Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Things I Learned in 2010

It is snowing outside, and the wind is howling.  So long as you don’t look down at the cars, Jersey City feels a tiny bit like a Winter Wonderland.  The year is drawing to a close.  This is when we reflect on what was good, or bad, about the year that has gone by, and make New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not the reflective type, however, not in that sense anyway, and I make resolutions whenever they occur to me.  My new year begins in September.  But taxes have to be filed, which means I have to sort through tons of receipts in the coming weeks.  And all those pieces of paper yield a picture of sorts, from which I can draw conclusions.

1. Tie bars are back in style.  Alternatively: I am one of very few people who still makes them.  In philosopher’s lingo, these two hypotheses are empirically equivalent: I sold over 250 tie bars this year.  240 of them (or something like that) were plain, which is too bad given how much I love gems.

2. December is not the busiest time of the year on Etsy.  I have to count this out, but I don’t even think I sold more tie bars.  I just sold them individually, as opposed to 5 or 10 at a time to a summer wedding.  In terms of other jewelry, business was about the same.  November, in fact, was better.

3. Sales do not slow down after the holidays.  Ok, it is a bit early to tell.  But I still have 10 custom orders pending.  And I’ve had six sales since December 24.

4. Etsy success tips don’t work.  I tried the gift certificate, I changed my shipping options, and I did a few other things that the Etsy success emails suggested.  Nobody bought the gift certificate, nor did sales increase from any of the other tips.  This makes sense: send a good tip around to everyone, a large number of people follow it, thereby diluting its success.  That’s why business success secrets are, well, secrets.

5. Craft shows are a two edged sword.  You get up early, pull out your shoulder from carrying your stuff, set up for an hour or two, and then you hope that someone comes by and wants your items, and not those of the other dozes of competing jewelery tables.  If you get busy, that’s awesome, if not, you feel that you've totally wasted your day.  Time does not grow on trees, and the German in me hates nothing more than to throw it away.  I may have to rethink some of these shows.

6. Etsy sales and craft show sales don’t overlap.  I’ve sold perhaps 50 pairs of wire-wrapped briolette earrings this year.  Only one pair was sold on Etsy (to a local customer).  It was the same with wire-wrapped and beaded necklaces: the ratio was perhaps 1 in 5, Etsy to craft show.  I think that stuff just gets drowned on Etsy.  Everyone and their mother knows how to string, and anyone can now buy beads at wholesale price from India over the internet.  On Etsy, meanwhile, I sell post earrings and rings with hard to find gemstones.  And - yes - tie bars.

7. I have too many beads.  That’s definitely a lesson learned.  I’m going to have to join Bead Hoarders Anonymous.  Or sell down, which is the plan.  So the wire wrapped and beaded stuff I will make in coming weeks will be more opulent and “wasteful”.  I plan to keep prices low and just sell sell sell.

*** And now for my top three – what I've gleaned from a year in the diamond district ***

8. The guys there told me this in the beginning.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll get cheated.  I didn’t believe it.  Not in America, with all those consumer protection laws.  I take it back.  The Street may be one of the easiest places to get cheated in America.  Now this lesson should take up an entire blog entry, so you’re going to have to wait.  I had to analyze why this is, and I’ve come up with what I think are some good hypotheses.

9. The Street is dying.  Slowly.  Two reasons come to mind.  The obvious one is the economic downturn, and jewelry, after all, is not an everyday use item like food or clothing.  The second reason is the internet.  Companies like Blue Nile are killing the diamond trade, and other companies offer beads and gems to the public at near wholesale prices (about double the wholesale prices is my estimate, where retail is 3-5 times the wholesale price).  Gem sales on TV are doing their own bit to pretend to the public that they are getting good deals (hint) when buying gems direct.  I personally don’t think there are very good deals to be had that way, but evidently enough other people believe it.

10. This last lesson follows from the previous two: once you get past the steep learning curve with high end gems – and it is steeper than I had thought – and once you have made some trustworthy connections, you can get great stuff at a great price.  Sometimes you have to buy parcels, mostly you pay cash by way of making the deal immediate and non-refundable, and very often you have to take your time to sift through unsorted material.  But it pays off.  I had a hunch about this before, and I am certain now that the emeralds I have, to give just one example, can’t be gotten anywhere else, or at anything like the price that I paid. 


A little selection from my Columbian Emerald Parcel



Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday Rush in the Diamond District?

There’s certainly a noticeable change in the diamond district these days.  But not all of it is for the better.  As my tie bar orders are going through the roof (I thought I was selling jewelry, but ok), I found myself having to rush into the city on short notice to get more wire.  A great opportunity, I thought, because there are some other things I could get done the same day.  It’s now or never, after all.  I have two more shows this year, and then that’s it until March.

I had wanted to get my favorite setter, A. to burnish some diamonds into tie bars for me, but I couldn’t even get near him at first.  Three other guys were surrounding him, waiting for their jobs to get done.  A half hour later I found him busily setting away while chatting on the phone; Armenian music was blasting from the computer in front of him.  But at least there wasn’t anybody else waiting.  “Too busy,” was the response to my request.  And did he do the order from last week?  “No, got sick.”   At least he did that one on the spot for me, though. 

The other outfit I use was overwhelmed as well, so I asked my polishing service if they knew someone.  “Maybe,” the polisher said, and took my stones and tie bars.  Four hours later, I received my first real rush job: two totally unusable pieces of junk.  The stones looked like they had been jabbed into the silver by someone in bad need of glasses.  I returned them to the polisher, to go back to whatever setter he had dug up for the job.  “Maybe they can be fixed,” the polisher thought.  I doubt it.  It was a dumb idea on my part, really, with Christmas just around the corner.

Since I had to wait for several last minute engravings, and for two rings that I wanted to have set, I decided to make good use of my time.  I borrowed a hammer and mandrel from a jeweler to hammer a pattern onto a ring that is supposed to be my aunt’s Christmas present.  There I was, dinging away while sitting at D’s gemstone booth, when I got approached by a woman working for the silver dealer in the back.  “Are you going to be done soon?  This is giving me a headache.” “Yes,” I said.  Why was she annoyed?, I wondered, since this is a loud exchange and there are always jewelers at work.  But I don’t rent a booth there, so I guess I had no right to ding.

Other than that, the day was peaceful.  Way too peaceful in fact.  The number of people wanting to buy D’s gemstones aside from me that day?  Zero.  Nobody buys gemstones in December, unless it’s an emergency.  So all the gemstone dealers are broke – just in time for their own holidays, which are correspondingly meager.  Money doesn’t start flowing again until early spring, when jewelers are stocking up on new inventory.  One hopes, anyway.

One person did show up.  He needed a stone cut to fit into a setting, within the hour, so D. shaved it down on his cutting wheel.  He shaved a little too eagerly, as it turned out, because he cut the stone too small.  So much for that rush order.  D had to cut an entirely new stone. 

Aside from that, another dealer misplaced a $30,000 parcel of diamonds that was supposed to go to the GIA lab for a certificate.  (Even a $30,000 parcel can be really small.)  I don’t know if it got found, I only know it hadn’t turned up by the time I left.

I got home late.  By the time I was all done it was nearly 6:00 p.m.  And then I spent another few hours shipping out tie bars.  Tie bars without gem stones, that is.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Birthstones: Is Tanzanite a Good Buy?

As most of you who read my blog know, I don’t think much of birthstones.  My own birthstone is pearl, with alternates of moonstone and alexandrite, but my favorite gems are emerald, sapphire and tsavorite.  All of these go well with my skin tone and with the colors I like to wear, which should really be more important.

While the association between zodiac signs and specific gems goes way back, the list of birthstones was standardized some time in the last century by the Association of Jewelers in America.  That list only bears a passing resemblance to the zodiac birthstones and the various other birthstone lists that are floating around.  And since Tanzanite was only discovered in 1967, it wasn’t on any of the old lists anyway.  It was only recently added to the December birthstones - for marketing purposes.

Melted Tanzanite Ring - SOLD

When first discovered, Tanzanite, which belongs in the zoisite family, was dirt cheap.  Nobody knew about it, so there was no market for it.  An old time jeweler told me once that he was given Tanzanite for next to nothing in the early 1970s.  Other dealers have told me the same. 

These days, the Tanzanian government controls production, and since Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, I am assuming that the Tanzanian people profit very little from this.  Prices have risen significantly since the early days.  Tanzania is the only country in which Tanzanite is found, and there are only 4 mines or so in which it is produced.  Serious flooding issues have created difficulties for mining, so it isn’t clear how much Tanzanite is actually available.  Lastly, there’s a government ban in place which prohibits any Tanzanite to be shipped to Jaipur for cutting (many, if not most of the worlds gemstones are cut in Jaipur).

All these factors make it tough to judge if Tanzanite has any true collector’s value.  And there’s one more issue – the most serious one to me.  Tanzanite is a very soft stone.  It can crack during setting – this has happened to me more than once.  If you have it set in a ring, don’t wear it every day, and take it off before doing any chores.  My stone dealer D., who carries very little Tanzanite, which dates to the early mining dates, is no longer buying any more.  His materials consist of smaller, lighter, stones which show no evidence of heat treatment.  His reason for not trading in it is that often, jewelers will borrow a stone to show it to a customer, but they will put it in a mounting first (so it looks really nice).  If the customer turns down the stone, it may come back to D. scratched or cracked.  If D. does not carefully re-inspect his merchandize, he may not notice and then no reclamation is possible.  Or the jeweler will simply claim that he didn’t crack the stone, and these sort of disputes are hard to settle.

Tanzanites are pretty much universally heat treated.  During the earlier mining days, some deposits found on the surface, where they were exposed to sunlight (which provides natural irradiation), were naturally light purple.  Ordinarily, however, the material that comes out of the ground is brownish, and has to be heated to drive bring out the purple.

In terms of color, the most desirable Tanzanite has a rich dark bluish purple.  Lighter stones, the lavender colored ones, are less valuable.  In smaller sizes, however, that may be all that’s available because the depth of a stone is what creates the darker color.  If you re-cut a stone that has a rich dark coloring, you may surrender some of its color intensity.

My evaluation?  Tanzanite is a beautiful stone, you should buy if it you love it.  But if you are a collector, there are better investments out there.

My last pair of round Tanzanite Post Earrings

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rubies for the Masses – Glass Filled!

You might have heard about glass filled ruby scams on the news, they were a big story last year.  Or you read about them in my etsy listings.  Anyway, when glass filled rubies first became big in 2004 and 2005, they also fooled a lot of dealers on 47th Street. Just the other day, an older man approached my gemstone dealer to sell a large faceted ruby.  D. refused to buy.  The old man wanted a $1000 at first, then lowered and lowered his price, until he had arrived at $50 or so.  To humor the old man, D. louped the stone, but still refused to take it.  The old man was offended, so D. took him to another dealer.  The other dealer refused the stone as well.  After some back and forth, D. finally explained to the old man that the ruby was glass filled and not worth much of anything.  The old man’s face literally fell.  He had probably been cheated, thinking he got a large stone for a good price and saving it for a rainy day, when he really needed the money.  And stories of this kind abound on the street – they are infinitely more common than the converse – stories of someone stumbling across a small fortune by accident.

So, what is a glass filled ruby, and why is the process done?  Let me quote from gemselect, one of my favorite online gem stores:

"Small cracks or fractures in a gemstone can interrupt the flow of light through the stone, creating white or "dead" spots in the color of the stone. Sometimes these fractures–if they reach the surface of the stone–will be filled with material that will allow the light to pass through smoothly. Different chemicals are used; oil, wax, glass, epoxy, and borax are common materials. These tiny filled cavities are difficult to see without the aid of optical instruments, so the buyer should be aware of this practice."

Glass filling, also called “fracture filling” (because other fillers can be used) improves both the color and the clarity of the gem.  Rubies are rarer than diamonds, at least in the bigger sizes.  Because of the large market demand, availability of good ruby material is dwindling.  Glass filling allows lesser ruby materials to be improved sufficiently to be used in jewelry.  (Here’s a picture of a glass filled ruby from gemselect, 1.22 ct for $34.83 – gemselect has untreated rubies, but only from Madagascar.)

1.29ct SI Ruby

The most highly prized rubies, still, are Burma rubies.  They have the best coloring and the highest brilliance.  Rubies from Thailand or Madagascar cannot rival the Burma in beauty.  Glass filling can alleviate this problem.  To a degree at least, for no matter how good the process is, an experienced dealer or buyer will notice that glass filled rubies are duller than natural ones.  Under the microscope, glass filled rubies will show tiny bubbles, untreated rubies will only show their natural inclusions. 

Thai Rubies, Completely Untreated

In terms of pricing, there is a huge difference between glass filled rubies and natural rubies, even compared to rubies that have undergone slight heat treatment (which can also make the stone duller, incidentally).  According to Richard Wise’s Secrets of the Gem Trade, “eye flawless ruby, particularly untreated, is extraordinarily rare…. Because of the gem’s extreme rarity, the collector-connoisseur may find that otherwise beautiful stones with a few eye-visible inclusions are acceptable.” (P. 180)


3mm Burma rubies, completely untreated and not yet set, nearly eye clean
A natural Burma will wholesale anywhere from $250 to $2500 per carat, depending on the size.  A 2 carat Burma will be at the top of this scale (and I’m not even going into rubies that are larger than that).  A 2 carat glass filled ruby will wholesale for $5 per carat, and at a recent gem show I saw glass filled cabochons from Madagascar for $1 per carat!  (Here’s a link to a Burma ruby listing from wildfishgems: http://wildfishgems.com/inc/sdetail/11720.  Note the price.)

Regarding disclosure: heat treatment is not always disclosed, but you should assume that any ruby you buy is heat treated.  Completely untreated rubies will be marketed as such, because a dealer can demand a further premium on those.  Glass filling, or fracture filling, should be disclosed, even if the buyer doesn’t ask.  But note that many jewelry chains employ untrained personnel, especially during the holiday season.  So you must ask, and if the seller doesn’t know then ask for someone who does know.  Don’t blame the sales person, a lot of this gemstone information is tricky.  Each stone is different and you should not expect someone who is hired to help out during the busy season to know.  If you are going to a reputable jeweler, however, and they don’t know, that’s not good. 


Same gorgeous ruby suite, different angle


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gem Show Bounty

Since the holidays are coming around, I thought I’d do something different this time.  I was at a jewelry and gem show last weekend – had a blast – and bought a bunch of gems in preparation for December sales.  I am going to have about 4 local shows, one or two private parties, and of course I’m going to sell on Etsy.  To those of you who read this blog, I want to offer first dibs, however, before the crazy time starts.  So below is a list of (most) of my gem purchases, some prices and suggestions.  Comments and requests for further pics and info are welcome.  Contact me via Etsy or email if you want to lay claim to something.  Sales will be on a first come, first serve basis, and yes, I can set an item aside for a later purchase as well, as long as you promise me you’ll come through.  Leave a couple of weeks time for setting of your gems.  No last minute Christmas custom orders please. 

I got a lot of ovals at the show this time.  I try to get round gems when I can, but ovals seemed to reign the day for some reason.  I match them so I can use them for earrings because those always go, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have just one if you prefer a pendant or a ring. 

Note on pricing: I’m going as low as I can with my suggestions (and in the last section, I tell you a little about what I do in order to arrive at prices).  That makes it very hard for me to run sales or offer further discounts. 

1. Chrome Diopside
What you see here are two 7x5mm ovals, perfectly matched, rich color, about 1.6ct each pair.  No matched rounds, save for one pair which a customer is looking at.  If it becomes available, it will be on Etsy in a week or two.  The small round in the photo is great for a stacking ring.  The 7.5mm marquis would be nice in one of my necklaces (the round twig necklace, for instance).  The earrings will be $48 each pair.



2. Andalusite
A 7x5 matched pair ($50 as earrings), reddish from the side, greenish from the front, and a 4.5mm round, for a ring maybe.  There were hardly any andalusites at this show.



3. Tourmaline
On the left, two 5mm princess cuts, which I’m hoping will go into my princess cut ring.  I’m waiting for the castings right now.  Those rings will be $68 each.  It is tough to find stones that fit this ring, so this is really my preferred way of using them.  Above the princess cut are two round matched pairs (the lighting makes them seem uneven).  They are about 3.8mm and 4.5mm (prices will be $40 and $50).  The bluish pair is hard to find.  The little baguettes in the center will make at least one pair of earrings, which a customer has requested to see.  I don’t have those settings yet, the only thing that fits here are tourmaline settings that grab the stone from each end.  Price is $50 for the earrings if this design works out.  The rounds on the right are for stacking rings or other designs, the two baguettes I thought for rings also, but I have no concrete plan.  The large one is 2.66 cts and 13mm long, any design with that will run a good $120-$140.

You should know that tourmalines often cost more than the other stones I buy, except for alexandrite and the “precious” ones.  But they are also more easily available.  Tourmaline is mass marketed and popular, and that drives up the price.  So I keep a very low margin on these. 



4. Kyanite
Boy that was slim pickins.  You always see them cut as a cabochon, but rarely faceted.  I think they break easily during cutting, and the stone is not well known.  The oval is 8x6 (1.58 cts) and it cost 1.5 times what the tourmalines cost.  It is a very beautiful stone, a slight inclusion on the right, but that’s it.  I see this one in a ring, personally.  There’s one matched pair, 4mm ($48 for earrings), and three little ones for rings or something.  The lighter one doesn’t sparkle in the pics, but it will look good in a stacker.  The bezel takes away light, so if the stone is too dark it looks blackish.  I’d price the stacker at $48 also (I might negotiate this if you buy more than one).



5. Mexican Fire Opal
I went for reds, again, because this one guy has a bit of it and they are harder to find faceted and clean.  The trilliant pair is matched, and I really think they should be earrings.  It was the last and only pair.  They’re around 4.5mm, not too heavy (.57 cts).  Trilliant settings cost 3x what the regular settings cost, but I can make these $60.  The 5mm princess pair is also awesome.  Again, unless I miscalculated, they will fit my princess ring.  But the red princess cuts are matched, and I can bezel set them for a true one of a kind set of earrings.  They are larger but the settings a little more affordable, so $65 is doable.  Same for a princess ring.  The rest, the rounds, can be earrings or stacking rings.  They are in the neighborhood of 4mm.  You should know that I practically fished out everything red from this parcel, so unless the guy cuts more, that’s it for my only supplier of these gems.



6. Spinel
I’ve very proud of these.  They’re mostly Sri Lankan, no Burma, but ooooh.  I have more than what’s in these pics, a couple of little purplish pinkish marquis for that twig ring or a twig necklace, and some rounds for stackers (purples and blues).  The matched pairs are slightly under 7x5 and weigh 1.3-1.8 cts per pair.  The red pair is just under 4x6 and might have been mixed in by accident.  (The parcels usually don’t have reds because those are traded at a premium.)  The nicest pair here is the one in the right hand corner, which is nearly round.  It is also the heaviest.  Prices here vary, but $46-$66 is a good range.  The blue round is great for a ring or something, the trilliant and cushion also, perhaps matched with rubies.  Design ideas are welcome. 



This second photo came out poorly.  Trust me, these are just as nice.  Before you commit, I’ll try for a new round of pics if you like.  There are three pairs of rounds, 4mm-4.5mm.  The purple is really neat, I had a tough time finding and matching it.  That will be $48 and I might have it set this week.  The others are $52 and $62 (because that one weighs 1ct).  This set is from a different supplier who charged more, so prices reflect this.



7.  Spessartite
This stuff is from Nigeria this time.  I went nuts here and bought 31cts.  I pulled out one large matched pair which is for a friend, what you see here is the rest.  These pics were not taken in the sunlight, that sparkle really comes from within the stone.  It’s insane.  And I think the dealer spaced out when he priced them.  I got to the show in the morning on the first day, and the trays in his booth weren’t marked yet.  So I had to ask for the price and he gave me a lowball figure.  But when dealers do that, unless the quote was a total accident (made by the sales help, for instance), they stick with it even if they have regrets.  It’s rude to change the offer upwards, and these offers are taken very seriously.

Anyway… the matched pairs on the bottom and center are 7x5mm (2.1-2.45 cts, this stuff is heavy).  The earrings will go for $66-72 because of their weight.  The pear shape is 10x7 and weighs 2.72 cts.  The large clunker in the back is 10x8.5 and it is very deep, so it weighs 5.58 cts.  At over 5 cts, that is a collector’s item.  I kind of see that in a ring, but it has to be prong set because it is so high.  Basically you are looking at a solitaire here, everything else hurts the design.  The pear on the left would make a nice pendant.  We will have to negotiate this one, but orient yourself on the earrings.  You are lucky orange is not my color, or the pear would not be listed.  The other two ovals are a little smaller (the dark on the left is 9x7 and 3.49 cts, the one on the right is also 9x7 and 3.51 cts).  The round looking one in front of the smaller dark oval is 1.7cts, 7x6mm, and actually looks more square when send from the front.



8.  Alexandrite
I got one piece.  And I’m going to tell you the price I paid, because I’d like someone to have it and understand what they own.  This is a .4ct Brazilian piece (which is often better than Indian or Sri Lankan, and it is also a little darker in coloring), cushion cut, 4mm, and has very strong color change.  In terms of color change, and coloring overall, this is top of the line.  The wholesale per ct price is $250, so this piece was $100.  If I make a piece of jewelry, I will price it at $150 and then add that onto my design.  So if it is a simple ring, let’s say, and I charge $50 parts plus labor for it, then you pay $200.  For expensive stones, my markup decreases, because otherwise I cannot sell the items.  Ordinary markup for wholesale is cost plus labor (so let’s say $150) x 2 (= $300).  Retail doubles that, or more, depending on if you are in a designer boutique, in the mall, or what have you.  In short, I generally sell at the wholesale price, sometimes lower, and occasionally when I get a great deal, I can go higher.  And a ring like this, with just a little bit of silver, can sell for $400-600, easy.  Unless you are me and tell the customer your pricing.  Duh.

I’m very proud of my pics of this gem, because I actually managed to capture the color change.  The second pic is fuzzy because I took it in my bathroom with just incandescent light.  But you can see that the entire stone lights up purple.  The stone already jumps over to the purplish blues in my kitchen, which has halogen lighting, so it is “easily provoked,” as opposed to the “where is it I almost had it now its gone” type color change.

As you can see, I had to have this piece.  And I will definitely buy one for myself at a later point as well.  For Christmas, perhaps, set in 14K.  Oh yeah.



Monday, October 25, 2010

Dime a Dozen or Hard to Find?

It really took me a while to get the hang of determining which gemstones are rare and which aren’t.  This shouldn’t have been so hard, but because markups in colored stones are often high, it really isn’t in the jewelry industry’s best interest to make that information easy to obtain.  And gemstone dealers always want to tell you that their offerings are rare. 

So I’ve tried to come up with my own scale of rarity.  First, however, there’s a misconception we need to get out of the way:

If a gemstone is expensive, it must be rare.  This isn’t true.

Yes, some gemstones are expensive because they are rare, but this doesn’t generalize, and for two reasons.  Some gemstones are marked up because everybody knows about them, and they are popular.  The gems that the industry qualifies as “precious” (this is an artificial distinction) fall into this category: diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire, probably in that order.  Diamonds are more abundant than almost any other gemstone, but they are popular and the inventory is controlled by just a few companies.  Sapphires are fairly common as well.

Secondly, some gems that are so rare that they cannot be mass marketed at all.  These stones barely penetrate the jewelry industry, which means that demand for these stones is limited.  That, in turn, keeps the price lower.  Tsavorite, Spessartite and Spinel are great examples. 

Ok, so here’s the Raley Scala of Rarity.  Due to my still limited experience, not every stone is on here.  Also, this list is the outcome of to my personal experience of finding gemstones.  I very much doubt it is an adequate reflection of available gemstone deposits.  That info is much harder to come by, and gemstone dealers and mine owners are very secretive about it.  For another list, by the way (one which I used to crosscheck my data), you can consult Matlins’ and Bonnano’s “Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide.”

Next to each stone I will also indicate some relative pricing.  Here are the letters I’ll use.

D: Dirt cheap
I: Inexpensive
M: Moderate
E: Expensive
P: Prohibitive

Common
Feldspar (moonstone and labradorite, sunstone) – D
Garnet (red) - D
Peridot, small sizes – I (but not D)
Quartz (Amethyst, Citrine, Rose Quartz, Crystal) - D
Topaz (any except for Imperial Topaz) – D

Generally Available
Aquamarine – I to M
Emerald from Brazil – M
Iolite - I
Sapphire (blues, orange and yellow but not Burma or Ceylon) – I to M (M for blue)
Tourmaline – I for the grassier greens, M for some of the indicolites and chrome green

Harder to Find
Apatite (maybe because it is hard to cut) – I to M
Ceylon sapphire – E
Ruby (not Burma) – M
Spessartite Garnet – M
Zircon – I to M depending on color, the blue is more expensive, unheated is more expensive

Spessartite Garnet
Rare
Alexandrite (Russian is very rare, Indian and Sri Lankan less so) – E to P
Columbian Emerald, untreated – E
Crysoberyl – I to M
Mandarin Garnet (very orangy spessartite, larger sizes) - E
Paraiba Tourmaline – E
Spinel – (blue and pink more common, M, reds are rare and E)
Tsavorite Garnet – M for small sizes, E-P for larger sizes


Untreated Columbian Emeralds, Various Sizes

Very Rare
Burma Sapphire – E to P, depending on size
Padparadscha Sapphire - P
Untreated Burma Ruby – E to P

Untreated Burma Rubies

A problem stone for me is Tanzanite.  Unheated ones are barely on the market, heated ones are fairly common except larger sizes.  Some say Tanzanite is getting mined out, others say that this is a marketing trick.  In any case, Tanzanite is now often qualified as precious, and thus expensive.

Another stone I left out because I don’t know enough about it is opal.  Fire opals, which come out of Mexico, are available depending on color and clarity.  The red ones that are sparkly and clear are very tough to come by but not too expensive.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stone Setting Pro’s and Woes

I don’t set my own stones.  Or hardly ever.  And this is not much of a confession, because being a stone setter is a separate job from being a jeweler or goldsmith.  Both of those employ setters (as well as casting services and polishing services).  A good friend of mine - a 40 year industry veteran who has taught at a well known goldsmith school in Germany - has never set a stone.  My aunt, who is also a learned goldsmith, never learned to set because that required an additional year of training.

Can setting a stone be so hard?  Some of it is fairly easy, actually.  I can fold a bezel over a large and sturdy cabochon; and I have tool set for small bezels that I can use adequately. I can work with snap sets and I can successfully fold over the pre-notched prongs of a calibrated faceted stone.  “Pre-notched” and “calibrated” are the crucial words here, however, because that’s baby stuff.  Pretty much anybody can do that.

The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is high art.  Or almost.  A couple of weeks back, I sat next to one of my favorite setters, A. and watched him hammer set one of my $200 emeralds for a custom order, listening to him telling jokes that I can’t repeat here, and marvelling at his skill.  A’s equipment, with its varying size drills and polishing wheels, reminds of a dentist’s office.  The workbench is tiny because booth rentals in N.Y. are expensive; it is dusty, littered with tools and small gemstones.  A. only sets, he does not solder, polish or do anything else.  And even though he’s the most skilled setter I know – he does all my emeralds and Tanzanites – there are certain jobs he won’t touch.

Here's the expensive emerald, bezel set (hammer set - see below)
There are a lot of different types of settings.  Here’s a quick rundown.

1.  Prong setting: for this kind of setting, you need to learn to drill the grooves that form the seat for the stone into the prongs, matching them exactly to the depth of the girdle and the pavilion of your gem.  To make life easier, you can use snap sets, but they are flimsy.  You can use pre-notched settings, but those don’t always fit the stone.  Since I use a lot of older cuts and step cuts, pre-notched settings don’t always work for me.

2.  Bezel setting for larger round and oval cabochons: for those, you can get a bezel pusher or use a burnisher, which you use to fold the bezel walls over the stone.  But the stone has to fit very exactly, and if you don’t do it well it looks uneven.  You can also hammer set a bezel with a special attachment to your drill that makes a quick hammering motion just like a tiny jackhammer.  But if you apply too much pressure, you will break the stone (hammer setting an emerald can be a challenge, for instance).  Another bezel setting method is with a concave looking tool (it looks like the inside of a semi-sphere, I can’t seem to find the name of it anywhere) that you can use with a stirring motion.  But if your stone is too high you will scratch or crack it it.

3.  Bezel setting for faceted stones: that’s the same as for cabochons, but the bezel is open in the back and the stone can easily scoot around or fall out while you try to set it.  The gems I use are also very small, which poses extra problems.

4.  Bezel setting for square or other pointy stones: you can also hammer set those or hand set them with a bezel pusher.  But this one is harder to do.  One jeweler that helps me on occasion refuses to set those.  You cannot fold the corners in these settings. 


Garnet in Square Bezel

5.  Burnished setting: for this, you drill a hole directly into your piece of jewelry, then widen it to fit the gem.  You set the stone flush with the surface of your piece, shoving tiny pieces of metal over the edges of the stone, like in a bezel but using the surrounding metal instead.  An alternative to this is the beaded setting, where you first burnish the stone but then “shove” larger beads of metal by creating a sort of a star or square around the stone.  Burnishing is sometimes also called “gypsy setting” or “flush setting”.

Tie Bar with Diamond - Beaded Setting
6. Channel setting: here, you drill a channel into the metal and set all the stones into it in a row.  The stones will be held down by the sides of the channel.  So this is similar to bezel setting but the stones are only held by two sides.

7. Pave setting: that’s when you set a multitude of tiny stones together by using tiny prongs or again “beads” that get shoved over the stone.  Unfortunately, pave set stones can easily fall out.

In addition to this list, there are mixed versions.  I.e. you drill a hole as in flush setting but then build prongs out of metal which you solder around the hole and fold over the stone.  That’s an insane amount of work, though.  While most setting only takes a few minutes, this would take much longer.

As you can tell from the above list, you need to invest in a serious tool set in order to master all these forms of setting.  Also, you need to consider what type of stone you have.  For burnished settings, the stone cannot stick out of the back or it will scratch the wearer.  Also, deeper stones are always harder to set than shallow ones.  Lastly, some stones break more easily.  For that, the Moh’s scale of hardness is not that relevant, because that just tells you how scratch proof the stone is.  What matters more is the kind of cleavage some stones have.  Emeralds, but also aquamarines, crack very easily.  Tanzanites are brittle.  If you use a setter that tends to hurry, don’t give him any of those stones.

Some setters are excellent at one type of setting and really bad at another.  Opals, for instance, which are very thin slices of material that fracture easily, can be a challenge for someone who is mainly used to burnishing and prong setting.  Large emeralds pose a problem for those setters who apply too much pressure.  And once, I’ve had a setter refuse to burnish baguettes into a ring, saying it could not be done.  Another setter did a beautiful job burnishing those very same baguettes.  But then they turned out not to hold very well.  One stone broke, another fell out.

Custom Ring with Burnished Baguettes and Squares
How often do stones break?  I’d say maybe one in 50, not counting the breakage during resizing (which is due to overheating the metal).  But that’s enough to cause trouble.  It’s one reason why custom jobs with handpicked stones are every setter’s (and jeweler’s) nightmare.  So are jewelry repairs of pieces that have sentimental value.  More than once, my gemstone dealer D. had to repair a stone that a setter scratched, or to replace a broken stone without the customer knowing.  I think this is also why custom jobs cost so much.  Everyone who works on the item knows that if this item breaks the jeweler doesn’t get paid, and then the setter or jeweler may lose the next commission. 

While I’ve seen stones fall out during the polishing process, and silver mis-measured and mis-cut, the largest number of problems arise during setting.  The setting is too small or too large, the stone too deep, one method of setting turns out too dangerous or risky, the stone turns out to have a tiny crack that could explode during setting, the pressure might make the stone disintegrate when it gets steamed at the end.  And so on and so on. 

I love making jewelry, I really do.  But becoming a setter?  Never.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chronicles of a Tsavorite: Part II

In my previous entry, I started to take you through the process of cutting a gemstone.  I picked a Tsavorite because they have become somewhat of a quest for me.  Tsavorite has a truer green than emerald – with less blue in it – and it is definitely more rare as well.  Think about it: if a gemstone were hard to get, why would the jewelry industry bother with mass marketing it?  If you are a large jewelry chain, you rely on a consistent supply of gemstones that look exactly alike.  With Tsavorite (and with Spinel, by the way), this would be impossible, and that’s why you don’t see it very often.  This also means that even though it isn’t cheap, Tsavorite costs less than good quality emerald, ruby or sapphire – because jewelry chains won’t buy it, the prices of Tsavorite are not driven up as much.

My own search for Tsavorite, I am happy to report, as finally ended on a positive note.  But it took over six months.  I know at least 10 gemstone suppliers in NYC, and they in turn know other suppliers. But the few that had tsavorite were charging such exhorbitant prices that I never bought any.  Finally, last February, I did up a supplier in NJ that had a small parcel, handcut by their own factory in India. I bought a pair at a show and then the setter lost one (grrr). I made a ring out of the remaining piece and sold it immediately. In July I finally got another two matched pairs, and sold both immediately. I had one more for a ring that is listed on etsy right now, the other ring was used for a custom order.

I have since called, emailed and otherwise bugged this supplier and finally they shipped me a small parcel of stones. Right away, I set this pair of earrings. My parcel consists only of about 40 4mm pieces, so I cannot offer anything larger, smaller, or darker.  Below is a picture of the first pair of earrings I made out of my parcel, I listed them on a Friday and they sold on a Sunday.  I’m going to try to set another pair this week.  Oh, and D., who is working on this stone, has asked me (ME) to get him a parcel as well.  You have no idea how odd that is, because he’s been working on the Street for decades.  I guess that means I have every reason to be proud of my find!


4mm Tsavorite Earrings
But let’s get back to the piece D. was working on.  The first picture is of the Tsavorite on the cutting stick, held down by wax.   At this point, it can no longer be held by hand.  The wax has to be melted to mount the stone onto the stick, and if it is too hot, it can crack the stone.  I’ve seen it happen.  


Tsavorite on Cutting Stick

Now the finer facets are added.  Whereas the first cuts took only a few minutes, these took closer to an hour.  Well, maybe half an hour.  Enough time for me to run out for an errand and come back, in any case. In this second picture, you see D. holding the stone on the stick, which now has been cut some more and polished so you can see it better.  The stick is mounted to a handle that gets mounted on top of the cutting wheel (I’ll get you a picture of that next time).  


Tsavorite with Emerald Cut Facets
The last picture below shows the emerald facets.  D. is still not done, for the side that you see needs to be flattened to create the table.  The other side will stay as you see it here.  Some of the faceting may still need to be fine tuned, I don’t know.  I’ll see what my piece looks like next time.  In the meanwhile, the stone has lost some more weight.  It is now an 80 pointer, in other words, it weighs .8 carats (the initial weight was 1.52 carats).  It will still lose some more for the table, but hopefully not too much.

Tsavorite with Facets

Monday, September 27, 2010

On Cutting a Stone: Chronicles of a Tsavorite

Some of my fellow jewelers have been asked if they cut their own stones.  And a friend of mine once wondered if all the stones I buy are cut specifically for me.  The answer to both questions is “no.”  For one, becoming a lapidary – a stone cutter – takes a lot of practice, and gemstone cutting is best left to those who specialize in it.  Secondly, cutting takes a lot of time (and hence money).  A tiny 1mm diamond, for instance, can take an hour to cut.  No wonder, therefore, that most small stones are not cut in the U.S.  A small amethyst, for instance, can wholesale for just a few dollars.  Meanwhile, a good N.Y. lapidary can charge $50 an hour or more for his skill.  Most of the stone I own, therefore, are cut in India, where this is an old family trade.

This raises a lot of issues about ethics and economics, doesn’t it?  Yes, we all profit from cheap labor.  There are no two ways about it.  The only mitigating factor is that the wage a cutter gets in India – which is about $1.00 per stone – buys you a lot more there than it buys you here.

Does it ever make sense, then, to have a stone cut in N.Y.?  That’s a “yes” if it is a larger diamond. N.Y. has some of the very best diamond cutters in the world.  It is also worth re-cutting a stone for repairs.  Lastly, it is worth doing, and even cost effective, when the stone is large or rare.  If you know how to pick from rough (ok, that’s not easy), or if a gemstone dealer who has rough is kind enough to pick a good piece for you, you can have it cut to your specifications, and you may find yourself the owner of a unique gem that nobody else has.

Speaking of kind persons, my gemstone dealer D., who is also a lapidary artist, picked out a beautiful clean piece from his tsavorite rough for a little demo.  As those of you who follow my Etsy listings know, it’s been very hard for me to get tsavorite.  D. only has rough, and would have to ship it to India to have it cut, which would take months.  I’ve seen other parcels on the street, but they’re prohibitive in cost.  I know of one dealer in Jersey who has his own rough cut in India (rather than purchasing finished stones), and he occasionally has small parcels of tsavorite.  I’ve bought some from him at a show last spring but sold it immediately.  I bought a matched pair at a later show but my setter lost one (yep, it happens).  I’ve emailed the dealer without much success (“we don’t have any right now,” “we’ll ship soon,” “we’ll be in touch”).  Sigh. 

Tsavorite comes only out of Tanzania and Kenya, where it was discovered in the early1970s, and because it has a wonderful true green color that occurs naturally, it is very popular among those who know about it.  It comes mainly in small sizes, so anything over 1ct goes at a premium, and only a tiny percentage of stones are over 2 ct.  The dark greens with a small percentage of blue are insanely expensive, the grassier greens are cheaper.  Tsavorite is tougher than emerald, and crisper in appearance.  I love this stone.

Now let’s get to the cutting.  Below is a picture of the piece of rough that D. selected.  This is a nice clean piece of a medium to dark forest green with an initial weight of 1.52 ct.  According to D., its initial shape suggests to make it an emerald cut, and since we didn’t have any particular plan for the piece, we went with what was best for the stone (and what would preserve the most weight).



The next picture is of the first cut, where D. pressed the stone against the cutting wheel from all sides with his finger, thus chopping off the edges and creating the basic emerald shape.  The rough went down to 1.31 ct in the process, which is a very small loss.  You can lose up to 80% of your rough in the cutting process.

So here’s a picture of stage two.



Before having to put it on a stick to cut the finer facets, D. was able to shape the rough down one more time.  This time, the stone went down to 1.06 ct.  Interestingly, that is what D. predicted.  His guess is that the stone will be about 1 ct when he’s done.  D. then polished one side of the stone with diamond powder so you can see that it will come out clean.  Here’s a picture.



And that’s where we are at this point.  The finer facets will take longer, and D. has some other cutting orders (8 emeralds for a special order), so I have to wait.  I hope to see the final product in a couple of weeks.  The stone could also break in the process, however.  But if it doesn’t, this is going to be a very fine gem.