Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bead vs. Gem: What is the Difference?

When I first started to play around with gemstone beads, I was really confused.  I didn’t know you could buy the genuine article – peridot, amethyst, ruby – in bead form.  I thought all beads were glass or plastic or what have you.  The second thing I wondered is why the beads were so cheap.  “Cheap” here is relative, but when you see, let’s say, aquamarine jewelry in a jewelry store, it might cost you hundreds of dollars.  So why was it possible to buy a strand of aquamarine rondelles for between $15 and $40? 

Part of the difference is simply wholesale vs. retail of course.  And the markup can easily be x5, when you consider all the other costs: shopping for stones, making jewelry, running a store or a website, paying store help, etc.  These costs, I have come to learn, can vastly outstrip your cost of materials. 

But this isn’t the whole story.   The rest of it has to do with the quality of the gem, and the cutting grade.  I have said it more than once, it takes up to an hour to cut a gemstone.  But beads can also be tumbled, or cut into rounds.  Some of the faceted ones are machine faceted (Hong Kong does a lot of this), some are hand faceted (these beads mostly come from India).  In either case, however, beads have a lot fewer facets, and it might take just a minute to shave a few uneven facets into a 3mm rondelle. (Footnote: have you ever wondered about those “rose cuts” that are now in style?  Think: lower grade gemstone material with just a few facets cut into it, but sold at a higher price than a bead.)

What about quality?  More than once, I’ve seen a “jewelry designer” approach D’s booth (you can here read the derogatory quotes as “someone who knows how to string beads”) who wanted emerald, or ruby beads, but the “really nice kind,” for a beaded bracelet.  But nobody in their right mind would cut the “really nice kind” into a bead.  One such bead could then cost you as much as $50, or even $150.  If you have a really nice gem, it is worth cutting it with as many facets as possible, taking your time, and not – certainly not – drilling a hole through it at the end.

A bead can be – doesn’t have to be, but can be – totally worthless material, what you pay for is some minimal cutting labor (since you’re paying somebody in India), plus stringing cost, transport, store display and rent, salary for the salesperson, etc. 

Are you with me so far?  Well, I am now going to contradict myself.  In some cases, the materials used for beads and gems can be the same.  That’s the case when the rough is super-abundant, clear and pretty, or additionally, when the treatments needed to change its color are identical, whether it is sold in bead or gem form.  The latter is the case with blue topaz, for instance.  The heat treatment needed for sky and Swiss blue, the irradiation for London blue, and the surface coating for Mystic and Pink, are often done in labs in Switzerland and Germany, where labor costs are high.  So you pay several bucks a carat for the stuff, regardless of whether you’re getting a bead or a gem.  Beads start at $1.00 and top out at about $4 per carat, the going wholesale price for gems is $3-4 also.

So, what follows is a list of when you should expect quality differences between beads and gems, and their degree. Let me stick to a comparison to high grade briolettes only, which are the most expensive your bead money can buy.

Pretty much no material difference between beads and gems:
Amethyst, citrine, crystal, smoky quartz, rose quartz, moonstone, labradorite, and any kind of topaz.

Some differences:
Iolite, kyanite, red garnet, chrome diopside, sun stone, apatite (you can get some very nice quality in beads in all of these, but you have to look).  Prices for the gems can be 3x -10x the bead price, excepting very fine cutting or large sizes which can run you even more.

Can vary:
Peridot, tourmaline (mostly a big difference, but I’ve seen some very nice beads), Mexican fire opal, andalusite, industrial grade diamond.  Again, excepting very large gems and very unusual origins (like Paraiba tourmaline), etc, the gem prices will be x5 – x15.

Big difference:
Sapphire (watch for the dyed stuff, expect only Tanzanian origin, expect heat treatment), aquamarine, zircon, spinel, spessartite, tsavorite (the last three are never treated, but only the very clear stuff is used in gemstone cutting).  Tanzanian sapphire beads (and sometimes gems) will cost $3-5 per carat usually, a Ceylon sapphire, which would never be cut into a bead, can cost $250 per carat for something in the 3mm size (about $20-25 per stone), and perhaps $1000 per carat for something of a few carats, cornflower color.

Night and Day:
Tanzanite (all beads are heavily included, if not opaque, though not usually dyed)
Ruby (beads are usually opaque, meaning dyed, or glass filled, never Burmese origin)
Alexandrite (huge quality difference, but no treatment either way)
Emerald (beads can be dyed, treated with fillers, but sometimes also natural, though included)
Precious opal (those are thin slivers, they cannot even be cut into any kind of bead)
Grading report diamond (“grading report” says it all)

Dyed Ruby Briolettes
Natural and Unheated Burmese Rubies

Here are two examples of price differentials in the “Night and Day” category: a one carat Russian Alexandrite, if you can find one, can cost you $10,000.  A three carat old mine Burma ruby that is untreated, a gem you may never see in your lifetime (I’ve see only 1 carat stones which are much cheaper in comparison), can cost you $300,000. 

For the most top quality beads, and good price comparisons, go to  They disclose all treatment and origin of their beads – this is very rare – they do all their own cutting in Jaipur, and their cutting grade for beads is excellent.

Generally, don’t expect to know where your beads come from.  And as to treatment, expect that whenever treatment is available to make the bead nicer, it is most likely used.  Beware of the prefix “hydro” – this means “lab grown.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Green Diamond

So this is the story as it happened.  I am got permission to write about it, but there will be no names and no pictures. 

I was futzing around with princess cut citrines at D’s booth in one of the exchanges on 47th Street, when one of his friends came downstairs from the office.  “They’re cutting a natural green diamond.  You should come up and see it.”

A green diamond?  “That’s a natural color – no treatment?” I wanted to know.  “It exists, but they are extremely rare,” was the answer.  So when it was time to close, D. quickly shoved his trays into the safe and we headed upstairs, to the 15th floor of the building across the street.  We rang the bell.  D’s been using the office for nearly 30 years, but still, we had to get buzzed in.

The diamond cutters place was tiny.  The front “office” just fits the desk and some rickety chairs, the dirty windows face the back alley and there’s dust and grime everywhere from all the cutting.  Two Italian guys that I’d never seen before were lazing on the chairs, smoking cigarettes.  

The cutting room next door was even smaller.  There were three cutting wheels crammed next to one another, two of them constantly whirring around, the third one occupied by the guy who fixes the wheels, and who uses the space because he doesn’t one of his own.  The three high chairs for the cutters just fit into the narrow space, wheels to be fixed were lining the wall behind them.  D’s friend was sitting at his wheel, letting it shave away at a morsel of green glitter that was tightly fastened onto a grip. 

The mood seemed relaxed, and I started chatting with the Italian guys.  Or tried to – one of them know only a few words of English (names of gemstones, mostly), the other managed complete sentences here and there.  They traveled the world, they said, looking for diamonds and gold, going into mines and finding places to dig.  “Not very safe,” they claimed, there was always a chance of getting malaria or some other disease.  The green diamond, they had found on their latest dig somewhere in Brazil.  To have it cut, they stopped in New York on their way home.  Then they were going to try to sell it.

Meanwhile, the cutter had completed the bottom facets and much of the top of the stone.  D didn’t take his eyes off of it.  “You need to always be sure where the diamond is,” he said to me quietly.  “If it falls, we’ll be looking for it all over.”  That’s when I first realized that things were much less relaxed than I had thought.  The cutter, too, didn’t take his eyes off the stone.  He checked the facets every minute or so.  He told me that he usually just did just the back facets, which was his specialty, but the brilliandeer, the guy who does the front facets, was away in India, so he had to do those as well.  “Haven’t done this in ages,” he said, “but it all comes back.  It’s just in how the hands move.” 

By now, my eyes were fixated on the stone as well.  That was a good thing, it turned out, because at one point the cutter tried to pick it up with his tweezers to loupe it, and it fell on the table.  My eyes followed it automatically, so I spotted it first.  “There.” “Thank you,” he said, followed by a sigh of relief.  Meanwhile, D joked around to break the tension, skipping his 6 o’clock Long Island train.

So what was so special about this piece that we had to keep the cutter calm, and never taking our eyes off the stone?  The gem, once it was finished, turned out to be miniscule, maybe .25 carats and just 5x3mm diameter.  So surely it wasn’t the size.  I was trying to figure out how to ask. “Have any of you ever seen a natural green diamond before?” I looked around the room.  “No, never,” was the answer.  Not the cutter who’s been cutting for 30 years, not his friend who fixed the wheels, not D., and not of the Italian guys.  Nobody.  Not that color.  It was emerald green, more grassy green from the side and a little more bluish green from the top.  I didn’t even know diamonds could look like that.

D and I stayed for another hour, until the stone was done, which took two or three hours in total.  For this “once in a lifetime” job, the cutter got paid $200.  The stone didn’t have a ton of facets, and it had a tiny hole somewhere which, upon mutual decision, didn’t get polished out because it would make the gem even smaller.  My parting question to the Italians: “how much will you try to get for this stone?”  The answer?  “Between $25,000 and 50,000.”  Presumably, I will never see a natural green diamond again.