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.