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Kashmir Sapphire

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

You hear so much about the hands-down superiority of the Kashmir sapphire over every other variety of this blue corundum that sooner or later you feel obligated to put this dictum to a test. So I arranged for a private showing of Kashmir sapphires at the office of a connoisseur gem specialist.

It only takes one stone, the very first one I see, to make a believer of me. The stone’s blue is rich, royal and velvety, the quintessence of sapphire color. And because the gem is 24 carats, the telltale color banding that supposedly confirms Kashmir origin is immediately noticeable. Beyond such brief details, the mouth- and eye-watering beauty of this sapphire is hard to convey.

Astonishingly, this magnificent gem, which has papers tracing it back at least 85 years, probably sold for less than $1 per carat when it was still in its rough state. Today, the finished masterpiece could fetch as much as $60,000 per carat, close to $1.5 million, in a posh Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive jewelry salon.

But if $60,000 per carat strikes you as too steep a price for a sapphire, even one so pedigreed, another Kashmir stone we examined, this one only six carats, can be bought for $45,000 per carat. Smaller size and a slightly lighter tone prevent it from commanding as much as the 24-carat splendor. Yet this stone, which its owner casually dismisses as “fine but not gem, ” is better than most sapphires jewelers and dealers may ever see. Once again, the color is a serenely soft, almost princely blue with the same giveaway color banding. When put next to a fabulous eight-carat Sri Lankan sapphire, the latter seems sharper, cooler, less sensuous (although still gorgeous).

So much for the ineffable beauty of Kashmir sapphire. Rarely, except in a few tanzanites, has this writer seen a blue that was as awe-inspiring. And yet, these Kashmir sapphires may fall far short of the standard this species set after it first flooded the gem market late in the last century.

A Flood of Blue

Believe it or not, when sapphires were discovered around 1882 in Kashmir, a small Indian state in the northwest Himalayas, they were so plentiful and large that locals would pick them off the ground to use as flint stones. When they realized these rocks were facetable, they took them to Indian dealers in places like Delhi who bought them as amethysts for pennies a carat. Later, when the gems were properly identified as corundum, their prices jumped. Gemologist Max Bauer reports in the 1904 edition of “The Systematic Description of Precious Stones” that the usual price for Kashmir sapphire rough in London, then a major colored stone cutting center, was 20 pounds (or$120) per ounce (86 cents per carat). However, the price fell when the market was glutted with this material.

Who could have foreseen that the Kashmir deposits would be nearly depleted by 1925? Even after the mines were nearly exhausted, dealers learning their craft in London in the 1930s recollect that prices never exceeded $500 per carat. Despite the sharp decline in production, sporadic parcels still made their way to the West. Even today, smugglers continue to bring out occasional stones, despite heavy police guarding of the known mine sites. No official sales of Kashmir rough have taken place in nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the reputation of Kashmir sapphire endures so strongly that fine stones from this region are entitled to breathtaking premiums- based, in large part, on origin. The trouble is that proving origin is nowadays exceedingly tricky.

Provenance Problems

No matter what dealers say, selling a sapphire as Kashmir is usually more a matter of faith than fact. Indeed, many gems sold as Kashmir later turn out to be heated Sri Lankan stand-ins whose oven-induced color zoning was mistaken for the banding associated with the Himalayan variety.

For this reason, buying stones reputed to be Kashmir often involves what one New York gem dealer describes as “agonizing judgment calls.” Sometimes these calls have little or nothing to do with the stones and everything to do with the seller. “My decision is based as much on who shows me the stone and how as the stone itself,” he continues. “If the person showing it is just back from the Far East with a paper full of sapphires, he’s already got two strikes against him.”

Even when this dealer is shown blue ribbon laboratory reports that vouch for the stone’s Kashmir origin, he is not impressed. “The finest labs have been dead wrong,” he says. Far more important to him, as far as papers go, is documentation of previous ownership that can help him trace back the stone enough years to make him feel secure about its origin. The trade calls such documentation “provenance” and is becoming increasingly dependent on it, much the same way the fine arts world has long been. Many of the dealer’s finest stones have extensive background papers.

Still, proving origin or, at least, becoming secure enough about it to begin negotiating for a stone on the basis of it, is only the first step in acquiring a Kashmir sapphire, says one gem importer. “There always comes a time for a one-on-one confrontation with the gem,” he says. “This is the moment when you give the stone a ruthless examination. That means forgetting everything you have ever heard about it and deciding for yourself what the stone is and if you like it. Just being a Kashmir sapphire is no guarantee of beauty or value.”

Such a confrontation takes know-how and is not recommended for anyone who only buys fine sapphires occasionally. Indeed, such a buyer may be better off ignoring origin, unless the person from whom he buys a Kashmir stone has impeccable credentials with such material and will attest to origin in writing. One sapphire specialist does just that and, by so doing, accepts full liability should the stone turn out otherwise than claimed.

Given the extreme difficulty of verifying Kashmir origin these days, many in the trade think origin selling is a dangerous anachronism that should be done away with. Instead, they favor judging a gem’s beauty and merit in terms of universal color grading systems. Advocates of this approach say that laboratory grades will reflect the inherent superiority of Kashmir color, thus protecting these stones’ values and, at the same time, eliminating the need to sell them on the basis of locality.

One New York appraiser says sacrificing origin and background and reducing a gem to a lab grade takes the all-important elements of “heritage and history” out of gem ownership. According to him, that’s a no-no for Kashmir sapphire, a gem that has a stature with connoisseurs that can be likened to that of a Rubens painting in the art world. Validation has become as difficult, and as necessary, for the gem masterpiece as for the art masterpiece. “Just because authentication work is hard is no reason to take the easy way out and abandon it,” this appraiser warns. “You let grading take precedence over everything else and pretty soon the colored stone world is going to be as sterile as the diamond world.”

Iridescent Andradite

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

You’ve heard of the Mohs scale, that 1-to-10 series of rankings for the hardness of each gem. Ah, but have you heard of the Meg’s scale, that 1-to-10 series of rankings for the lapidary challenges posed by each and every gem?

Don’t scold yourself for not knowing about this ratings system. It’s the exclusive creation of Meg Berry, a cutter based in Fallbrook, California. “Meg’s Challenge Scale,” as she calls it, is a device she uses to communicate the difficulties and length of time it takes to master a new gem.

Since 2003, she has been working on developing a full understanding of iridescent andradite, a new garnet found mostly in Mexico. Although she finds it one of the most beautiful gems she has ever worked with, Berry has assigned it possibly the highest rating ever on her challenge scale: 8+. That’s even greater than what Berry describes as the stone’s “high-seven hardness.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Berry uses the word “challenge” to talk about the mysteries-rather than frustrations-posed by a new gem. It is a term of endearment. For the few cutters so far entrusted with it, iridescent andradite looked to be one way and proved to be another. “I’ve still got loads to learn about this gem,” Berry says.

Iridescent andradite is the first garnet that must be considered a phenomenon stone pure and simple. Indeed, if it were not for its opal-like color play, it would be, says Berry, “only worthy of use in fish tanks and gardens.” Instead, it can give fine opal a run for the money.

SURFACE BEAUTY THAT RUNS DEEP

At first, and even second, glance, iridescent garnet could be mistaken for opal, ammolite, or fire quartz. Even Berry, who is used to examining gems for crystallographic clues to their identity, says she would never have guessed the new andradite as garnet. “Garnet is not a gem family known for phenomenon stones,” she says.

Garnet is a large, complex gem family with many distinct branches and lots of interminglings. You’ve got pyrope, almandine, spessartite, grossular, andradite, and mixed breeds like Malaya which is part pyrope and part spessartite, and pyrandine which is part pyrope and part almandine. Among garnets, andradite is synonymous with rarity. Until now, andradite’s reputation rested almost solely on demantoid, a lively life-saver green variety discovered in the Ural Mountains in 1868. In homage to its high dispersion, it was given a variety word taken from the Dutch word for diamond.

Although the main mine for iridescent andradite is located around 200 kilometers southeast of Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico, all its output is shipped to California for cutting. The only other known deposits, both much smaller, are found in Japan and New Mexico. So for the time being, the biggest, if not sole, market for iridescent andradite will be the U.S. And since mine owners, Pala International, Fallbrook, California, and JOEB Enterprises, in nearby Solana Beach, are giving Berry a large portion of their production, she is keen on discovering every possibility for shaping the newcomer.

To date, iridescent garnet has been available mostly in cabochons and free forms. But now Berry, and fellow andradite explorer Glenn Lehrer in San Francisco, are faceting the stone. By faceting, I don’t mean cutting configurations of step or brilliant-style facets as is done with transparent gems. I mean cutting along broad crystal faces to unleash striations of color shaped by the stone’s crystal structure. If you study Tino Hammid’s photograph on the previous page, you’ll see four flagstone-like blocks of multicolored parallel striations running at V-like angles to each other. To cutters and gemologists alike, these color-play patterns reveal a typical garnet morphology.

What those patterns don’t reveal is the depth from which their color emanates. Berry says that when she first inspected iridescent andradite, she thought it was a natural composite gem consisting of two layers-the first a core of not very attractive orangey brown and the second a thin natural laminate covered in bright shimmering striations of spectrum color. But as she started cutting stones, and finding that the iridescent overgrowth ran as deep as 5mm, she realized the beauty of this gem was not skin-deep.

“In the beginning, I wanted to compare iridescent andradite to boulder opal where the iridescent overlay is usually very thin,” Berry says. “But, in reality, it should be compared to crystal opal where the color originates deep within. Some stones that I”m cutting into cabochons even have colors floating in the stone like jelly opal.”

Since its introduction in meaningful quantity at this year’s Tucson gem show, iridescent andradite has been getting good word of mouth. Designer Katey Brunini, also based in Solana Beach, has already used around eight stones in both cabochon and free-form styles, each weighing around 4 carats. Those are big sizes for an andradite. But JOEB reports stones considerably over 20 carats.

Although size is a selling point, sizzle is what the market buzz is mostly about. For the time being, iridescent andradite will be used for custom design work-even in very small sizes. “New gems provide new opportunities and inspire new directions,” Brunini says. “Iridescent garnet is so unique and each stone so individual that it forces the designer to create pieces that are truly original. Anything less would be an insult to a gem this unusual.”

Edward Boehm of JOEB Enterprises estimates that around 70 finished gems have been cut and either sold for or priced at between $25 and $350 per carat. If that sounds high, you should ask him to quote you prices for fine demantoid. Suddenly, iridescent andradite seems like a steal.

Iolite

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

When tanzanite, a baked-to-blue zoisite from East Africa, took the jewelry world by storm in 1969, Tiffany’s, its main marketer, didn’t exactly give the gem away. Yet by 1980, the newcomer was considered the poor man’s sapphire. However, with prices of very fine tanzanites elevating this gem from the poor man’s to the yuppie’s sapphire collectors are on the prowl for a new affordable blue gem.

They won’t have to look far. A relatively plentiful gem found in India, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Brazil has been waiting on standby for more than two decades to play just this stand-in role.
It’s called iolite. Certainly, its price is right, if not always its hue.

Iolite (the name comes from ios the Greek word for violet) is commonly known as “water sapphire,” an apt description because its color very often lacks depth and density. One reason for its thin color is the fact that iolite, like its fellow blue bloods, sapphire and tanzanite, is pleochroic, meaning it transmits light differently when viewed from different directions to the crystal. Only in the case of iolite, the pleochroism is so acute that it is almost an affliction.

Ironically, the Vikings made iolite’s pleochroism a virtue by using thin slices of this stone as a light polarizer. Believe it or not, iolite will do exactly what a camera’s Polaroid filter will do: cancel out haze, mist and clouds to make things appear clearer. By observing the sky through iolite, Viking navigators were able to locate the exact position of the sun on overcast days. Where, you might ask, did these famous seafarers get iolite? Well, it’s been found in, among other Viking haunts, Greenland and Norway.

But the moderns have yet to learn from the Vikings. Iolite still confounds aesthetes with its strong pleochroic stops and starts of color. For instance, an iolite cube shown us for this article was a sweet violet blue on one side, then gray white on the next. Its color literally disappeared, then reappeared, as the cube was rotated from side to side. For this reason, iolite is also called dichroite. Actually, the name is wrong since this species is trichroic. But while the name “trichroite” may be more accurate, it is no less derogatory.
Dealers convinced of iolite’s merits, and their number is growing, blame cutters for making the gem’s pleochroism so problematic.

“You cut this stone the slightest bit off axis and you will flat-out destroy the color,” says a Seattle gem importer. “But cut it right and this stone will stand up to comparison with fine sapphire. In fact, I’ll bet you that many jewelers at first mistake it for sapphire.”

But for iolites to earn the supreme flattery of mistaken identity with fine sapphire, they have to have good color in the first place. Not too many have such color. In fact, iolites are often cursed with an ink-spot blue that makes them overly dark. Big deal, you say, so are many sapphires.

In the case of sapphire, however, stones lend themselves to color correction by heating in ovens while iolites cannot be cooked to lighten color. Nature pretty much has the last word when it comes to iolite color. It also has the last word when it comes to iolite clarity- another big difference between it and sapphire, which can be heated to remove milky rutile. Thankfully, stones with good color but poor clarity can be cut in cabochon form, a common fate for iolites.

Many consumers own iolite without even knowing it. That’s because their iolite usually comes in multi-color rainbow gem jewelry where it provides the blue at an affordable price. But now that iolite is being featured in more jewelry, name recognition is in the rise. What’s holding back designers is consumer’s lack of familiarity with this gem.

Indicolite

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

With the price of fine tanzanite climbing almost to the height of sapphire, the search is on for an affordable blue gem. One gem that some dealers mention as a sapphire substitute is indicolite, a member of the tourmaline group whose name comes from indigo but whose finest colors more often suggest the menthol blue of topaz than the denim-to-dusky blues of corundum.

This isn’t to say that indicolite can’t ever pass for sapphire. It’s just that generally tanzanite and iolite do a better job of standing in for this gem. Nevertheless, the high price of fine sapphire has definitely opened doors for indicolite. Once of interest primarily to collectors, the stone has begun to find a following among jewelry buyers, principally in Switzerland, Germany and Japan.

There are several reasons why affluent jewelry shoppers are attracted to this tourmaline, reasons that have as much to do with spending smart as dressing smart. Buyers of indicolite are evidently drawn as much to its rarity as its beauty. Like it or not, a subtle undercurrent of, dare we say it, investment is creeping into the international fine jewelry market- more so in Europe and Asia than in America- that makes indicolite a logical jewelry gem option.

This tourmaline’s mineral-gel blue rivals that of the very brightest “London blue” irradiated topaz while being far, far scarcer and all-natural to boot. It will never be a mass-market stone, nor do its buyers want it to be. They like its elitist stature and its, as yet, non-elitist cost. The price of a top-grade 5-carat indicolite should seem a steal compared to that of an above average, if not quite fine, sapphire of the same size, even though the stone is far rarer.

Touches Of Green

Seeing true-blue indicolite is practically a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most collectors. That’s because many connoisseurs insist that their indicolite be a pure blue, without green overtones, a tall order for tourmaline. One Seattle gem importer who always tries to have indicolite on hand says that less than 10 percent of what is offered to him as indicolite fits this requirement. In a good year, he might see fewer than 20 stones, all under 8 carats. The vast majority of the indicolite shown to him had perceptible shadings of green. Other dealers report the same low ratio of acceptable stones from those sent or shown them.

The high number of reject indicolites raises a question of major concern to consumers: Does the presence of visible green nullify a tourmaline’s right to be called indicolite? Nearly every dealer to whom we asked this question took a hard line on the issue, insisting that no trace of green whatsoever should be tolerated.

If that’s the case, finding true indicolite might take some time. Of the stones given us to examine, a good many had noticable green. In others, the green was quite subordinate to the blue, present only enough to be characterized as something akin to a very pleasant teal color. The dealer who showed these latter stones to us was adamant about their right to be called indicolite. “If slight amounts of green disqualify a tourmaline as indicolite, there will be almost no stones dealers can sell as this gem,” he said.

That so many indicolites are greenish makes perfect sense since they frequently occur in pockets of green tourmaline. When they do, they usually account for less than 1 percent of the material found. Because the term indicolite is basically descriptive and often highly subjective, many mineralogists are uncomfortable with it. One who has done extensive research on tourmaline, Pete Dunn of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., ridicules the term indicolite as a “trivial varietal name.”

Whether called indicolite or not, the sight of true-blue tourmaline is still cause for celebration among connoisseurs of this gem group, one that boasts a very wide color range. “Now that irradiation is being used so successfully to create pure red tourmalines, pure blue has become the rarest tourmaline color,” says one tourmaline specialist. So it is hardly surprising that this dealer remembers the spine-tingling day he was offered four “ravishing” pure-blue African indicolites cut from the same crystal. “I knew I had to have them,” he recounts. “It took a couple of years, but eventually I got them.” Adding to the rarity of these stones is their African origin. Although indicolites have been reported from Mozambique, Madagascar and Nigeria, it is Brazil that has always been this stone’s chief source by far, with Maine ranked a very distant second. In fact, when in 1903 the gemologist Max Bauer wrote the last revision of his magnum opus, “Precious Stones,” Africa wasn’t anywhere on his list of sources for indicolite. However, Russia and India were. Interestingly, indicolites were found in the same Kashmir district of the Himalayas that produced the world’s best-ever blue sapphire.

Brazil’s reputation as the source of the world’s best blue tourmalines was bolstered with the discovery of the Paraiba tourmaline deposit: the source of the world’s most valuable teal and green torumalines with the vivid tones of a peacock feather. What many collectors forget is that the Paraiba mine also produces pure blue tourmaline. In some cases Paraiba tourmaline has a pure dark blue that is amazingly like sapphire. Of course, the exceptional nature of this deposit and collector interest in this material mean that Paraiba tourmaline commands sapphire-like prices as well.

“Brazilian Sapphire”

Indicolite tourmaline has often been mistaken for blue corundum, so much so that it was once known as “Brazilian sapphire.” The confusion with sapphire helps to explain the name indicolite, which is, to the best of our knowledge, an alternate spelling of “indigolite,” a color-based name this tourmaline went under many years ago.

Unfortunately, say those familiar with indicolites that resemble sapphire, the comparison is generally not flattering. According to the tourmaline specialist, these indicolites are highly reminiscent of the overly dark sapphire from Australia.

The reason sapphire-like indicolites are sometimes so blackish blue, the dealer explains, is cutting. Tourmaline exhibits the most marked dichroism (change of color when viewed in different crystal directions) of any gem. Therefore, the choice of cutting axis (called orienting) will strongly influence the stone’s color and transparency. If cut along the wrong axis, stones darken to the point of becoming muddy and opaque. Judging from the stones we looked at while preparing this essay, cutters nowadays have got the hang of orienting indicolite. But while they seemed to have learned how to make stones look as transparent and bright as aqua, they have not found a way to hide green. All except a few were varyingly greenish, some objectionably so.

Given the wide variation in indicolite color, this gem can be found only in one-of-a kind jewelry. Color sameness is hardly a complaint we hear uttered about indicolite. To the contrary, when dealers are asked for specific shades they often have to tell clients to wait a bit. Indicolites are extremely difficult to match for pairs and suites. So if you are lucky enough to find such a grouping, expect to be charged a 20 to 30 percent premium for the trouble it took to assemble it.

Hydrogrossular Garnet

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

This will make you laugh, but not because it’s funny.

Remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August? Remember seeing President Bush and his wife Laura sitting in the stands with other heads of state before swimmer Michael Phelps won the first of his record-breaking eight gold medals?

Well, here’s the joke. Those medals were made, in part, of white jade. Human rights groups say that the jade was from Burma. If the charge is true (and there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support it), Michael Phelps took home medals made of a gem material that was banned from U.S. importation by Congress that very month-at the repeated urging of the First Lady. True, the ban didn’t take effect until after the Games, but there’s a feast of ironies in American athletes importing what is soon-to-be contraband material.

Alas, lovers of jade are stuck with famine. What will the American jeweler’s life be without imports of Burmese jadeite? For most of our readers, Burmese jadeite is nowhere near as important as it is in China. For them, this embargo is a nuisance, not a crisis.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Is there replacement jadeite available that has the same legendary hue, translucency, and toughness as the Burmese variety? The answer seems to be no-at least as far as green stones go. Turkey is producing purple jadeite that, at its best, is semi-translucent. However, purists refuse to call it jadeite because its jadeite component is only 50 percent-compared to Burmese jadeite’s 98 percent purity. There is jadeite from Russia, too, but supplies are very limited.

That leaves nephrite-if you want to stay in the domain of jade. While I greatly admire British Columbia’s abundant verdant-green nephrite, many say it is no match for Burma when it comes to translucency and color subtlety.

Filling this vacuum requires stepping outside the sprawling jade family to a spectacular jadeite impersonator: hydrogrossular garnet.

Now here’s a second laugh. I may be decades late in preaching the glories of this garnet. But preach I will.

GHOST GARNET

Back in the early 1930s, mineralogists started reporting a find of strange rock-mass hybrid garnet from two adjacent farms in Buffelsfontein and Turffontein in South Africa, 40 miles west of Pretoria. I say “hybrid” because this variety was polycrystalline-a rock, not a single crystal-and contained water (hence the “hydro” prefix).

Because of its astonishing visual similarity to jadeite, the new garnet was sold as “Transvaal jade,” a catchy but flagrantly deceptive market name. The material is still referred to, but not sold as, such. Today the term is mostly historic-a reminder of the gem’s uncanny resemblance to jadeite.

Looks weren’t the only thing encouraging confusion with jade. Depending on color and chemistry, hydrogrossular garnet has a comforting jade-like hardness of 7 to 8. According to author Michael O’Donoghue, green hydrogrossular garnet, caused by chromium, measures 8 on the Mohs scale; much rarer pink and orange stones, colored by manganese, measure 7.

Here’s where things get sad. If there were a 1 to 10 availability scale for gems, with 1 meaning defunct and 10 prolific, hydrogrossular garnet would rate a 2.

Josh Hall, the in-house gem keeper at Pala International, Fallbrook, California, was the only person able to supply us with top-grade samples of this material. And these are the remains of purchases made a decade ago. “Our reserves are on empty,” he says.

Yet when I asked him the likely retail prices for an extraordinary orange stone he sent us to photograph, he said $400 per carat. I told him that seemed awfully low. But Hall is sticking with that sticker price.

As for green stones, which Hall says he is occasionally offered (always as old stock or estate merchandise), he says the retail price is half that of the orange-around $200 per carat. No wonder he notes that hydrogrossular garnet is of greater interest to collectors than consumers. And unless South Africa starts producing again, the rarity will become even greater-despite more recent finds of lesser-grade goods in Canada.

Think of it. From a supply standpoint, hydrogrossular garnet is a greater treasure than the fabulous expensive jadeite it resembles. Now that’s genuinely funny.


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