Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vintage Diamonds

If you read my blog, you know that I am infatuated with old stuff.  I like old mine colored gems, even though the cutting is often poor, I like antique jewelry, and my own designs often have an antique look.  I love the detail and workmanship of the jewelry work of bygone days.
But I also like bling.  And nothing has more bling than a diamond.  No wonder, then, that vintage diamonds appeal to me the most.  They are also the only diamonds that are truly rare.  Vintage diamonds are a niche market, but lately they have gotten renewed attention, and that has driven up prices. 
There are several different vintage diamond cuts.  Let’s look at “Old Mine”, “Old European” and “Old Fancy Cuts.” 
Old Miners:  The term “old miner” generally refers to stones cut before the modern brilliant cut was perfected.  Old miners were mostly cut before the 1920s (starting in the 1800s).  The true “Old Mine” cut is cushion shaped, so it is a precursor of the modern cushion cut.  It has a high crown, small table, and a deep pavilion.  The culet is open, meaning it is cut flat and not to a point.  This changes the light reflection (and protects it from chipping).  An old mine cut also has fewer facets.  For that reason, old miners have less brilliance than brilliant cut stones.  But they have a lot of fire, that is, a display of different colors.  Some say that old miners perform best in candle light.
Old European Cuts: These are more roundish and flatter than old miners.  They’re also called “Euros.” This type of cut appeared a bit later, in the mid to late 19th century.  Euros have more facets than old miners, but they also have an open culet.  They are the precursor of the modern brilliant cut, with the same number of facets (58 to be exact).  I also read that both the Euro and the Old Miner can appear lighter than they actually are in color because the open culet lets in more light that reflects around inside the diamond.
Old Fancy Cuts: Like today, vintage diamonds were also cut as marquis, ovals, pear shapes, and trillions.  The way these can be distinguished as old miners is by their facets, which are overall larger, but also shorter and wider than modern cuts.  And the overall proportions are different, i.e. marquis shapes are often “fatter”.  Modern marquis are usually 6x3, 7x3.5 mm etc, so they are twice as wide as they are long.  Old mine marquis might be 6x3.5, and they are not calibrated.

Old Mine Fancy Cuts
One thing that recommends vintage diamonds to me is that most don’t come from Africa because they were mined before the South African (and other African) mines opened.  Some originate in India, many in Brazil.  Overall it is nearly impossible to tell origin with diamonds though.  To date, as far as I know, there’s no sure fire technology available to tell you where a diamond is from.

You should also know that of course it is possible to cut a modern diamond into a vintage cut.  Some companies actually specialize in perfected vintage cuts: they cut old-mine style but with perfected symmetry and faceting.  True old miners, by contrast, often show some signs of wear, though a good re-polish may remove those, leaving only the a-symmetry as a mark of the old miner.  But of course, even that can be reproduced.  For the most part, though, old miners are just that.  Little wonders of the past, reminding us of the beauty of imperfection, of artistry done by hand, not machine. 

Pavillion View of Old Mine Fancy Cuts

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Payment Plans: Tips for Small Business

Large department stores seem to be able to offer these amazing payment plans.  They're interest free, with no money down, payments stretched out till the end of the world (and I don’t mean December 21st), and you can return your purchase up to 12 months, even if you used it.  I’ve often wondered how businesses can afford that sort of thing, but the answer is probably obvious: the costs have already been worked into the price of the item, so that all the customers who buy outright cover the expenses of such a plan.
If you’re a tiny business like me, you have to think differently.  A payment plan that goes bust can get very costly, and it can hurt you, your customers, and your suppliers.
Payment plans are risky.  You have to ask yourself why someone wants a payment plan from you in the first place, as opposed to using a credit card.  Maybe the buyer has bad credit, or is too young to have established any.  In that case, you should protect that person by not offering them a payment plan.  Or maybe the buyer is avoiding interest.  That’s understandable, but a small business has no way of qualifying a customer for loans, checking their credit or their financial stability.  
Also, if your prices are low and your customer base small, you can’t distribute the costs of the buyer who drops out of a payment plan over other items.  And if any of your customers are reading this right now (mine are), they might be asking themselves why their price should increase because someone else doesn’t pay.  Good point, right?
But let’s say you insist on having a payment plan anyway, or you feel bad for the customer who can’t afford something they like.  Here’s what you do.
  1. You require a non-refundable down-payment of 10-20%.  Call it a restocking fee (I will get to this below).  This forces the buyer be sure they want to commit and it lowers your risk.
  2. Clearly define the payment plan.  If it’s too long, the buyer may lose interest or the ability to pay.  Times are tough.  With a shorter payment plan (2 months is good), you get paid faster and the buyer doesn’t have debt hanging over their head.  That's good for both of you.
  3. If you are selling an item that has to be made, don’t produce it until it is close to fully paid.  That way you don’t have to bust your personal piggy bank to pay your suppliers or help.
  4. Related to that, never ship the item until it is fully paid for.
  5. If you’re selling a one of a kind item that you have to set aside for the customer, you may not have enough cash to make new things until that piece is fully paid, shipped, and the customer is sure they won't return it.  If that is the case, you need to have money in your bank before you can offer payment plans.  If you make new items too soon and too fast, you will suffer a personal loss if your buyer can’t pay.  You could end up sitting on lots of expensive inventory, and lack the spare cash to refund the buyer for a return, or pay your suppliers.  So you need to be very clear about your risks.  Make sure any item in your shop is itself fully paid for!  Debt is common in the jewelry industry, but I strongly urge you not to incur it, even if that means your business will grow more slowly. 
  6. Finally, limit the amount of payment plans you give out: 5 payment plans of $500 for already made items are a potential $2500 loss for you, and your bank account should at any time be able to cover that amount.  (If you have a restocking fee, you can subtract out that percentage.)
And now you can probably see why I think the restocking fee is necessary.  If you take back a unique and expensive item that you have already reproduced, then you have two.  And it takes longer to sell two items than one. Remember always that you may have stock that you can’t sell.  If you don’t budget carefully, you’ll have a lot of pretty things but no buyers, and there is no fast way to turn the stock into cash, should you end up in financial trouble yourself.
This is my final piece of advice: if you’re not selling food or clothing, if you’re not in health care or education, then what you are selling is not an essential good.  I know you’d like to make money, but if you entice your buyers into a payment plan, or don’t hold them back if they are about to enter a payment plan they can’t really afford, nobody will be happy in the end.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Converting an Antique Pin

I’ve now converted an antique stick or bar pin into a wearable piece of jewelry several times, and I’ve learned some lessons in case you want to try the same.  Here are the 10 most important ones.

1.      Look carefully at the condition the item is in before you decide to buy.  There should not be any “dings” or other imperfections. It’s very hard to remove or change those.

2.      Make sure you know how much the pin weighs. Figure that half of it, if it’s a stick pin, is the stick itself.  But: sometimes the stick itself is not gold.  It happens that the old pin back has broken off and a new one, silver or even lead, has been soldered on.  This not always easy to tell.  So if you are assuming you can sell the back and get part of your money back, make sure it’s gold.  If you can’t test it at home, look for a stamp.  I’ve had it happen several times that the antique dealer, eBay seller, or Pawn Shop, only tested the front of the stick pin, and not the stick itself (so it might not hurt to ask).  On average, if you can scrap the stick, you will get between $10 and $20.

3.      Assume that if the pin contains a colored stone, the stone is fake.  Many, if not most, of the gems used in that antique jewelry from about 1900-1930 are not real.  So what you pay should not include the stone.  If you do get a pin with a colored stone that was advertised as real, you need to have it tested.  And be aware that not all jewelers are good at this.  I take mine to the lab because even some “jeweler’s tested” stick pins that I bought have contained fake colored stones.  I didn’t complain though because I didn’t bet on the stone, and I know how hard it is to tell.

4.      If you want to replace the center stone, make sure there’s enough prong left to hold the new gem, and choose a flat stone if the original was a diamond, because they are cut more shallow than most colored stones.  Replacing the center stone without the help of a jeweler that can rebuild the prongs, or a good setter, is not really an option for you.

5.      If the center gem is a diamond (and advertised as tested), you can assume it is real.  The easy test is to scratch it with a sharp instrument to double check, but jewelers are usually good at testing diamonds.  I therefore recommend only diamond stick pins.  So far every diamond stick pin I have bought has had a real diamond.

Two pins before conversion

6.      The diamond should be an old miner.  How will you know?  Old miners have a deeper cut, an open culet and different facets (you can find pictures online).  Some old miners are single cut (they have fewer facets) and those have less value.  Some signs of wear are also common.  That means that the facets are less defined. This is ok.  Don’t try to have it fixed.

7.      When you convert your pin into a pendant, you need a bail and a jump ring.  It is best if you buy the parts yourself, that way you don’t get overcharged. 

8.      Converting is best done via lazer solder, not regular solder.  Regular soldering is too hot, and any colored stone will not survive.  Diamonds can take more heat, so those are ok to solder the regular way.
9.      Most antique dealers do not clean old gold, because some customers don’t like it.  I do have it cleaned because it does get a whole lot prettier that way, but I do not get white gold rhodium plated to keep the old fashioned look.  Just a light polish is best.

10.   If you want to have your piece cast, it cannot have too much detail.  Most casting services require 1/3mm depth for a mold to “pick up” any pattern, including an engraving.  Also, the silicone has to get behind and in between all the filigree, and that rules out a lot of pieces. 

After conversion (I added an element)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricanes and Jewels Don’t Mix

With much of Jersey City still without power 5 days after Sandy, the Holland Tunnel closed to regular traffic and NJ-NY Subway still draining, I have time to catch you up on the events.

By last Friday, it was pretty clear this storm would be a biggie.  Dutifully, I filled up my gas tank, my fridge, even my wallet, and loaded up on candles and batteries. But there still had to be time for jewels!  So on Sunday I chanced a trip to the JA show, one of the largest New York jewelry and gem shows before the holidays.  Armed with my check book two packages that had to be mailed, I reached the Javitt’s just when the show opened.  Reduced to one day because of the weather, the line was long, the mood rushed.  There was no indoor mailbox anywhere and outdoor ones struck me as risky, so I shoved the packages back into my purse and headed for gems. 

I had to get my shopping done quickly because the subway system was ordered to a halt by 7 p.m. and although I had brought my car, I anticipated traffic.  Selecting gems, on the other hand, takes time.  I only made it to three vendors, all from NY, and all of them concerned.  The JA show is very expensive to vend at; armored trucks transport the jewels to and from their location, setup takes hours.  One day is barely enough for vendors to break even, and there are no refunds for cancelled shows.  Worse yet, by 2 p.m. police and guards started walking the aisles, quietly announcing an early closing at 3 (so no panic would break out I assume).  I left at 2:30, but got stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel.  Clearly, enough Zone A evacuees were taking the situation seriously.

Back in NJ, I circled the blocks to find a street parking away from trees and power lines (there aren’t many, I discovered).  With my college closed due to the weather, I hunkered down and sorted through my new treasures.

Then emails about local evacuation started going around.  Everyone living on the waterfront in first or ground floor apartments had to be out by 7.a.m.  I live about half a mile inland, and on the 4th floor, but our street is at best 4 feet higher than the waterfront, so that meant a good chance the street could see flooding.  A driving ban was issued for the whole town, and a walking curfew put in place for the at risk areas.

By 5 p.m. Monday, boardwalk was already flooded.  By 8 p.m., water was pouring into the basements of the highrises behind it.  The evacuation pickup point for residents without cars - a McDonalds at the mall about 1/8 mile from here – flooded as well.  The wind was pounding.  My huge skylight no longer seemed very secure to me, not to mention the wooden roof deck right above ….

Newport Promenade Monday Late Afternoon (Lower Manhattan in the Background)
At 9:30 p.m., power went out.  Artificially calmed by 2 glasses of Montepulciano filled to the brim, I decided I might as well go to bed.  I lay awake a little while, hearing the wind howling through the trees.  The leak in my roof (some tiny hole I can’t seem to find), slowly dripped into the catch basin I set up in my living room.

I woke up at 7 a.m. to a slower drizzle of rain and slightly lighter winds.  Things looked ok outside, there was no flooding in the street.  The water was working, but electricity was still out.  So no tea, and no news from outside.  I texted family and friends that everything was fine.  The streets remained deserted through the morning.

By the early afternoon, I decided it was safe enough to poke around outside.  My car was still there and in good shape, though some others had been broken into during the night.  This is typical in my neighborhood even when the lights are on, and even though I live on a nice block.  Around the corner, the French wine store was open, sort of.   Candles were lit inside and coffee was brewing in the French Press.  The owners have a nearby restaurant, also without power, but they owned some gas powered camping cookers for outdoor parties.  So they made free crepes for anyone who came by: the eggs and milk will spoil, she said.  When I looked in on them again later on, there was a small crowd and people texted friends about the hot coffee.

After charging my phone in the car, I went on a walking tour.  On the waterfront, the boardwalk was ripped up and pushed into the grass.  Tourists from nearby hotels were taking photos, trampling down the police tape.  Police was busy elsewhere anyway.  There was lots of exchanging news about who got flooded, who didn’t.  The local Shoprite was running on generator power, with lines all the way out the door.  Free power strips inside had people charging up in crowds.  The rest of the town was totally dark. 

Parts of The Pavonia Promenade After the Storm
I made it over to the “Paulus Hook” area, from which you can see straight south to the Statue of Liberty.  Much of that area seemed intact though generators were running pumps everywhere.  But the apartments further west were hit badly, many flooded almost to street level.  My friend’s bakery, scheduled to open in November, in total shambles.  Furniture from basement apartments was sitting the street.  Two pizza places running on generators were open, again with long lines, as were two Halal stores, cash only, stores dark inside but selling down on what they had until sundown.

We were still in the dark Tuesday night, and my neighbor came upstairs; he couldn’t reach anyone in lower Manhattan because his cell (and their cell) wasn’t working.  AT&T cell towers were without power, and are still only working intermittently.  He used my Verizon phone, found out his office was closed, and we downed more red wine. 

At 2 a.m. I was woken up by bright lights in my bedroom.  I’d forgotten to turn those off when the power went out.  All must be back to normal in Jersey City, I thought, and went back to sleep.

Not so.  Today, Friday, the power is still out in much of Jersey City.  The mall is open, but many stores are closed.  Yesterday, only three restaurants in the food court had anything to serve, and again the lines were long.  The Shoprite is still chugging along, and my neighborhood store served coffee, tea and sandwiches all day Thursday until they ran out.  There won’t be any more deliveries until Saturday. 

On Wednesday I tried to get to a post office.  The main JC post office was closed due to lack of power, as was the one in the Heights.  So I drove all the way to Secaucus, which is a 15 minute drive if there’s no traffic.   This turned out to be a bad idea.  Most of the street lights were dead and the busy intersections directed only by brave cops, or no one at all.  You had to drive very carefully and traffic was bad.  At least the post office was open.  But I found out that the local sorting facility in Kearny was closed due to flooding in the area, so who knows where my packages are going.  Meanwhile, mail delivery in my area did not resume until Thursday.

On Wednesday there was a very limited farmer’s market in my local park.  One farmer came from South Jersey.  They had no power down there, but vegetables don't care about that sort of thing.  Then there were 3 local vendors with food, which got gobbled up quickly.  The farmer sold out of most of his goods.  And there were tons of kids trick or treating.  Word must have spread all around that this was the one and only place to get candy.  The adults were exchanging stories.  The back area of JC was getting restless, I heard from some residents.  That’s our poor part of town, and many residents there don’t have the money to prepare well.  Hoboken, which is a 20 minute walk away from me, is getting lots of well deserved attention, but we didn’t make the news.  Too much else going on I guess.

Meanwhile, getting to NY is a near impossibility.  Not that anything is going on at 47th Street anyway.  I texted my setter who lives by the GW Bridge – my home phone is working but the lines are constantly overloaded, so you can’t get through.  Avo, the setter, had power but decided it was too much of a hassle to try to get to work.  The engraver made it in on foot (he emailed me), but he said not all exchanges were open.  My friend D., a gemstone dealer, made it from Long Island Thursday for the first.  It took him 4 hrs.  And there were no customers.  He stayed home today.

On Wednesday, I peeked into the windows of the now closed PATH train station, my local subway to NY.  It looked like it must have been a fish tank during the storm.  They were still pumping the water out as of Thursday.  So no way that will be working anytime soon.  The website has no information.  The Ferry port seemed deserted, with people milling about and just an old sign with times that might now be wrong.  There was an ad for a ferry app, but with most people without power, that’s not helpful.

For now, we’re all just sticking it out by staying local.  The driving ban remains in place at night.  I have everything I need – lucky me – all my immediate neighbors seem ok, and the friends I could reach are ok too but I’m worried about some that live further back, still without power.  We will see what next week will bring.  I will attempt a trip to NY on Tuesday.  The buses from JC Heights are working, though they are crowded.  So the trip will be cumbersome, but I have custom orders and my friends on 47th need work.  The jeweler who resizes my rings has nothing do.  My setter, the polisher, and D., none of them made any money this week, and few of them have any money set aside.  The economy in the last few years hasn’t allowed it.  They all work independently and without health or other insurance.  My Etsy shop has brought them a little bit of luck, and I don’t want it to run out.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Working with CAD

Have you ever wondered how it is that some Etsy shops carry designs that look commercial but claim to be made or designed by the shop?  They probably use a 3D jewelry design software like Rhino.  I always wanted to try something like this, but I figured it would just take too much time to learn.  But then last summer, I met Brandy of Belenky Girl Designs, a freelance jewelry designer, and we’ve started working together.  My first earrings are already out; an eternity band and a halo ring are in production and should be ready for the holidays.

Kyanite Earrings with Settings by Brandy
So how does CAD design work?  CAD stands for “computer aided drafting” and there are dozens of software packages out there, ranging from industrial uses (i.e. for making auto parts) to the more fun, like jewelry design.  When the design is done, the computer model is “printed” in 3D, that means a plastic or wax model is created directly from the file by a 3-D printer, which adds layer upon layer of wax or plastic until the model is fully “grown” (yep, that’s the lingo).  The model then cast in your favorite metal.

CAD design is not cheap.  The standard price for a model is between $100 and $200, depending on how elaborate your design is.  Plus growing costs, which can be up to $50.  Remember also that you need to discuss a lot of details with your CAD designer.  You have to provide exact measurements of your gem, have an idea of the dimensions of the piece, i.e. how wide and deep a ring should be, domed, flat, tapered, prong style, etc.  All this is part of the design time you pay for, and the actual design can still take an hour or two.  Then you add in the casting, and of course the metal cost.  So a CAD design is worth doing only if you want to have something done in gold for an expensive stone, or if you plan on making more than one piece, like me.  I can work the cost of the original into the jewelry price, if I sell enough pieces.

What are the advantages of 3D design?  You can get symmetry and precision that is nearly impossible to achieve in metal or wax.  Think of the dozens of tiny prongs on a halo ring, or the perfect curvature of a custom design tapered ring.  Making a wax or metal model takes hours and is very easy to mess up.  I’m not a jeweler by training, so I can do neither (the organic look of my own wax rings, by contrast, is easy to get).  Meanwhile, the wire you can buy for the rings I solder is either flat or domed, and that seriously limits the design.  Just being able to solder together the settings for a 3-stone ring requires weeks of practice – sort of like playing even a simple Schubert piece on the piano (forget Chopin!).  If you make many castings, you also save money over buying the parts each time, or having to buy finished models elsewhere at a markup.  Plus of course CAD opens up a wealth of options beyond the traditionally available parts (even though there are a lot).

My Eternity Band (top) with Round Bezel Settings, and an Open Version for a Stone
I personally decided on CAD designs because a lot of my stones are very deep.  Many colored stones are have a bulky back which preserve the color.  They’re not flat like diamond cut stones, so many of the traditional settings prove too shallow or the prongs too short to grab the stone.  Some of the silver settings, in turn, are too flimsy and the prongs can break off during setting. 

There are also some disadvantages to CAD designs.  The main one, right now, is a limitation of the printing and casting process.  You cannot get as much detail with a casting as you can when you work directly in the metal.  Consider the little filigree pendants I’ve been selling lately.  Those were made in the 1920s, some are stampings (where the metal is stamped out directly and the design imprints itself onto the metal), others have tiny millgrain that is applied with a special tool.  For a wax model to capture a design, it has to be about 1/3mm deep, which means that some engravings and textures don’t show.

I figure, however, that in time, both the growing and the casting process can be done with more precision, plus the design software will be easier to use.  This will also lower the cost of production.  Then maybe anyone can make jewelry at home.  (Is that a good thing?)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gem and Jewelry Care: Do’s and Don’ts

This is probably a long overdue blog entry.  I talk so much about gems, but never about what you should and should not do once you receive the jewelry I make for you.  This tip sheet has the basics.

1.      Adding Shine:  Use a polishing cloth.  But you need a good quality one, like Sunshine Polishing Cloths from Rio Grande.  They feel a little waxy, not just like cloth.  You can rub fairly hard for a good shine, BUT: if your piece has a sandblasted or matted finish, you will rub it off.  Those finishes are essentially surface abrasions and your cloth is an abrasive also.  Alternatively, you can use a buffing stick.  But again, not too hard.

2.      Cleaning Grime and Dirt: Soak in basic jewelry cleaner, then brush with a baby toothbrush which you’ve dipped into the cleaner.  BUT: if your gems are dyed, the dye may come off eventually.  By the way, a mild dish detergent diluted in water will do the same as jewelry cleaner.

My cleaners, which I got from Bed/Bath and Beyond

3.      Getting Rid of Oxidation:
a)      First, try to avoid it.  Store your jewelry away from air, i.e. in sealable plastic bags.
b)      Second, a polishing cloth will do the main job.
c)      For the crevices, use silver cleaner.  But again, don’t use this with stones that are dyed or have surface treatments.  Things can happen.

4.      Shining up a Gem:
a)      I use the cloths they give you for cleaning your classes.  They are excellent!
b)      Soapy water and jewelry cleaner are ok. 
c)      You can use alcohol.  But only if there’s no treatment on the stone!  And don’t leave the stone in overnight.  15-20 minutes are fine.  Also, alcohol dissolves the oil used to treat emeralds, so you may need to re-oil your gem afterwards.
d)      Acetone.  Sometimes a setter uses glue to hold down a stone as he sets it.  Acetone removes the glue.  But if your stone is glued in, the acetone will remove the entire stone.  Acetone also takes out dyes and other stuff.  So use that with caution.

When you take your jewelry to a jeweler, they might offer to clean it via ultrasonic or steaming.  Use these with caution.  Ultrasonic cleaners can harm emeralds, for instance (but it’s fine for rubies, sapphires, and diamonds).  And steaming is very harsh on stones also.  It’s ok for most stones, if it’s done briefly and not too close to the stone.  But make sure there’s a strainer underneath because the steam can push out a gem that’s not properly set or that has come loose over time.  Then it’s down the drain.  Literally.

What if your emerald needs oiling? Do it at home.  Use baby oil or linseed, warm it up slightly, and put in your jewelry.  Leave it in overnight, or days even.  Then clean the jewelry (that’s the fun part).  The oil should have seeped deeply into the stone, so cleaning it in a jewelry cleaner should not matter.

What if your brushed finish has come off from wear (this can happen with rings)? You can reapply it.  I use an attachment to my little rotary tool (it’s called a “fiber wheel”) but you can use the back of a Scotch Brite sponge (the green part) and rub it over your item.  Practice on a spoon or other piece of metal first so you can see how it looks.  That creates a slightly more scratchy look than my finer spongy material but it’s essentially the same.  Alternatively you can buy the stuff at Rio Grande, it’s also called “Scotch Brite”.

Fiber Pad for Brushed Finish
What if your jewelry is plated (as in vermeil for instance, though not gold-filled, which doesn't have silver underneath)?  Most electro-plating (with rhodium or gold) applies only an extremely thin layer of metal to your jewelry.  Over polishing can remove it, and applying a matte finish with the sponge will remove it for sure!  So be careful.  Re-plating jewelry is not expensive, but it can come off again.  I can have it done for you if you need me to.  I pay $5 per piece of jewelry, I would charge you $10, for the trouble.  A jeweler will charge more.  But remember, this is the cheaper plating.  There are expensive plating methods too that are very permanent, but they cost me over $80, I presume in part because there’s more gold involved.  I haven’t investigated this but I can if you want me to.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are Gemstones Ethically Sourced?

Even though I don’t get this question a lot, since I teach ethics, it stands to reason that the ethical sourcing of gems would be a concern of mine. And it is. But if we consider the question carefully, it is obvious that even if we could all agree on what “ethical sourcing” meant in this context, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that the demand to only use ethically sourced gems is nearly impossible. The quick and dirty reason why is this: we don’t have enough information to really know.

First let’s break down our gems into two very rough categories: old mine and new mine gems. Old mine gems might be 20, 30, or even 70 years old (old mine diamonds are even older).

My Burma rubies for instance are old mine. That means they were mined and brought to the U.S. before the trade embargo. However, all that means is that we know that now laws were broken in bringing the stones into this country. And that is very little. The longer ago a stone was mined, the more hands it might have gone through. Maybe that was 10 different hands, maybe 100. So anyone who buys an old miner has little to no guarantee about any behavior anyone might have engaged in who once owned the stone. We know little to nothing about how or even exactly where the stone was mined, we don’t how much minors was paid, how well they were treated, what kind of environmental damage the mining caused, what payment the cutter received. We know nothing about any of the other possible owners, such as gemstone dealers, setters if the stone was previously set, private owners, or polishers who might have re-cut the stone, etc. Or how many countries the stone has travelled before it got here. It's just too much data to acquire, and I seriously doubt anyone has it. By contrast, we know a lot more about where our foods come from, if they were fair trade, organic, etc. For one, there are considerably stricter regulations about food.

And secondly, even canned foods are rarely more than a few months old. Take emeralds mined in Colombia. Yes, it might be true that no Colombian laws were broken in producing emeralds. Let’s assume that for the sake of the argument. But does that mean the miners, cutters, and dealers were paid fairly, that they were treated well? It means no such thing because Colombian laws do not guarantees this. Or take Brazil, a country that buys much of the toxic waste produced in the U.S. because it is too expensive to store it here (and our laws are too strict). Do you think that a country that buys our garbage for income, and stores it sometimes near populated areas, can afford to meet our ethical demands when it comes to the mining of aquamarine? (And aren’t we hypocrites if we make such demands when we also pay Brazil to store our toxic waste?)

Tie Bar with Old Mine Ruby Cabochons

Now let's take new mine stones, more recently mined material that is. At least in these cases we know that the chain of information is shorter, laws are more recent, and political situations better assessable. But we also know that the fair trade label, which is widely used for foods, does not apply to gemstone mining and sourcing. So there are no regulations to appeal to. The Kimberly laws are only for diamonds, and they're not that great either. Even regarding the U.S., we know that many of the environmental practices we had a while back are now considered unethical, and many are now illegal as well. We have gotten much stricter and much better (we hope, but let's assume we did). Very little of this applies outside of the U.S., the E.U., Canada or Australia. So even if we have some information about a particular gem, it is at best incomplete, and at worst we already know that the ethical demands we might have about its sourcing are not likely to have been met, or are ever likely to be met in the developing world.

1.6 Carat Old Mine Diamond
Let’s look at one more category, the only one that might hold some promise when it comes to ethical sourcing of gems. Consider cases where we buy recently mined materials nearly directly from the source, meaning from a dealer who came from, i.e. Tanzania, or who acquired the materials him(her)self and had them cut in his (her) own company. When it comes to my Tanzanian goods, my suppliers fall into that category. And they are nice people who I know pay better than the competition and who treat their workers well.

But now consider this. A German geologist recently told me that even though he personally supports families in Tanzania, he can only pay miners and cutters what an E.U. or U.S. consumer is willing to pay, in other words what the market bears, plus his own markup (he’s not rich, so his markup, let’s say, is just what’s necessary to live your average travelling salesman’s life). Is his pay fair? That same geologist told me that he was once offered a piece of tanzanite from a local who demanded $250. He offered $5 instead because he felt that’s what the market would allow. Was that ethical or not? The local had enough to feed his family for a few days, and then he would have to try to find a new piece of tanzanite. Long term planning for such an individual is not possible, nor is it what anyone else can manage.

Tanzanite Slice Necklace
I am personally very strict with myself when it comes to the foods I eat (they must be ethical) and a large portion of my other purchases, but with gems I have learned the hard way that there is no way for me to do this and at the same time offer a large variety of gems or jewelry. I also know if I don't buy goods, people don't get paid at all, so that's not necessarily an ethical alternative. It's what you call being between a rock and hard place, but at least it’s the honest answer.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Buying Sphene

I usually try to stay away from the softer gemstones – after too many experiences of them falling apart on you.  But sphene, which has a hardness of 5.5, is just such a beautiful stone that when J., my gemstone dealer friend who specializes in East African goods got a parcel, I just had to have some.

Sphene is also called “Titanite” because of its high titanium content.  It has an extremely high refractive index and in the sunlight, it looks like it actually has more than one color (this is also called pleochroism).  The prettiest, in my view, are lemon yellow with flashes of green.  The name “sphene” comes from the Greek for “wedge” because that’s how the rough looks before cutting.  You’ve seen it in my sphene slice jewelry.
J.’s material is Madagascan, which is one of the well known locations for sphene at the moment.  When he opened the plastic bag it came in and poured the content out over the table, I almost gasped.  I took some pix for you so you can see what I was facing.  Many stones were more yellowish-orangy, but a good portion had the green flashes I was looking for.  I spent a good hour just playing around with the parcel.

Pre-Sorted Parcel of Sphene

In terms of pricing, picking from a parcel usually gets you a lower per carat price because the material is not yet sorted (it is usually pre-sorted though, into lower and higher grade).  Sometimes, first pick from a new parcel can cost a little more though, because the best stones are still in there.  A parcel that’s been very picked through often gets discounted after the nice stuff is gone, but it’s not always worth looking at it, either.  Some dealers also up the price for “choice” as opposed to just scooping some out for you and weighing it (or trying to sell you the entire parcel). 

Individually priced stones are usually marked up, and since J. usually takes out the time to do just that for the shows – weigh each gem, measure it, determine the clarity, and then mark it up more or less depending on his expert judgment, I am always thrilled when I get an email saying a fresh parcel has arrived and I can pick before it’s been priced out.  Then the markup is standardized across the entire shipment, meaning if I pick well I get great materials at a great price.  The labor is mine of course, but I can enjoy playing around while J. makes phone calls, answers emails, or just watches me to see what I will pick.  Sometimes I line up the gems into pairs, and if J. is in the mood, he will individually bag the leftover pairs after I’ve made my choice.  That saves him the time of matching them later, and matched pairs also go at a premium because matching is very time consuming.

Anyway, I picked about 20 carats worth of sphene in the end (10 gems).  I closed my eyes when J. put my parcel on the scale, but it had no effect on the weight, lol.  I did what most gem dealers do, I immediately sold a couple stones at a very low markup just to cover part of my cost (so the cushion pair I bought is gone, but the oval pair is still there).  Then held on to the rest (I bought these in May), and just marveled over them for a while.   I’m still waffling over how I should sell them: individually or in finished jewelry.  Sphene is tricky to set and I don’t want to disappoint a customer.  On the other hand most of my customers seem to prefer to choose their design.  But no way I will bezel set these, and probably I will discourage rings (too bad, because then you can’t see the sparkle).  Maybe I will keep one for myself.  Choices choices…

Sphenes I bought in indirect light

Sphenes I bought in direct sunlight

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Fading Beauty of Spodumene

With so many interesting and neat gemstones on the market, knowing what's what can get very confusing.  But some information should still be made more public!  Kunzite is a pink gemstone that has gained some recent popularity.  It is part of the family of Spodumene, which also includes a green variety called Hiddenite (colored by chromium), as well as clear and yellowish stones.  The specimens are large, prices are low, and the gem is very pretty in general.

So I decided to buy a parcel of mixed colors, straight from Pakistan via EBay – yes I use EBay on occasion, but it is not for the uninitiated.  But that’s another blog entry….

My parcel arrived quickly and checked as spodumene on the refractometer.  The price was great, too.  I made a couple of pendants right away.  Then I went to an outdoor craft fair.  A few days later, I noticed that my pretty green gem had faded to a pinkish white, sort of like a very washed out morganite.  Someone on Etsy was interested in it, I discouraged the sale to buy myself some time.  I asked around.  Yes, the stuff can fade, I was told, especially the greens.  So I put that in the description, and planned on re-photographing the piece, or just selling it as the pink variety, kunzite, describing it as very light color.  Before I got around to it, someone else bought it.  I apologized profusely, and reversed the sale upon explaining that this was no longer a necklace with a green gem.
Spodumene Piece Before The Color Faded

On the Right, the Spodumene After the Color Faded, Next to a Difference Piece (Also Faded Now)
The very gracious customer went onto Google and tried to get more information.  Websites turned up that claimed it was an “evening” stone, had to be stored in a bag and only worn at night because it fades in sunlight.  (What a pain… ) Other sites said only the green fades, yet other sites said they all fade, and one site said it fades only when it is heated.

I finally went to GAL and asked for clarification.  My friend there consulted some more reputable GIA sources and books.  I asked him to tell me which of the following claims are true, and here are the answers.
“1. Only spodumene that was heated to make green stones fades.”
Trick question:  False –  you get Green from Pink from irradiation by x-ray or gamma ray, not heat.  Any type of Spodumene that does NOT contain chromium will likely fade …but can be reversed and “re-reversed” via irradiation. 

“2. Only irradiated stones fade.”
False – This is just innate in spodumene in general, except with a high presence of chromium, which stabilizes the stone for some reason.  This has something to do with the valency of the electrons in chromium and how it reacts to the other transition/metallic elements such as manganese. 

“3. All spodumene fades.”
False – See above for exception.  Everything else most likely will fade though.

“4. Most spodumene fades, both pink and green.”
True – Most spodumene will fluoresce, phosphoresce, and it usually has the phenomenon called "tenebrescence", which is the technical term that causes the color to fade. It does not fade ONLY if chromium is present.  Chromium bearing spodumene can still be irradiated to alter its color though. 

In addition, here are the most common treatments of spodumene and their results:
Using X-ray or gamma ray (irradiation) can turn pink to green
Using only X-ray can turn colorless to pink and then to green (this can be stopped at stages)
Using Daylight/UV/Heat or equivalent can turn green to pink and to colorless (this can be stopped at stages)
So most likely my green stones were not chromium bearing and had been turned from pink to green via one of these treatments.  Which I then accidentally reversed by exposing it to sunlight.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Idar Oberstein - Round Two

As many of you know, I went back to Germany (and also Italy) for part of June and July, visiting family and taking a much needed break from work and jewelry. But what would a trip be without at least a little gem shopping? So I made another appointment with the Sri Lankan in Idar Oberstein who sold me those awesome spinels last summer.
This time I took my dad along for the ride. Ulterior motive: the drive Idar-Oberstein, one of Europe's main gem trading centers, is 2 hours each way. But dad had fun watching me pick out gems, pair them up on the ridge between my index and middle finger, loupe for inclusions or cracks, while he was sipping tea and trading news about world economics with Rohan, the gem dealer.

Rohan told us about a new mine near Kataragama, Sri Lanka, which was discovered at a construction site.   The mine produces Kashmir like sapphires, but with lots of color banding, so cutting has been challenging. Prices have already skyrocketed because of the Chinese economy. Apparently, many gems are being sold in Hong Kong, and fewer arrive in NY an Europe - which I can attest to, not having had access to good sapphires in over a year. Mohammed, my previous Sri Lankan source, has essentially vanished. Probably he, too, goes to Hong Kong now. Rohan, meanwhile, did buy two pieces from the new mine for a customer, but these stones are not anywhere near our price range.

Nevertheless, I lucked out as well, because some of the cute spinels Rohan had cut over 10 years ago were still available: little hexagons, square emerald cuts and trillion cuts. The smaller pairs will appear in my shop for about $75. But I also got reds this time and one or two larger pairs, which will cost more.  He increased prices a little, but within reason.

Ceylon Spinel Pairs

I even got a pair of 5mm hexagon green zircon and two pairs of chrysoberyl, all from Sri Lanka. In spinel, I got a lot of blues and reds, some pinks but very little purple. I also got one larger purple gem, about 3.5 carats (see the picture below).
Ceylon Spinel, About 3.5 Carats
But mainly I was interested in buying sapphires. I had hoped, and I was right, that Rohan might have some pieces stashed away that were mined and cut a while back. Ceylon sapphire, you should know, has to be cut in Sri Lanka before it can be exported. Some cuts are nice, some are not. Also, much of the material is lighter in color, so it is either heat treated or cut with a bulky pavillion for color retention, or both. I wanted the unheated of course, insofar as possible. It took two hours in total, but I eventually settled on 5 small dark pieces under one carat (one or two of these might be heated, I'll find out when I get back - heat treatment is checked under the microscope), one larger unheated medium blue (about 3.45 carat), and two large yellows, 6.31 carat or so total weight, for an awesome introductory price.

Ceylon Sapphires Under 1 Carat

Yellow Ceylon Sapphires

Large Ceylon Sapphire, 3.45 Cts
I had to pay cash - that was a drawback but this is to be expected when low prices are made. For a seller like Rohan, who usually deals in large stones only (both for private clients and for jewelry stores), who has no internet shop, no store and who does not do shows, a customer like me means quick extra money made with materials that don't see the light of day very often. Materials, in other words, that are not of interest to larger jewelry stores who want new cuts, certificates and appraisals.

In the right circumstances, therefore, this can be a win win situation. I know my sapphires very well, I know the NY market, and I know how to work with gems that don't have perfect cutting. So I think I will do well with the pieces I got, and so will you if you're interested (even though none of them will be cheap). I just wish I could go to Germany more often. There were a lot of gems I wanted to have but that had to stay behind because as you can probably surmise, I totally blew my budget for the time being. You'll have to wait a bit for the sapphire listings in the shop, but further inquiries are welcome. Before I make any prices, these babies are going to the lab. I'm fairly sure my purchase and prices were good, the seller reliable, but values change constantly and I want certainty.

Red and Pink Ceylon Spinels, Some Pairs

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gem and Mineral Shows

If you saw some of my most recent listings, you know that I attended my very first mineral show here in NJ in May.  I didn’t know what to expect, especially since the advertisement for it (and the banner) said that I would also get to see dinos!

So ok, there weren’t any dinosaurs, no live ones anyway, but lots of fossils and mineral specimens, some of them costing in the 10’s of thousands of dollars.   And an entire bench made of agate, probably weighing several tons.  Apparently, that’s how a mineral show differs from bead shows, jewelry shows, and gem shows.  There were in fact very few gems to see at all, but tons of cheap stuff (beads, agates, crystals) and lots of people walking around who believe in the special powers of rocks.
In short, I really thought I was in the wrong place at first, especially since there didn’t seem to be a distinction between wholesale and retail.  And even I don’t want the public to get the same prices at which I buy. 

But after spending a little more time looking around, it turned out to be quite fun, and worth recommending.  First, there were several dealers that had gemstone rough.  I don’t use rough very much, and I think the prices weren’t that low, but it was very helpful for me to get an idea of how to judge it.  For instance, if it doesn’t look perfectly clean, it’s not going to get cleaner when you cut it (a simple truth which we forget very easily when looking at glitter).  I actually got very lucky picking out some pieces of Australian black opal rough.  Opal rough is stored in water so you can see how it might look after polishing, and a lot of it is pre-shaped:  the rocks are split open and the sandstone and other stone cut off so you can see how much opal there is and how it looks.  I dipped around in little wet bowls for a good hour, but I in the end I found three pieces totally worth having (and a larger one that was already finished).
Black Opal Rough (Wet)

Polished Fancy Shape Black Opal
Then, at the other end of the huge hall in which the show was held, I found a German mineralogist, a guy who also deals in rough, but largely the quality that goes to schools for cutting, or is used for industrial purposes, or sold as is in mineral shops.  Jochen Hintze lives partly in Tanzania and partly in Germany, has an M.A. in geology and has experience working in the mines.  He can converse in Swahili with the locals, and he has written articles in trade journals.  You can look at his ridiculously vast collection of specimens at  (but you need to be able to read German I’m afraid).

Sphene and Tanzanite Slices

Tanzanite Slice on Silver Sheeting
Anyway, we hit it off right away and I pretty much spent the afternoon sifting through his items.  He had an entire box of unheated tanzanite, which I dug around in until I located a few excellent pieces of bi-color rough that were thin enough to set as slices.  He also had Madagascan sphene slices – something I had never ever seen before (apparently that’s how the rough comes sometimes).  There was also some spinel rough from Tanzania, and a mineral called Sanidine, which I had never heard of before.  Needless to say I bought some of everything. 

On my upcoming trip to Germany, I hope to pay another visit to Jochen Hintze; he has a whole house full of mineral stuffs he told me.  If not, I’ll have to wait till the next mineral show in the spring.  Or maybe my dream destination, Tuscon, if I can ever swing that.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Inclusion or Crack? A Fine Line

We’re getting sucked into the lore together, my customers and I.  Once you own a couple of pretty pieces, you want more: bigger, better, more perfect looking.  And so the stakes increase.  Most of you now own a loupe, and the new customers already come equipped.  That’s the reputation I built, for better or worse.

And with May, the birthstone month of emerald, just having ended, I can breathe a little easier, because as perfection goes, emerald is one of the greatest challenges.  A naturally included and somewhat brittle stone, emerald easily gets chipped and scraped during storage.  In the little plastic bags, diamond papers, and even in the gem trays, they bump into each other and nick the surface of their neighbor.  Given the ever decreasing stash of my gem dealer friend D, I now have to triple loupe everything.  Catching a flaw in a 4mm stone is not easy even with a loupe, and when you add to that the time it takes to match two stones, your afternoon can quickly get sucked out from under you.
Meanwhile, the numbers of those who want one of these pieces is increasing – perhaps because supplies are shrinking elsewhere as well, and prices correspondingly rise.
Add to that another problem with gemstones in general, and emeralds in particular: inclusions.  These are tiny little openings inside the gem where stuff gets trapped that makes the gem look ugly.  That’s what makes oiling, polymer, and other coatings so attractive for the seller.  They seep into the crevices and open spaces, smoothing out the ugly spots.
Emeralds are among the most highly included gems I work with.  And consequently the most problematic.  The line between an inclusion is as narrow as a tightrope.  Here’s why: when gems are faceted, it is the cutter’s challenge to make sure none of the inclusions reach the surface.  When they do, then that gets judged to be a crack or a nick, and the stone becomes a reject.  When you try to repolish the table of such a gem, the crack opens up more and more, until the stone is so flat you can’t use it at all.  That’s why with extremely rare gems, like larger alexandrites, the stone is left as is and sometimes still sold at a high price.  I’ve also seen this with a green diamond once. It had a “hole” as it was described to me, and there was no polishing it out.  Still it was worth over $40,000, because of its rarity.
When you slice the more included material, as is now done with emeralds, you face an even bigger problem.  For one, the rough is more included to begin with.  Secondly, when it is sliced, and the inclusions are too long, the stone can just break in two.  Or it can look like it has a crack that goes across the entire surface, as if you had dropped it or hit it with a hammer.  If you have rough sliced and are paying for it, you can end up with nothing but slices like that, and it’s your cost.  Or you sell them anyway – sometimes I do.  If you think they won’t break, then they are emeralds with inclusions on the outside, not cracks.
Emerald Rough, Included, not Faceting Grade
A smaller piece of rough.
So is it ever a crack?  Well, yes.  If it wasn’t there before the setter touched it.  If it wasn’t there before it went into ultrasonic for cleaning (generally not advised for emeralds) or when it was steamed at close range and there was no crack before.  Then it’s a crack.  But it’s still a fine line.  A stone had a fine inclusion that got bigger from the pressure of hammer setting.  The inclusion opened up into a crack, we say.  Or just “it cracked,” Or “it opened up.”  Take your pick. 
Same Rough After Slicing.  The top two are from the rough in the second picture, which looked cleaner initially.  But the inclusions came to the surface.  The second two slices (from the first picture) fared much better, though a piece broke off on the slice on the right and the stone had to be shaved down.
So in a way, there’s not always an intrinsic difference between the two.  You can tell, sometimes, more easily with less included stones for sure, that the stone did crack from some sort of pressure: in a sapphire, for instance, a crack will reflect light like a little rainbow, as opposed to the “silk”, the white lines, that are naturally part of the stone. 
The upshot: it depends on the stone, on what exactly you see, and on the before and after of cutting, setting, cleaning and polishing.  It’s just not a straightforward matter.  A very philosophical answer, I know.