Friday, December 30, 2011

Merry Christmas to ME

Sometimes, you have to think of yourself.  After a very successful Etsy December, and a busy sale still running, I finally took time out to buy myself a Christmas gift.  And then I got another one for free!  I figured I’d share because I know at least some of you have asked me what I would keep for myself. 

I have three rules when it comes to buying gems for me:
1.      I have to love love love the stone: I see a lot of stones every week.  More than most gemdealers, because I get around more, and I don’t specialize in a particular region, or particular stones.  So if the stone does not absolutely blow me away, I won’t keep it.

2.      It has to have a high resale value: I’m not made of money, and I don’t really allow myself expensive gemstone treats.  What stops me is this: could I buy a new refrigerator for this stone?  Fix the roof?  Then what on earth am I doing buying that gem.  In short, what I buy has to be something I could sell for the same or more if I need cash.

3.      I have to actually be able to wear the gem.  Many collectors buy stones just to look at them (and of course some stones are too valuable or too fragile to set).  I’m not one of them.  My stones have to be wearable, durable, and look pretty on me (be strongly colored, vibrant and match my skintone).  I’m not wearing gems to show them off, I simply want to enjoy seeing them.
So, what gems do I own? 
Sapphires: that’s what I love the most.  I have some Burma studs, Burma pear shaped dangly earrings, a Ceylon that I wear every day, a smaller one for a pendant and I kept a pair of the Ceylon old miners that I had on Etsy in December.  I also have a pink sapphire, a 4mm round Burmese (nice saturated color).
Ruby: I only have one, a Burmese 4mm round.  And some earrings (3mm danglies on hoops).  It’s just not my color.  I will set the ruby as a stacker one day, in yellow gold.
Emeralds: I have a few of those, all Columbian, all from D. I have a pendant, earrings, and a couple of rings.  Brazilian emeralds are not my thing, they’re too dark.
I don’t have much else.  Some aqua, some of the cushion Burma spinels I sell, and a pair of old mine pink tourmalines.  I also love green tourmaline, but it ends up getting upstaged by emerald and tsavorite, so for some reason I never keep it in the end.  Tsavorites I love but I don’t actually own any (yet).
And what is my Christmas present?  A beautiful, 1.7 carat, cushion cut Mahenge spinel.  In November, I had a trillion piece set in yellow 14K for a customer – my metal of choice – and I was just floored by how it came out.  So yesterday, I had to see the East Africa dealer to memo out more of the stuff (if you noticed I sold all of the Mahenges in the last few days).  For fun, he showed me a few pieces that were in the 10-15 carat range, costing in the neighborhood of $100,000 and more.  But I wasn’t planning on taking out a second mortgage.  J
Then I played around with the 1-2 carat parcels, and the piece in the photo jumped out.  It will fit perfectly into a yellow gold emerald cut bezel I already have, and will make a very prominent ring.   I can’t wait! 
My Mahenge Spinel
And when I got ready to pay my – over $1000 – tab (I also bought some Chrysoberyls and smaller Mahenges), J. the dealer, had added a little gem jar to my bag.  With some gorgeous Tanzanian Rubellite garnet.  And what garnets those are!  They actually have a slight color change effect, more purple in daylight and more wine color in evening light.  This garnet actually looks almost better in evening light, which is the exact opposite of what one is used to.  Larger rubellites can also get expensive, and this piece has exquisite cutting.  I will prong set the largest one, I just don’t know what it will be exactly.  Probably a pendant.  Thanks J.
Tanzanian Garnet

Mahenge Spinel and Tanzanian Garnet

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The other Tanzanite

Last December I pooh-poohed Tanzanite as a bad investment.  I guess I always say what I think, even if it hurts my own business...  But Tanzanite really is tricky.  Relatively new on the market (since 1967 or something), it has gotten seriously pushed by the large conglomerates that own most of the mines in Tanzania.  That’s why it now is a December birthstone, by the way.  Meanwhile, the material is overpriced, soft, and scares the living daylights out of setters.  In a ring, it won’t last long on your hand if you wear it every day.  If prong set, it should be for special occasions, or at least not be worn when you are doing heavy duty work.  Pendants and earrings are safe, rings should be bezeled but not hammer set because unless it is squaky clean it will most likely shatter the stone.  Hammersetting a gem is like taking a mini sledge hammer to a fragile object, and any minor inclusion can get busted wide open.

So then what kind of Tanzanite could I possibly recommend?  If you’re willing to stick to pendants and earrings, or a non-everyday ring (which you’ll take off when you do heavy lifting, possibly also when you sleep or take a shower), or an oval or round piece that’s safely bezeled, then I think you should buy Tanzanite that’s not been heated.

Somewhere between 2% and 5% of the Tanzanite currently mined comes out of the ground a nice minty to olivy green with purple flashes around the sides or back.  Some smaller pieces also come out a light purple.  Since Tanzanite is always very clean and sparkly, so it can look gorgeous against silver or white gold.  The other 95% are better off heated, the material is light brown or yellow and not that attractive.  Every once in a blue moon, they still find fully rich purple Tanzanite in the ground as well, but most of it has at least a green tinge to it, and even that’s rare.  So for unheated Tanzanite, what you will get is green and light purple.

And these 2-5% greenies are hard to find!  In part, because many gem sellers don’t even think about not heating their material.  Just last week, I chatted with another gem dealer about Tanzanite and he said he had some nice huge pieces but they were still green and had to be sent for heating.  When I suggested he sell them the way they are he was totally surprised.  Unheated Tanzanite is for a niche market, not mass market, it takes a bit of looking to find it, and it is available only in small quantities.  What that sums up to is: the right stone for me.  And I have been buying it.  Some photos below. 

3 Matched Pairs

Unheated Tanzanite Parcel .5 - 2.2 Cts

The smallest piece in the first picture is about to go into a ring, the one on the right is on my website in the gem section. 

The smallest matched pair in the pair section (about .8 carats combined) will be set as dangly earrings.  The rest are up for grabs for now.  Each pair is about 2 carats.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Questions about casting are starting to come up more often, as I am increasingly moving toward custom orders these days.  So let me dispel the mystery.

When you cast something, you replicate it, you make a copy so to speak, in any metal the casting service offers.  Mine offers just about every metal on the planet, including anti-tarnish (argentium) silver and bronze, and they are green certified, meaning they only use recycled metals.
When you take your model to casting, you can go two ways: one, you can have a mold made.  With a mold, the liquid silicone or rubber fully encloses your model, taking a three dimensional impression, and adding a little “canal” that the metal flows into.  Once it is hardened, the mold is sliced in half and your model is removed.  For instance, I made my little silver frame pendant from sterling wire first, which I soldered onto sterling plate.  Then I took that in to have a mold made.  A mold for a small item like that is about $15.

Silicone Ring Mold for Flower Ring
Your other option is to go “straight to casting” without a mold.  This is cheaper (about $4 for a small item not counting the metal), but it only works when your object will liquefy or burn out during the process.  That means you can use wax or organic material (or plastic, actually).  For my melted rings, I use wax and go straight to casting.  For some of the plain rings, I have also bought finished wax models online and then had them cast.  I use mostly wax sheeting, it’s easiest to work with, but I also have wax bezel wire (with a step inside that forms the seat).  But making a bezel with wax bezel wire is very hard to do, the wax softens and melts in your hand, and the bezel comes out thick and globby.  It’s much better to make a bezel in silver.  Some model makers who are very good, use hard wax and file it down to make a perfect shape (like a conic bezel for instance), or they use a special drill to create a seat for a stone that fits exactly.  I’m nowhere near good enough for either.
In organic material, you can use leaves, twigs, patterned paper and insects for instance.  But if the pieces are too thing, like leaves, you have to add wax sheeting in the back first, or lots of clear nail polish on both sides.  With my twig rings, I first had a few twigs cast in silver and then I played around with them.  The ones I liked the best I shaped into rings, soldered them shut, and then went back to casting, this time having a mold made.  Each casting costs a labor fee ($3.00 – 4.00 for my small stuff), plus the cost of the metal, which is recalculated daily based on market prices.

One thing to watch out for when you make a casting, is the 3-5% shrinkage of the final product, which can be a lot when you need an exact fit for a stone.
Also, when you get the finished product, it’s not actually finished.  You have to cut the sprue and file down the metal.  The sprue is the little piece of canal left after casting – where the silver flowed into the mold (the casting service clips it down but not all the way because they don’t want to ruin your piece).  Then you have to tumble your piece to shine it up again, or you have to polish it.  Otherwise it looks totally matte.
All in all, I love the casting process, and I can see that many etsy shops clearly use it.  All my stacking rings are castings – Imagine how many times I’d be making them by hand, it would be crazy.  My twig jewelry is cast also, and my wax rings are too although I don’t have molds for those (I just make each one from scratch). 

Fresh Castings of Wax Rings, Sterling Silver

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Topaz: Worth Having?

Topaz is one of the birthstones of November, aside from Citrine.  But it has kind of gotten a bad rep in the gem world.  Most of it is deserved, too.   Next to the quartz varieties, white topaz is pretty much the most readily available gemstone material in the world.  It comes in large clumps, with wholesale per carat prices starting as low as 99 cents.  Beware of the trade name “smoky topaz” which refers to smoky quartz and is a different mineral entirely.

Virtually all topaz, except the colorless, or white, variety, is treated in some way.  Swiss and sky blue topaz are heat treated, London Blue topaz is irradiated, all the mystic varieties and pink topaz are surface coated.  The names are now largely trade names, signifying how the topaz has been treated to achieve that particular color.  The markup of up to $8.00 wholesale per carat for London Blue is largely due to the cost of the treatment, and to nice cutting jobs.  If you ask a gem seller if Swiss or Sky blue topaz is treated, he or she will probably laugh at you because you’ve just evidenced that you don’t know anything about gems.
Why London Blue topaz is sought after by jewelry fans is a mystery to the jewelry industry.  But perhaps it’s just a result of great marketing.  The color is very nice, too.  I don’t carry it, though.
Natural Topaz Necklace
So is there any topaz that’s worth something? Yes.  It’s called “Precious Topaz.”  I know of three kinds:  natural (brown) topaz, natural pink topaz, and imperial topaz.  All three occur naturally, and all three are much more rare than white.  Natural brown topaz is a tad brownish in color.  I knew someone who had a parcel last year.  I still have one stone from it (in the necklace below), and now he parcel is gone and no material like it has surfaced again on my horizon.  Natural topaz is not that expensive though.
Natural pink topaz is baby pink in color (darker pinks are extremely rare).  I see natural pink topaz on occasion.  Imperial topaz is orange to salmon or peachy color, with the more orange valued below the peachy tone.  I’ve seen pink and imperial topaz sold for up to $100 per carat on 47th Street for the smaller stuff (below half a carat).  At that price, of course the material should be sparkly clean and free from inclusions.  The peachy tone is the most expensive, after that the pinks, then the more orange stuff.  Some of the large stuff can actually trade way above that.
Natural Pink and Imperial Topaz
To my knowledge, there’s no particular pedigree when it comes to origin of precious topaz.  The largest producing mines are in Brazil, and that’s where most precious topaz has been found, but topaz comes from many other places as well: Nigeria, Russia, the U.S., Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Mexico, to name a few.
I own only a little bit of precious topaz, just the ones in the pictures above.  The two matching baguettes are now set as earrings, the other two pieces are up for grabs if you are interested.  I haven’t priced them but they don’t weigh more than half a carat I think.  I got the pink round in Germany from a cutter who was “cleaning out.”  When I saw the piece I was already aware that the trading price was higher than what his tag indicated, so I snatched it.  The rectangular cushion and the tourmaline cuts are from my friend D., who has a very tiny parcel.  There’s no other cushion cut, though.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bargaining: When and When Not

It happens mostly at craft shows, though sometimes on Etsy as well.  “Can you do a little better than that?” or “Will you have any sales coming up soon?” are some polite attempts at getting me to come down from a price that didn’t work in a sufficient markup for a discount in the first place. 

I also see it when I shop for gems on 47th street, though the bargaining techniques of experienced gem brokers are considerably less underhanded: “Two hundred a carat?  For this stuff?  That’s not worth a quarter of the amount.”  And then the dealers argue loudly with one another over quality and price, waving cash around by way of indicating buyer interest and wetting the seller’s appetite; putting the cash away again and acting offended at a high per carat price, making a lowball offer in turn, or trying to stare each other down in silence.  The seller will claim he has another offer, the buyer will claim he doesn’t really need the stuff.  And round it goes, sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes off and on for half a day, until someone walks away in a huff or a deal is quickly executed before either party changes their mind.
Should you bargain for a lower price?  Before you decide, consider the context you are in. 
Are you buying handmade jewelry?  Perhaps you should not bargain, unless you can really be sure the item is overpriced.  Most small time crafters tend to undervalue their work and don’t charge enough for their time.  Don’t compare to prices for items hand made in China or India.  We can’t compete with cheap labor.
Are you buying supplies?  Gold and silver have fairly fixed prices, so don’t bother bargaining.  With gems and beads, prices fluctuate, and much depends on what the seller paid for his wares, which you may not know.  Bargain only when you know what you are doing!  Can you get this bead elsewhere at a lower price?  Then you might say so.  Beads are fairly easy to judge.  But gems are another story, and most buyers are not in a position to make a good judgment call.  Keep in mind also that an experienced gem seller will “make you” as an amateur within minutes, and then he may jack up his price.  If you are not a repeat customer, if you are “retail” (buying for your own use), the dealer has no reason to disclose his wholesale pricing to you, because he will ruin it for his regulars: jewelers and designers who need room for markup to pay for their business.
I don’t bargain very often, even though I own a business and even though I am a repeat buyer.  And I never put down anyone’s wares.  It’s distasteful, and unless I really know what I should pay for a gem of this exact quality and size, I may just make myself look like a fool.  Not all prices are inflated, and bargaining when you shouldn’t is a good way to ruin future business with someone. 
But sometimes I do think a price should be lower.  Then I try another angle.  First of all, I take my time.  If I’m at a show, I will look around first, get an idea of what’s there and what the prices are, then I tell the dealers that I will be back.  (Most know that that’s not a promise.)   If I come back, I may spend quite a while at the dealer’s booth, sifting through the parcel and louping everything.  Sometimes I get a lower offer just by doing that.  I may say I’m not sure and I’m thinking about it and I am considering my budget or whether or not I think I can sell the finished jewelry at a price that works for my business.  I never directly ask for a lower price, and I never claim the asking price is not fair or too high.  I may look at my wallet and check my change, indicating I am interested in a deal.  If I get a price that’s too high I may say it’s just out of the range of what I can afford.  I may also indicate if I am interested in future business.  Sometimes I honestly say that I want to buy more, but have to do it in small batches.  The seller may not believe me, in which case I may just buy one piece but then show up again a few days later, looking at the same parcel.  I say the same thing again as I buy another piece.  If that still doesn’t work I may not come back.  But I may have left my card, and sometimes I get a phone call.
Lastly, I try to get a sense of the seller.  I ask myself what kind of car they might drive, or where and how they might live.  If I get a sense that they are raking it in, I will drive a harder bargain.   But if it becomes clear to me that they are struggling to make ends meet, I may very well pay full asking price.  I don’t like to feel cheated by a greedy customer.  And I bet others feel the same.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Addicted to Spinel

You must have wondered: how much more spinel can she list on her Etsy site?  Well, instead you should ask: how much spinel does she buy?  A lot, apparently.  I’m addicted to the stuff.

Spinel is its own mineral, but it is often found together with corundum – sapphire and ruby in other words.  Spinel comes from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), but also Vietnam and Cambodia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Tanzania and Thailand, to name a few.  The spinel I’ve dealt with has been from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam and recently, Tanzania.  I’ve not seen other origins on the market.
I like spinel because it is very sparkly and because right now, there are no known treatments or enhancements for it, so it is not that tricky to buy.  Spinel is a fairly sturdy stone with a hardness of 8, and it always totally natural. (There is synthetic spinel, of course, but I’m not talking about that.)

Spinel comes in red, pink, purple, blue, and sometimes orange, yellow and green.  The value is determined more or less in that order as well, though there are exceptions, depending on origin.  There’s also black spinel, but what is sold under that name can also be garnet, and sometimes even black onyx. 

Red spinel used to be confused with ruby but if you’ve ever seen red spinel, this is hard to believe.  Most ruby nowadays is more pinkish, and usually more included.  Spinel is very crisp and clean.  Word has it that there used to be rubies like that, but they are now exceptionally rare.
Red Spinel, Diamond and 14K Gold Ring - Custom Order
The rarity factor: yes, spinel is rarer than corundum, and some people think it is therefore more valuable.  Well, value is determined by demand, and there’s much less demand for spinel because it is less known and not used in the mass jewelry market.  So the cat chases its own tail: because it is rare, spinel can’t be commercialized, and because of that, it costs less.

I think spinel will probably never be as costly as sapphire, but it will also retain its value.  Some say it might move slightly ahead of inflation.  But right now all gemstones are ahead of inflation because many people are looking to invest in something other than stocks.  So as gold and silver go up, diamonds go up, and then colored stones go up.

So what’s the most valuable spinel?  Probably Burmese red, if it’s clean and large enough (1 carat at least).  I’ve never seen any that size.  Some websites offer Burmese reds at over 1 carat, but they’re lightly included and darker color.

The next most valuable spinel is the neon pink stuff from the Mehenge mines in Tanzania.  That material is really really bright.  Mahenge spinel has an absolutely phenomenal color, it’s almost fake looking.  It is also rare, and it already trades at high prices.  I only know one dealer that carries it.
Mehenge Spinel Currently on my Site

Sri Lankan stones, which are mostly pink, purple and blue, definitely cost much less (about 80% less on average) than Burmese or Tanzanian.  They come in bigger sizes, though, and are equally clean. 

 There’s one other very important factor to consider when you buy spinel.  You must look for “open color”:  a red stone, for instance, should be bright and sparkly, it should pop out at you.  It should not look like garnet.  In other words, you are avoiding what is sometimes called “grey mask”.  This doesn’t make the stone look grey exactly, but as any graphic or interior designer will tell you, adding grey subdues a color.  So a stone with grey mask has less presence, it looks a little lifeless.  When I browsed the web for this blog entry, I came upon a site where you can see the grey mask in some of the purple and blue stones:  I think you’ll see it clearly.
Ceylon Spinel Ring

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can You Live off Etsy?

Everyone in my craft group has an Etsy shop, one is even an Etsy co-founder.  Some have been in the Indie craft scene for over a decade.  But everyone is a hobbyist.  At one of our recent meetings, someone asked if you could actually make a living with an Etsy shop.  There are no studies on this, so we all took our best guess: unlikely.

I could not stop thinking about this.  I have an active shop, but I don’t think that the number of sales a shop has necessarily determines your income.  You can have a lot of sales, and still not make any money.  You might be putting way too much time and material into the shop without calculating the required return.  So let’s talk about that.
Let’s start by asking how much money you want to make.  $50,000 before taxes, working 40 hrs a week, would not be an unreasonable figure.  Here in NJ, you can’t raise a family on that, but you can make a single living.  And I want to look at the possibility of making a living, not “contributing to family income.”  (If this figure sounds too high or too low for you, just make a mental adjustment.)

Divided by 50 weeks of working and taking 2 weeks off for vacation, this means that you have to make $500 each week.  How much is that in sales revenue?  I’m going to say $2000.  Here’s how I did the math for this:
Income                                                             $500 / 25%
Materials                                                          $600 / 30%
Fees (Etsy, Paypal, Listing Fees)                 $140 / 7%
Equipment, Tools, Packaging, Printing     $200 / 10%
Overhead (Electric, Internet)                       $100 / 5%
Wasted and extra materials                          $100 / 5%
Breakage, botched designs and orders       $100 / 5%
Growing inventory and materials                $200 / 10%         

That’s 97%, with 3% wiggle room.  I am here falsely assuming that you sell ALL the items you list.  I am also assuming that you already have a running Etsy shop with a good number of listings.  This is not a startup calculation.
How many items do you need to sell to make this?  If your average item is $50, then that’s 40 items.

Anecdote: I recently ordered a dress on Etsy for $88.  I am not a taylor, but friends estimated it took about 3 hrs to make that dress.  Can the seller make 20 dresses in one week?  No because that’s 60 hours just spent dressmaking.  Her dresses are seriously underpriced.
But let’s say it takes you an average of 1 hour to make an item and your average item costs $50.  That means you need to make 40 items in any given week.  Can you do that?  I doubt it.  Why?  Because we’ve only taken account of the time spent making the item.  But that’s hardly all that’s involved.  What else takes time?

1.      Photos (for 40 new listings, that’s 200 pictures minimum).
2.      Writing up 40 listing descriptions.
[Observation: if you make 40 different items, you will kill yourself just taking photos and making listings.]

3.      Other internet time: convos, blogging, promoting …
4.      Packing and shipping (for international orders, trips to the post  Office).
5.      Shopping for supplies.
6.      Bookkeeping, working out pricing for custom orders etc.
Would it be fair to say that items 1-6 will fill up to half your week already?  Then you can make only 20 items and your math is way off.  You need be faster or you need to double your prices. 

Somebody said this to me once: if you want to make money selling crafts, remember that you will spend up to 60% of your time selling, and 40% of your time making stuff.  Seems right, doesn’t it?
If these observations have you pondering, or worse, have you worried, do this: next week, keep a log of all your time spent, sorted by the categories above.  Better, do it for a month because no two weeks are the same.  If the math doesn’t add up for you, you need to rethink your shop. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jewelers Prefer Prongs. You Don’t.

Why don’t you like prongs?  I so wish you did!  Deep down, this is what I want to say whenever I get a new custom order for bezel set gems.  But I hear you.  It just looks so nice, and it’s a very protective for the stone, too.  So if we’re going to bezel set your stone, there are some things you need to know.

First of all, let’s talk about why jewelers prefer prongs.  For one, prongs can better accommodate odd stone sizes and depths.  There are no prong settings for cushion cuts, but very often a round or a square setting will work.  And most existing bezels for pears are 8x6, 7x5, and so on.  Whereas most pear shapes are fatter, shorter, or longer (i.e. 8x7, or 7x3).  But prongs can be opened up just a little, and in a 4 prong setting, the gem can stick out on both ends and that won’t matter.  You can also take a prong setting, cut some metal from the bottom half, then re-solder the wire to make a narrower setting.
Another reason why jewelers prefer prongs is because the stone is less likely to break during setting.  Paradoxically, it is the soft stones you would want to bezel set for precisely that reason.  Oh well….

So as you’re dreaming about the next bezeled ring or pendant, keep in mind a few simple rules.
1. Bezels come in standard sizes, gems don’t.   For rounds, there are full and half mm sizes; and with straight, as opposed to tapered bezels, the stone has to fit exactly.  If it’s 1/10th mm too big, it sticks out and the walls don’t fold.  If it’s 2/10th mm too small, it will fall through the back.  For ovals, pears, and emerald cuts, the easily available sizes are 5x3, 6x4 etc., but not 5x4, or 6x5.

2. There are tapered bezels and straight bezels.  The straight bezels require a nearly perfect fit, the tapered bezels can be shaved down a little from the top if the stone is too small (for a perfect fit, it should line up with the rim of the bezel).  Most tapered bezels on the market have an airline, however.  That means they are not fully closed but have an opening on the sides that goes around the stone.  This allows for more light to fall in.
Two straight bezels (an oval and a princess), a round tapered bezel with airline and a half-bezel, similar to a tourmaline setting (with a tourmaline sitting in it).
3. Not all stone shapes have bezels you can buy.  Here’s a big mystery for you: there are no cushion shaped bezels available anywhere.  Who knows why.  It is the same with baguettes.  For baguettes, you usually use prong settings or a setting (called tourmaline or baguette) that has two walls folding in on the stone on the outer ends.
4. If you buy 14K, you usually have more choices available, because in the industry, gold is still used far more than silver.  For now…
What happens if the bezel you want doesn’t exist and that you need to have it made?

There are two ways to make a bezel (that I know of).  The easy method is to use step bezel wire which has a second inner wall that will serve as the seat for the gem (look at the picture with the bezels, the way the straight bezels look gives you an idea of the shape of the wire).  This wire gets folded gently around the stone, with grooves filed on the inside to allow corners to fold in, and the ends soldered together (or if you cut three pieces for, say, a triangle, then you solder the three seams).  Making this kind of bezel takes about a half hour on average.  And: I know how to do it!

The hard method is to take a block of silver, or a block of wax if you like, and shave out the opening for the stone with a drill, then shave the outside to suit.  That’s like sculpting, essentially, just with different tools.  Like Michelangelo, you’re digging out a little cushion shaped David from a piece of metal or wax. 
This, by the way, is the only way to make a tapered bezel for an oddly shaped stone.  But I cannot do it for you.  I can hire out, I did it once for my 6mm cushion bezel.  But it cost $60 and it took the guy all afternoon.  I’m glad I did it because I had it cast to make more, but now all I have is that one size.  I can shave the top to make it smaller, but I sure can’t make it bigger. 

Ring with My Handmade Cushion Bezel
Lastly, there are three reasons for why you, too, might prefer prongs.
1. Your stone is likely to break if bezeled.  If it’s a soft stone (kyanite, sunstone, Mexican fire opal, apatite), and especially if it has sharp corners like a princess cut, forget bezeling it. 

2. Your stone is too deep.  Some stones are so deep they stick out the back of a bezel.  This is not such a big deal for a pendant, but in a ring it may be uncomfortable to wear.
3. Your stone is too dark.  Normally a bezel is recommended for medium to lighter gems because the bezel takes away the light.  Sometimes, what I do in that case is solder the bezel on top of the ring shank because the silver behind it will brighten the gem.  But if it’s a deep bezel, that won’t work.

Happy designing!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Can You Get a Gem Like This? Some Brief Notes on Odds

I periodically get questions like these: can you get a 5mm princess cut blue tourmaline?  Or: do you have a matched pair of 4mm round Ceylon sapphires?  And sometimes that’s a “yes”.  Mostly, though, it’s tough.  To communicate how tough, let’s play a numbers game by multiplying out the possibilities. 

1.      Gemstone shapes: There are 8 basic gem shapes: round, oval, emerald, baguette, trillion, princess, cushion, pear.  There are also lots of odd shapes, most of which don’t fit into stock settings, let’s skip those.
2.      Gemstone sizes: Let’s assume that there are 10 sizes for each shape.  For instance, rounds, trilliants and squares will be 1mm, 2mm, etc, ovals and emerald cuts will be 2x1, 4x2, etc, and baguettes 6x2, 8x4, etc.  Baguettes can also be 8x3 or 8x2, and of course there are tons of in between sizes.  We’ll ignore them all.
3.      Gemstone cuts: there are tons, and they matter at least somewhat.  I.e. it matters for setting if the back of a stone is brilliant cut (shallow) or step cut (deep).  For looks, the surface matters.  Some people like checker top, for instance.  Or no facets on the top, which is called “buff cut”.  Rectangular stones are sometimes radiant cut in the back for more brilliance.  All the square cuts, which I inaccurately lumped under “princess cuts”, divide at least into square, princess, or French cut.  There are dozens of cuts out there, not counting combinations.  But let’s just say there are 2x2 relevant cuts for each gem.  That’s two for the top side, two for the bottom side, meaning 4 in total.
4.      Gemstone colors: This is difficult.  Some stones (peridot for instance) all look nearly the same, whereas others (tourmaline) almost never do.  Some colors are rare (blue and turquoise tourmaline for instance), some popular (royal blue sapphires).  For tourmaline, it would be an understatement to say there are 10 different greens, for peridot, it might be an overstatement to say there are three.  A conservative medium might be to say there are 5 different colors per gem, including shades.  I.e. sapphire might be light, medium to royal blue, midnight blue, or purple.  Fancy sapphire might be pink, yellow, orange, green, white, not including any hues.  Tourmaline might be blue, turquoise, grass, forest, and olive, excluding shades.
5.      Gemstone origins: This doesn’t always matter, but let’s restrict ourselves to when it does.  So we won’t care about amethyst, red garnet, citrine, or other quartz.  We will care about emerald, which can be Columbian, Brazilian or Zambian, for sapphire (which comes from Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Australia, Burma, Tanzania…), ruby (Burma, Afghanistan, Thai…), aqua (Brazil, African…), spessartite (Tanzanian, Kenyan, Nigerian…), tourmaline (Brazilian, African…), etc.  With these and other gems, origin matters because of color, quality, and of course, price.  I am going to settle on an average of 3 origins per gem.
6.      Quality: obviously this is very important, but the quality of a gem can range so vastly that I will exclude it.  Let’s say that in general, you want the medium to nicer stuff.

Blue Apatite and Green Zircon Mixed Shapes
Now let’s multiply the odds of finding your gem:
8 (shapes) x 10 (sizes) x 4 (cuts) x 5 (colors) x 3 (origins) = 4800 possibilities

So the odds of finding your gem are an average of 1:4800 for EACH gemstone in at least these categories: sapphire, ruby, emerald, tourmaline, spessartite, tsavorite, alexandrite (the odds will be a little less there, but of course you have to find it in the first place), aquamarine, spinel, and I don’t even know what else. 
Different Kinds of Ceylon Spinel
1.      Most gems are cut according to the shape of the rough, other cuts are uncommon (I’ve never seen a spinel or a spessartite or a tsavorite cut as a baguette).
2.      Certain stones are cut for color retention (so it is hard to find a brilliant cut Ceylon sapphire).
3.      Many gems are cut for maximum size (which is why princess cuts are hard to find).
4.      Some gems don’t exist in certain sizes, or are extremely rare (it is hard to find very small topaz, and hard to find very large alexandrites or rubies).
5.      Some origins are rare.
6.      Matched pairs make for two needles in a haystack, not one.
7.      Untreated gems (in some cases) are rare.
8.      Reminder: we totally excluded the category of quality.

All this affects the odds, mostly by way of increasing them.  The odds of finding a true padparadscha sapphire (meaning Ceylon origin and real salmon color) in a size larger than 2 carats are very small.  Recently a customer asked for a 1 carat round alexandrite of 6mm or larger.  You know what the alexandrite dealer said?  It will be 1 carat, but it isn’t going to be round.
So yes, you can keep asking me to find you certain stones.  I seem to be producing an ever increasing variety of gems (even I am surprised).  But be flexible.

A Few Different Australian Sapphires

Saturday, July 23, 2011

How to Judge a Ceylon

It’s been an interesting year for Ceylon sapphires.  Last summer, they were fairly reasonable in price, and I bought one for myself for a ring.  Ever since then, customers have wanted a gem like mine: larger size (about 2 carats), nice rich popping blue, clean and sparkly, and unheated of course.  But I couldn’t find any.  The guy from Sri Lanka, from whom I bought my stone, was supposed to come back in spring, but spring came and went, but there was no sign of him.  D. has only 1 carat pieces.  Other guys have heated material only, and they wanted something like eight times what I originally paid for mine. 
               In June, the guy from Sri Lanka finally showed up on the street, and I lined up to be the first buyer.  The unheated parcel was small, with perhaps 20 gems, no more.  I just go by sight at this point.  It’s hard to explain.  I pick what I like best, then I loupe it to make sure I didn’t miss anything (scratches, inclusions, uneven color).  I rest the gem between my index and middle finger to see if I can see through it (when you can, it’s called “window” and it’s not good).  Then I tilt it in various ways to see if it still looks nice.  I put it against silver to see if that brightens it up or darkens it.  I pop it into a setting if I have one to see how it changes color.  If it gets too dark I dismiss it. 

               Here’s a picture of the gems I picked, and one that D. bought (but he got it elsewhere) - his is the one next to my ring. 

               One of my customers, Anya from Baltimore, wanted the first stone, and we spent almost an entire afternoon sending pix, questions and answers back and forth.  In that process, we both learned a lot, and I thought it might be fun to share.  So here, in no particular order, are our thoughts:
1.      Color: the perfect Ceylon should be medium-dark blue.  The color that marks a typical Ceylon is called “cornflower” but I’m still not sure what that actually is (neither are many people on 47th Street).  So instead, I’m going to describe it as a medium to darker royal blue.  If it is too light, the value decreases, if it is too dark it won’t look good.  Ceylons are often too light, whereas Thai material is often too dark.  You want a color that totally pops out at you.  Ceylons have less purple in it than Burmas (Burmas have about 15-20%), sometimes they have no purple at all.  In the picture below, two of the gems have a little more purple in them than the other two.  Can you see which?


2.      Brilliance: Burmas have more of a sleepy quality to them, and they are darker in color.  A good Ceylon should be crisp.  It should sparkle.  Now the darker the gem, the less brilliance it has.  That’s just the effect of the color and that’s ok.  But it should still sparkle.  In our parcel, the one with the most brilliance is D.s gem.  High brilliance is often the mark of good cutting and many facets, but it also means that the gem material itself has few to no inclusions.

3.      Inclusions: In the high end gems, there should be few to none visible to the naked eye.  There will be some “silk” when you loupe it, though.  Those are fine white lines.  They’re ok, but nothing should be distracting when you just look at the gem.  That makes it look ugly and devalues it.  But I have seen a few very large (over 10 carat) Ceylons that did have a visible inclusion.  In that size, however, this is not such a big deal.   The size will outweigh it.  But the smaller the gem, the more squaky clean you want it to be.

4.      Zoning: this is the mark of a Ceylon and clearly distinguishes it from other sapphires.  Zoning refers to uneven color distribution in the gem.  If you turn any Ceylon upside down you will see the zoning.  Sometimes, when you look at it from the side, you see that the most color is in the tip, the culet.  The gem is cut in such a way as to make that color look even from the front.  If you re-cut the gem so that it is flatter, you will lose all the color.  That’s why Ceylons are often heavy and bulky in the cut.  On rare occasion you see a flat gem with very even color distribution.  That’s ideal, because it also lowers the weight and hence the price.  In my array, the most even color distribution is in the cushion cut near the fingertip (from the front, they’re pretty much the same).  Any Ceylon will have some zoning, and in a way that is good because you will be able to tell that it is genuine.  A fake won’t have zoning (or inclusions, for that matter).  The key is to minimize it, and to make sure it isn’t visible from the front.  From the back it won’t really matter, unless you plan to set the gem upside down for some reason (and I have no idea why you would).

What’s the upshot when it comes to our four gems?  To some degree, this is simply a matter of taste.  The one on the left is judged to have twice the value of the others (and it cost twice as much).  This is because it has the most even color distribution, the most brilliance, and the fewest inclusions.  But if I were to pick one, I’d go for the cushion.  It has a little more purple in it, a little more color.  And it is nice and flat (so it costs less).  But I already have mine.
Anya picked the larger oval (the second from the left in the first picture – can you see where it is in the other pics?  Look at the overall shape of all gems, and look at each table to tell them apart).  Anya’s gem also has more purple in it, it is inclusion free and has a lot of sparkle.  The color really pops out at you, and I would have favored that one as well, depending on what design I liked for it.  Ovals are easier to work with than cushions.  Both Anya and I thought that the most expensive gem was stunningly beautiful but it just costs a lot of money.  It’s a great buy, but you need to have more disposable income for it – but if you have that, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ceylon Gems from Germany

As some of you know, I was just on vacation, taking a break from research, my Etsy shop, and my gems.  Or so I thought, until my aunt suggested I take a trip to Idar-Oberstein.  This small and sleepy town, located in a valley in the middle of nowhere (insofar as that’s possible in Germany), turned out to be the European Taj Mahal of gems.  Had I not pulled myself together, the effect on my wallet could have been as devastating as any NY gem show.  I am good with money.  Very good.  Except when I buy gems.

The gemstone history of Idar-Oberstein dates back to the 13th century, when the town was known for its agate mines.  First reports gem cutting date back to the 1500s, and in 1974 Idar-Oberstein established a gemstone exchange.  Stores are open year-round, and its annual trade show draws in gem dealers worldwide.  You can also visit a local copper mine and about a dozen gemstone cutters whose shops are open to the public.  And of course there is a museum.  Germans love museums.  The town business directory – the first thing I grabbed when I got there – lists over 250 names revolving around gems: cutters, jewelers, silver, gold, diamond and colored stone dealers, as well as a jewelry design school.
Google Image of Idar-Oberstein
In the center of the “Oberstein” half of the town, there’s a touristy section where you can look at anything from the latest jewelry creations to gems, beads and tumbled rocks, or you can sit in a restaurant and eat the town’s (supposedly) famous “Spiessbraten,” grilled pork roast.  (Germans also love pork.)
But of course I didn’t drive 90 minutes at German gas prices for a pork roast.  Nor did I want to spend $140 per carat on 4mm tourmalines or $90 per carat on red zircon – stones that I eyed in one retail store whose owner wiped everything I touched enough times to make me feel unwelcome.  Gems are meant to be played with!  This retailer did, however, offer an emerald slice identical to one that I had a while back (it sold for about $160 in a ring).  The $500 price tag taught me a valuable lesson about my pricing strategy, or rather, the lack thereof.
My annoyance that perhaps I had wasted my time coming was eased when I went inside the store of a stone cutter.  In the (retail) bargain bin I found a pretty pink imperial topaz, and some reasonably priced watermelon tourmaline slices.  And later, inside the garage of a wholesaler, I saw literally dozens of amethyst geodes that were between 5 and 9 feet high.  There they were, just sitting around in the dirt, gathering dust.  No wonder amethyst is so cheap. 

And then I found the guy from Sri Lanka.
Which went like this.  My mom and I decided to leave the tourists behind and check out the lesser known “Idar” half of the town.  On the map, it looked really close so we thought we’d walk it.  After about 45 minutes of trecking down the dusty Hauptstrasse in the scorching midday heat, we started to see more signs for wholesalers.  But it wasn’t like in the diamond district.  Everything was (far too) stretched out.  And there were no window displays, no actual shops, just signs at private homes, signaling a gem dealer, with “wholesale only” written underneath.  I felt awkward about just ringing a bell, but then my mom was like, “look, that’s what we came here for, didn’t we?”  So I hesitatingly pushed the next buzzer.  No answer.  Another bell didn’t work, in yet another case we couldn’t figure out where the buzzer even was.  Perhaps the sign was old, because some of the places looked deserted.  Then I saw foreign sounding name on the side of a building, and underneath it some words to the effect that the seller specialized in Ceylon gems.  “That’s the one,” I decided, took another deep breath and rang.

I was beckoned inside by what turned out to be a Sri Lankan dealer who had immigrated to Germany some 30-odd years ago.  I had nothing on me that identified me as a wholesale buyer but it didn’t matter.  Let’s just say that after a few questions, any good dealer can “make you.”  Then, when you look at the first gems, they know your level of experience as well (it’s about how you handle the tweezer for instance, or the way you tilt a gem to catch the light).  I bet this guy could even guesstimate how long I had been doing this (not nearly as long as him, for instance), and what price range I might shop at (baby prices). 
To test him in turn, I asked for the per carat price of Swiss blue topaz, which, I figured, would be the same worldwide for wholesale.  The figure he quoted – in U.S. dollars, by the way, which is apparently the custom – was the one I had hoped for: it indicated pretty much the lowest available market price.  That settled it for me: I needed to have a closer look.

I have to say I got the royal treatment.  The gemstone dealer just put one of his briefcases onto the desk, opened it and said “here.”  I could pull out the trays and look, ask for prices, open the boxes and play.  His wife kindly brought us water.  I was seriously dehydrated at that point but when I get gem fever, I barely notice.  For my purchase, I settled on the spinels you see below.  Ceylon material, precision cuts I’d not yet seen (hexagons, square emerald cuts, and little 5mm trilliant cuts).  I got parcel price for choice to make matched sets (I already know I will be asking him to ship me the rest of those hexagons, and perhaps he knew that, too).  And I got the nearly 5 carat violet spinel you see below as well.  After red, purple is the most sought after and rare color of spinel, and larger gems are always the better investment.  This piece is flawless and will make for a great ring or pendant.  (I’ll be listing it for sale as soon as I have sufficiently mused over my asking price).
Ceylon Spinel: 4-5mm pairs, calibrated cuts

4.7 Ct Violet Ceylon Spinel
Out of curiosity, I also asked for Padparadscha sapphires.  In Ceylon sapphires, they are the rarest of all.  Their pinkish orange color is unique among gemstones, and their brilliance unrivaled.  In NY, I have never seen a Padparadscha (I’m not counting sapphires of similar color from other regions like Tanzania).  But this dealer had several pieces, gorgeous stuff, the prices in the tens of thousands.  And he had 10+ carat blue sapphires, all of this, the stuff of legends.  You might find this surprising, but at that size, natural – unheated - blue Ceylons are extremely rare.  And the mines yield less each year.  The other Sri Lankan dealer I know, a guy who comes to NY periodically, had nothing over 3 carats with him this time - in the unheated variety that is.  And he only had about a dozen of those.  In case you are now curious because you had heard me mention him before, I caught sight of him on the street the day before I left, and with the help of D., I picked two pieces.  If D. hasn’t sold them while I was away (I stashed them in his safe before I left, so this is entirely possible), I will be offering them out for sale very soon.  But I already have a couple of people waiting in line to see them.  That’s how it is with Ceylon blue, even in these “smaller” sizes.

The good news, however, is this: if mine, and your wallet is big enough, I can now get more and larger Sri Lankan material (sapphire, spinel, also moonstone), because I can have them shipped to me via the small and sleepy town of Idar-Oberstein.  LOL.