Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Africa Revisited - A New Trip

I can't believe it came upon me so fast.  This coming Monday I am leaving on my second trip to Africa.  I will be revisiting some of the places of last time and adding a couple new ones.  And of course, I will be looking for gems!
My trip starts in Newark Airport via United, with a one-day layover in Amsterdam on the 10th.  My Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi doesn't leave until 8 p.m., so I get to spend the day in the international terminal.  Luckily Schiphol airport has a funky "hourly hotel" called Yotel, where you can sleep in a little 20 square foot cabin for a few hours.  
My travel companion, as last time, will be Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Mineralien.  Jochen is a well connected Africa veteran - his first trip to Africa was about 50 years ago when he hitchhiked to Morocco as a teenager.  Jochen has traveled almost the entire African continent and has crossed the Sahara desert six times so I feel safe in his hands.
Jochen is flying in from Germany so we are going to meet on the flight to Nairobi - assuming his flight from Hannover is on time!  After another five hour layover in Nairobi on the 11th, we get on another plane to Antananarivo Madagascar.  And after YET another layover of about a day, which we will be spending at the same hotel as last time, a well protected simple little complex just outside of town, we will attempt to take Air Madagascar to the island of Nosy Be 
Attempt?  Yes.  Go to google and search for Air Madagascar reviews.  You'll see what I'm talking about. Air Madagascar is the only airline in Madagascar and sometimes it flies, sometimes not.  When there's no fuel, that is.  Or some other issue that you will never find out about. 
Read some reviews below:
"WORST AIRLINE! BUT one does not have a choice to use Air Madagascar when travelling around Madagascar. Among the locals, the airline company has been nicknamed Air Maybe..." 2 star review "The thing is, if you want to fly from Tana to Nosy Comba, there are not so much other options than flying with air Madagascar. The short flights are very expensive because they have the (corrupt) alone right to fly on some routes. They just do what they want and take their time...." 2 star review
The flight to the island Nosy Be is only an hour, but if you go by car and take the ferry you need two days. Nosy Be has a number of "luxury" hotels as well as standard hotels starting at $10 an hour, going up to about $200.  We are going the "luxury" route which is still way less money than a good hotel in the Carribean.  The Vanila Spa hotel costs about $150 a night.  The website looks stunning to my somewhat simpler tastes so I can't wait to see what I will really think when I get to this nearly "off the grid" location.  (Try booking a flight to Nosy be through a site like Travelocity - Air Madagascar doesn't even exist on there).  
Assuming we will make it to Nosy Be, we will stay there about four days and then get picked up by our friends, Irene (Andou) and her relative Gael with his father's vehicle, on Sunday, take the ferry back to Madagascar proper, and continue on a 2 day drive down to the Green park hotel in Antsirabe.  We will spend a few days there looking at gems and if it goes as it did last time, sellers will line up for us early in the morning and stay until sundown, or sleep in the street or a very cheap hotel (our hotel is on the expensive side for the area, about $15 a night - but very safe and very pretty).  
Here's a video from our previous stay in Antsirabe, 2 years ago.
On Sunday the 23rd we head to back to Antanarivo and from there to Nairobi where I get to see Doreen Kawira and her little baby son who will be one year old this summer.  I sponsored Doreen's college education and I met her for the first time 2 years ago.  Now I help her raise her son (she's a single mom, a state of affairs not very unusual in Africa, sadly).  Doreen also works full time at the University of Nairobi and with the help of Cecile Raley Designs and the money we have raised, it will stay that way and she can afford the nanny every month, who costs about $100 (25% of her salary).  Donations for Doreen, by the way, are very welcome. GoFundMe Campaign gf.me/u/jmg7u7
I will stay with Doreen in her apartment for one day and then we are off to Arusha, Tanzania via Precision Air (don't trust the name lol).  We stay in Arusha another 9 days or so, this time at the Mount Meru Hotel, and we plan a 5 day trip to an area called Kongwa, to look for some rare crystals that I know nothing about.  We will be joined there by a German friend of Jochens.  
If all goes safely, I will be back on a plane to Amsterdam on August 1st, and arrive in Newark on the 2nd after another 1 day stay in Amsterdam.  I plan to do some gem shopping in Arusha as well, mostly with Jaimeen's (Prima Gems) uncle as well as our Greek friend Reno who owns a shop there.  Perhaps I will also buy from the locals, this part is always the big adventure and you never know what you're gonna get.  
I will try to keep you posted throughout the trip, but mostly through small tidbits of information - the internet in most places in Africa is very slow so uploading anything but text is very difficult.  But I will try, and I will most certainly try to return home in one piece!
Please read some of my previous blog entries about Africa here: 

Padparadscha Sapphire – What’s the Story?

Every since Britain’s Princess Eugenie has been sporting a Padparadscha sapphire engagement ring valued at over $130,000, these lotus flower colored beauties have been all the rage.  Industry prices have actually risen as a result.  In terms of color, purists claim that a Padparadscha should combine peach-pink and orange tones, ideally mixed evenly (no color zones), and have light to medium saturation. But exactly how that looks is a point of contention.  The ideal comparison is the Lotus flower which it is named after.  Given the huge variation in both color and saturation of actual lotus flowers, it might be fair to say that this reference is more romantic than it is helpful.
Originally “pads” were mined primarily in Sri Lanka, and this is why “purists” still consider only a specimen with the famed Ceylon origin to be a true Padparadscha. Nowadays, however, gems from other regions with the same color characteristics, for instance from Madagascar or Tanzania, can be deemed a “pad” as well. Some gem dealers will refer to those as “African Padparadscha” but one should not rely on the nomenclature being exact. In any case, it is still true that a Padparadscha sapphire from Sri Lanka will command a premium in price, even if the color quality is the same as a comparable stone from Africa. Whether this is justified or not, the take-home message from this is: if a seller is asking an additional premium for the Ceylon origin of a Padparadscha sapphire, one should only pay the extra if the alleged origin is backed up by an origin report of a reputable lab (GIA, AGL, ...). 
 Traditionally only an unheated sapphire is eligible to be considered a “pad” but that has since changed s well.  Heating may turn an originally only very faintly peachy colored sapphire into a “pad.”  This should not command a premium in terms of price, however.  As to the nomenclature (is it a pad or not), I would probably stay away from the term, to be on the safe side.

GIA has a very interesting article on the historical development and currently use definitions of the term Padparadscha sapphire, which you can look at here: https://www.gia.edu/doc/Padparadscha-What-s-in-a-Name.pdf
According to the report, written by Robert Cownsingshield, no reliable laboratory criteria can be established to standardize the term Padparadscha – at least not one that all labs would agree on.  However that said, a color description can be given that will be used as a comparison base for color.  Here’s what Cownsingshield says about that:
It is GIA's opinion that this color range should be limited to light to medium tones of pinkish orange to orange-pink hues. Lacking delicacy, the dark brownish orange or even medium brownish orange tones of corundum from East Africa would not qualify under this definition. Deep orangy red sapphires, likewise, would not qualify as fitting the term padparadscha.
This definition is best applied by comparing to what the lab considers samples of the right color.  Unfortunately, some laboratories are much stricter in their application than others.  The strictest US lab is probably AGL at present. 
Candidates for the Padparadscha Label from our Collection - All Sri Lanka Origin, the rightmost stone is heated.
1.03 Ct. Sri Lankan Sapphire, 6.4 x 5.7mm, no heat Link here
1.56 Ct. Sri Lankan Sapphire, 7.5 x 5.7mm, heated, labeled "Pad" despite heat. 
 Oval Padparadscha Sapphire, Unheated, 6.67 x 5.36mm. Link here 
Now, it would be expensive both for sellers and buyers alike to have every single possibly qualifying sapphire evaluated by AGL.  So it is often left to gem dealers to decide how to classify their purchases, which is why it is so important for a buyer to find a reliable and also knowledgeable source for their sapphires when it comes to the less valuable pieces (probably at a price over 1K, a declaration of “pad” should probably be verified by AGL.  My own source, as many of you know, is Dudley Blauwet, who has extensive industry experience and sources all his sapphires directly.  Here’s what Dudley has to say about the way he distinguishes a pad from a peach pink sapphire: 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Emeralds Revisited – New Arrivals, New Origins and A Word about Treatment

I haven’t talked about emeralds for some time and with the Las Vegas Gem Show coming up I should do so, as I plan to focus a little more on this somewhat neglected stock item of mine.  You will see more of the May birthstone listed this June - belated as is somewhat typical of me when it comes to birthdays.
So, let’s start with origins.
Colombia: my absolute favorite, always.  They have the grassiest green color of all the greens, not minty, ranging from light to dark greens, with the medium warmish tones being the nicest.  The lighter colors (often just termed “green beryl”) are more affordable but also need to be cleaner than the darker or they don’t look good.  Supplies in Colombia, from what I understand, are actually pretty good, but well in the hands of the Colombian government and gems are being trickled out to keep the market tight.  My source for these is Vinod Kotahwala, as previously disclosed, an AGTA member and wholesaler who has had connections to Colombia since the 1960s and his supplies are steady. 

Light Green Colombian Emerald
Afghanistan: these have a very bright and happy green, very open color and don’t come in darker tones as far as I know.  I can get these in small sizes only -  those supplies are hard to get and they are very expensive at more than $1000/ct for even very small stuff.  The good news is that I know a supplier who has a small amount of untreated ones – Dudley Blauwet.  They come in small rounds and, some princess cuts.  
Afghanistan Emerald Princess Cut
Zambia: Zambian emeralds have more of a minty green tone and they are not as warm as Colombian emeralds.  They are also a little cheaper.  I saw a really well cut parcel of lighter round stones this week that I was eyeing for a custom project which has since fizzled.  It was going to involve Paraiba, yum.  I have photos here of the project with lighter and darker Colombian emeralds.  I could purchase some of these if anyone’s interested; sizes ranged from 4-5mm, prices were $700/carat.  However, these are more heavily oiled (this is as far as I go with treatment).

Zambian Emeralds
Brazil: these are my least favorite in color because they are darker green and the inclusions are often darker piques as opposed to the whispy white feathers in Colombian material. However, these have the most typical emerald color seen on the commercial market.  When I first started my Etsy business in 2009, clients on the internet were less informed than they are now and many didn’t want the Colombian color because it didn’t look like emerald, although fortunately, that’s changed now.  Generally, I don’t buy Brazilian material but I certainly can upon request.  It is cheaper than Colombian by about 1/3.
Treatment: there are two treatments on the market for cut stones that are employed to various degrees - Oil and Opticon.
Oil: traditionally Cedarwood oil was used, now it is often baby oil.  Baby oil is a petroleum product and is therefore synthetic (sorry little babies) so that’s why sometimes lab reports are coming out as saying that emeralds have synthetic or modern treatment. For an acceptable treatment – in my opinion – the oil should not contain dye, and it should be lightly used – an AGL classification of “faint” or “insignificant” is ideal in my opinion.  If I do go with a heavier use of oil I will disclose this and you’ll see either “lightly oiled” or “heavily oiled” in my description.  The Zambian emeralds I saw had heavier oil.  As to which oil is used, that is not something I can easily discern.  Light oil is often used for safe storage as well, and almost all emeralds will show at least some residue.  The most prized emeralds in terms of value should show minimal oil treatment in a lab report.
Opticon: this is a plastic polymer resin that is injected into the gem.  It is permanent, unlike oil, but it can yellow with age.  I never buy opticon treated emeralds, because I try to avoid treatment whenever possible.  But it’s very common, it’s always disclosed (at least with AGTA members where it’s the rule) and if you are looking at any emeralds where you are not sure just ask. 
Here’s a link to emerald treatments from IGS (International Gem Society) I thought was pretty good: https://www.gemsociety.org/article/just-ask-jeff-are-all-emeralds-treated-and-what-is-your-opinion/
For a more technical discussion, go to GIA for this article: https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/winter-1999-classifying-emerald-clarity-mcclure
Naturally, we currently stock some emeralds in the shop.
We have a lovely pair here
and some jewelry here
and here
And what about the little red sister of emerald, Bixbite?  Stay tuned for listings and social media during our upcoming SALE.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

LAS VEGAS – A New Trip, New Adventure, Last Chance to Snag Our Loaner Gems

It’s that time again!  In a little less than 3 weeks I’m leaving on my trip to the AGTA and JCK Shows in Las Vegas for more gem sourcing.  As always, I am happy to take pre-orders for gems so please email us if you are interested!
What's New this Year: 
I’ve set up an appointment with Sergey, my Russian demantoid connection, who will be exhibiting at JCK. He’s bringing more smaller sizes of demantoids for me this time, especially 2mm and 2.5mm, and I’ve also requested some in the 4mm range as that seems to be what most of what you guys are interested in.  But I’m also switching out larger pieces I had on memo.
Same with Dudley Blauwet, my contact for Ceylon sapphire and Burma spinel.  Expect some fresh inventory there, and please do tell me what you are interested in so I know what to source.  Kornerupines are not likely to be refreshed, I’m going to have to make do with what I have here as there’s no new material on the market.  Last time I checked with Steve from New Era Gems in April, all the rough had been sold.  I know one supplier that still has some but I will only get them on request as everyone is holding on to what is left, now that interest in this rare gem has gone up.
Regarding spinels, I still have Vietnamese and Burmese materials that I held back from the last trip and you’ll see these put up on sale starting Memorial Day weekend.
Emeralds: I have neglected those a bit as of late, and plan on stocking up!  There will definitely be Colombian materials, and if I can manage, some of the bright green Afghani gems too!
Tourmaline: A new shipment of Namibian materials has arrived with my supplier already, you will see some of those in the shop soon...
Benitoite: With the renewed interest I am seeing in my shop, I am gunning for more slightly larger pieces as well as more melee sizes.
Red Beryl: Haven’t had those lately but some untreated melee sizes are coming up.
Paraiba: Again, a new shipment is expected and I have an appointment already, but this shipment is very small.  However, I am still holding back some stock acquired earlier.  So for now there is still stuff, just not as much as before. 
Lastly, there’s been an interest in more precision cuts lately, and you will definitely see those in the shop. 
Now, one other thing that’s important.  As you probably know, some of our inventory is on memo – on loan, that is, from other suppliers.  That material gets switched out periodically, suppliers want back what doesn’t sell, and there’s no point in it sitting in my shop.  So what I thought I would do this time is supply you with the list of these for you to decide if you’d like any before they go “back home”.  Gems are on sale till Sunday and then once again starting memorial day.  There will be a flash sale in the meantime on some older inventory, but not on anything on this list.
 
Enjoy and stay tuned on our social media channel for news and videos!

What is Retail and Wholesale Pricing – Really? An Unofficial Opinion

You must have asked yourself this question as well.  What (on earth) does it mean when someone tells you that their pricing is wholesale, or retail for that matter?  Technically, “wholesale” pricing just means the price charged to a wholesaler (from a manufacturer, for instance), and “retail” pricing means the price charged to retail clients (for example, from a wholesaler).  But how much is that?
When you consult web resources for various markup formulas, you will see that how much more you should charge is somewhat subjective.  Aside from your production and overhead costs – which can be high if you own a brick and mortar shop - and your expected earnings you also have to look at the competition for your product.  As a result, some companies double their total costs, some companies triple them.  In the wholesale industry, a markup of twice the total cost is a good average.  By contrast, if you are a well established and highly regarded retail outfit, like Cartier or Tiffany’s, you can charge even more than triple – though don’t forget that those companies also offer an exceptional sales experience as well as exceptional and reliable products with a good resale value.  When you are the “iddy biddy” neighborhood store or Etsy seller, your markup has to be lower.  My jewelry markup is about 2.5 times the production cost, not including overheads or what I pay my assistants (so closer to x2 if that’s figured in).  Sometimes it’s less, sometimes a little more.  Luckily, I don’t have a brick and mortar store to maintain, so my overhead costs are lower – and I do pass these savings on to the buyer.  My production costs are higher however since I do small volume and production is in the United States.
How does markup work in the gem trade?  Here’s what I have learned in the past almost 10 years in gem and bead buying. 
Wholesalers, by which I am going to mean gem dealers and members of the trade such as the ones that vend at AGTA, GJX and other gem shows, or those who work via internet and phone only, have less than a double markup on average.  Unless their gems are specialty cut or one of a kind, your average run of the mill stuff is priced closer to 30-50% up, at least for parcels.  For individual gems it can be more since that requires processing (boxing, measuring, making labels, etc).  It’s not necessarily much higher, however.
Shot of our friends @primagems at the AGTA Wholesale Show in Vegas. Photo taken from Ganoksin Blog 
Retailers, by contrast, have to figure in more customer service such as photos, internet listings, as well as one on one service.  And since they are more likely to sell one stone at a time, they have to figure those costs in for each stone, not for a parcel or larger amount.  Most of my buyers purchase one stone at a time, a pair, or a few small stones, from my shop – they never buy parcels.  That means that I need to process gems by the piece (pretty much), doing measurements and photos for every single stone.  At a wholesale show, when I buy from parcels, I do this work as the buyer, not the seller, and I can also buy (and often do) a bunch of gems from the same parcel, which are then weighed and priced together.  That is more work for me, but less work for the seller, hence the lower markup. 
In short, the difference between wholesale and retail has more to do with the quantity of gems purchased and the labor provided for that quantity.  It is less a matter of formula – even less of a matter of whether or not a buyer has tax ID.  So when I get a query for a “wholesale” price from a jeweler who wants to get one stone under $100, I am far less likely to provide a discount than I would be for a loyal retail client who has spent thousands in my shop but who is not a wholesaler or jeweler.  By the same token, if a retail buyer travels overseas to a gem mining location but intends to only buy a couple of gems , and will only make one purchase, that individual is just as unlikely to get a wholesale price overseas as they would be here.  In fact, they are more likely to be ripped off due to inexperience and due to the fact that many less developed countries have no buyer protection.
Prices for gems are also strongly determined by supply and demand.  Real estate is the best example for a comparison.  The same house, brick for brick, or plank by plank, can cost $50,000 in location A and $500,000 in location B, where the value of the parts is insignificant as a factor in the price difference.  Rather, it is that nobody wants to live in location A and everybody wants to live in location B.  And when supply of housing is not unlimited (it seldom is), prices go up.  In order to determine if one pays too much for a house, or in order to determine what an asking price should be, one studies not the house in isolation but the house compared to other houses like it in the same market.
A fun illustration showing the wholesale (large quantity) vs. retail (small quantity) dynamics 
It is the same in the gem industry.  For some gems, supply really is nearly unlimited (i.e. Brazilian amethyst, white topaz).  In those areas prices might just be determined by labor and other overhead costs.  For any gem where supply is not unlimited but there is a demand – so exempting rare gems that nobody wants to buy – the price very much depends on how many similar gems there are and how these are priced.  In short, gem dealers study the competition for their gems and will price according to what the market will bear.  Often that is not as much as one hopes, but at times, it is also rather shockingly high.  Cobalt spinel is a case in point.  For some rare gems, there is just sufficient demand but almost no supply that the price is just about only a matter between what the seller wants and what the buyer will pay.  Large Benitoite is a good example.
Cobalt Spinel from our Etsy shop
Also, prices can fluctuate when an area is mined out but demand is still high (i.e. Mahenge spinel, Mahenge Malaya garnet).  Or prices can jump up fast when demand goes up and then level out when it is discovered that supply is not that bad (this is often the case with sapphire).  Sometimes prices start out low, then demand increases suddenly and the prices jump drastically, then the market is saturated and prices drop back down (I believe that Grandidierite is an example – I am going to verify this on my next trip to Africa).  Sometimes there are government restrictions, civil unrest,  a change of government etc, and all this will affect pricing, which can end up being quite volatile when we are looking at small amounts.  Current examples are a recent shift in government in Tanzania, export issues in Mogok (affecting ruby and spinel) and export problems with Russia (affecting demantoid).
What should you take away from this?  When you shop, study prices on the internet, as best you can, look at gems in person at gem shows or wherever opportunity presents itself, but also work with someone you trust – we all have to do that, not just you as retail buyers but also us in wholesale because you can’t always test everything, and large amounts of money and product have to change hands safely.  In the final analysis however, for me it is easiest to work with an educated customer for a smooth and easy transaction.  “The more you know…” as they say on TV.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Sapphire Treatments: What Matters and What Doesn’t  (By Yvonne Raley and Inken Krause)

Every month I give sapphires to my lab to certify that a sapphire is unheated, which is essential for my business, and important to my customers especially when they buy more expensive gems.  But determining that a sapphire is heated is not as easy as one might think.
First of all, what is the purpose of heating a sapphire?  Heating can improve the clarity of a gem, remove zoning, and intensify color.  With high enough temperatures (about 1700 degrees Celsius) you can also melt the silky inclusions in a sapphire.  When sapphires are cut, the friction created by the cutting wheel subjects the sapphire to some heat already (though in most cases, at that point the sapphire has already been heated) but this is rarely if ever detectable in a lab.
How do you determine heat treatment?  The first test to apply is to look at the inclusions of the sapphire under 10x magnification.  In the simplest case you see silky inclusions and fine dusty inclusions.  If those look undisturbed – read: not melted – then you can assume it is not heated.  This takes some practice of course, but in principle anyone can learn to do this (having a darkfield loupe helps because it provides nice lighting from the back). Feathers and jellyfish-like inclusions are also good indicators, it is only a bit more difficult to judge whether those are undisturbed. For a neat search engine of typical sapphire inclusions, go here: http://www.ruby-sapphire.com/ftir-intrigue.htm
According to Lotus, "in this sapphire from Sri Lanka, evidence of high temperature heat treatment can be found in this moirĂ©-patterned fingerprint. The once-lovely lacy pattern of liquid droplets is now besmirched by circular “explosions,” where the pressure from heating caused ruptures in the icroscopic negative crystals,..." (Photographed by Richard Hughes)Hughes, R.W., Manorotkul, W. et al. (2017) Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide. Bangkok, Lotus Publishing, 816 pp.; RWHL*.
However, this method is insufficient if the original gem is too clean to have enough inclusions in the first place: not every sapphire has enough inclusions and you need those to make your determination.  
A loupe clean gem therefore requires further testing.  A common second tool is a spectral analysis.  Heating a sapphire at high temperatures removes water from it.  A spectral graph will show the water content as a peak, and if this peak is lower, this is interpreted as the water having been eliminated by heat.  (https://assets.thermofisher.com/TFS-Assets/CAD/Application-Notes/D10280~.pdf)
There is a human factor here, however, as the strictness of interpretation here may vary from lab to lab.  In most if not all reputable labs, several people will look at the same gem and only if all conclude that they do not think they see evidence of heat will the gem pass as unheated.  GIA and Gubelin are examples of labs that always have 2 gemologists assess a gemstone 100% independently from each other, before examination results are compared and discussed, before potentially seeking advice from additional colleagues; at those two laboratories, the examining gemologists also do not know the client's identity.
Now, let me turn back to the original question, does it matter if a sapphire is heated or not?  Generally, 99% of sapphires on the market are heated, and heat treatment is standard.  According to AGTA standards, however, this must be disclosed on the invoice – in part because it can and usually does affect prices.  Heated sapphires can be up to 30% cheaper than unheated ones.  Sapphires that do not need heat treatment are much rarer than sapphires that do – or rather, sapphires that can be improved with heat treatment are the most common. 
In terms of integrity or safety for setting, however, it doesn’t matter that a gem is heated.  The treatment is permanent, durable, and does not otherwise affect the gem. (Inken and I actually differ a little on this assessment but I think this is the most common view).
As to our own shop, we try to carry mostly unheated gems, to which we have very good access.  Cecile Raley Designs specializes in the unusual gem – not the run of the mill stuff – so it makes sense for us to seek out unheated sapphires whenever possible.
Before closing let me add a quick note here about beryllium heated gems (industry calls this “Be-heat” and according to newer standards, this must be disclosed during a sale): this type of treatment requires heat treatment with beryllium, which reduces the blue tones in a sapphire, therefore it is used on yellow, orange or padparadscha like colors, but not on blues or pinks.  To detect beryllium, a 10x loupe is usually also sufficient since Be-heat leaves characteristic inclusions that are not like the natural inclusions of a sapphire – they are described as “little blue halos” in industry. 
Beryllium Heated Sapphire
Here’s a quick link to a very interesting article on a synthetic Padparadscha sapphire: http://www.lotusgemology.com/index.php/library/articles/327-padparadscha-or-pretender-an-unusual-pink-orange-sapphire
(Inken Krause sells antique jewelry at https://www.einhoerning-jewelry.com.  She specializes in unheated ruby and sapphire.)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What Color is this Gem – really? Commonly Asked Color Questions and Difficult Answers

Nature doesn’t make it easy, does it?  Is it a ruby or a sapphire?  Is the Paraiba more greenish or more blueish?  Does the tourmaline have a sooty appearance in indoor lighting?  Is the color change on this garnet complete and does it change from a teal blue to a purple or a teal green to a red?   Does the sapphire have secondary hues of violet or purple?  Does the spinel glow, does it have open color?
As a gemstone seller, I have faced all these questions  and more.  Just last week I got a request for a round matched pair of 5mm gems – seafoam color.  When we finally sorted out what seafoam green meant, I realized I would have called that a lighter teal blue-green, and my idea of seafoam was more greenish than hers (maybe we were thinking of different vacation spots, lol).  Which is fine, there’s lots of disagreement on color names, as is evidenced when you get color samples for repainting your wall at Home Depot or Lowes. 
Does this sapphire have secondary hues of violet?
Seafoam colors, or mint?  Both?
Which, if any, of these tourmalines is seafoam color?
Is this paraiba more greenish or more turquoise?
Do you think this paraiba is blue or turquoise?
GIA has developed a helpful color reference booklet and chart. Below is the link to the booklet: https://www.gia.edu/doc/ColDiaChartBklt.pdf
Another question I often face is about extinction – this happens at least twice a month, no joke.  How much extinction is there, is it half the stone, or the entire stone, the top half or the bottom..?  All my photos are taken in natural lighting with the light coming from one direction (namely outdoors).  I’ve tried taking photos with the lighting behind the stone but that doesn’t look good.  In order to avoid half of the gem looking dark, I have to go outside in the afternoon, put the stone on my outdoor table with the lighting directly behind me.  But sometimes that provides too much light and no amount of correction fixes it (it’s also rather cold in the winter and we don’t like losing stones in the front yard).  And ANY oval stone (and many pears) will look dark on one side if the light is not directly behind you.  Lightboxes have not worked for me, artificial light doesn’t work for many stones (i.e. mandarin garnet looks washed out, mint garnet looks too gray).  So you make do and hope that your additional description sheds more light onto what the stone looks like – pun intended. This can backfire if the description and the photos are too far apart.  Needless to say we spend oodles of time doing photos and listings, so at times trying to get it just right, especially with cheaper gems, takes more time than I can charge for the gem.  Nobody wants to pay $25 in photography time for a $10 gem.
Does this Burmese spinel have extinction? Open Color?  Left photo: indoor natural lighting coming from the right, right photo: outdoor natural lighting from behind the camera.

Does this Mahenge spinel have extinction?  Left photo: indoors natural lighting from the right.  Right photo: outdoor natural lighting from behind the camera.

Here are some additional challenges to accurate representation of gems:
  1. Monitors vary and not everyone knows how to balance out the colors when they get a new computer (there’s a function for this in the control panel, under color management).
  2. Cameras differ and so do the programs you can use to color correct photos. My Motorola photos do not look like the pictures I take with my Nikon, my older iPad basically sucks. My old “Picasa” software is no longer supported and I really liked the way it color corrected.
  3. Natural lighting conditions vary from place to place and season to season, and with the weather. My Tucson and Las Vegas photos are usually much brighter than my New Jersey photos. Dimmer winter light often brings out grey casts in sapphires, tourmalines and spinel. Showing color change requires very artificial conditions that do not obtain in most homes (i.e. fluorescent and LED lighting do not show color change, and dark regular incandescent light doesn’t show much color in the first place). Dudley Blauwet always tells me which Kelvin value (the unit of measurement used to describe the hue of a light source)  can be seen in particular areas in Sri Lanka and that those conditions are different from over here.  Well that’s very informative but doesn’t provide much practical advice on what to do, neat travel locations excluded.
Paraiba in direct sunlight taken in Tucson, AZ
Morganite in indirect sunlight taken in Tucson, AZ
Paraiba taken indoors without natural lighting
  1. Color vision differs from person to person. I don’t just mean that some people are color blind, I mean that most of us do not see everything on the color spectrum. If you want to freak yourself out, try one of these color vision tests online: http://www.color-blindness.com/ishihara-38-plates-cvd-test/#prettyPhoto
  2. Historical gem classifications and chemical ones do not overlap. We already know that most bright red rubies from old crown jewels are actually spinel, which can often be found in the same deposits. But it also used to be thought that ruby and sapphire were two different minerals. So when you get borderline colors, you have to make an executive decision as to which is which.  And even depending on where these distinctions are made (i.e. India or over here) you get different classifications, which in turn affect price.  The recent Madagascan rubies I got from Dudley Blauwet evidence this.  Dudley told me he had a hard time deciding where to draw the line to pink sapphire, but knowing that he’s better at this than I am, I kept his classifications.  This doesn’t mean that GIA would agree, however. And many labs use different color names for their classifications.  For example, a "purplish pink" ruby at GIA is a "pinkish red" ruby at AGL and Gubelin.  And a GIA "red ruby" is a often "pigeon blood red" at GRS.  So if you want your ruby to be pigeon blood red you can't give it to GIA.  One almost gets the sense that these gems change color as they travel.  However, the difference in terminology has to do with what each lab considers the scientifically correct color term.
What's the color of this ruby?
  1. Finally, here’s a real doozy for you. Some color names are trademarked. So “grape garnet” cannot be used in a description of purple Mozambique garnet, unless you are Parle jewelry.  You can only call it “purple garnet” or “grape colored garnet” (which is, incidentally, the same gem).  “Mint” garnet is currently in the process of facing the same fate, so in future I will have to say “mint color” or “light color tsavorite” or light “grossular garnet.” “Lotus garnet” is already the trademark for Malaya garnets.  So gem colors can be trademarked just like cuts, i.e. “Asscher”.   
So what can a prospective buyer, and especially one that is new to colored stones, do?  You can always ask a vendor for clarification on the description, ask for additional photos or a video, and last but not least, you can look at some well known shops in the retail world and make price and quality comparisons.  Swala, Pala, Gemselect, Wildfish, and many others have good photos and descriptions that are helpful for price and color comparisons.  And of course, you should go to gem shows in your area, if possible, or even just some shops that have a few colored stones, and start looking.  The more time you spend looking at things, the better you get at making judgments of your own.
What are the colors of he two sapphires on the left?