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.