Gem & Jewelry Industry

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. 

        Continue reading

        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.

        Continue reading

        Breaking an Apatite. Or: How Observation can Interfere with Experiment

        So I had the brilliant idea of taking snapshots while my setter, Pierre, set an apatite into my new silver halo ring. Dark blue sapphire outside, turquoise center, it was going to look fabulous. Pierre has some very fancy setting equipment. At his bench there is a huge microscope with very strong lighting that costs several thousand dollars, surrounded by lots of other smaller gadgets. I guess you...
        Continue reading