Gem & Jewelry Industry

Ethically Sourced Gemstones and Artisanal Mining: A Contradiction?

Ethically Sourced Gemstones and Artisanal Mining: A Contradiction?

Etsy recently implemented a sustainability feature that allows sellers to click on an attribute that marks an item as ‘recycled’ or ‘organic’, or ‘ethically sourced.’ Not all our listings have the attribute as a clickable option on our back end, so we assume it is still in testing mode (we often get selected to test new features). The Etsy seller Handbook has an article on what items the attribute can be applied to. Here’s what it says about gems:

Ethical Gemstones: Ethical gemstones, including diamonds, require high standards for social and environmental responsibility that go beyond being Conflict Free™. Note that ethical gemstones don't typically include vintage gemstones due to lack of supply chain transparency. All gemstones, including diamonds, in or on the item must be ethical in order to claim this attribute. Sellers should qualify claims for “ethical” so that consumers understand what this label represents in their listing description.

As you may know, ‘ethics’ is totally up my alley as I am an ethicist by training. My Ph.D. is in philosophy, one of my two specializations is applied ethics (the other is epistemology, or theory of knowledge). I am also published in this field. I won’t bore you with further details, but I will link to my Ethics text here:

I don’t normally bring up my academic background because it’s (a) not relevant and (b) I don’t want it to be misconstrued as tooting my own horn about my being such a wonderfully ethical being. I’m the same as everyone else, just with a research degree in the relevant field. I do know a lot about the term ‘ethical,’ how it is used and I am very familiar with the problems posed by determining what territory it covers and how. And that’s why I want to weigh in on how problematic it is to try to make a gemstone be ‘ethical’ – and note, on the side, that no object can be ethical any more than it can be courageous or trustworthy. This requires agency, and agency requires an agent, someone who can choose between actions. But let’s set that aside, maybe I’m just being nitpicky.

Let’s look closely at that quote and figure out what’s being claimed. Start with “conflict free.” According to IGS (International Gem Society), a Conflict Free diamond is defined as a diamond that has “not financed civil wars.” But that applies to diamonds. Colored stones are not used to finance civil wars or much of anything else. They cannot be used as currency in the way diamonds are because their values are hard to determine, the pricing varies too much and as a result, they are not easily converted for cash on the open market. (Colored stones can and are used in money laundering schemes but I will have to leave that topic for another blog.)

You can of course say that a colored stone is conflict free but it would not say much, certainly it would not be a term of distinction, just like the word ‘natural’ when applied to most food stuffs, like ‘all natural’ doesn’t add much by way of information on a can of beans or a bottle of water. So if that were the only criterion for ‘ethical,’ all colored stones would be ethical stones.

It is also false to imply – as Etsy does above - that non-vintage gems have a transparent supply chain. They do not. And to know if a gem is ethically sourced you need to know about the supply chain, of course. Unfortunately, most gems go through too many hands for anyone at the end of the supply chain to know much about their history. Only a small subset of gems on the market are ‘block-chained’, meaning that their travels are fully documented. A portion of Dudley Blauwet’s gems are now block-chained. Nomads Gems will additionally make the distinction between gems bought on the open market and gems bought from trusted sources. Most small vendors however make no claims about their sources one way or the other, because they can’t.

Assuming, for the moment, that the supply chain was transparent, however, this still does not answer what makes a gemstone ethical. Again, let’s resort to what has been said about diamonds to get us started with a hypothesis. IGS offers this definition of ethical:

Conflict-free refers to diamonds which have not financed civil wars. Ethical diamonds go further, ensuring fair pay, safe working conditions, environmentally sound practices, and no human rights abuses.

But this claim makes another hidden assumption that cannot be verified: that an employer-employee relationship exists that can both implement and oversee mining practices and a pay structure (and the claim that the practices need to be environmentally sound goes even further than that, to facts about local government and infrastructure).

Now, diamond mining is expensive, in part because most diamonds are far beneath the ground. The tunnels can be a mile deep, and setting up such mining operations therefore requires big funding. As a result, diamond mining is done by larger companies, and these in turn have an infrastructure that can be the basis of fair pay and working conditions. Only 15% of diamonds are mined artisanally, meaning they are mined by small groups working claims on their own or mining without a license (local governments don’t usually run much interference in this process). In colored gems, estimates for artisanal mining or ASM, are up to 80%, with over 20 million people involved in mining worldwide, according to Guebelin:

For example, in the town of Muzo, Colombia, large groups and families from the Muzo and Muisca tribes literally wash the bed of Rio Minero for emeralds (this is called surface mining, or alluvial mining), and sell them to Bogota through their known middle men or on the gem market in their towns or on the square in front of Casa Esmeralda in Bogota. Their pay is what they get for the gems they find, they do not have any employers in the official sense of the term, and they work with whatever equipment they can afford. (Here’s a quick but well referenced Wikipedia overview on Artisanal mining, though the references are mostly to gold:,on%20ASM%20for%20their%20livelihood.)

Obviously, neither fair pay nor safe working conditions are relevant in this context. In many of the less wealthy countries in the world people have to be entrepreneurial to find a way to get paid. They don’t have employers in the way we ordinarily use the term.

In many African countries, the number of officially employed people is far smaller than the number of unemployed or self-employed people because so few have a chance of getting any pay at all, never mind if it is fair or not fair in terms of wages – since they don’t get wages. My guess is that it is mostly the government, schools and hospitals that offer jobs in the traditional sense. Real statistics are hard to come by because not all births or deaths are officially recorded. I did look up some statistics here, and so can you, but knowing what I know about data collecting in Africa, especially in remote locations, I suggest you take whatever you find with a grain of salt.

In regions where the ground is rich with minerals such as the Mozambique belt and Madagascar, locals mine gems because that is their best option, they sell to brokers or on the open market where their finds will simply fetch the going price. How they mine and what kind of danger they subject themselves to is essentially up to them – certainly it is not regulated. There is no infrastructure, no external control, and in many cases, no law that protects anyone other than the local clans or tribes rules and regulations (there could be many such rules but those are largely tangential to what we might call the ‘labor market’). Larger mining corporations do exist for colored gems; mostly they are run by people from other countries because foreigners usually supply the financing and very often also the oversight; but as I said above, these do not cover nearly as much of the trade as is the case in the diamond world.

I suspect, therefore, that few to no Etsy sellers are either mine or claim owners or work with any artisanal groups directly. As a result, I fail to see how a high standard for social responsibility could be implemented, overseen or enforced. What Etsy is hoping for is an impossibility when it comes to colored gems.

This doesn’t mean that any claims about ethical gemstones are all B.S. It’s just that the foundation of what makes a trade ethical has to be grounded elsewhere.

My view? It has to be grounded in TRUST. If you can trust someone, then you can trust them to do what they can to keep their relationships above board and do what they can. Note, by the way, that I am therefore in disagreement with Klemens Link, who says that “Without trackability and transparency, there is no trust” (as quoted by Everledger): Trust is what you need in the absence of trackability and transparency. Once those are in place, trust is no longer needed. I would agree however, that trust is built on a foundation that began with trackability and transparency. For me to trust my sources in Madagascar, I had to meet them in person and see how they operated. And for a more indirect approach: I can trust someone by proxy, when I trust their intermediary.

This is an important point. As a small business, it is impossible for us to own or run any kind of mining operations, let alone travel to the source countries and have an informed opinion on an ongoing basis. When we do travel and buy overseas, we do our best to be informed, and additionally we pay above market because I want the seller to have the best advantage of working with us that we can provide. We also help finance the families that are involved in trading with us once we feel we have a close bond.

It is true that because we want to offer a wider variety of gems, then we cannot have the transparency we would like with everything we source. But we do provide transparency where we can (i.e. you can read the blogs about all my travels), and we also work only with vendors who we trust. Some of them have ‘families’ they support, meaning they are well integrated into local clans in the industry and the relationships they have are lifelong and strong. And this, more than anything else, ensures a solid backflow of our wealth to those for whom our most basic expectations of life (food, clothing, shelter, transportation) are only a dream to have on a consistent basis.

For those of you who want to refrain from purchasing anything that has an ‘iffy’ supply chain, my recommendation is that you contact us and ask us directly, as there’s only so much information we can make available on Etsy. We do work with Greenland Ruby (as they are 100% located in the ‘Western World’ so it’s of course super easy to be ‘ethical’ in all of the above defined ways). Many of the gems we source from Dudley Blauwet are block-chained, and for our Madagascar gems, Colombian emeralds and even some of our Paraibas we have fairly solid information on their life before they came to CRD.





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The Art of Sourcing High End Stones: Tips and Pitfalls

The Art of Sourcing High End Stones: Tips and Pitfalls

Yes, from the retail perspective, 2022 was a relatively quiet year. People got the message about prices for everything increasing and prudently set their funds aside to prepare for things to come. In the high end gem market, however, life was busy. Some of my vendor friends were just about crying because they couldn’t find the goods. “I could have sold that 50 times over if only I’d had it,” one of my gem dealers vented about the new craze for radiant cut teal sapphires. Another person I know has a waiting list for 5+ carat royal blues. If you are looking for that special stone this year, how should you navigate this market without overpaying?

The first and most important advice to give here is something you don't want to hear: be discreet. Don’t spread it around that you are looking. I know, I know: you want to show your friends on Instagram, Reddit, or on the latest thread on your favorite online forum. You need all those opinions from others, after all, so that you don’t make any mistakes. You have to resist this!

But why? Getting other opinions keeps you safe, right? Wrong. There are several excellent reasons for staying under the radar. Let me discuss what I think are the two most important ones. (Yes, there are more. You’ll have to ask me, this blog is already too long.)

  • You are driving up the price. Remember the good old rule about what causes inflation? Inflation is caused by increase in demand. And the rarer the stone, the faster a price can rise, even if there’s only a small handful of people looking. For some markets, i.e. unheated rubies above a certain size and in a certain color, there are way fewer stones available than the internet will have you believe. That’s the first point.
    The second point is that the more followers you have, the more interest your post generates in a forum, therefore the bigger the reach. And among those reached, you will have guessed by now, are not only buyers but also sellers. Many of them at "ground level", in Ratnapura, say, where the very stones you are talking about may be coming out of the ground (i.e. royal blue sapphires). And the next time a US based vendor contacts "ground level" for similar material, the price is higher.
    In our market this way of prices spiking, or rising permanently, is a well-known phenomenon, and in the last few years the speed at which information about gemstones circulates, has increased. We do what we can to avoid getting “important” gems to be seen in the retail market so that this doesn’t happen, but it happens anyway, and it happens all the time. And this is true, even if the call comes in by phone from a few smaller brokers to one of the main dealers in NYC. (By the way, that description makes me a small broker, and I am going out on a limb here but I would say that most of the big colored gems in NYC are in the hands of less than 10 people; the other couple hundred or less of them worth their name, own just a handful of expensive stones or lie somewhere in between). One of those upper 10 people said to me last week that in his view, if a broker waits longer than an hour to get stones on memo to show a client, he can lose the call. In our lingo, the “call” is the request for a particular type of stone, like a matched pair 5+ ct GIA No Oil Colombian Emerald certed green. And – I will add this now – in some cases, several calls coming in that afternoon for the same set of criteria can make the owner reconsider the price.
    Also, in many regions of the world, gem dealers and brokers at ground level, and this stretches all the way to the N.Y. diamond district, operate in a large filial structure that gives them more financial backing and safety than someone outside that structure would normally realise. “Important” stones are routinely owned by more than one person, and you would be surprised how persistent a high price can be once the word is out that there’s a demand for that stone. Prices can get blown out of proportion, in fact, and then even vendors will not touch the goods, further decreasing availability at your end. As a gemstone seller, about 1/3 of the prompts I receive on Instagram are from other vendors overseas. I never respond because I need to go through my own trusted sources so that my purchases are protected. I would never buy from anyone on Instagram unless I knew them personally or through another person. If I were a retail buyer, I would at least test purchase for something inexpensive to see how the whole thing goes before I would even consider working with them on something big.

     And what is the second most important reason for discretion?

    • You are not getting good advice. Now you might ask how I could dare say such a thing, just point blank without referring to any advice in particular. Here’s why: photos don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes they don’t tell any story, or they tell a plain wrong story. And any advice you will be given is based on the photos you put out there. So even the best advice (and much of it isn’t the best advice) is only as good as the information it is based on: the photo. Try as we may, photos are very difficult to take accurately. Sapphires and rubies (and many other stones) both look more vibrant and photograph more vibrantly at the equator than they do in North America. Furthermore, phones and cameras differ (especially with respect to "the white balance"), the time of day when the photo was taken and often even because of the exact locations of several photos of the same stone even from the same person. And never mind all the stuff you can do with Photoshop! Even assuming the seller did their very best with the photo equipment they have, their camera may trick them and change things (smart phones are smarter than people!). Rubies and emeralds in particular are very hard to portray correctly. This is so much so that I often prefer to buy by color description and just use the photo to get an idea of saturation and clarity.



    An in text footnote is apropos here. Actually, two.

      Footnote A is that photos get constantly stolen online and then regurgitated by sellers (or pretend sellers) that do not own the stone but they try to use the photo to get clients for other gems. If you went by Instagram, you would think that there are 100x the amount of fine quality unheated Burma rubies on the market than there really are. And you would think that you should only buy a Russian Alexandrite that changes from red to green and that’s clean and sparkly. Right about now I want you to picture an emoji: it’s one of those faces that laughs so hard that tears are coming out of that round yellow face, because that one stone is a museum quality piece and its picture is shopped around everywhere.  

        Footnote B goes like this. Human visual systems vary a lot. Some of us don’t see as many differences in the green or red spectrum as others (same with other spectrums). There’s a lot of vision science to support this claim, so you don’t need to take this from me. If you want to have a fun evening testing your color vision with friends, go to one of the online tests, like the Ishihara or Cambridge Color test, or the Farnsworth 100 Hue Test. Prepare to be surprised, especially if you are male – you are statistically more likely to have a color deficiency.

        Now. I hope I have convinced you what not to do. But what should you do instead? Imagine you have 10, 20 or 30K to spare, and you could really use some good advice because you don’t fully trust your seller.

        My first piece of advice in that case is that you need to lose that seller. The gem business is in some ways a business like any other. Would you keep a carpenter or roofer you didn’t trust? No. You would go by recommendations, or a good bit of research, hopefully some opinion neutral informative ratings based on data, or you request an independent reference. You can do all those things with gem sellers too!

        You are using a vendor not just because they own the gems and you don’t. You use them because you are deferring to their expertise. If you have seen 50 relevant comparison stones (or even 500), they have seen 50,000 or more. They have looked and looked and looked, and you simply can’t see what they see automatically until you have seen as many gems as they have. It’s a skill that can only be taught by doing it over and over, like egg sexing. Once someone shows you over and over and over that “this one’s male” and “that one’s female” you will eventually see automatically what they see, but there’s no criteria anyone can write down that can take the place of this process of simply seeing these things over and over again. 

        In the same way, a ruby dealer will see secondary hues that you simply do not see, and that a photo cannot capture. They will hone in on relevant inclusions in a way that you can only if you know what you are looking for. Consider a mammogram. Can you read one and know you have a lump that needs a biopsy? Not unless you are trained in mammography, right? It’s the same with cell biology and microscopes. And with so many other things, like gems. 

        So a very good gem seller (and one who can also communicate very well) is one who enables you to know things through his or her eyes, and whose descriptions are dead on. But it’s also one who protects you when you don't see what he or she sees. That person’s prices in the high end stones should be very dead on as well unless the stones are old and the vendor hasn’t had the time or energy or financial interest to change prices (yes, that happens).

        One more point. Keep in mind that people who can afford to deal in expensive gemstones, who have the money to own them or the skill to find and present the right stones to the buyer, are not desperate for sales. Their reputation has more value to them than any one particular deal. Unless they make millions, they can’t very easily disappear after cheating someone unless they don’t live here in the first place, and one bad review because the client felt cheated on the value of their purchase can cost them the next 50 sales.

        Also don’t forget that lab reports help you greatly when you need independent findings, especially with color ratings. So if you want a sapphire that’s royal blue but you’re not totally sure it’s royal blue when you are looking at it, then you get a GIA royal blue rated stone, and you have a royal blue in the most objective sense of "royal blue". Larger laboratories often use more than one person to do some of the color ratings (and for other things, too!). And stones above a certain value have to be run by the boss (This is from the horse’s mouth: Gubelin does that for Kashmir sapphires).

        An example of the ColorCodex introduced in 2019. Used by AGL to determine color. Click here for full article

        Ok this was another long article but I’ll leave you with one last trick I learned from James Alger. It’s obvious really, once you hear it, but until you do hear it you won’t think of it: buy a small comparison stone and use it when you look at goods in person. If you want a 10mm Emerald that is GIA rated "green" then find yourself a 3mm stone plus some help in figuring out if it’s the right green. Or if you just want ‘this color’ – whatever "this color" is - it's just the color you like and and that's the one you want. Then you find this color you like in baby size and send it to the vendor. They will probably thank you because that’s the best way for them to figure out what you want. 

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        Gemstones Travel the World: New Gems from Madagascar and their Many Adventures!

        Gemstones Travel the World: New Gems from Madagascar and their Many Adventures!

        I announced their arrival somewhat prematurely in the fall of 2021, right before all exports from Madagascar stopped because of an illegal export scandal in Antananarivo, the capital. A Sri Lankan gem dealer was caught with about a million dollars’ worth of sapphire rough in his hand luggage and an invoice claiming it was only garnet. The man was imprisoned, the goods confiscated, the Department of Mining closed down. Several more customs officers were arrested for taking bribes, even though, mind you, that is standard practice and the government knows about it. The ordeal ended up disrupting the entire gemstone trade including Tucson 2022. Rumor had it that higher ups in the government felt that they were not getting enough of the financial pie so they started to confiscate shipments occasionally so that they can collect “new taxes” before they release them to the relevant parties. The ensuing bottleneck is still creating issues for export.

        In any case, my gems are finally here, after an adventurous journey from Antananarivo (Tana) to Mauritius, to Europe and then to the U.S. The Department of Mining in Tana is operating on a limited basis, and while there are still a lot of restrictions, some export is possible, in the semi legal fashion in which so many things work in African countries. The Sri Lankan who was jailed made it out safely a few months later, to Bangkok I am told, after some negotiations, which surely involved significant funds collected by the Madagascan government. Meanwhile, my faceted stones traveled underneath a layer of less expensive collector’s minerals that were exported this fall. That’s as much as I can say, except to add that I wasn’t part of the journey. Until export questions are fully legalized again, yours truly prefers to purchase remote. 

        My shipment involved five parcels of gems: a largish box of yellow and green sphene in various mixed qualities, a smaller lot of color change garnet cushions, a large parcel of aquamarine, two parcels of mixed quality grandidierite, and finally my surprise gems, several large lots of Sapphirine. No, not sapphire. Sapphirine! Looks like sapphire and is named after sapphire, but isn’t.

        My being the proud owner of a bunch of sapphirine is actually the result of an error, as the material was supposed to be Serendibite, a related mineral with extremely similar crystal structure and RI. Here’s what happened:

        Back in the fall of 2021, I was told about a new find of gemstones in the South of Madagascar, where the grandidierite mines are located (not far from Fort Dauphin, if you want to check it on the map). The area is dangerous as it is populated by Dahalo, criminal gangs, so even other Madagascan clans do not go there. Incidentally, the Dahalo also do much of the gemstone mining in that and other regions but to sell it they bring it to adjacent villages. Rarely do Madagascans go to the remote areas in which the Dahalo live.

        Additionally, much of Southern Madagascar is exceptionally poor due to droughts caused by global warming. Anyway, word had it that the material was Serendibite, normally found mainly in Sri Lanka; and a lab report was produced – a report that has since turned out to be either fake or simply mistaken. A refractive index test might confuse the two gems because their RI values are so close, but an X-Ray would be able to distinguish them. X-Ray machines are expensive however, and it is unlikely that a Madagascan lab would have one. Also, if you look through the information logged on MinDat here, you will see that Serendibite (but also Sapphirine) have indeed been found in Southern Madagascar before. So perhaps however the lab (or “lab”) report came to be, its author made an educated guess. Here’s the info for Sapphirine if you are interested.

        Now as it turns out both minerals are rare when it comes to the world of faceted gems, so from that point of view, it didn’t matter to me which of the two I was buying, so long as the material was pretty. Serendibite would have fetched more money though, and I would have been the only one to own it. If you check on Etsy, sapphirine from Madagascar, though rare, is indeed available on the market.

        So how do I know that what I have is Sapphirine? I sent a non-faceted sample to GIA, and they X-Rayed it for me. It’s definitely Sapphirine: a vibrant blue and brown di-chroic material, included and dark but the color itself is not at all ugly. 95% of what I have is not gemmy and I will probably sell it at a low price, but a few pieces are pretty enough to make jewelry out of them. Some of the faceted material was also cut along the wrong axis, so it looks more brownish than it should, or actually striped if you loupe it.

        So there you have it. Would you like some Sapphirine? I will put it on Etsy of course but in the meantime you can just contact me.

        Let me wrap up this blog with some notes on the other gems. The color change garnet is fantastic, the color change is complete, in blue light the gems are very blue, in daylight greyish blue, and in incandescent light a strong red. There’s a larger cushion as well which shifts from purple to pink, a lovely clean 6mm stone, and a matched pair of cabochons (4mm). The prices are good on all of these, and gems from Bekily are rare right now.

        The sphene is gorgeous, at least most of it, including this pair here:

        Here are some of the other sphene waiting to go on Etsy:

        The aqua is lovely too but some pieces need recutting. The aquamarines are quite large for the most part, with the largest clocking in at 9 carats. Aquamarine has gone up in price significantly. I am not known for selling a lot of aqua but that was mainly because up until the last 3 years or so, it was readily available on the market. This is no longer the case when it comes to the finer goods.

        Last but not least, the grandidierite I have is super nice. We have one on Etsy here. My photo here shows only a part of the parcel, I have another box. Much of it is satiny, not brilliant, save for a few pieces, and the nicest looking piece at AGL (because I am not entirely sure that it is grandidierite, it was very clean and slightly different color; whereas the rest looks right and also can’t be anything else given the color and inclusions). The color ranges from a deep greenish to a lighter blueish teal.

        You will see all the material rolled out on Etsy in the next few weeks, as I get to it piece by piece. If you’d like to get ahead of the line for the best of the grandies, sapphirines, and color change garnet, please contact me.



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        Investing in Precious Gems: What You Need to Know

        Investing in Precious Gems: What You Need to Know

        If you feel the way I do about 2022 so far, then you’ll agree we live in very unpredictable times. Barely out of the COVID crisis and ensuing lockdowns, we now face high gas prices, general inflation, crashing stock markets, and shortages in basic foods such as cooking oil and flour (this is especially true in Europe). My friend Doreen in Nairobi tells me her food prices have actually doubled this year, and there’s barely time to think about anything besides making just the basic ends meet. It’s hard not to feel unsettled.

        So it might come as a surprise to you that I have done nothing but buy gems this year. I noticed the shift last fall already, and together with many other Tucson buyers this spring, I went bullish. Now it’s July and my Bangkok contacts are still telling me that everyone’s buying. My natural colored diamond dealer, who goes by the nickname Ghandi (yep) says his safety net is in his safe, not in his bank account. Most people in my trade are buying more than selling right now; one vendor named David even told me that while they’ve been in the sapphire trade for 4 decades, they’ve only now started to buy and stash stuff away. He said he only wished they had started sooner.

        When I first started in this industry, I was told that the health of a gemstone business can be measured in this way: not necessarily by how much one has in inventory, but by how comfortable one is in holding on to it.  If you have low liquidity and can keep a gem purchase for only a few days before you have to sell, this is really bad; if you can wait a year or more, this is excellent. So, while the world may end next year, and my retirement account may end up retiring itself at zero, I will still have my Paraiba tourmaline.


        .76 carat Paraiba Tourmaline from Brazil— contact us for details
        .76 carat Paraiba Tourmaline from Brazil— contact us for details




        Gemstone investing is not for the uninitiated though, and I have a sad story to tell to show this. Back when I was helping my Indian friend Dino sort his emeralds in one of the street facing exchanges in the diamond district – it might have been 2010 - an elderly lady came up to his booth with a tray of gemstones that she had, as she said, invested in over the years. All were bought from JTV on special offers that said 80% off retail price or something like that. You might guess what’s coming next: they were completely worthless. I mean, you would in any case not want to sell off an entire collection bought at retail to a NY wholesaler, especially for cash, as you will get lowballed. But that said, labradorite, moonstone and other similar gems just don’t accrue in value. Dino felt so bad for the lady that he just told her he wasn’t in the market to buy at that time. He couldn’t bring himself to be honest with her.

        And even if you have a nice collection of items, they cannot easily be liquidated the way stocks can be sold. When people would offer gems to Dino and ask their value, he’d always say: how much time do you have? If you can wait for the right buyer, you can sell for a good price; if you are in a hurry, then you will have to take a low cash offer.

        Another anecdote: About 6 years ago, I made a Brazilian Paraiba pendant for a client, a 2 carat oval center, 2 matching pieces at 5.5mm, two at 4mm, and diamond melee. It came to a total of about 20K if I remember correctly. (For privacy reasons, I will not show a photo of this pendant here). The buyer had asked me initially if it was an investment piece and I said yes. So after 3 months she wanted to sell it back to me. I said that would make no sense for me now, but if she waited two years I most likely would. She grew impatient, asked me how to sell it now, and I said if she needed to liquidate she could go to an auction house but it would cost her 20% or more in commissions, and I didn’t want her to lose money by rushing. She tried but she was turned down. I don’t know if she ever sold it or not, but I would buy it back now at a higher price and I wouldn’t think twice about it. (I am not sure what I would offer because I would need to see the details again but matched pairs over 5mm now start at 10K/ct if you can find them).

        So, for a retail buyer to invest in a gemstone, they have to play the long game, minimally a year I would say, normally longer. This year one of my Paraiba vendors started to buy back from his clients at the same price or a slight markup, so he could offer the goods back out to others. And that’s vendor prices, not even retail: retail is also tougher to sell to, but at the right price one can speed up the sale.

        Ideally, for a nice investment you want to wait over 10 years, and then you can really get somewhere with the price increase, even if you then sell off quickly.

        But beware. Most gems are not worth investing in, and you have to watch for the hype like gems featured in advertisements or elsewhere on TV channels. Here are a few pointers if you are seriously thinking of investing in gems:

        1. Size matters, and yet the size can be small. If you are buying a natural pink diamond from Argyle, as little as a 20 pointer can be a huge investment. I’m not in the diamond trade, so in gemstones I’d say that a half carat cobalt spinel from Luc Yen with the appropriate paperwork can be a “big” investment. But an unheated blue sapphire from Sri Lanka will have to be bigger than half a carat to be an investment gem. As a good rule of thumb for the smaller investor, try to get over a carat. Even if it costs more initially than a stone just under a carat, it’s still the better choice.
        2. Beware of hype. Tanzanite would be my go-to example here. While it is a single origin stone (meaning it comes from only one location), there’s plenty of it in the ground. To correctly assess hype, read GIA or other trade articles, not stuff written for retail. Remember that sellers like me rely on correct information or our business goes belly up. We get our information from the trade, not from articles published for the general public. And you have plenty of access to trade publications! Most gemstone laboratories have a nice online article database to peruse.
        3. Related to hype, beware of trends. In my opinion (not necessarily shared by everyone), Padparadscha sapphire is a trend. Celebrities with big wallets buy a couple of big stones that are truly perfect and possibly well worth their cost, and then everyone else wants one. But top of the line Padparadschas are super expensive, and the rest not worth it. I have written a blog entry on this, so I am not going to repeat it here, just follow this link.
        4. Go with your eye and buy only what really (REALLY) attracts you. If it isn’t pretty, it isn’t worth having. For color (the first C in my view) you don’t need an expert. It’s not rocket science. Even a gemstone innocent can pick the best gem out of a batch by simply grabbing what they like. While there is variability in taste, it’s not as subjective as you think. The biology of the human visual system is more or less the same for everyone, unless you are color blind; and we react differently to different colors and saturation. We like blues and greens (because we survive on water and vegetation), whereas browns, oranges, yellows, and muted colors generally, do not attract the eye as much. Muddy stones like 99% of Alexandrite are hard to sell for me, which means they are hard to resell for you.
        5. Origin matters mostly when it makes a difference in how a gemstone looks. I’m inclined to say it matters only when it makes a difference in how a gemstone looks, but I want to hedge a little here. A good quality Kashmir sapphire is well liked in the trade and sapphire vendors will invest in them despite the premium, while at the same time telling you that they might prefer a Ceylon sapphire because it’s prettier and cheaper. But when you compare Mozambique and Brazilian Paraiba, the Brazilian is preferred because, on the whole, it looks nicer and more vibrant. Between a Mozambique and a Burma ruby I would buy whichever is nicer, same with sapphire from say Sri Lanka or Madagascar. But between a Russian and a Brazilian alexandrite, assuming they both look equally nice (and they MUST look nice), I might try to get the Russian stone if I can afford it.
        6. Don’t overstretch yourself financially. If you can’t afford the Russian alexandrite and the Brazilian looks beautiful, then get the Brazilian stone, not the Russian. Your investments should stay within your comfort level or you will at some point feel pressured to sell, and then you can get messed up. Just like with the stock market, if the market is volatile, you have to have time. Otherwise, just get a CD.
        7. Treatment is important to price but whether or not a gemstone treatment lasts might matter more. So the reason you might prefer an unoiled Russian emerald is because the more an emerald is oiled, the higher the chance that when the oil dries out after a decade, the stone cracks. Therefore, you want a clean enough specimen that needs very little treatment. (Cedar oil, incidentally, is basically no longer used in the emerald business, so your report will say ‘Modern’ treatment or if it’s from GIA, it will not make a distinction between types of clarity enhancement). In other cases, like sapphire, treatment should just be considered in the price. Untreated sapphires cost more. But also understand that when it comes to tourmaline and aquamarine for example, which are heated at lower temperatures, the lab methodologies for testing are limited and not fool proof. This is one reason why when I buy Paraiba tourmaline I am not that concerned about heat treatment but I care a great deal about any other clarity enhancement (which, I repeat, may not last and then the gem has low overall stability, even low color stability at times because when the oil dries the gem will show ugly white spots).
        8. When you spend enough money on the gem, get it certified. Or buy subject to cert where you tell the seller that if he or she produces the certificate that says what you expect (e.g., origin Brazil), then you commit to the purchase, but not before. That’s standard procedure though remember that a good cert like AGL will be over $250 and a Gubelin report may be up to about $800, depending on the size of the stone. This means it makes absolutely no sense to certify a stone that cost you $500. Also don’t just ask for any old cert. Anyone can make a laminated card. Look up the cert you are offered and see if that’s from a reliable laboratory. A small lab may not have enough of a gemstone database to make very good determinations about origin, or alternatively, they may work in favor of the seller because that’s where they make most of their money - some overseas labs have that reputation. If you buy from a reputable US seller, or an AGTA member (yes, I am one, but that’s not why I’m saying that), then you have better return options, you can track the money, and they are bound by US law (so I can’t sell you a sapphire that’s really an amethyst; it’s just not allowed and if I’m found out I can lose my buyers). A US based company cannot easily just go “belly up” and start with a new name after being found out to be dishonest.
        9. And lastly, beware of the “deal”. Every gemstone dealer knows their prices. They’re not dumb. If you cannot buy quantity, then be prepared to pay a little more and get a “vetted” piece. If you buy stocks or options as a private buyer (not a bank), you have to pay more also, and a brokerage fee in addition. I used to work on a trading floor and I have my series 7, so I’ve seen it happen. Our “private investment” desk did flourish, even though private investors had to expect less of a return than the bank’s proprietary brokers could achieve.


        There’s much more to be said here but blogs are supposed to be one page and I’ve already gone over.

        I will wrap up with what you might consider the most important question here. What does yours truly invest in?  And what do other seasoned gemstone dealers invest in? This depends a little on access and expertise of course. On my list is Brazilian Paraiba, even greenish ones (because they are neon and in the end I want neon), some very good quality Mozambique Paraiba if I can get matched pairs or a bigger piece. I also buy fine quality spinel: cobalt (even good quality Sri Lankan material), Burma spinel, Mahenge spinel, Vietnamese purple and lavender spinel, red beryl and sometimes benitoite (though mostly for direct resale; it’s worth investing in but it’s just not my favorite stone). I own an exceptionally fine kornerupine, and I would own a very fine quality grandidierite if I could, though I don’t expect either of those to accrue a lot in value. I also buy low or no oil emeralds. I prefer vibrance, not overly dark, though the occasional minty tone in a Russian emerald would draw me in because it has some Paraiba like qualities in terms of color.


        Other vendors I know buy blue sapphires, vibrant colors only, some fine quality rubies or alexandrites though most rubies and most alex’s do not resell easily and are not as beautiful as one would hope. I will surmise that most gem dealers are willing to sell the lower quality materials quickly for a good price, which means they don’t fully trust the stone (probably because it’s not always that pretty). I’ve seen investment in Padparadscha go down because so few labs now certify a sapphire as a true pad, and some labs, like AGL, haven even reversed themselves on gems that they previously certed as pads. That signals a big “no no” to me.  The same has been the case with origin in ruby and sapphire. A few years ago many Madagascar sapphires were certed as Sri Lanka, now that’s changing because of the better database availability. So for me, I’d pay the same price for either origin, not more.  And should my wallet ever be big enough for a Kashmir, I would expect 2 or even 3 certs -- one of them Gubelin as they are the strictest in their standard, and price varies drastically if it’s not Kashmir.


        Ok enough said, but let me add this note just in case: if you have questions about any other gems and investments I haven’t mentioned here, please ask. If I don’t know the answer, and I may not, I will try to point you in the right direction with literature or send you to another vendor that is better equipped to handle your questions or request. I’m a researcher by trade, and what I have on offer is at your disposal.

        1.51 carats Mahenge spinel, 8x6mm
        1.51 carats Mahenge spinel, 8x6mm — contact us for details


        2.2 Carat Burma Sapphire No heat, GIA certified
        2.2 Carat Burma Sapphire No heat, GIA certified
        Blue Kornerupine, 1.51 carat
        Blue Kornerupine from my personal collection, 1.51 carat
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        Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Rarest of Them All?

        Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Rarest of Them All?

        Last week I received a request to make a rare gemstone pendant for a birthday girl. The buyer provided me with a list of gems she had in mind, such as grandidierite and taaffeite. Interestingly, though, tanzanite was also on her list of rare gems. "That's not a rare gem," I replied to her.

        Well, much to my surprise, it turns out that tanzanite is on just about every rare gemstone list, such as this one, published by the International Gem Society: 

        What is the argument for including tanzanite? It is a single origin gem (yes, from Tanzania). Given that I can buy tanzanite anywhere easily, this argument wasn't even on my radar. Also, I disagree. The tanzanite mines are producing gems in large quantities which makes it very easily available. Also, compare the price of a 3 carat tanzanite to that of a 3-carat sapphire of similar color and clarity: deep but vibrant blue with hues of purple.  You’ll find that tanzanite is also cheaper, making it more likely that it is not as rare.

        Of course, if one considers just unheated vibrant pink or amethyst color purple tanzanite, then that’s very rare. Much more rare than blue sapphire even in top quality. And in 3+ carat sizes, you won’t find it hardly at all.

        But this means that single origin is not the most important characteristic of what makes a gem rare. Rather, it is this: low production, or no production.

        The gemstone hauyne, for instance is a single origin gem from the Eifel in Germany and there’s very little production. That said, however, we need to add another qualifier. There are many reasons why production of a gem can be low. For example, from what I was told, there had been an accident at the hauyne mining site a few years ago and since then the owners of the area, who are actually producing pumice to make bricks, are not letting gem collectors onto the property to look for hauyne. If they start looking, how much will they find? In this particular case it probably will not be much as hauyne was never found in large quantities before.  Nevertheless, inaccessibility to gems is a factor apart from low or no production.


        Production can in any case be low because it is too costly, as is the case with Utah’s red beryl. There is some material but the cost of getting it out of the ground would make the material astronomically expensive, so the owners of the mine have essentially stopped working it.

        On the other hand, demand for hauyne or for red beryl is not high either. And this brings us to a more commercial understanding of what can make a gem rare: Insufficient supply to meet demand. There might be, for instance, more padparadscha sapphire available than afghanite or jeremejevite, or taaffeite, yet only padparadscha sapphire is well known to the general public. And since it’s been in the news as the gemstone of choice for some European royalty, demand (and prices) have gone through the roof.


        A similar example is that of paraiba tourmaline from Paraiba, Brazil. Production has essentially come to a standstill, and because the gems have a beautiful color, there is more demand than supply and prices have increased dramatically as a result.


        Paraiba and Emerald Pendant
        14K Gold Colombian Emerald and Paraiba Tourmaline Pendant


        Paraiba Cabochon
        2.7 Carat Brazilian Paraiba Tourmaline Oval Cabochon


        But, you may object, Paraiba, the location, may be mined out, but tourmaline the gemstone is available in abundance. So tourmaline itself is not a rare gem. It’s only rare when it contains the trace element of copper which creates its vibrant color. And copper is not itself part of what makes a gemstone a tourmaline (it’s not part of the chemical formula used to define tourmaline, in other words).

        That said, when you go back to the lists of rare gems, you will find that there are actually many non-rare gemstones included, if by that we mean just the chemical composition that makes a stone a spinel, tourmaline etc. 

        One example is cobalt-bearing neon blue spinel which can be found only in Luc Yen, Vietnam, accessible right now only with a long quarantine upon arrival. Export from Vietnam occurs mainly by vendors themselves bringing the gems across the border, and since COVID-19 this method has more or less collapsed. (Just an FYI, Sri Lankan cobalt bearing spinel contains less cobalt and is consequently not as bright).



        A more familiar example is blue sapphire, which actually exists in abundance. It is much less rare than for instance green sapphire. However when you narrow that down to the top quality royal blue sapphire and you want it to be unheated, then it is extremely rare.  The same is true of Russian alexandrite, Kashmir sapphire, top quality unheated Burma ruby, and even Moroccan amethyst which can cost up to 30x as much as Brazilian amethyst.


        So what are we to make of all this? Well, there’s never one single reason why a gem might or might not be rare. Some extremely rare gems such as grandidierite are not nearly as expensive as others because there’s no demand for them. Same with taaffeite, which on top of that, isn’t a very interesting looking stone: white, colorless, slightly brownish or pinkish, and included.  This means that even an extremely rare gem might not have much commercial value or be very expensive, whereas an expensive gem need not be that rare, such as a white diamond.

        Continue reading

        What You Need to Know Before Buying Gems Overseas

        What You Need to Know Before Buying Gems Overseas

        A couple of weeks ago a new client asked me if “sellers from India have genuine natural gems at low cost”?  It was a strange question to pose to me I thought, since I am a gem seller and I am based in the US.  Was she trying to ask me about my competition?

        Well, I tend to take questions at their face value and just try to answer them, and my answer to her is what forms the basis of this blog.

        The short answer to the question as posed is yes.  Yes, sellers from India have natural gems for sale and yes, they are genuine gems.  Yes, they are at times low cost.  But this is not the whole story, as it is uninformative at best.  The better question to ask is if it is worth it for you to spend more money and to buy in the US.  My somewhat biased answer to that question is also yes, but I don’t mean that to be self-serving.  Why, then, would I say this?

        1. Consumer Protection Laws: the US, the EU and some other rich countries have enacted — and are able to enforce — an extensive set of consumer protection laws. These laws, first enacted in the 1960s, are exactly that.  They protect and favor the consumer, not the seller.  The assumption behind these laws is that the consumer is at an epistemic disadvantage.  She or he is not assumed to know as much about the product as the seller.  These laws obligate the seller to make full and truthful disclosure about the product, including risks (i.e. with toys and cleaning products) that the consumer may not anticipate.  If the seller is not truthful and can be proven wrong, the buyer can get refunded and the seller can get into big trouble.  Additionally, a buyer has protection with any PayPal, Etsy and Credit Card transaction, and this protection is again easier to enforce within the US (or EU).  
          India does not have the economic wealth to set up the necessary bureaucracy to enforce extensive consumer protection laws, and the US has no international jurisdiction to obligate sellers in other countries. While you can leave a bad review and a shop can be closed down if it's hosted by a marketplace like Etsy, nothing stops the company from reopening under a different name.  In the US, this can be more difficult.
        1. Laboratory Services: not all gem labs have the same standards, and some international labs in Bangkok, India and Sri Lanka even have the reputation of favoring the seller. This does not have to mean falsifying reports, it just means that information can be inflated, or it can be left undisclosed. Reliable labs are AGL and GIA in the US, Dunaigre in Switzerland, GRS in Switzerland and the US, among others.  Again, US, EU and also Swiss laws, are strict and enforceable, even if the standards are non-uniform.  Additionally, there are certain organizations such as the American Gem Trade Association, that can require additional standards. And last but not least, gem businesses in the US have to sign anti-terrorist agreements that prevent them from buying goods that support the terrorist trade, and they can be closed down and prosecuted for not abiding by these agreements.
        1. Related to that, some overseas sellers offer “certificates of authenticity” for their gems. I get asked if I provide these all the time.  I don’t because frankly, I don’t know what such a thing would be.  Buyers get a bill of sale, or a receipt (from Etsy, let’s say) and this provides them with the information about the gem: size, origin, treatment, dimensions, cost.  And they can request an independent laboratory certificate from GIA for instance.  What, in addition, does an in-house printed “certificate” do?  Nothing - anyone can print it from home.  It has neither additional value nor does it additionally protect the buyer. 


          Actual lab cert from GAL
        1. Quality Control (or selection of better quality gems): buying from a wholesaler, as opposed to a retailer, often implies that the buyer commits to a piece from a larger parcel, or an entire parcel, or a lower quality single gem (say for instance a gem with window or less desirable color, a sapphire with more zoning, a ruby that looks blackish). Many overseas sellers have to move more product than just a single stone here and there because they have often committed to a larger quantity of gems, and if they offer these cheaper than, for instance, US sellers, it makes no sense for them to curate and select the best specimens.  They may do so for more valuable material but they may correspondingly raise the price to more of a retail level because of the additional labor involved.  But in the latter case, they may not be underbidding the US market by that much in the end.
          What you can and often do save on is the customer service, however.  Labor is cheaper in many overseas countries and so it is easier to ask someone to match pieces for you, send extra photos and video. For us, by contrast, this is an expensive endeavor and hence we do not always provide that extra service.  Gems under $50 for instance, are not gems for which we want to spend the time to provide video.  But for a seller in Brazil, let’s say (just to pick a different country) where the minimum wage is $1.1 per hour, as opposed to $7.25 an hour in the US ($12 in NJ) and a $50 gem can be marketed with more manpower.

          Now, does this mean you should not buy internationally?   No it doesn’t.  I do as well, although I have reliable sources with whom I do a lot of business and they know my taste.  I also do not pre-pay for these goods as that is not standard in the wholesale market.  As all sales are final, I pay after inspection, not before, and I have the right of refusal if the goods are not what I expected.  As you can imagine, this requires a degree of trust, however, and can only be sustained with an ongoing relationship that involves quantity purchases.

          Secondly, if you are an informed consumer, you will be able to judge photos better, ask the right questions (i.e. is there window?), request extra photos, or a certificate from a reliable lab that you have researched.  And that’s the point at which tables can be turned – if you are a very educated buyer and you are willing to spend more money on repeat business, I think you can benefit from buying internationally.  However, for a less educated buyer who just wants a few smaller gems, I do not recommend this as the most logical option.
        A recently acquired mixed color/quality parcel of tanzanite


        Jochen and I, sorting out a parcel, on location in Antisirabe
        Here are some newly listed (and carefully sorted and curated) gems in the shop:


        Spinel Pears from Nigeria
        Ombre Benitoite
        Brazilian Paraiba Tourmaline
        Continue reading

        How We Source Stuff: Hunting for Gemstone Treasures

        How We Source Stuff: Hunting for Gemstone Treasures

        Since Cecile Raley Designs started selling gems on Etsy, the number of shops offering cut stones online has pretty much exploded.  In addition, international gem cutting centers like Jaipur, India can now sell gemstones directly to you without a “middle-man” or “retail shop.” 

        Because I was always more fascinated with unusual and rare gemstones, I found myself gradually moving more in the direction of “curating” - buying and showing only special and selected gems, rather than buying and selling large mixed quality parcels.  I also never wanted to sell gems like citrine or amethyst or blue topaz because they are too ubiquitous.  If you are a treasure hunter, then ubiquitous is a bad word.  And I think of myself as a treasure hunter.

        So what are the considerations for a treasure hunter?  What counts as a true gemstone treasure?


         Gemstone treasures have to attract the eye.  It is a basic rule.  If you don’t like the way it looks, don’t buy it.  (Why would you buy an ugly dress?).  Certain kinds of brown dravite tourmaline are fairly rare, but it’s not a color that many people enjoy, and so it has never interested many buyers.  But both the "Jedi" red and "cobalt" blue spinel as well as the bright turquoise of Paraiba tourmaline just forces the eye to look. Alternatively, compare Namibian and Russian demantoid.  Both are rare, but Russian demantoid is significantly more eye catching because it’s not brownish or olive green.  (Sidenote: The rarest of all Russian demantoids is actually the yellowish brownish andradite garnet, and it is, nevertheless, the least expensive).

         Gemstone treasures have to be rare.  Both citrine and amethyst are pretty, and some amethyst can be downright gorgeous.  But unless you consider rare origins, there’s a lot of gorgeous amethyst out there.  So even though amethyst from Russia or Morocco are now rare, they do not fetch a high market price.  Alternatively, Tanzanite is fairly available on the market despite the fact that it has only one origin.  This means that even in large sizes, Tanzanite is not as expensive as unheated sapphire in the same color.  However, single origin can make something very rare if it is not found in sufficient quantities or supplies have run out.  Such is the case with Benitoite.  Benitoite is a lovely blue similar to sapphire but it’s not neon and eye catching like hauyne or even top-quality sapphire; its value is in its rare single origin.

        Gemstone treasures should not be enhanced.  Let’s face it, most of us are attracted to the pure and unadulterated.  And perhaps rightfully so.  Gemstone enhancement, i.e., heating, irradiating, oiling, are “beautification devices” that make a gem seem better than it is or to appear to be something it is not. But it also moves a stone in the rare category into something less rare, as it is a way to enable a more readily available gemstone to rival the beauty of the one that is natural.  Emerald is routinely oiled on a sliding scale, and the more oil used, the lower the price.  One reason why Afghani and Russian emeralds are so sought after is because, in addition to the rare origin, they are so clean that they need little to no oiling (even if one did oil them, very little would be absorbed by the gems because they do not have enough fissures).  On average, Colombian emeralds are not as clean and require more oiling, but the extraordinarily clean Colombian gems, which also have a neon like color, will fetch a price equal to Russian emeralds, if not higher.

        Gemstone treasures have rare qualities. There are many ways to think about rare qualities of gems.  Color change is one of them and is probably the main reason why alexandrite is still valued so highly, despite its mostly “muddy” daylight appearance.  (Sidenote: we can easily source alexandrite but we prefer to market the actually rarer blue garnet which also has a much better color change and clarity).  Another rare quality of a gem is dichroism or trichroism, which makes a gem appear different colors from different angles. Unheated tanzanite has trichroism, iolite is dichroic but unfortunately it’s secondary color is brown.  Kornerupine is trichroic showing green, blue and lavender. 

        14K Rose Gold Ring with Lavender Spinels

         Do gemstone treasures have to have a good cut?  Generally, cut matters – a lot – because a good cut tends to increase how much we are attracted to a gem.  But there are two caveats to that.  One is that if the material is so rare that any bit of “weight loss” in cutting matters for value and price, it is best avoided, i.e. recutting a cushion Vietnamese spinel into a round (the gemstone rough lends itself to a cushion or long pear cut).  Rare gems do get recut, but usually the seller will increase the price accordingly so that the buyer pays the same even though the gem is now smaller.  The second caveat is that in some naturally darker or more included gems, such as Burma ruby or Colombian emerald, it’s not always necessary to cut the gem down to eliminate window or remove inclusions as the inclusions will obscure both anyway.  Finally, rare gems are almost never cut into very unusual cuts, like a kite or trapezoid or tapered baguette.  For shapes that don’t respect the crystal of the gemstone rough, it’s best to use inexpensive material.  So yes, cutting matters a lot, but to a degree only: it matters insofar as it enhances the gem, not insofar as it entices the buyer to purchase an unusual cut. 

        So what are our favorites at Cecile Raley Designs?  The answer to that is probably not hard to discern given our listings.  While we try to offer a broad array of gems for design purposes, the gems closest to our heart are only a small number.  Here they are -- can you guess which of the criteria above fits these gems?  All of them fit more than one.

          1. Jedi Red and Pink Spinel
          2. Purple Unheated Sapphire
          3. Vietnamese Lavender and Lilac Spinel
          4. Bright Royal Blue Sapphire (unheated preferred but heated ok)
          5. Hauyne
          6. Cobalt Spinel
          7. Kornerupine
          8. Paraiba Tourmaline
          9. Russian & Colombian Emeralds
          10. Russian Demantoid
        Continue reading

        The Year of the Pod: A Very Different Holiday Season

        The Year of the Pod: A Very Different Holiday Season

        Last week I decided to take a stroll up 5th Avenue at the end of my very busy day in the Diamond District. For us at CRD, sales are up, as they are for most online shops - we even hired a new person this fall.  But the streets of Manhattan are deserted in comparison to other years.  New York Magazine just devoted an entire issue to 500 New York businesses that have closed down in 2020.  I love New York, and it is breaking my heart to see it so empty. I’m sure many of you have noticed the same in your downtown areas or shopping malls. 

        Christmas Tree on Madison Avenue 
        Saks Fifth Avenue
        Restaurant Decor on 48th Street

        Celebrations will be different this year as well, taking place in what many have termed “pods" - the essential group of people you associate with, mask free, in your household.  Your pod may be your immediate family, but for many of you it isn’t, either because your family lives too far away, or because you need to distance yourself because they are elderly or at risk in some other way.  Some of you, like my assistant Karen, have kids that need to associate with other kids, so your pod may consist of a couple of families with playmates that are your child’s age.  My pod, in turn, consists of Karen, her little son James, and her husband Keith, my boyfriend and life partner, my friend Diana and my trainer Sebaj who has turned my office into my home gym in the afternoons, and this pod has become my little family this year.  I even celebrated Thanksgiving with my pod, rather than my cousins, aunt and uncle, who is almost 80 and has diabetes and heart disease.

        Speaking of diabetes, I have seen my travel buddy Jochen exactly 11 days this year, one of which was a cherished afternoon in Germany when I visited my mom last September.  Jochen got up at 5 a.m., drove the four hours from his home town to mine, we had breakfast in my AirBnB, lunch outdoors, and then he drove four hours back home to his pod, his wife Marianne, two of his sons and an adopted grandchild.  Jochen is 76 and has diabetes also, but I had been tested and kept to myself in Germany, so we chanced a little get together.  With Tucson being cancelled and international travel limited to essential business and those with dual citizenship or a green card, I do not know when I will see him again.

        Travel, not just holiday travel, has certainly changed significantly as well.  This year most of my own trips have been within short driving distances involving various pod members, going only to AirBnB’s with kitchens, and concentrated on outdoor activities such as rock climbing, hiking, using outdoor barbecues and my new passion: road biking.  I have had a road bike for over two years but never used her much.  I had asked Sebaj to find me a bike to buy in 2018 but I really had no idea what I was asking until a box with various parts arrived that he put together for me into an extremely light weight and fast traveler that was not to have a lock (because you don’t leave her anywhere) or rack and basket (because she is not for shopping either). 

        My Friend Diana Rock Climbing
        Tried Climbing this one but Got only Half Way 
        Diana Repelling Down with Help from Sebaj 

        With gyms closed and NY area traffic at a near standstill, I straddled the bike for over 2000 miles since April, learning to go uphill and down, stretching and drinking from the water bottle all while staying clipped in, and taking little crashes in stride (like falling into a deep puddle in 50 degree weather and having to ride another 10 miles to get home). 

        Yes, that's me behind there.  2 Hour Halloween Ride. 
        After a Long and Hot Summer Ride
        BBQ in Kingston NY with the Bike 
        Views Near Mohawk Mountain Reserve

        For my supplier Dudley Blauwet, this was the first November, and first birthday, that he’s been home in 30 years! Instead, he is spending hours every day on WhatsApp buying long distance through his family in Sri Lanka.  It has been the same for most of my other suppliers, except for crazy Jochen who did manage two in person trips to Tanzania, the only country in the world that is open for travel because according to the Tanzanian government, they don’t have Covid. (Yes, he is very careful and he’s in any case the only guest at his hotel).

        View from the George Washington Bridge on a Fall Ride

         Due to the shift from biological to pod family, even my gift giving has changed, and I noticed the same trend in my Etsy shop.  My aunt and I decided to call the gifting off this year because we both felt silly about sending packages back and forth.  Instead, my pod is getting the gifts, some biking clothes for Diana so she can ride with me, and bike gear earrings for Sebaj who introduced me to biking in the first place, and a holiday calendar for Karen, Keith and James so they have a little surprise every day.  In addition, most of us are contributing a little extra to various charities.

        Since we are not in control of this Covid thing anyway, my decision has been to call the change “positive,” the optimism being one of choice rather than driven by the assessment of facts.  Don’t get me wrong, I miss my biological family very much.  But saying it’s all good isn’t totally baseless either as the refiguring of our social circles should always be regarded as an opportunity.  Hey, I even relearned some 3rd grade math this year, watching James’s teachers getting inventive on Zoom while I was doing Etsy listings in my pajamas in the background!  Working in my pajamas hasn’t exactly been a bad thing either.

        In that spirit, my pod wishes yours a happy, albeit unexpectedly different, holiday! 

        Rockefeller Center in December 
        The Cartier Building Wrapped in a Bow
        Gorgeous but Empty Art Deco Escalator
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        Logistics for the Longer Haul: The New Normal at Cecile Raley Designs

        Logistics for the Longer Haul: The New Normal at Cecile Raley Designs

        I could probably make this a one-line blog: where we are at right now is where we have been over the last 6 weeks, and where we are going is “nowhere fast.” This, in any case, has been my takeaway from my latest addiction: the daily Andrew Cuomo press briefings.  

        This week, Cuomo challenged New Yorkers – and I count myself as one of them – to rethink their business structure, at least for the near future.  That’s nothing new for me, because I’ve been rejigging things since week one. Here’s a back stage view of our New Normal.

        For now, New York is only a paradise if you enjoy biking the empty streets.  According to the news, the mayor will open 100 miles of streets for pedestrian and bike traffic to ensure social distancing.  Reading between the (obvious) lines, that means no cars.  No cars, in turn means fewer people commuting, or going in and out of New York on business, to see Broadway shows, eat dinner, or shop.  The subways are empty and packing them back up is in nobody’s best interest right now.

        Ladies & Gentlemen, The Diamond District is CLOSED

        What this means for us is that New York won’t be my destination for pickups and drop offs for some time to come.  We’ve switched to working remotely, using overseas services, shipping orders in production back and forth between artisans, and personal drop offs & pick ups via car – one benefit of near-zero traffic in New Jersey!  Here’s where we are at, in order of production.

        Gems: several of my vendors go to NYC once a week to check on their offices and mail out the orders (that are now down to a trickle) now that the local business is gone for the moment.  To respect social distancing ordinances, some of these vendors alternate with their staff so that the office just has one person in it on any given day, while other vendors just pay their staff to stay home and have applied for funding to cover their losses.  This means I can still get most of the gems that I want, but I need to have the vendors do some of the picking.  They all know my taste so they can send me a selection, and then I just return what I don’t want.  Some of the smaller buildings are completely shut until further notice, but the larger ones have a security guard stationed so there’s a small trickle of people going in and out.  Police cars guard the street.

        Findings and Parts: bails, posts, pushbacks, jump rings, and chain are among the items I would source as needed in NY.  I’ve taken to ordering them online, mostly from the same suppliers, as they are working with a reduced staff in the back offices, not allowing any sort of foot traffic.  This means I have to stock more parts here at home.  Karen and I have made a list of things we should have on hand, and items are coming in as we speak.  But, of course, many of you are used to my getting all kinds of little specialty items.  That’s not fully operational yet, but we now have an account with Stuller, and they are up and running, including manufacturing! Feel free to check with them for any other items you’d like to see that I could use for your orders.  They ship fast and I can get anything mailed directly to my house.

        CAD and Design: up and running!  I have two people working on CAD and I can offer a fairly quick turnaround time.

        Castings: I’ve been doing castings for new custom orders in Australia.  The turnaround time from sending in the file to literally having it here in JC is about 8 business days.  It’s super-fast and the casting is excellent.  The hitch with this, however, is that I don’t have access to my molds, which are all at Taba. And I can’t send a mold to Australia anyway, as it’s too expensive.  Rather, I send in the CAD file to get printed "down under," and that’s an additional $30-40 per piece (and $40 for shipping so I usually combine 3 orders in one shipment).  Small pieces cost less in printing fees but there’s still some cost.  This means I am not casting any silver, and I have to be careful about small parts if I want to keep a profit margin.  Obviously, we are absorbing the additional costs right now.  Rings I can do without a problem, as well as pendants, but I’m not yet casting a lot of small parts like stud earrings. I suspect that my casting service will figure out a skeleton crew to go in and do minimal work so they can pay the rent, but given social distancing measures, they won’t be fully operational for some time.

        Assembly / Jewelry work: This refers to adding jump rings, posts, bails, or soldering together chain.  Joanne and Johanna are helping with pre polish and they can do final polish also.  Assembly I have to keep simple, so for instance, adding jump rings is not an issue but soldering chain parts together for a bracelet means being super careful with not applying too much heat.  Soldering miniscule stuff is not for the uninitiated but we are slowly making it work.

        Setting: Ethan is working from home but he babysits the little one during the day while his wife goes to her podiatrist’s practice.  Pierre has borrowed a microscope from someone and built himself a bench at home in the basement.  He went to NY and picked up some tools -- but not the laser.  He may get the laser machine if this keeps up, but for now it’s just sitting in his office, unemployed.

        Odds and Ends: Ring sizing, small repairs, and any items that require low heat solder form a cluster of things that need to get done on nearly a weekly basis. Those items require the above named laser machine, which costs over 20K and nobody I know has one at home.  Laser machines don’t like traveling either, as they are sensitive to being jiggled around.  Another challenge is some of the chemical treatments required, i.e. rhodium plating.  You need a license for that stuff because those are environmental contaminants unfortunately.  But asking around and exchanging information with others in my industry yielded one shop that’s partially functioning with a larger home bench and equipment in Staten Island.  This is a medium sized shop doing mostly CAD, but the owner goes to NY once a week to pick up mail, do some casting, laser soldering and plating.  So what I’m doing is collecting a few items as they come in and then putting them together as one shipment so he doesn’t go in for just one thing.  I’ve given him a couple of medium to large orders to complete with casting.  He’s good friends with Pierre and they coordinate brief stops in NY so Pierre can set.

        Other than that, yours truly drives the orders around as needed, and you can’t imagine how lovely it is to drive around these days with practically no cars on the road! On the nice and warm spring days, I get to hang out on Johanna’s stoop or outside Joanne’s ground floor window, or last Saturday, in Pierre’s garden (6 feet apart), fulfilling my need for social contact, seeing my friends, and encouraging them to keep going, as they encourage me.

        The Diamond District, During COVID-19
        A Very Empty 47th Street
        Times Square, All Lit Up For an Audience of Zero
        A Very Empty Times Square
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        Buckle Up; It's Going to Be a Bumpy Ride...

        Buckle Up; It's Going to Be a Bumpy Ride...

        COVID-19 and the International Gem Business

        As the world continues to be on pause, I’ve checked in with everyone overseas to find out how my vendors and friends are doing.  My What’s App is constantly chirping with news from everywhere as people are home, bored and facing an uncertain future as gems are, after all, a luxury product.  Here’s the summary:


        Antsirabe, Madagascar. Everyone is under stay at home orders. As my friend and supplier Gael put it to me: “All things stop. No customer, no work!! Very hard.” He’s also devastated because he had a sponsor to take him to the second largest mineral show in the world, Saint Marie Aux Mines in France, which is now cancelled.  Many of the mineral dealers sent their freight out earlier this year and that freight will now sit who knows where in France, racking up storage fees that nobody can pay.  

        Meanwhile, the locals are allowed to go out between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. to shop for essentials only.  Not everyone behaves but most people respect it.  As you can imagine, things like masks and latex gloves are not available.  Hand sanitizer is not something they are familiar with, and hospitals are not free.  You have to pay and if you don’t you will be turned away.  Testing is either rare or non-existent.  Whatever happens there in terms of the virus will just happen since the stay at home orders are only going to slow the inevitable.  Remember that in the US and in Europe, we are slowing the spread because we are preventing overcrowding in hospitals and improving treatment and testing.  That strategy makes little sense when there’s no testing and not much treatment.

        Arusha, Tanzania. The situation there is much the same. Moustache, our broker, has no work.  Nobody can come into the country to buy gems.  Mining etc. is at a total standstill.  His daughter Brenda whose college we pay for is home with her grandma, waiting for things to start back up.

        Nairobi, Kenya.  The same story, again, except there is slightly better availability of medical care and testing. My friend Doreen, who works at the University of Nairobi, told me that the University is closed for the rest of the term with online teaching only.  But, as you can imagine, that only works if you have a computer, or a phone, and can pay for the necessary internet connection.  So it’s not working well.  Doreen and her little boy went to her village in Meru.  She said she did get a paycheck and she’s hoping she will get another.  In the village, Doreen doesn’t have electricity but she’s away from the congestion of Nairobi and thus in a much safer place.


        Frankfurt, Germany. My “little” sister (turning 40 next year) is recovering from her brush with COVID-19, getting sick leave and sick pay.  She’s pleased that she had it, “now that’s done with,” she says, and she feels safer.  Papa is at home in his house with a garden, for him it’s business as usual.  He’s home most of the time as he’s turning 80 this year.  He works in the garden, makes marmalade and bakes cake, uses his home trainer for 60 minutes and then the sauna on occasion.  He told me that at the local supermarket, where he goes once a week, the rule is that each person needs to use a shopping cart for distancing.  And they make 50 carts available, the rest are chained up.  So if there’s no cart, you wait outside, social distancing.  That way, you don’t need to count shoppers at the entrance.  He bought masks at home depot and has extra (because he’s that kind of guy).  

        Hannover, Germany. Jochen from Jentsch minerals, my travel buddy, is at home, taking daily 6 mile walks with his Labrador.  Business is flat because most of his money comes from resale.  Pretty much all of the shows this year are or will be cancelled because by definition, they are mass gatherings.  And he’s not going to travel even if the ban lifts some time this year.  At 75, with diabetes, he belongs to a risk group and prefers to wait for a vaccine or at least better treatment options.  This sucks for me but it is obviously the right thing to do. We sometimes talk with the camera on, his hair and beard are growing wild, he looks like Santa Claus right now.

        Moscow, Russia. An interesting situation is unfolding there with the government finally admitting that they have a problem.  My friend and supplier S. tells me that the wait for ambulances to get into the hospital is 9 hours.  A YouTube video was circulating in Russia showing how many ambulances are waiting in line. The inhabitants are allowed outside within 100 meters of their homes, driving is not permitted except with special permission from the government, and you can walk outside only to get essential goods or walk the dog.  S. is getting requests for orders for high end material but obviously he can’t supply right now.  Russia is a complicated place when it comes to business.  The details are best left unsaid (insofar as I know them anyway), but S. has hunted for elk and gone fishing, and I know he has vodka, so he says he’ll be ok for a few months.  

        The Far East.

        Bangkok, Thailand. The trading centers are all closed, people under quarantine at home, business slowing to a halt. But some sources tell me that building owners are demanding rent and threatening to cancel leases, which is bad for the smaller businesses.  There are many fears that trade will not go back to normal anytime soon.  Nomad’s for instance has closed all of its offices (including New York), and they are not shipping out anything.  Cutting factories are closed, and even some of the material that is cut is not shipping out.

        Hong Kong.  Some limited production there, but very limited from what I’m told.

        Singapore. Lockdown, quarantine for everyone coming in (two weeks in a hotel, just like China and many other places) and only residents allowed.  My friend there is huddled up in her apartment in a high rise, waiting for things to change.  Testing and contact tracing are working well over there but like in every rich country, there is a poorer subculture of international workers living in poorer conditions, and for them life is not so easy.

        And what about yours truly and co?

        We are in the same position as a few weeks ago.  I have inventory, and I can get additional inventory from Dudley Blauwet, who is pretty much the only one shipping because he has access to his inventory.  Dudley usually supplies to jewelry stores and those are pretty much closed, so he’s taking naps for the first time in his life and learning how not to be in overdrive.  All the gem shows are cancelled for now – the earliest possibility for him to vend will be in August, and even that’s in the stars for now.  My friend Brett Kosnar (also in Colorado) is doing some recutting for me, his orders have otherwise dwindled, just like Dudley’s.  

        I am doing some casting in Australia of all places.  Karen is working from home, cataloging our photos of finished jewelry and working on an extensive inspiration page with detailed information.  The catalog is also getting an overhaul.  Brandy is making CADs and I just sent four custom orders to Australia a week ago for printing and casting.  They should ship out this week.  Johanna can do the polish, Joanne and Johanna can do some soldering.  Supplies are available through Rio Grande and Stuller just announced that they will start shipping again, albeit only finished product, while supplies last.  Their supply chain, like most others, has crashed.  

        My missing links are rhodium plating for white gold – I can order from Rio but the basic setup with the solution is about 1K.  And I can’t do ring sizing because that’s done via laser solder.  The three people I know with a laser machine are all stuck at home and their laser is in New York.  Pierre, my setter, told me yesterday that he now has a bench setup at home as someone had an extra microscope that he could borrow (they cost 3K so you don’t want to buy one for just a few weeks).  He went to his office building last week, which is open, but no employees are allowed inside.  Since he’s self-employed and has no employees, he can enter his office, but he said he’s not going in for 2-3 small laser jobs because, like almost everyone, he’s driving rather than taking the subway, which is expensive with tolls and parking.  

        The only thing we all love about this situation over here is the lack of traffic.  I can take my bike out and practice clipping in and out of the pedals without fear of getting run over (yesterday, I clipped out too late while stopping and kissed the asphalt in a parking lot – today I’m taking the day off, tending to my battle wound below the knee, and writing this blog).

        My trainer Sebaj Adele, a 40-year cycling veteran, is probably bored stiff!  But with his gym closed, he’s patiently making do with his only trainee, sailing smoothly ahead, while the lumpier me, with mismatched biking gear, breathlessly follows the pro like an imprinted duckling.

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