Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Origin of my Sapphire, and News on Pricing

A few weeks ago I told you about the 1 carat sapphire I got through the internet.  I finally got it back and I got an answer.  Generally, with a sapphire, you can approximate origin by color.  The more vibrant and dark colors are usually African, the very dark blackish blues are Thai.  But the teal colors now often come from Africa as well, no longer just Australia.  Sri Lankan stones, by contrast, are medium to lighter colored, ranging from white to yellow to true blue, purple and baby pink. 

Most labs do not give you the origin of a stone, there are too many variables and too much testing is required.  My little baby went through FTIR (Fourir Transform Infrared) and Raman Spectrometer.  Basically, both of these are micro analyses of what other compounds are in the stone that help you determine the region of origin.  Wikipedia had an article on FTIR – but I didn’t understand a word, lol.

Anyhow, long story short, my sapphire is Sri Lankan (Ceylon) after all.   So when I picked up my stone, I figured I’d ask Josh from GAL if that affected the estimated retail value.  Because Burmas are usually (much) more expensive.  Well, this might have been the case a few months back, but it isn’t right now.  So the $1900 stays on the cert and Josh swears by it.  But of course I'll list it on etsy for less.

Here's my Baby Sapphire - You'll See it on Etsy Soon
Gem prices have gone up all across the board.  But some stones are particularly badly affected: they are sapphire and spinel.  Sapphire has approximately tripled in the last couple of years, with certified unheated pieces being nearly unavailable or only at astronomical prices.  Spinel from Sri Lanka seems to have gone up by 30%, Mahenge by a little less but my curve starts only last summer because I never had access to any before. 

What’s going on that has affected prices so much?  Word of mouth and a recent article in the Economist provide these reasons:

1.      Increase in world demand, especially China
2.      Investor interest, especially in known stones like sapphire
3.      Decreasing supplies in certain areas, i.e. Sri Lanka
4.      Increased public awareness of treatments and gems (i.e. spinel)
Some footnotes to 2 and 4.  Private investors have always been buying gemstones, but with so few other investments paying off these days there has been more activity in that regard.  This dovetails with 4: more people are also aware of treatments, and some treatments devalue a stone (i.e. diffusion treatment in star sapphires, lead glass filling in rubies).  This makes people want natural stones instead.  Some treatments don’t last, i.e. the fillers in emerald come out when the stones are cleaned, glass filled rubies turn lighter in lemon juice, diffusion treated sapphires cannot be repolished or the star will come out.  For all these reasons, treated stones – at least certain kinds of treatments – should be avoided if one seeks long term pleasure or gain.  Very low heat in sapphires, rubies and aquas, possibly due to the cutting wheel only (which is unavoidable) is about the only acceptable treatment in my view, because these are permanent.  Oiling emeralds is also not such a bad thing, it can actually protect the emerald over time and the oiling can be repeated (you can do it at home by submerging the stone in warm baby or linseed oil for a day or two).  The oil should not be colored however, because that amounts to adding dye, and that will also come out. 

The million dollar question, of course, is whether gem prices will decrease again, thus rendering some investments a bad choice.  But I don’t think that’s going to happen.  The only way it could is if supply increased drastically.  New mines are found of course, and that affects price, but mines get exhausted too.  Plus if one knows that a sapphire is Burma or Ceylon, or the tourmaline is Paraiba, or the alex is Russian (insofar as that’s possible), no amount of new finds are likely to destroy the pedigree that comes with that origin.  At least that’s how it seems to me, because prices of Paraiba have not gone down just because some Afghani stones have the same color now.  Burma rubies are still expensive even though again, Afghanistan has produced some nearly equally fine stuff.  Spinel has even gone up in value because of the new Mahenge finds.  It’s largely the mid to lower grade stuff that can get affected, so apatite might go down because of new finds, and some of the lesser tourmaline (i.e. the forest greens).  But those are not really investment stones anyway.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Getting Cheated: How to Avoid Buying Fake Alex

It happens; it can even be unintentional.  You buy some alex, you and the seller think it’s real, and then it turns out to be lab created.  Alexandrite is one of the most imitated gemstones on the market today, and fakes have been around for a long time.  The lab guys I use hear it all the time: “But this was my grandmother’s, it can’t be fake.”  One of my colleagues had a ring just like that, with a huge stone, that she thought was the real deal from Russia – and it even came from Russia some 70 years ago, believe it or not.  But it was just a poor replica – even I suspected it immediately.

But the more recent fakes are much more difficult to tell.  This past month, I was at the lab twice with an alex, and twice the stone turned out lab created.  One was a customer’s stone, the other was (almost) mine.  Here are both stories.  My customer bought her alex (several of them) at an Ebay store that claimed to have real Russian alex, and at a good price.  I didn’t know at first that’s where she got them, and didn’t suspect anything when I made her earrings.  The color change was nice, the stones not perfect, and even a couple of dealers that eyed the stones said they seemed ok.  But then she lost an earring and bought another set.  This time the color change was sort of weird (more purplish and more complete) so I showed the stone around.  Two dealers shared my suspicion so I went to GAL.  The stone turned out to be lab alex: real alex material but grown from alex crystal in the laboratory.   So the refractive index test showed it to be alexandrite, but the inclusions looked too regular to be natural under the microscope.  (Some fake alex is actually corundum, lab grown sapphire, and the refractive index test will show that.)
Here’s the second story: I was offered a super clean cushion alex for a low price on the street, from one of the dealers I know but don’t normally use for that kind of thing (she’s not very knowledgeable).  The color change was weak.  I said I’d buy it subject to lab report.  I was allowed to take the stone out on memo.  Again, the refractive index test checked.  Then the lab guy showed it to another lab guy and both conferred for a while.  The stone got turned this way and that under the microscope.  They verdict: 90% certain that it was lab grown.  I returned the stone.  The dealer was upset, and requested a lab report from her supplier in turn.  This time from GIA.  Fake.  So she, too, returned the goods.

So how can you tell?  The bad fakes are easy, like my colleague’s glass stone.  It was huge, it looked purple all the time, and it was clean.  That’s not a real stone.  But today’s fakes are not like that, they look pretty much exactly like alex.  So what to do?  One rule for alex is this: if the price is too good to be true, then it isn’t real.  If it’s cheap, and looks wonderful, forget it.  Alex often looks murky, and the ones with brilliance have low color change.  Secondly, if someone says it’s Russian, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those are gone.  Except for a tad bit of private stock here and there, or a few pieces at a reputable gemstone dealer’s, there’s no more.  Precious Pebbles, the supplier I use, has a few pieces.  And they have the largest alex collection I’ve ever seen.  Plus, it’s actually very hard to tell origin on an alex (like most stones).  The Brazilian ones and the Russian ones look totally alike, the Indian ones are a little lighter in color, more grassy.
Thirdly, see if you can get a look at the parcel from which it came.  It should be a uneven in terms of brilliance and color; and when you do the color change test (you can use a flash light for that so long as it’s incandescent, not fluorescent), then the parcel should light up very unevenly.  It should not, ever, look like this:

Also the color change is far too strong and too even.  

For comparison, here’s my parcel.  There are much much better and more expensive parcels than mine of course, but still, this is much closer to what these are like.