Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Should This Gem be Recut?

The gems I offer on Etsy do run the gamut: some have amazing cutting that brings out the absolute best of the gem, others are look more like someone was still practicing on them.  Wouldn’t I be better off having those recut?

There are pros and cons to this question.  To me, there are three important factors to consider when asking myself if I should recut a gem: price, outcome, and what type of gem I'm recutting.

1.      Price: small melee size gems can be re-cut by machine, and that’s how it’s done nowadays.  That’s relatively cheap but of course the quality of the individual gems is not considered – or which way to cut it.  When I buy old material that has seen better days I occasionally have this done, but only if I think I can’t reuse the material as is. 

Re-cutting a larger gem, by contrast, takes time, expertise, and cash.  A good average time frame for a re-cut is one hour.  Prices vary, in NY I pay wholesale, which is about $50, but I have to tell the cutter exactly what I want, and many cheaper cutters are not that good, so a re-cut doesn’t always improve the stone.  Also, stones can break during cutting, especially the softer ones.  Retail pricing for re-cutting is about $100-150, or more.  When I have gems re-cut I usually send them through a gem dealer friend to his cutting factory overseas (India or Tanzania).  I pay $3 per carat, give or take, but it can take months to get the gems back and I can't specify any shape.  

Also: diamond prices are different.  Diamond and colored stone cutting are not the same in terms of equipment and training, so the two trades are separate, and diamond cutters charge more.

2.      Outcome: re-cutting a gem means weight loss.  If it just has a scratch and I need a facet fixed, it’s maybe a few points (and costs only a few dollars).  If I have a nearly unusable pebble, it might lose half.  The average weight loss for facet rough is 70-80%.  Also, you can’t always cut out an inclusion, but sometimes you can make it less visible.  Recutting, when it’s done right, can drastically improve brilliance, especially when you add facets (i.e. by going from a step cut to a Portuguese cut).  Windows can be closed by changing the angles of the facets.  And color can be improved too, sometimes unexpectedly so.  But each stone is different, and there are no general rules for predicting outcome.  On Etsy there are some cutters that allow you to send in photos of your gem, and they can give you a rough idea of what improvements are possible.

3.      Not all types of stones should be recut.  I don’t recommend it for most sapphires, for instance.  Ceylon sapphires, by law, are cut in Sri Lanka, and while that cutting is not always superb, Sri Lankans do know how to pull the color out of their sapphires.  Ceylon sapphires are often very light, and there’s just a little bit of color in the culet which distributes over the whole stone and makes it look dark.  If you cut away the bulk in the back, i.e. to make it fit better into a setting, you will lose the color – so the much criticized “native cut” that’s supposedly adds nothing but weight to a gem can have definite advantages.  The standard sapphire step cut, which has shallower angles, additionally preserves color. 

Emeralds are also hard to cut, and they can crack – many cutters prefer not to cut emeralds for that reason.  Nowadays much of the emerald material from Colombia is very light, so it’s hard to bring out the color without also adding depth. 

In general, my rule is that old mine material should be left alone unless it’s really worthless as is, or tiny.  This means that I often have to set bulky stones into settings made for diamond cuts.  So the prongs can be too short, the stone might stick out the back of the bezel, and it can move during setting because it doesn’t properly sit in the bezel, which increases the risk of breakage.  Setting colored gems, especially oddly shaped ones, is not for the un-initiated, that’s for sure.  (It’s yet another reason why I don’t accept a customer’s stones for setting.  I never know what I’m gonna get and if what the customer wants is even possible.)

Spinels from Same Lot: the darker one has been recut

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Where does my Tanzanite Come From?

It is rare that one gets much insight into the actual method by which gemstones arrive at the gem dealer’s booths in New York, unless, that is, one knows buyers who shop direct – “from the mines,” so to speak.  I know two people who do just this: one deals in the crystals that are displayed at mineral shows, the other sells gem quality pieces.  The latter goes through his uncle, who is a gem dealer in Tanzania, the former, Jochen from Jentsch Minerals, is a geologist that has seen the process down to inside the mine.  Jochen, who has a Masters Degree in geology and mining, has spent decades travelling back and forth between Africa and Germany, his home country.  He consults mining operations by writing survey reports, explaining where they should mine and how.  His childhood dream was to cross the Sahara desert, and he saved up for the trip by collecting and selling minerals while he was still in college.  Three months he spent on the road, starting somewhere in North Africa and ending up in the Congo.  It might have been a shorter trip but his vehicle broke down in the Sahara and he had to wait for someone to pass by and give him a ride.  He waited three weeks.  Jochen speaks German, English, French, Spanish, as well as Swahili, the local language Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, among others.

Jochen from Jentsch Minerals
There is actually only one Tanzanite mine in the world, located near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  It is divided into four parts, named Block A-D (though the individual “mines” also have local names).  The C block is commercial and high-tech, it belongs to a South African Company called Tanzanite One.  It is high security and off limits to any outsider.  The B and D blocks are reserved for small scale local miners that work in groups, staking claims that look small on the surface but that reach hundreds of meters underneath the earth.  There is no regular pay check for miners – they receive only food: rice, dried fish, nothing much else, but they can survive.  They sleep outdoors, on trees (yes) and in simple huts.  All the rough that is found is collected by the stake holder who owns and manages the mine.  In small parcels, it is sold off to dealers, or to others that have the right connections, like Jochen.  The price of each parcel is negotiated between the buyer and the seller – often with the help of a gem broker (who, as opposed to a gem dealer, does not own any gems but helps facilitate a transaction for a fee).  The proceeds are split among the miners.  The hope of any miner is to find something truly valuable.  For most of them, that dream never comes true.

Mineral Display - Jentsch Minerals
But at least some of the money that is made off Tanzanite makes it back to the local workers this way.  And to the government, of course, which collects a tax on all the material that is exported.  To take rough out of Tanzania, it is packed up into tin boxes which receive a special government seal that indicates the tax is paid.  But there is also a second seal, which is in the hands of the more local authorities.  These must be paid what we’d call a bribe because it’s not official, yet it is understood that without the second seal there is no exporting the goods.  The “bribe” – which I bet in America would just be called a municipal tax (but this is not America), is again split between locals, and it’s another way for some of the money international buyers make off of the goods stays in Tanzania.  It is, perhaps, the only way, and as I see it is only fair, considering the markup Tanzanite enjoys once its cut, graded, and finally ends up in the hands of the American consumer.

And that is how the Tanzanite comes to me – with no middle man – and it provides me with some insight into the process.  What we pay the locals is not fair by our standards, but I know that it means survival to those who climb ladders leading hundreds of meters underground, who get killed by heavy rains and floods or by the occasional underground shootings that take place when lines between stakes are crossed.  Who work in rags and with poor equipment, eat dried fish and rice, not being able to predict life beyond the next corner.