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All That Glitters: Precious Gems

Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

On a remote corner of the Tsavo Wildlife National Park in Kenya, a fence that once separated two mining claims dangles in mid-air. The ground that once held the fence in place gave way when an African miner, not content with working his own turf, tunneled underneath the fence to the richer ruby workings next door. Tim Miller, co-owner of the ruby mine, didn't know his claim was being picked clean until the day the earth simply collapsed on the thief's hired hands. So greedy was the thief, he never gave a thought to supporting the mine with beams as he directed his workers to dig, dig, dig. The resulting lawsuit meandered through the Kenyan courts for more than 10 years before Miller got satisfaction.

Skulduggery and colored gemstones are old partners. Unlike diamond mining, where the reservoir of gems is so predictable that miners know the size and shape of the stones they will find, the mining of rubies, sapphires and emeralds remains as unpredictable, and as primitive, as it has been throughout history. For the most part, precious colored stones are still mined by men standing in muddy water, working tons of silt, one bucket at a time.

Of the big three colored gemstones, ruby is by far the rarest. Yet ruby and sapphire are two sides of the same coin. They are both members of the corundum family, differing only in the minerals present at the time of formation. It is these elements that give each stone its color. To complicate the matter even further, though sapphire is synonymous with blue, particularly an intense and lively color known as cornflower blue, sapphire occurs in a rainbow of colors: gray, yellow, pale pink, orange, green, violet and brown, even colorless. All of these varieties are called fancy sapphire. Yet when corundum occurs as a red or deeply pink stone, it is called ruby. And only a trace of mineral (iron and titanium for blue sapphire, chromium for ruby) separates the two.

Sapphire and ruby are treasured not only for their beauty but their durability. They are second only to diamond, with a hardness of nine as measured by the Mohs scale, the geologist's ranking of hardness in minerals. (Rankings are strictly according to whether one mineral can scratch another.) But ruby, treasured for its intense and pure red color, is also distinguished by its rarity. You cannot just order up a five-carat, gem-quality Burma or an intense Kashmir sapphire--still considered the absolute best, though mining ended in both regions many years ago. No matter how much money is offered, even the most knowledgeable colored stone dealer with connections all over the gem world--which is to say, all over the earth--must search and search for such a rare gem. Unlike diamonds, which are available in virtually any size and quality up to 10 carats, these colored gemstones have always been in short supply, particularly in the finest qualities. When such a stone becomes available these days, it is likely to be a stone mined long ago and simply coming back on the market, often at auction. There, it can command bids from buyers all over the world. Such a stone was scheduled to appear last November at a unique all-Cartier sale organized by Antiquorum and Etude Tajan in Geneva. The stone, a 65-carat Kashmir sapphire set in a diamond and saphhire bracelet, was so desirable that it disappeared from a showcase while on view in Milan, just five days before the auction. The sapphire was of breathtaking intensity, a blue that makes most sapphires pale (or darken) by comparison. The stone, which was estimated at $2 million, is unlikely to be seen again.

Abe Nassi, a New York dealer who specializes in the big three colored stones, says, "You have to realize that fine stones are rare to begin with. Out of 1,000 Burma rubies that were mined, maybe three stones are fine." This is not a phenomenon of just our own era. He cited the Bible, where scarcity was described as "rare as pigeon blood rubies." That rather nasty term has always been the standard against which the color of ruby is judged. It is a term so frequently used one has to assume that in Burma (now known as Myanmar) and neighboring countries with gem deposits, killing pigeons is a fairly popular occurrence.

"It would take perhaps one to two years to find a five-carat gem Burma ruby--and that means the finest color, well cut, with tremendous brilliance, and at least 80 to 90 percent clean. And, an untreated stone, one that has not been heated to enhance the color," says Nassi. "You cannot find an absolutely flawless stone. It would take a lot of legwork to find it, and it would cost you about $150,000 a carat." That's $750,000 for a five-carat stone--and you would still have to wait for it to be located.

Myanmar is not the only source of ruby, although there is considerable debate about whether any other stones can match the Burma ruby for color. Ruby occurs in few places in the world. Stones from neighboring Thailand are said to be inferior in color--slightly brownish or grayish when compared to the purity of Burmese ruby. But Burmese ruby had become nearly mythical, so much a part of history as to be completely unattainable.

Then, a few years ago, the supply of ruby underwent a dramatic change. A new mining area called Mong Hsu was discovered in Myanmar. Within a short time, a ruby rush brought 100,000 diggers, panning the rivers and searching for rubies. Although exciting news, the mine did not improve the odds, or lower the price, of a five-carat gem ruby. This mine is producing small stones, under one carat when cut. But it did make it possible for jewelry manufacturers to design pieces that use multiple small stones, calibre cut, which is to say, they can be cut to exactly the same size and shape, making it possible to design jewelry lines that can be produced in quantity.

Gem dealer David Cohen, of Rafco International Gem Corp. in New York, celebrates this new mine. "There's a new excitement because rubies were so scarce. Ruby was almost becoming a collector's item; it was like a painting. The color from this new mine is true red, Burma. For a fine one-carat stone, you would pay about $4,000 to $4,500 at retail." (Gem prices do not go up in even increments as sizes increase. A five-carat stone is not five times the price of a one-carat gem; it may be 100 times more expensive because of the extreme rarity.)

The new mine still must follow the dictates of Mother Nature. According to Cheryl Kremkow of the International Colored Gemstone Association, "Mining is seasonal at Mong Hsu because of the rains." Though the stones are mined in Myanmar, dealers buy them in Thailand. The expertise in cutting the stones and trading has made the capital city, Bangkok, the capital of the ruby business as well, even though Thailand's own ruby mines have dried up or become too dangerous to work because of land mines planted along the border. Bangkok's reputation as a reliable source of gems assures dealers that the parcels of gems they select and pay for will reach them intact. That was hardly the case with Vietnam, which very recently had a brief fling at ruby mining. Whether from greed tempered by inexperience or through a stunning underestimation of the dealers' knowledge, the Vietnamese "salted" the packets with synthetics before shipping them. That romance cooled in no time and Vietnam fell off the ruby map as fast as it had appeared.


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