testing at GIA for oil content, but we already have available some some trapiche emeralds and emerald cuts from the famous La Pita mine near Muzo: these gems are a rich deep green, they are very clean for emeralds and hence low in oil.  Unlike Chivor material, these gems have a rich velvety almost neon green tone, as you can see in the video below. These gems are for decorative use only and were given to me as a parting gift. They are actual remnant splinters from the cutting factory, but they show off the color beautifully!

 

 

Currently in the lab are also a 1.5 carat piece of rare Euclase, and two large Chivor emeralds awaiting full certification.  Below is a video of a sample piece (this one is sold already).

 

 

I also acquired some lighter colored Muzo pieces (locals call them "emerald crystal" because they might be closer to green beryl than to the traditional emerald colors), and an emerald oval from Cosquez.  Currently the Cosquez mines are producing a lot, but not that much has reached the market, and in the US, Cosquez pieces are actually quite rare. Known for a more yellowish tint, Cosquez gems have a bright open color.  Chivor emeralds, by contrast, are more blue, though also lighter than the La Pita Muzo gems.

 

Not sure you can see the differences in this photo, but the two gems on the left are Cosquez, the center two are La Pita, Muzo, and the two right pieces are Chivor.

 

 

From Chivor, I bought emerald cabochons of various sizes, including this lovely sugarloaf suite cut by Don Julio M. in Bogota: 

 

 

Don Julio owns a small shop in the Casa Esmeralda, and he was very helpful in explaining in more detail the color nuances from the various emerald locales, and he proudly showed us the dabs he uses to hold emeralds as he's cutting them:

 

 

Chivor emeralds gems are often cut into long baguette shapes because the crystal shape is long and thin.  I sourced a a suite of three available for a nice ring or Ava pendant, a small no oil emerald cut, a tiny cabochon and this sweet, little very clean briolette, cut by a fellow named Hermann, whom I sourced the briolette directly from:

 

emerald briolette

 

And here are some of the newest Colombian emeralds, now available in the shop for purchase:

 

 

Stay tuned: In our next blog post, I'll tell you a bit more about the actual trip!
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