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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RINGing in the New Year!

RINGing in the New Year!

Something odd happened this fall season, and it gave us a little bit to think about for the year to come.  You, my clients, didn’t buy big gems!  Now, you usually buy more items in the “gift category,” for the holidays anyway, like small pendants, silver rings, simple chains, but when you buy for yourself or the one closest to you, it is usually gems.  This fall, you didn’t buy those.

Then, the second surprise: you bought some of my biggest ticket finished jewelry: the star ring with paraiba, the orange sapphire sunflower ring, the square opal pendant…I’m not talking about any of the many custom pieces, but completely finished designs.

I was particularly flattered when I realized that you bought all the pieces on which I spent extra time and which reflect my particular line and ideas, as opposed to the more standard and simple pieces from Stuller that use our gems.

So: what I think this means is that I have to make more jewelry!  More really special jewelry.  Not necessarily heirloom pieces at heirloom prices, but more richly detailed and in keeping with the pieces that I sold.  Soon you will see my favorite ring style released - her name is Cecilia (naturally).  And more Paraiba jewelry is already in the making, as are layouts for pendants and rings that feature gems not yet seen in the shop.

Brand New Cecilia Ring
Introducing Our Brand New Cecilia Ring

 

To do all of this, we're going to have to make some room in the shop, so out with the old, and in with 2022!  We'll be adding two sale sections to the shop and any gems included in the sale that don’t move will no longer be available after the sale. One section will consist of gems reduced in price by 20% and the other will be reduced by 50% - the latter section will also include some close out jewelry and some gemstone melee that are low in stock and that we are able to sell off. 

 

 

 

When the sale ends on January 4th, the 20% LAST CALL items will all disappear from the shop.  The single gems in the 50% section, and pairs, will also disappear.  Many will be reimagined into jewelry to show you why I bought those particular gems in the first place.  Others will go back into my “boxes of extras” or returned to the vendor.  I cannot offer any layaway or payment plans on either of these sales.

You will see me populate the LAST CALL sections today when this blog is released, but the sale officially starts on the 26th when I will open up the 50% LAST CALL section.  In the meantime, I’m starting to sketch new designs as we speak!  

I played around with some of these sale gems and came up with a few potential layouts so you can get a better idea of  how they'll look in a custom piece:

Some Gem Layout Ideas for Gemstones Included in the Sale!

 

This clearance will also help me plan better for Tucson because 2022 is the year!  We will be back in “almost” full swing, I expect some Thai and Russian dealers to make it, and many from other countries that I haven’t seen in two years.  While the supply line is in certain respects still very interrupted, I think we will see both interesting and important goods appear.  Fingers Crossed.

In addition, yours truly has been collecting merchandise in Madagascar since 2020 – remotely of course – and these goods are finally about to make their way here!  This is fortunate as, occasionally, I could get ahead of new goods being mined while export was at a standstill.  Except for the illegal export of sapphire rough, which was interrupted recently when several arrests were made a few weeks ago, Madagascar hadn’t been open to buyers until just this past November.  This was very rough on the people as you can imagine.  Unemployment money exists only for the federally employed, if that.  For everyone else, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, and that’s almost the entire population. Therefore, you can’t rely on the rest of your family to take care of you either.  Meanwhile, only 2% of the people are immunized due to lack of availability of the vaccine. And in southern Madagascar, people are dying by the thousands of hunger due to a drought that has lasted several years.

I felt lucky, therefore, to be able to contribute to “my own” family in Madagascar.  They, in turn, took the time to learn about export licenses, lapidary work, etc., and built up their business (which is actually the mining and cutting of calcite, but that, too is a mineral).  More about the fruits of this relationship, in terms of little shiny things, next time!

I’m signing off until the New Year.  All the best to you and yours.

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