When times were good, Kristine Purcell bought lots of zircons, figuring that their subtle spice colors, eye-popping scintillation, and very reasonable prices would appeal to her mostly working class clientele. But people in auto industry outpost Fort Wayne, Indiana, home to her store Gold Works, are more tradition than fashion-oriented. Bread-and-butter reasons were needed to sell this gem. Such reasons are needed more than ever now that times have turned harder than the diamonds Purcell’s customers seem to feel is the only gem they have a right to buy. “People get engaged whether times are good or bad,” she says. “There’s a need for diamonds.”
If greatly reduced traffic at the Gold Works is comprised only or mostly of necessity shoppers, chances are good that diamonds will see Purcell through until people start buying gems for purposes of self-adornment again. But have all the self-purchase customers disappeared? “I admit there are fewer impulse shoppers these days,” says Sandy Gleason, a metalsmith near Reading, Pennsylvania. “But, no, they have not disappeared.”
She, too, is a zircon fan, but, unlike Purcell, she is still selling some of them-only her sales pitch has very little to do with fashion. It’s all economics. “In the last few years, we’ve been seeing lots of what I call fancy color zircons with cognac, champagne, and canary colors. I noticed that many customers mistook them for brown and yellow diamonds because of their high dispersion,” she says. “At first, I pooh-poohed the notion that zircon could serve as a natural diamond simulant. Now I’m grateful people see a likeness between the two because I make the point that zircon gives them diamond looks at a fraction of the cost. Building on the resemblance has helped me sell quite a few zircons and keep me in the colored stone business.”
Positioning zircon as a natural diamond substitute has also elevated zircon to the top-selling gem at Color First, a cutting and importing firm in Tampa, Florida. Owner Raja Shah is selling Tanzanian-mined champagnes, mochas and goldens retailing mostly for $120 to $360 per carat with the same handsome earth hues that have been such a boost to fancy color diamonds. What’s more, the fact that zircon is only mildly heated to lighten tones sways clients who want to sell gems that are either all-natural or only minimally enhanced.
Minimal is the operative word. Lapidaries like John Dyer, Edina, Minnesota, heats his own zircons using a matter-of-minutes method one is tempted to call ‘stove top.” Dyer is not looking for miracles when he home heats; all he wants is to make typically oversaturated stones lighter and more sparkly. Call such heating remedial because it can actually be done over an oven burner, although cooking in an oven is probably preferable. That wasn’t the case with blue zircons from Cambodia which were heated at such high temperatures facet edges often abraded. Maybe that’s why Shah reports that blue zircon accounts for only 5 percent of his zircon sales. The action today, and for the last four years, has been overwhelmingly in spice colors.
THE SUBTLETY FACTOR
There are, it seems, a welter of market names for earthen-colored zircons. Simon Watt of Mayer & Watt, Maysville, Kentucky, the first dealer to call spice zircon to my attention, says the reason for the jumble has to do with the peculiar aesthetic qualities of zircon. “The beauty of zircon has to do with its subtle blends of orange, brown, and pink,” he says. “One minute you think the stone is orange, the next brown and the next pink. You have this constant shift of subtle secondaries-highlighted by the high dispersion of the stone.”
Watt adopted the name “hyacinth” for his spice zircons, but that may encourage expectations of pink or red. Such color strains are scarce in zircon, which is why these stones fetch higher-than-normal prices. You’re usually going to be closer to cinnamon. But the lack of pink is not a drawback. In fact, it is the cinnamon zircons that tend to remind people new to this gem of fancy colored diamonds, especially those with autumnal orange and reddish browns.
There was a time when jewelers discouraged this resemblance. Some like Sharon Curtiss of The Gem Vault, Flemington, New Jersey, still do. “Zircon doesn’t need to resemble diamond to be sold,” she says. “Besides, with a durability more similar to tanzanite than diamond, it is unfair to give the impression that zircon can be worn like diamond as an everyday ring stone. It can’t and shouldn’t be.”
Gleason agrees that the comparison with diamonds shouldn’t be taken too far. That’s why she sells mostly zircon pendants. “The difference in durability is something that should be pointed out to customers,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean the other likenesses with diamond aren’t valid. For centuries, zircon was a valid, much-admired natural diamond substitute. What’s wrong with it regaining that status again?”