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

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
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