COLOURED GEMSTONES CLOSE THE GAP ON DIAMONDS; REPORT: GEMSTONES.
ALMOST the size of a tennis ball, the discovery of the world's second-largest diamond by Canadian mining company Lucara thrust jewellery's premier gem into the headlines when it was unearthed in Botswana back in November. The discovery sent shock waves through the $80bn diamond industry, as the 1,111 carat stone is expected to ultimately yield dozens of "significant" polished gems of 20-plus carats worth millions of dollars apiece.
Although dwarfed by the legendary Cullinan diamond, which weighed more than 3,106 carats upon discovery in 1905, gem-quality stones such as the Lucara are extremely rare. The historic find ignited excitement across the sector, which has suffered a global supply glut following all-time high sales of $55bn in 2014.
Despite recent difficulties, diamonds have for decades significantly outstripped sales of other gems. But while coloured stones are not yet back to the 50:50 parity they enjoyed up until the 1940s, sales of rubies, emeralds, sapphires and so forth have made a comeback during the past five years to partially close the gap on the champion of gemstones.
"Diamonds have had the best marketing that anything could wish for, and diamonds are amazing," says 90 INSIDER January 2016 Moira Patience Warren, the creative force behind Patience Jewellery in Edinburgh. "But I think it is important to educate people about the options, and what else is out there."
Helen Plumb, the founder of Just Gems who opened her first shop in Aberdeen in 2011, says the rising popularity of coloured gemstones is down to a number of factors.
Internet and cable sales channels have played their part by promoting lower-cost jewellery using lesser-known stones such as iolite, morganite, chrome diopside, heliodor and kunzite to a wider market. Meanwhile, diamond advertisers have been focusing their marketing budgets on the developing world, which has softened demand for diamonds in Europe and North America, giving coloured stones some breathing space.
"Also, cocktail rings and statement pieces of jewellery are fashionable at the moment," Plumb says. "Large rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds are too expensive for most jewellery designers to use, so they have been working with alternative coloured stones."
Precious gems of many varieties are found in Scotland, though none in sufficient quantities for commercial mining. In addition, many rest within protected areas where collecting is strictly prohibited.
On the Isle of Lewis, several sapphire crystals were discovered in the 1980s during excavations for a farm path. They averaged 2-3 cm in length, and were all of gem quality.
In 1995, the area yielded Britain's largest sapphire, a 9.6 carat stone which at the time was estimated to be worth about PS60,000. However, the region has been designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for many years, making Scottish sapphires the rarest of all the country's gemstones.
"The sizes tend to be quite small, and they are not often ace quality, but to own a Scottish sapphire is very special," says Michael Laing, whose family's eponymous business is one of the best-known names in the Scottish jewellery trade.
The renowned gemmologist designed the baton for the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and after its trip around the world with the customary message from the Queen, the baton was topped offwith Scotland's unique version of semi-precious jasper from the Campsie Fells. Now on display in www.insider.co.uk the National Museum of Scotland, the baton's feature stone - a single piece of red and yellow jasper about half the size of a golf ball - is found nowhere else on the planet.
But the vast majority of precious gems originate in more exotic locations around the world. Rough emerald deposits are typically found in metamorphic rocks such as the mountain ranges of the Andes, home to three major mines that make Columbia the world's leading emerald producer. Brazil, Zambia and Zimbabwe also feature near the top of that list.
Sri Lanka is widely recognised as the best source for blue sapphires currently coming out of the ground, but top ranking is still held by Kashmir gems. First discovered in the early 1880s after a landslide in the remote Kudi Valley of India, Kashmir sapphires are no longer in meaningful production, and fetch commanding prices from avid collectors.
Burma, now called Myanmar, is highly rated for sapphires and is also the world's most famous source of fine rubies. Located on the Southeast Asian axis between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, production in Myanmar pre-dates modern history: mining tools from the Stone and Bronze ages have been found in the legendary pits of the Mogok Valley, whose rubies are famed for their pure red colour.
Trade in precious stones from Myanmar has long been restricted amid concerns about slave labour and the use of profits to support the country's military dictatorship, but the recent election of democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi has raised the prospect that sanctions could be eased. As is the case with diamonds, one of the foremost concerns when buying a coloured gem is to ensure it is free from conflict.
Treatments to enhance the appearance of coloured stones are common, so much so that disclosure on these processes is not required. Declan Dawson, the third generation of family-owned Finnies of Aberdeen, says customers should ask if they have any questions.
About 90 per cent of all sapphires are heat-treated to help bring out their colour, and a similar percentage of emeralds are fracture-filled to give the stone better clarity. The vast majority of rubies are also heattreated, www.insider.co.uk which involves extreme temperatures of up to 1800 degrees.
Straight-forward heat treatment effectively completes the natural process that happens in the earth when the gemstone is forming, and is therefore widely accepted. The improvements are permanent and do not impact on the care of the stone, which is as durable as an unheated version.
However, there are many variations to the process. Glass filling has become increasingly common in lower-grade stones, but this treatment is not very stable as temperature changes, ultrasonic cleaners and shock can cause the lead glass to fall out of the stone. Other types of processes include diffusion, which bakes a colouring element to the surface of a stone.
Coloured gemstones do not normally come with independent certification, although this can be requested for an additional charge. All diamonds over a certain size come with certification - including full disclosure on treatments to enhance colour or hide fractures - and this should be from a respected institute such as the GIA or the IGI.
"Most diamonds are not treated, but they are becoming more prone to treatment because it is more accepted in other types of gemstones," Dawson adds.
Warren at Patience Jewellery cautions that "a diamond has to be seen". On paper, a stone can rank highly on the famous "4 Cs" - colour, cut, clarity and carat weight - but might still reflect black, indicating that it is fake or has been improperly cut.
In addition, about a third of diamonds posses a degree of fluorescence that alters their colour and how they look to the human eye, which in some circumstances leads to a hazy or cloudy appearance. But fluorescence is not a factor that appears on any certification and can therefore be overlooked, particularly when buying online.
For coloured stones, Warren says the four key factors are desirability, beauty, rarity and durability. She buys many of her stones directly from Mina Gerais in Brazil, a family-run mine specialising in rose quartz, green amethyst, aquamarine and tourmaline, as well as Warren's current favourite, morganite.
"It's a beautiful rich coral pink that compliments all skin tones," she says. "It is very warming on our pale British skin."
A graduate of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Warren started her career at Edinburgh's Hamilton & Inches before working for Stephen Webster, the luxury jeweller known for his use of colour, in London and Spain. She specialises in bespoke designs that suit the individual and their lifestyle, two factors she considers paramount when buying.
Laing - who last month opened the UK's biggest jewellery store outside London on Edinburgh's George Street - says design is critical when purchasing a piece either as an investment or to mark a special occasion. As the hardest substance known to man, diamonds are often handed down through the generations, all the while increasing in value.
"There will be little ups and downs, but it is the only thing you can buy, own, wear and get pleasure from, and it will still be worth more in 10 years than when you bought it," he says. "That will never be the case with, for example, your car." | January 2016 INSIDER 91
The sizes tend to be quite small, and they are not often ace quality, but to own a Scottish sapphire is very special Michael Laing (below)Diamonds have had the best marketing that anything could wish for, and diamonds are amazing. But I think it is important to educate people about what else is out there Moira Patience Warren, Patience Jewellery (above)
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|Date:||Jan 8, 2016|
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