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All That Glitters: Precious Gems

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

(continued from page 1)

So delicate is the question of gem origin, and so entrenched is the notion that a Burmese ruby is the finest available, that other rubies, including those from Thailand, were priced lower because buyers would not pay the same price for them. This makes gem dealer Nassi see red. "Why should a ruby from anywhere be worth less than a ruby from Burma? There is such a fine line between the places, why bother to say it?" Though beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, Nassi says, "You are selling something that is hard and real; you are not selling an illusion." Referring to sapphires, he adds, "Who is the one that said Colombian or Kashmir is worth more than the other one? Some stones from Montana are as good as any Ceylon (Sri Lankan) sapphire; why should they be worth less? In my opinion, there is no stone better than a gem Burma sapphire, but everyone says Kashmir."

Going even further afield, Nassi says, "Colombian emerald is by no means better than a Zambian stone. But history never had stones from Zambia before. People stick to the old, thinking it's good. But we don't live in the past, we live in the present. We have to accept the new. The old order gives way, yielding place to the new."

The whole question of rarity is turned on its head when speaking of fine sapphires. Though valued as a gemstone for 3,000 years, and in spite of it being nearly a twin to ruby as far as mineral content is concerned, sapphire is far more available, and therefore much less expensive than ruby. But for some, there is no color so beautiful as a richly saturated, intensely blue sapphire. If you've only seen commercial qualities you may think that sapphires are inky in color, almost black. But take a look at a Kashmir sapphire--if you can find one. "Most people who are looking for a Kashmir should not even start looking," Nassi says. "It's not coming out of the ground at all, and you'd have to wait many years. If you even find one, you'll be paying about $30,000 a carat. The same is true of a Burma sapphire; for a gem five-carat stone, of excellent color, with perfect cutting and 90 percent or better clarity, you'll pay $15,000 a carat." Either stone is considerably cheaper than the gem quality ruby, because sapphires generally occur as cleaner stones.

Gem dealer Cohen notes, "A five-carat sapphire is not rare; they even come in 20-carat sizes, which ruby does not. Sri Lanka is the best source for quality [sapphires]. Kashmir is extremely rare, collectible. Kashmir only changes hands; it's not available from mining. But there are new finds now in Africa, in Tanzania and Madagascar, and some of them look comparable to the material from Sri Lanka."

If you look at a map of the world, and you mentally cut out the continent of Africa and the portion of Asia where the gem mining countries are found, you'll find they fit together quite neatly. It's not much of a stretch to believe that this was once one land mass, which explains why the geology is so similar in these distant places.

These newer finds, in southern Tanzania and on the island of Madagascar, off the East African coast, have excited dealers. "Some of them look comparable to Sri Lanka," Cohen says. A single sapphire specimen weighing 18 kilograms (nearly 40 pounds) was found in Madagascar and was sent to Bangkok. The seller was looking for a buyer who would keep the stone intact, as a specimen. Price? Make your best offer.

"The sapphire from Madagascar is of an intense and saturated blue, reminiscent of Kashmir," Kremkow of the international gemstone association says. Only small sizes have been seen but, "there is speculation that if you go down you will find larger sizes." However, she adds, "There's a political problem in Madagascar and we don't know what will happen with that deposit." The uncertainty stems from inconsistency in the government's policy on gem trading and mining, as well as in its tax laws, Kremkow says.

Sapphire mining is also booming in Australia. Production is an astounding 50 million carats of sapphire annually, most of it blue, although not the most desirable Kashmir blue. This is commercial material, not gem quality. About eight years ago there was some newly mined Kashmir sapphire available, according to Nassi, but it didn't last long--the mining conditions were simply too difficult. "There is material there, rubies and sapphires, and a little of it is still coming out," he says.

Fancy colored sapphires in a rainbow of hues are one specialty of the retail shop Reinstein/Ross of New York. By working with just one mineral, and such a durable one, they simplify the work of setting the stones--the amount of pressure the setter can apply to a stone is always the same, a considerable advantage. The many colors of sapphire enable Susan Reinstein, the designer, and Bryan Ross, the gem dealer, to please virtually every customer. Ross, who travels to Thailand every year to buy gems for the shop's designs, says, "Thailand is a crossroads. Sapphire will come in from Sri Lanka, Australia, Cambodia and from Chanthaburi, Thailand, near the Cambodia border. The market would shift on Friday afternoon from Bangkok to the new mining areas." So risky are some of the gem mining areas due to political instability that dealers survive by being up to the minute on the news. Ross recalls one visit to the region: "We were on a flight from Jaipur [India] to Bombay with a change of planes to Colombo [Sri Lanka's capital]. We rerouted our flight as soon as we got to Bombay because there was so much fighting in Colombo. Why should we risk our lives for a few sapphires?"

Perhaps the rarest fancy color sapphires are exquisite orange-pink or pinkish-orange stones named for the lotus blossom, Padparadscha. Found originally in Sri Lanka, similar colored stones have been mined in Tanzania's Umba Valley, though purists refuse to accept these somewhat brighter stones, with a more reddish-orange color, as true Padparadschas. Pads, as they are known, are extremely rare and have become collectors' items, bought up as quickly as they are found. Ross says that yellow-and-orange sapphires have also become very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a carat. And fancy colored sapphire cabochons (a form of cut in the shape of a rounded dome) are almost impossible to find, because everything in Thailand is now being faceted. The cutting adds a little value to the stone, but while it gives the dealers a better price, it's only a matter of pennies per stone, according to Ross.

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