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Lavender Jade

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

Pity lavender jade, that pink-to-purple member of jadeite’s rather extensive color family. Far rarer than this gem’s much-coveted green and white varieties, lavender jade is still denied the veneration and value of its sister shades by jade’s chief patrons-the Chinese, Japanese, and British.

Indeed, the only people with whom lavender jade has found wide favor are Americans, mostly since World War II. This has robbed many superb examples of this gem of an important sales ingredient-provenance, the documented history of any crafted object. “In auction catalogs, you are used to seeing green and white jadeites with high provenance such as ownership by royalty,” says Daphne Lang Rosenzweig, adjunct associate professor of Oriental art at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “But with lavender jade the provenance is usually far less, often a note that reads “From the collection of a Palm Beach lady.””

The rub of belated and mostly backhanded recognition is aggravated by the painful fact that green and white jadeites have enjoyed the stature of being the most prized cabochon and craft stones since their introduction to China from neighboring Burma around 1750. Until then, nephrite jade (a tremolite-actinolite mineral different from jadeite, a pyroxene) had been the chief mainstay of Chinese artisanship and statuary for 3,000 to 7,000 years, according to various educated guesses. For an interloper such as jadeite to win, in a matter of decades, regard equal to that accorded nephrite from China’s fastidious jade lovers was the supreme tribute to this latecomer’s greens and whites.

It was also the supreme snub to jadeite’s pinks and purples.

The Two Faces of Jade

The term “jade” is one of the gem world’s most confusing, applied in the past to diverse carving stones including serpentine and soapstone.(For more on ancient-versus-modern meanings of jade, see Paul Desautels” discussion of “true jade” in his fascinating 1986 book, “The Jade Kingdom.”) While gemology has narrowed the number of minerals worthy (in Western eyes) of what Desautels calls “The noble name of jade” to two-nephrite and jadeite-nephrite has first claim on it in terms of seniority. But jadeite has won equal-some would say top-billing as a jade in terms of value. Today’s fine jewelry market uses jadeite almost exclusively. Nephrite is generally valued for its antiquity and carving excellence, rather than its intrinsic value.

Jadeite, on the other hand, has so much more intrinsic than extrinsic value that dealers now feel it worthless to preserve in artifact form. As a result, masterpieces are seen as little more than rough material from which to extract cabochons. “You can imagine how upset museum curators feel when they see Hong Kong dealers at auction viewings measuring magnificent jadeite incense burners and statues for the amount of retrievable fine color material in them,” a dealer says.

By “fine color,” he means, of course, the highly translucent emerald-green for which jadeite is famous. Nephrite’s most common hue-a dull, waxy green-never gave it competition. Indeed, the color variety of nephrite most prized by the Chinese was a faint almond-white called “mutton-fat” from Turkestan that was no longer found when Burma’s jade appeared. Fortunately, Burma provided a delicate bone-white color that has become the second most revered of jadeite’s many hues in the Orient. Yet, except for the very finest pieces, its pinks and purples failed to find general acceptance. Perhaps it was their novelty. After all, pinks were practically unknown in nephrite.

But continuing neglect in Asian connoisseur circles is only one of lavender jade’s problems.

After finally earning respect in America, lavender jade now faces a long-brewing crisis of confidence-due to often undetectable dyeing by Hong Kong dealers.

Pink Alert

Evidently, dyeing has been a problem with lavender jade as long as there has been significant demand for it. In his 1962 book, “Jade: Stone of Heaven,” retailer Richard Gump revealed, “During 1957, more than 25,000 pieces of dyed jade are known to have been imported into the United States. To keep with Federal Trade Commission regulations, importers made sure it was labeled “dyed jade” when it passed through Customs. But some dealers were not so explicit when the jade was sold to customers.” Since 1957 was the year that the FTC first issued its Jewelry Industry Trade Practice Rules, this probably was not the first time dyed lavender jade had been imported here-merely the first time this by-then-standard procedure had been disclosed.

Even without disclosure, the sheer quantity of lavender jade on the market would have tipped off traders to the likelihood of adulteration. Lavender jade is one of the rarest of all jadeite colors.

In time, the extent of dyeing so alarmed the Gemological Institute of America that it made foolproof detection of the process a top research priority. Given the profusion of organic dyes (one of the most popular of which is said to be blueberry juice) used to turn abundant off-white pieces of jadeite lavender, the school has been frustrated in its search for a simple dye-identification test it can teach its thousands of graduates.

Even so, you shouldn’t rule out buying lavender jade because you believe it is all dyed in an undetectable manner. Very often, dyeing gives itself away under a microscope via the accumulation of dye in stone fissures and cracks. But since a lot of dyeing is not telltale, experts insist, “Lavender jade must be bought from impeccable sources.”

Larimar

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

Thanks to larimar, a sky-blue pectolite found only in the Dominican Republic, my path and actor Brad Pitt’s have crossed for a second time. Well, not exactly crossed. Both meetings were among the tens of thousands he declines. But let the record show this writer formally requested interviews with Pitt on two matters of some importance.

Five years ago, when I was researching a book on the pink conch pearl, I learned that Pitt had given his wife of the time, actress Jennifer Aniston, some conch pearl jewelry as an engagement gift. Despite repeated appeals to his agent, I was not allowed to show the jewelry (for which I had pictures) or to interview the actor. “Brad,” a Hollywood contact told me, “is already being asked for his opinions about a million more important things. The conch pearl will have to find another celebrity spokesman.”

Little did I expect that I would have to petition for a second interview. This time I was researching larimar. Pitt, reported People in its January 16, 2006, issue, had given his second wife actress Angelina Jolie a larimar ring while shopping in a Santa Domingo jewelry store. I called my Hollywood go-between, who, much to my amazement, remembered me kindly as “the pink pearl person.” Nevertheless, there was no way on earth he would serve as an intermediary this time around. “Even People called that ring a bauble,” he said. “There is no way I’m going to go through what I went through before to get you a quote about a tchotchke [Yiddish for trinket].”

“But larimar isn’t a bauble,” I protested. “It’s a gem.” “Then I’m sure you can find someone else to praise it,” the agent said.

So here I am shamelessly name-dropping to get your attention for a Caribbean volcanic rock that is both a unique beauty and great bargain. I wish there were records of other celebrity purchases of this acid silicate hydrate of calcium and sodium in its relatively unpopulated annals. But this gem, which typically resembles a high, vast cloud-streaked powder-blue sky, will have to make the case for itself. There is no better place than Tucson next month where the uncanny resemblance between this gem and the Arizona sky will provide the perfect setting.

MUDDY MAGNIFICENCE

Larimar is found in one remote, foreboding, densely-forested mountainous area in the southwestern Dominican Republic. The location of the mine in a highly inaccessible area explains why production didn’t begin until 34 years ago. First discovered in 1916 on a beach by a Spanish priest, Miguel Domingo Fuertes Loren, the stone wasn’t actively mined until 1975, the year after Dominican Miguel Mendez found its mountain motherlode and named it Larimar-a combination of Larissa, his daughter’s name, and mar for ocean. In the meantime, the local people were known to gather pebbles of the material off of beaches and sell them strung into bracelets and necklaces.

Larimar mining is a pretty haphazard affair. During the long rainy season, as many as 2,000 miners dig makeshift tunnels and trenches which frequently capsize as hills turn into mud. Yet despite the highly risky nature of larimar mining, people keep prospecting for it. “There is little else for them to do,” says one importer who wishes to remain anonymous because he is facing criticism from peers for selling a gem whose miners, they charge, are exploited.

Some sellers of larimar try to make a virtue of adversity. If you Google the gem you will be told at various sites that it is a tribute to the gem’s beauty and value that so many are willing to brave sub-human conditions to find it. Some of these ventures are run by mining companies; others are one or two man affairs. All have rarely, if ever, seen a mine inspector or any show of concern from the government. So if you’re into “green” mining practices, larimar may be the wrong blue for you-unless you buy from vendors who can vouch for the humanity and safety of the conditions under which their stones were mined, cut, and set.

Sellers of larimar jewelry such as Starborn Creations, Sedona, Arizona, will certainly vouch for the conditions under which their larimar jewelry is made (the company is one of dozens which manufacture in Bali). But they readily admit they have no influence over working conditions in Barahona where the gem is mined. Does one say no to a mineral mined in circumstances over which one has no control? “To do the right thing will certainly drive up the price of larimar,” says one specialist in rock gems.

But even if prices were to double, it doesn’t strike me that this would drive the cost of this sky-blue gem sky high. How much extra money are we talking about for larimar to become a recruit to the cause of conscientious commerce? Angelina Jolie’s ring was only $48.

Speaking of Jolie’s ring, she probably should have bought a pendant. Larimar has a hardness of 4.5 to 5 and it is somewhat tricky to cut. “I find the material very friable,” says Robby Bricker of Silverhawk Creations, Clark Fork, Idaho. Because it can splinter during cutting fairly easily, she is not the world’s biggest fan. “It’s beautiful, all right, but it’s a pain to cab. You can get the same blue with less trouble from other gems.”

But larimar is about more than blue. Colored, like turquoise (for which it is often mistaken) by copper, the stone has a magnificently mottled, sometimes web-like blue and white appearance that makes it seem as if a piece of sky fell to earth and was set in jewelry. This vista-like, scenic quality is, to these eyes, quite unique. Did I mention that many stones resemble Caribbean waters on a blissful beach day? No wonder it is marketed to New Age types as the Atlantis stone.

Lapis Lazuli

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

Conflict diamonds may be in the news but lapis lazuli may have been one of the first gems that financed a war. During the spring of 1985, lapis lazuli became a hot topic on Capitol Hill.

The subject first came up during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Afghanistan, the prime source of lapis and the scene of a then six-year-old war between Moslem rebels and the Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal. Moslem freedom fighters testified that sales of lapis rough were a major means by which they raised cash for arms deeded to fight invading Russian troops.

Ironically, the rebels may well have borrowed the idea of selling lapis to raise weapons money from their opponents. In early 1984, the government of Afghanistan advertised an auction for tons of lapis rough.

Of all the many gems found in Afghanistan (the country also produces ruby, emerald and kunzite, among other species), lapis most readily lends itself to being used as a cash cow for weapons procurement. As a lapis source, Afghanistan has no competition in terms of quantity or quality. While the Soviet Union mines this mineral on a limited basis, the only other sizeable supply is found in Chile whose softer, paler, slightly greenish material has less status among connoisseurs.

That left war-torn Afghanistan with a de facto monopoly on this venerable blue beauty. Still, the idea of buying lapis to help finance a war was a bit jarring since the gem has long been associated with peace, at least spiritual peace. At one point, the ancients mistakenly called lapis “sapphirus” because of its deep heavenly blue. But even after this confusion was corrected, the gem preserved its connection with the firmament when it was given the name it is still known by, lapis lazuli- a mixture of Latin (lapis for stone) and Arabic (allazward for sky blue) meaning literally “azure stone.”

Given such connotations, it is hardly surprising that the Sumerians- the supreme lapis lovers of antiquity- were willing to spend years traveling from one end of Asia to the other on mining expeditions for the gem. Author Benjamin Zucker relates in his book “A Connoisseur’s Guide to Gems and Jewelry” that during the Middle Ages ruling class art patrons demanded that painters use blue made from ground lapis, by then known as “ultramarine”. Men of less means had to tolerate cheaper, second-string blue pigments made from indigo or copper.

Today, interest in lapis is as strong as it has ever been, only now it’s decidedly secular. Nevertheless, the lapis market looks to grow even stronger now that the stone with heaven’s blue has become a men’s ring mainstay. Prospects are good, in fact, that it will gain even more ground.

Boulders Of Blue

There are literally tons of lapis for sale but as with most gems, the majority of the material is only so-so. Out of, say, five tons, the importer estimates that only 1,015 kilos will be decent and as little as two kilos “top quality.”

By top quality, most dealers mean stones with a deep uniform blue (often tinged with violet) that are free of white calcite veining the surface and virtually free of more tolerable golden pyrite flecks. Some lapis lovers, however, like their stones to show pyrite, but they are a minority among connoisseurs. One other noteworthy plus: The very best lapis should have a high polish. Since stones vary in hardness, one can encounter fine color and poor polish (evidence of a softer stone).

One notch below fine comes what one New York lapis expert calls “B-grade” lapis. Such stones may be dyed in spots, but never in their entirety, to conceal small patches of calcite. Most of the time, however, they are all-natural with either lighter shades of even blue, slight to mild color zoning of darker blues, or, perhaps, some surface cracks.

Last is dyed lapis. Despite waxing to seal in color additives, dyes used in lapis are unstable, especially if exposed to household chemicals such as lighter fluid. Perspiration, perfumes and cosmetics also pose a constant threat to dyed lapis beads.

Therefore, it is important to ask retailers if the lapis jewelry pieces they offer are dyed, especially lapis beads. But even where beads aren’t involved, price can be a giveaway. A 16-inch strand of dyed 8mm beads, a very popular item, will cost one-half to one-quarter an undyed one.

But don’t always depend on price to tip you off to dyeing. Some retailers who paid their suppliers a higher price for what they were assured is natural lapis may be unwittingly passing on their mistakes to customers. So you might ask them to spot check stones in your presence by dabbing them with cotton swabs dipped in acetone. Sometimes even licking suspect lapis with the tongue and then wiping the stone on a piece of tissue paper will leave a tell-tale blue streak. In any case, have the merchant put in writing that the stones are natural and undyed.

A Favorite With Men

Lapis is one of the world’s most popular men’s gems, second perhaps only to black onyx. Although far more expensive in top grades than black onyx, lapis is still inexpensive in comparison to prices fetched for it seven to eight years ago.

Kyanite: Eyes On, Hands Off

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

If looks were everything, kyanite, the blue gem whose color can be likened to that of Sri Lankan and sometimes Kashmir sapphire, would be a godsend. Tanzanite prices are stationed in outer space, sapphire is plagued with treatment scandals, cobalt-blue spinel is rarer than hen;s teeth, and iolite fails to excite the public.

Alas, say cutters of this material, kyanite is strictly a look-but-don;t-touch gem with directional hardness ranging from 4 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale and perfect cleavage that can make the slightest tap a calamity. One could use it for earrings or maybe a pendant. But anywhere on the human hand and wrist is no-man;s land.

Nevertheless, don;t rule out this aluminum silicate, especially if you have customers who are collectors or want one of every blue gem under the sun. There;s never been a better time to make the case for kyanite. Around 1995, miners in Nepal (sandwiched between Tibet and India) hit what is arguably the best deposit of this gem, quality-wise, ever found. Prior to this find, faceted kyanite tended to have more medium and light tones. Now, says importer Michael Schramm, based in Boulder, Colorado, “We;re seeing rich cobalt blues that make you think of superb sapphire.”

Don;t get the wrong idea. There isn’t a flood of deep-blue kyanite. In fact, there;s scarcely a trickle. But there;s enough to make dealers who would have scoffed at plans to write an article on this gem a decade ago greet my intention with enthusiasm. Every one of the four dealers consulted for this profile when kyanite was still a candidate for coverage urged me to publicly sing its praises. What;s more, each boasted of recently adding Nepalese goods to their own private gem collections.

THE SAPPHIRE CONNECTION

For as long as people have been mining and cutting kyanite, they;ve been comparing it to sapphire. According to gemologist Max Bauer, the gem was commonly sold in Europe as sapparé at the turn of the 20th century. As he wrote in the 1905 edition of his book, Precious Stones: “Kyanite is comparable to a certain extent with sapphire. It has, indeed, been occasionally mistaken and sold for the stone; and the name sapparé, by which it is known to jewelers, recalls the same stone. This latter name arose out of an error made by the Geneva mineralogist, Saussure, junior, who read the label attached to a supposed specimen of sapphire as sapparé; the mistake has long been recognized, but the name remains, having become firmly established, especially among French jewelers.”

Today, of course, the term sapparé is no longer used and the gem is sold everywhere as kyanite, a modernization of the name “cyanit” (as in cyan, for blue) originally given the gem in 1789. The change of spelling is understandable. Cyanite invites confusion with “cyanide.” Names aside, the idea of seeing kyanite in finer French jewelry salons a century ago has a certain shock value. So do the recent offerings of this gem on ACN Jewelry Television, a shop-at-home station that sells only loose gems and finished jewelry.

Like most sellers of kyanite that we talked to, ACN does not restrict itself to Nepalese goods. It has offered fine cut stones from North Carolina and Brazil, the two most celebrated western hemisphere sources of the gem. Cutter Mike Gray of Coast-to-Coast Gems in Missoula, Montana, presently stocks kyanite from Brazil and Switzerland, as well as Nepal. Before Nepal grabbed most of the attention focused on kyanite, Kenya was also an important producer – so much so that when the country honored its own considerable gem wealth with a series of 15 postage stamps in 1977, kyanite was the third to be commemorated.

As a rule, kyanite doesn;t come in large sizes. Two carats is considered a realistic upper limit for the now-prevalent Nepalese goods, although stones over 20 carats have been cut. But they;re still pygmies compared to some of the stones from North Carolina, which produced an 85 carat behemoth in the late 1990s.

Given the chronic difficulties of cutting kyanite, most finished stones follow the commonly rectangular shape of the rough. That means you;ll probably settle for cushions or rectangles. It;s either that or nothing. Cutters don;t exactly relish being assigned kyanite. Gray says he tries to leave work on this gem to others. In other words, the pickings are slim. “No more than one or two percent of all kyanite rough is suitable for faceting,” says Schramm. “Maybe you can throw in another one percent for goods that lend themselves to cabochon cutting.”

As for color, there;s a range from powder to cobalt blue. Most that I;ve seen is on the light side. But several Nepalese stones had blues that rivaled very fine sapphire. In addition, kyanite is frequently available in bi-colored form. Usually what you;ll see is either light blue with dark blue, but Brazil has produced some blue with green stripes. However, keep on the lookout for new Tanzanian bi-colors that feature combinations of aqua and midnight blue. Pleochroism is also frequently responsible for what is streamer-like bandings of color.

Given their rarity and beauty, prices for kyanite are a bargain.

Kunzite

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

Kunzite is a much maligned beauty. At its best a deep-pink lavender, this spodumene is hard to set and, once set, inclined to fade. Nonetheless, kunzite deserves a place in the sun.

No, make that shade. Hot lights can, and do, turn this stone a whiter shade of pale, although color loss is usually very gradual. However, worn with an understanding of its high-strung traits, top kunzite can give enduring beauty equal to that of Ceylonese pink sapphire and Brazilian pink topaz for vastly less money.

Unfortunately, the deep-pink/lavender varieties of spodumene are rarely seen except in the Japanese market. Most kunzite seen on the market has a pale pink that is hardly comparable in strength to those of fancy sapphire. But it is not these wash-outs that we are praising here, nor even next-step-up stones with a pleasing blush of lilac.

No, what we have in mind are kunzites with an electric-lavender. This hue is rarely encountered in stones under 10 carats and can be the object of somewhat intensive searching in sizes below 15 carats. Once you get to sizes above 20 carats, the search for deep colors eases considerably. At 30 carats, fine color is more common, but certainly not commonplace.

The trouble is that few consumers are in the market for 30-carat stones, even ones as relatively inexpensive from a per-carat price perspective as kunzite. Matters aren’t helped much when shoppers hear that this spodumene, discovered in California early in this century and named after the pioneering gemologist and Tiffany’s vice president George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932), has a reputation for brittleness and color instability.

However, a growing number of jewelers think these negatives are overemphasized. “Kunzite is like opal,” says one specialist from Wyoming. “You’ve got to handle it with care. But that doesn’t stop people from wearing and enjoying it.”

Can’t Stand the Heat

The Wyoming dealer, who has cut at least 5,000 carats of kunzite since 1970, believes the stone is a victim of “bum raps.” Its reputation for brittleness, he says, comes from the fact that spodumene, very much like diamond, is plagued with cleavages (planes of crystal weakness). If cut improperly, these cleavages simply give way. “You just can’t pick up a kunzite and start grinding it,” the Wyoming dealer explains. “But the same can be said of tanzanite, a stone which can cleave even more easily.” The need for extreme care also extends to setting polished stones.

“Heat is a no-no,” he continues. “That means you must use a burnishing tool, not a torch, when setting. Further, you can’t force the prongs or cracking could result. But once mounted, preferably in malleable 18k-gold prongs or perhaps a bezel setting, the stone is fairly durable.”

While on the subject of heat, it is important to note that close proximity to high heat (whether from flame or lamp), as well as the ultraviolet rays of sunlight, will bleach out color, sometimes in moments, but most often over years. But these conditions, kunzite partisans quickly add, can also take a similar toll on pink topaz.

Because kunzite is a trichroic stone, it is critical to orient the stone properly when first cut. That means cutting along its C-axis for optimum color (which ranges from lavender pink to lavender bluish-pink). Generally, this is what is done.

All too frequently, however, stones are cut with big windows that rob them of full fire and color intensity. When perfectly cut, he continues, fine-color stones can rival medium-pink sapphire in color. And being an extremely transparent material to begin with, kunzite has far more life than, say, pink tourmaline, whose colors are usually darker but which often has a sleepiness that comes from tiny inclusions.

Evening Pink

Deep-lavender kunzite, while a relative rarity, is a bit more common now that Afghanistan has replaced Brazil as the gem’s main source. It did so by default. According to one Manhattan-based Brazilian gem expert, Brazil hasn’t produced material in at least 25 years. “Whatever stones you see from Brazil are old goods that have been hoarded for decades,” he says, “or new material from Afghanistan.”

Besides its color, the fact that kunzite is generally clean (important to pastel-color stones) has helped boost this gem’s reputation. Kunzite would probably enjoy even greater usage if stones with better color were more often bite sized rather than boulder-sized. Rough is sometimes so very large that it can be cut into 50-carat polished stones. Indeed, one New York gem dealer has a pet 170-carat Afghan stone of deep-pink color that he takes to gem shows as living proof that the species can stand up to more heat than is generally believed. “I’ve kept that kunzite under hot display lights for 100 days running with no sign of fading,” he says.

“Even so,” the New Yorker quickly adds, “it’s probably best to consider kunzite an evening stone.” That’s pretty much the consensus about this species. As the Wyoming dealer advises: “Kunzite is not for the beach or the golf course. But if you’re in a place like Miami and you want to wear it every day, just try to stay off the sunny side of the street.”


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