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Ethiopian Opal

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

If gemology were still practiced as a blend of myth and materialism, the way it was in the days of the Greeks and Romans, opal would be seen as a Promethean gem that steals fire from the gods and shares it with mankind. As punishment, the gemologist might say that the gods endowed much of it with a hypersensitivity to heat that gives this high water-content silica gel a tendency to dehydrate and crack up-gem dealers call it “crazing”-with thirst.

Such a legend would certainly explain the plight of Ethiopian opal-one of the most beautiful varieties of this play-of-color species ever found. Imagine the best broad-flash Australian black and white opal but with deep mahogany and maple brown body colors that has been called everything from chocolate to root beer to bronze. What’s more, the very finest specimens exhibit unique snake-skin and harlequin patterns of iridescence.

Alas, many of these stones tend to develop the same kind of hairline cracks that mar the brown beauties from Nevada’s Virgin Valley. Nevertheless, Ethiopian opal has attracted a small cadre of enthusiasts who have made it their sole specialty or a cornerstone of their business. Finding one of the latter persuaded me to finally write this “Gem Profile”-four years after first seeing it at the Tucson show. Why did I wait so long? I wanted to wait until I met a jeweler who sold it in significant enough quantities to qualify it for prime time shelf space.

I met that jeweler, in what must be considered a providential way, when he served as a fellow juror with my son recently in Los Angeles. His name is Wazir Salaam, jeweler and designer of Jendayi Collection in the Baldwin Hills section of that city. A retailer who specializes in African gems, Salaam fell in love with Ethiopian opal when he was first introduced to it around eight years ago. Yes, he had heard it was temperamental, but by learning to carefully select stones and sell only those that withstand a healthy amount of curing and quarantine time, he has never had one returned.

Mind you, he’s not talking about the 20 percent of the stones he sells that are stabilized with his own home-grown Opticon recipe. Those are sold as treated and clearly marked as such on invoices. “Ethiopian opal got an early, undeserved reputation for crazing because it was at first sold indiscriminately,” Salaam says. “It took a long time for miners, cutters, and dealers to learn how to evaluate chocolate opal. But I feel I know what stones I can and can’t sell.” Most of those stones are ones he or his son Aquil have cabbed.

THE SECOND WAVE

Until late last year, all Ethiopian opal was of the chocolate variety from the Yita Ridge opal fields 150 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. Yita Ridge opal forms inside geodes composed of a compacted volcanic ash known as rhyolite. Most of the geodes are empty. Of the 20 percent or so with opal, the vast majority is colorless potch or dull-colored common opal.

But then comes the few percent with genuine full-bodied color-play. It is these stones that Salaam puts front and center in his store both loose or set in his own designs. “I can’t think of a better stone to demonstrate the difference our store seeks to make in the lives of our customers,” he says. “Our trademark is ‘jewelry that tells a story,’ and chocolate opal has got a story that resonates with shoppers, 70 percent of whom are African-American.”

Yes, indeed, chocolate opal has got a story-one practically as old as the human story. It was first discovered by noted anthropologist and archeologist Louis Leakey in a Kenyan cave during a 1939 artifacts gathering expedition. Leakey found the opal had been used for tools rather than trinkets-meaning back-to-human-beginnings use.

In 1994, gem dealer N.R. Barot found similar opal in a Kenyan market. A year later, mining engineer Telahun Yohannes found the Yita Ridge deposit and soon after started mining there. It was this material that started flooding the market after 2002.

Last year, however, white seam opal from the Gondar desert region in northwestern Ethiopia was introduced in great quantity to the market. This opal, which occurs in broad-flash, contra luz and hydrophane varieties, is often reminiscent of Australian and Brazilian opal, says Ethiopian opal specialist Dan Statz of DB Opals, Madison, Wisconsin. “It has a much better reputation for stability,” he says, “and it has given my business an incredible shot in the arm.”

Statz, who used to cut many of the opals he sells, now spends most of his time taking orders for rough from as far away as India and China. Yet when asked whether he prefers Yita Ridge chocolate or Gondar white, he gives the nod to chocolate. “It’s got a beauty all its own,” he says. And, adds Salaam, at prices rarely over $200 per carat retail for fine material, that beauty becomes harder to say no to.

Emerald

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

In just three words penned around 50 A.D., Pliny the Elder, antiquity’s greatest cataloger of natural wonders, summed up the nearly 2,000 years of emerald veneration before him and the nearly 2,000 years of it since. “Nothing greens greener,” he wrote-a short phrase that captures the essence of this gem.
Pliny was just summing up what his peers in ancient Egypt, India, Greece and Rome thought about the most famous member of the beryl family. Is it any wonder that Cleopatra, Egypt’s tempestuous female monarch, was as famous for wearing emeralds in her time as Liz Taylor, the actress who played her in a 1969 movie, is for wearing diamonds in ours?

Emerald has been the gemstone standard bearer for the color green during practically all of recorded history. It should come as no surprise, then, that linguists trace the word “emerald” back to the ancient Greek color-name for green: smaragdus.

Islamic texts describe the Garden of Paradise as carpeted with this gem. For the lawns of heaven to be lined with a thick astro-turf of emerald, this gem had to have more going for it than just good looks (although they certainly helped). It had to have exceedingly good vibrations. When the ancients talked about the magic of gems, they were being literal not figurative. They wore gems as much for protection as pleasure.

Today we call widely-held notions among the ancients that emerald could improve one’s sex life as well as one’s eye sight, increase one’s intelligence, and bestow eloquence by the name of lore. So when the Muslims celebrated emerald as the gem of paradise, they were simply elevating it from its long-standing associations with spring and fertility to far more sublime and spiritual levels. Today, fittingly enough, emerald is the birthstone for May and still symbolizes the eternal hope and promise of Spring.

The emeralds the ancients adored were nowhere near as beautiful as those mined today. The modern emerald bounty began almost five centuries ago when Spanish explorers began trading or, more likely, looting emeralds from the people of Panama, Peru and Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Those emeralds, which the Spaniards soon learned came from mines in Colombia, were far superior to any seen before.

In our century, several more emerald El Dorados have been discovered. While Colombia is still the world’s largest and most famous emerald-producing country, Brazil and Zambia have emerged as major sources for this gem. As could be expected, emeralds from each of these countries possess their own distinctive characteristics. If you are buying mainly or solely for color, Colombian stones have the highest reputation. However, the finest Brazilian stones rival those of Colombia for color. If clarity is your primary concern, Zambian stones are renowned for their crystalline appearance and have a rich, robust green to boot.

But no matter which locality your emeralds come from, it is very likely they have been given a facial to hide the tiny fissures that are a price these beryls often pay for their beauty. Emeralds, among the rarest of gems, are almost always found with birthmarks, known as inclusions. To eliminate or reduce the visibility of tiny surface breaks requires the gemological equivalent of skin care. For centuries, dealers have been using oils or resins for emerald facials: replace the air with oil and the fissure is much less visible. You should assume that your emerald has been improved in this way unless it has a laboratory certificate indicating otherwise: such rare stones command a considerable premium.

Needless to say, face lifts don’t always last forever. Depending on the substance used, a stone may need re-beautification every once in a while much in the way a car needs periodic oil changes. But while a car needs quarts of oil, an emerald needs an infinitesimally small amount of an enhancement agent to look good-so small it’s usually not measurable by weight. That’s because fissures are usually hair-thin and permit very little material inside. Gemologists can detect the presence of these substances when a stone is examined under a microscope. But it’s nearly impossible to identify the agent without the aid of very expensive equipment that only a handful of labs in the world can afford. For this reason, most gem labs note that an emerald has been enhanced, but can’t say with what medium.

Nevertheless, the trade generally divides enhancement agents into two categories: natural and man-made. Understandably, many dealers dislike the idea of using a man-made substance to beautify a natural gem. Since emeralds have such a long and rich tradition of connoisseurship, these dealers feel that only traditional substances should be used: natural oils and resins such as Canada balsam or cedarwood oil. However, these natural oils, over time, dehydrate or leak out. That’s why most in the trade now rely on longer-lasting man-made substances like epoxy resins for emerald face lifts. No matter which substance is used, the end result is the same: less obvious inclusions, and more life in your emerald.

Knowing this fact of life helps you and anyone to whom you entrust your emerald to protect its beauty. Suppose you take in your emerald jewelry for repair or resizing. The heat from a torch can damage the emerald by forcing a camouflaged fissure to widen. Damage can be avoided by removing the emerald before working on its mounting. Similarly, emeralds can lose their looks in an ultrasonic cleaner, which may remove the filler.

But whether or not an emerald has been enhanced, certain basic rules of gemstone courtesy should be observed. Emerald will not withstand hard blows or other kinds of abuse. So never take your emeralds for granted. Their beauty will be appreciated for generations to come-but only if you treat them with the tender loving care they deserve.

Ellerston Sapphire

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

At first sight, and scoop, Ellerston sapphires seem to have little going for them. Tiny to begin with, few of the multitude of corundums found at the four kilometer deposit on a 75,000 acre private estate in New South Wales, Australia, cut to anything above melee size. That means this locality has significance only as a source of accent stones. Nevertheless, those mining this new treasure trove are thinking big about small.

The deposit has one giant value-adding factor going for it: Its sapphires don’t need heating to look their best. Trips to the oven are a waste of time because stones are relatively silk-free. Besides, Mother Nature did her own baking deep in the earth millions of years ago. Hence these gems are best served au naturale-a branding feature, if ever there was one, in today’s overheated corundum market.

Concentration in alluvial gravels was a second piece of good news. Gems found at or very near to ground level cost far less to mine than gems embedded in hard rock. In case you didn’t know, Australia has a lot of environmentally-friendly resource exploitation laws. Ellerston realized it could comply with them and still thrive. What’s more, it has a 14 million carat reserve, enough to sustain projected demand for 50 years.

The company got a third good tiding when it was found that the deposit featured a large array of colors (50-plus distinct shades and tones have been classified so far). The fact that a preponderance of stones were pink-sapphire’s second-most popular hue-provided a bonus blessing.

After trial cutting in a Thailand factory that once specialized in diamonds, finished stones looked impressively bold and bright. All in all, Ellerston sapphire are a brand-worthy breed. Unlike equally plentiful Montana alluvial fancy color sapphire, which benefits from stays in the furnace, Ellerston’s is corundum that could abstain from treatment.

Just one question remained: Were enough jewelry manufacturers looking for saucy Aussie all-natural sapphire suitable mainly for cluster and pavé intensive pieces? For Ellerston to make it as a brand-name colored stone, it would have to find innovative, high-profile designers to produce jewelry lines featuring the newcomer sapphire. Such synergy, the company decided, was the best road to success. It may also be the only road.

BRAND AID
While brand building has become extensive in the diamond trade, it is very uncommon in the colored stone world, except amongst makers and marketers of synthetic stones. It is no accident that Ellerston’s director, Gerry Manning, was very active with lab-growns until Ellerston came along.

As for natural gem brands, all, until now, were launched on behalf of gem deposits that produced large numbers of center stones. In other words, marketers focused on establishing brand identities via sales of loose stones. Ellerston is one of the first firms to try for name status and prestige on the basis of direct jewelry use. Here’s how.

Manning is forging an immediate association between Ellerston sapphire and elite names in jewelry design (both here and in Australia), each of whom will create a line dedicated to his goods. By so doing, Ellerston sapphire takes on a reputation as a designer darling.

In return, Manning will create trade and public awareness of Ellerston’s chief cluster of virtues-the fact of its “100 percent natural, unheated, untreated brilliance.” The bet here is that retailers of fine jewelry will welcome tasteful, innovative designs featuring well-cut sapphires that will be spared the slightest whiff of scandal.

Scandal-proofing sapphire is not an easy task these days. Ellerston is an exception to a fact of life most consumers don’t yet know-and may not want to know. This could put jewelers in an unwitting bind. “On the one hand, you’ve got the rarity and security of using all-natural sapphires to talk up with customers,” says Aron Suna of Suna Bros. in New York, one of Ellerston’s small roster of designers. “On the other hand, if you make too big a deal about the fact that Ellerston sapphires are all-natural, do you risk inviting questions about the store’s other sapphires since they are likely treated?”

If the emphasis on Ellerston jewelry is on the gems rather than the pieces, questions could arise. Suna hopes that jewelers will play up Ellerston’s identity as distinctive jewelry featuring a very rare type of sapphire. If, and only if, consumers ask what makes it rare, the answer can be that they are among the very few of the world’s sapphires that don’t need routine heating to become beautiful. Suna worries about volunteering any more information than is necessary. “There’s no need for disclosure of any sort,” he says, then chuckles at the thought that Ellerston had made it safe to say as little as possible about its sapphires.

So here’s the news shoppers need to know about Ellerston. An Australian sapphire mining company has commissioned a collection of custom designs similar to those De Beers has commissioned for use of melee diamonds in the past. Besides Suna, it has asked Kurt Wayne, Gumuchian Fils, and Samuel Aaron International, all based in New York, to contribute to this collection. All have responded to the invitation with exciting pieces.

In fact, one could very well imagine Ellerston launching a coast-to-coast trunk show for the jewelry its stones have inspired. If ever a body of jewelry had “special event” written all over it, this is it. Just take a look at the $25,000 multicolored hot-air balloon ornament Suna created for the recent New York show. If you missed it, so did everyone else. A customer who saw it beforehand bought it on condition of immediate delivery.

East African Ruby

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

Although East Africa has gained big league status as a producer of newcomer gems such as tsavorite and tanzanite, it is still considered bush league when it comes to traditional stones such as sapphire and emerald.

For sure, the region is rich in these standbys. However, the quality of stones found so far is generally judged inferior to that from other active gem localities such as Burma and Sri Lanka for sapphire, or Colombia and Zambia for emerald.

That leaves ruby, which East Africa mines in abundance, to earn it the respect it craves as a source of stalwart gems. Ruby finds in Kenya have already begun to raise hopes. But no one is ready yet to raise glasses. “It all depends on whether the new deposits prove the rule rather than the exception, ” says a Seattle dealer who specializes in African gems.

What has the newer East African ruby got that older stones from this region lack? And how good does that really make this ruby when compared to that of its Southeast Asian counterparts?

Burma Color, African Price

East Africa has been producing ruby in bulk since around 1970. Because most of its ruby is heavily included, less than 1 percent of the rough has been suitable for faceting. In fact, East Africa is known chiefly for cabochon ruby. Even now, with better grades more common, the number of facetable stones is minuscule.

However, what African ruby lacks in clarity, it more than compensates for in color. Indeed, up until 1980, as much as 15 percent of the output from the famed Longido mine in northern Tanzania was said to be virtually indistinguishable color-wise from medium-to-fine Burmese rubies, the most highly prized specimens of this species in the world.

Most other mines, such as Tanzania’s Morogoro mine, produced more characteristic material. “The best pieces of rough always had a killer red with some pink,” one dealer explains. “But when you cut them into cabs they usually turned a disappointing purplish color.”

This purplish (sometimes brownish) red, coupled with the stone’s coarse silk and super-numerous inclusions (most notably, liquid-filled cavities), gave the stones a flat, lusterless appearance when cut into cabochons.

Their dull, opaque appearance relegated East African rubies to use in low-end jewelry, mostly beads, cut in the world bead capital, Jaipur, India.

Then in 1984, miners started to unearth far more promising rough. News spread fast, so fast that dealers from around the world, quickly flocked to Nairobi to bid on new parcels.

A Niche Of Its Own

Despite the fact that East African ruby is often mistaken for Burmese ruby, it is highly doubtful that it will overtake either Burmese or Thai ruby in its standing among connoisseurs any time soon. Instead, dealers expect it to play an important role in providing cabochon ruby and ruby beads with the red that ruby is known for.

For years, the Italians and, to a lesser extent, the French have been ardent admirers of East African ruby. “They don’t mind the fact that it’s highly included,” the Seattle gem importer says. “They just go for that juicy red color.”

Now with cabochon jewelry having made such a dramatic comeback in the United States, dealers here are betting that Americans will become devotees of African ruby too.

“It’s a superb bluff stone,” one dealer says. “African cabochon rubies give large-size gems with high visual appeal at a very low cost.”

Drusy Quartz

Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.

alk to cutters and designers who use drusy quartz and they will tell you it has a way of taking over your creative life. Cutter Greg Genovese, based in West Cape May, New Jersey, and designer Howard Lazar in West Bloomfield, Michigan, are going through prolonged drusy phases. Indeed, Genovese’s devotion to drusy is now headed for a third decade. What is so addictive about this gem?

Genovese answers by showing me an assemblage of 50 drusy leaf-carvings finished in the last year. They are so true to the flora that inspired them that I tell Genovese he should create an exhibition called “The Drusy Arboretum.” “At least 90 percent of what I do is drusy,” Genovese says. “Once in awhile I take a break and work with other gems, but drusy always calls me back.”

Lazar first heard that same call when looking at some of Genovese’s works in this medium about three years ago. Both the individual artistry and diversity of his pieces impressed him. “Each drusy carving demanded a jewelry design response that was as unique as the gem,” Lazar says. “This gem was an open-ended invitation to creativity.”

Hundreds of other designers have also taken the drusy challenge in the last five years. Drusy is perfect for a generation of shoppers who want jewelry to be a statement of taste and an expression of individuality. Genovese and Lazar are proving that drusy can make five-figure elegance available to people on three- and low four-figure budgets. Drusy is a godsend for the consumer who wants affordable magnificence and originality.

QUARTZ ON QUARTZ

Drusy (spelled with an s and pronounced with a z) is a mineralogical term used as a noun and an adjective. The noun refers to mineral cavities lined-usually in quartz-with thin layers of tiny, tightly-packed crystals that resemble sugar granules, each of these toppings of a different fineness from coarse to powdery. The adjective refers to any such granulated crystal layers.

In most cases, drusies are double-decker quartzes-quartz crystals deposited over a mineral base, or matrix, of agate like snow-capped mountains. The word drusy comes from the ancient Greek word druos for gland or bump. Drusy, like opal, can form on practically any mineral base (even, occasionally, on fossilized eggs, shells, and other objects). But the drusy used for jewelry comes from geodes in whose hollows it sometimes forms.

Two or three times a year, Genovese travels to Brazil, still the number one source for this gem (although recently Indonesia has come on strong) to conduct drusy hunts. He is looking for that one-in-a-thousand geode with a drusy lining. Thankfully, geodes are plentiful. So the long odds against finding drusy geodes don’t seem so daunting-especially since non-drusy geodes have established commercial use as ornaments.

Mining consists of digging pilot holes roughly 3 meters deep and 1/2 meter wide into known geode-laden grounds. If miners hit a seam, they next try to determine the size of the pocket by digging exploration holes at 400-yard intervals to the right and left. Once they’ve got a sense of the geode pocket’s size, they excavate the entire vein.

To discover which geodes are hollow, and therefore drusy candidates, workers tap each one with a metal bar to hear if it’s solid or not. Those that are hollow are sawed in half to see if they are among the one in a hundred with drusy linings. Cutters reject most of the drusy-bearing geodes as unsatisfactory for jewelry. Many of these rejects make the final cuts for less demanding buyers from high-volume jewelry manufacturing centers such as China and India. Variable standards of acceptability helps to explain the vast price ranges for similar-looking drusy quartzes-anywhere from $15 to $20 to $150 to $200 per piece (and, in special cases, more than twice this upper end).

When selecting drusy, it is advisable to let beauty, rather than cost, be your guide, since drusy quartzes are not bank-breakingly expensive to begin with. Lazar says he looks for at least five things when buying drusy: color, pattern, crystal quality, extent of the drusy overlay, and craftsmanship.

Drusy color refers to the color of the base material, or matrix, over which the drusy topping has formed. Usually, the base color is gray or brown, but once in awhile you find luscious value-jumping shades of orange, yellow, and white. Expect to be charged more if the base is banded or spotted with colors. The cost spikes even higher if the base contains tree-like dendritic patterns.

Next, evaluate the drusy lining. There is some latitude given for crystal size. Some like drusy layers to be coarse and distinctly granulated while others like them smaller, less defined, and more velvety. No matter what your preference, make sure the layer has brightness and sparkle and is evenly spread to the edges of the piece. Dull, non-reflective drusy layers are penalized. Areas of exposed matrix give buyers extra leverage with sellers.

For the past decade, thanks largely to Bill Heher of Rare Earth Minerals, Trumbull, Connecticut, thin-film coated drusy with metallic colors have been more popular than untreated drusy. That is why durability of treatment is of paramount importance. Every U.S. dealer I talked to urged jewelers to buy drusy treated by high-tech specialists like Azotic Coating Technology, Rochester, Minnesota.

Last, examine the drusy for artistry and craftsmanship. Many are cut for weight rather than wonder. To add insult to injury, they are cut too hastily and sloppily. At first, you may not see where cutters have skimped on precision. But keep looking and you’ll begin to see the lack of detail in cheap, volume-cut drusy and you’ll be willing to pay top dollar for stones that show the attention to detail that sets apart drusy masters like Greg Genovese.


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