Thursday, October 22, 2015

About Those Pretty Grape-Purple Garnets

There's been much buzz about these grape-purple Rhodolite garnets lately.  Well, actually they are closer to Malaia garnet than Rhodolite - my friend Josh Lents from GAL (Gemological Appraisal Laboratory of America: did a microscopic analysis.

Grape Garnet Ovals and Emerald Cut
But let me back up.  Purple-grape colored garnets have been around for a bit, but the material was generally from Tanzania and that stuff isn't quite as bright as these newer finds.  From what I can piece together, they first showed up at a gem dealer's office in Tanzania who is a big buyer over there (I can't disclose the name) and ended up in the hands of two US gem dealers who get many of their supplies through the Tanzanian dealer.  One of these gem sellers deals in rough, and that's how it most likely made it to some of the US cutters.  The other seller deals mainly in faceted materials, and that's how I got mine (though I buy from the other seller on occasion also).  Talking to both tracked back to the source in Tanzania, and neither of them knew of anyone else who had the material.  The actual origin of the garnet is Mozambique, however, and the market in Mozambique is not very controlled.  So even if you are a big buyer and put word out that you'd like an exclusive, the material will most likely be sold elsewhere.  This means it may turn up with other sellers in the US.  

Larger Grape Garnet Pieces from Mozambique
You should know however, that there are really only a few hundred good gem dealers throughout the US, and many know each other because they buy from each other and they vend at the same shows (i.e. the AGTA, the GJX, the JCK).  So it is ultimately a small world.  

Anyway, given the fact that these gems have not shown up anywhere so far but these two dealers, I surmise that the finds are very small.  

So what is unique about these gems?  Well, both Jaimeen Shah at Prima and Josh Lents from GAL have never seen this stuff before.  Nor had the other seller I talked with.  And that says a lot.  The color is a bright grape purple (purple with "notes" of red).  The material is clean, most pieces are smaller, and those have the best color.  

Why the name Malaia, and not Rhodolite?  Well according to Josh, Rhodolite is Pyrope and Almandine garnet.  But the microscopic association of this material isn't typical, Josh says, which is why he believes there's some spessartine in it as well.  And that would qualify it under Malaia.  He says that "Reviewing both spectral and microscopic analysis, it is interesting to note the association of apatite and rutile inclusions present in these samples, which is highly characteristic of mixed garnet crystals of pyrope, almadine, and spessartine."

Here's a look inside these pretty pieces:

Micro images of Mozambique Grape Garnet

And what about the most important thing, availability?  The honest answer is that nobody knows.  I would surmise that some locals sold these gems, and they got here through the chain I described.  Who else has it, where it is located, nobody traced that back as of yet.

For the time being, all the rough that I know of (from the original purchase) has been cut.  The larger pieces my supplier had are already all sold, so there's just what I have (the two smaller emerald cuts are also sold).  I may be able to get more 6x4 ovals.  Word has been put out for more, and some will presumably show up sooner or later.  Usually however, when "word is put out" and there's not a ton of stuff, prices will be higher next time.  For the miners and brokers that have to live hand to mouth, long term planning or relationships with gem dealers are a luxury.  If you can sell for more today and feed your kids, you will.  Prices are calculated from there on up.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Gem Setting Revisited

I have written about setting gems before, but in lieu of the fact that so much of my business is now custom, here are a few of the most important considerations worth having at your fingertips.

1. What metal should I use?

The softest metal is Sterling Silver, but setting costs are high in the US, so my personal view is that doing custom setting in the US in silver is a waste of your money.  Gold is better.  Yellow gold is the softest of the gold metals, white gold is the hardest, rose the most brittle.  So for soft stones, yellow is best. If you have a soft(er) or brittle stone that you really don’t want to get busted and want to use a white metal, splurge on Platinum.  That’s what I recommend for Paraiba tourmaline for instance.  Platinum is softer than white gold.

Note, however, that in the US,  most standard settings available only come in 14K yellow and white gold. Rose gold and also platinum are often special order and special orders are not refundable in the wholesale world, meaning that when I buy it I cannot return it.

2. What setting style is best?

If you want your stone to be kept safe during setting, use prong style.  That is easiest to do and least risky to the stone.  Sadly, if you want your stone to be safe after setting it, you want to bezel it, especially if it is a ring.  Silver prongs fold easily but bend open easily too, I counsel against them for rings unless there is some protection around it, like a halo (my settings are designed with thicker prongs too).  Bezel settings for faceted gems use the hammer setting method where the metal is literally hammered over the stone with a small electrical hammering tool (the ones for cabochons use thinner metals and can be folded without hammering, the problem there is that you need a very exact fit and that means most bezels have to be made by hand, which costs more).  This won’t work for very soft stones in gold (kyanite, apatite, sometimes emerald), so you can be stuck with using prong settings.  To help secure the stone, you might consider 8 prongs instead of four.

4 Prong Setting

Bezel Setting
8 Prong Setting

An alternative to both that I use, but that requires more expertise, is a beaded setting, or pave.  This is a kind of bezel setting (bezel on the outside) but little bits of metal are shoved over the gem to hold it down (so like prong setting).  The beading tools are sharp so that’s a risk but the gem is very protected after wearing.  My pave pieces are done by hand, so the “prongs” aren’t in the CAD.  This has a more handmade look but that’s how more high end stuff is made and when you have a great setter (I LOVE mine), you will get a nicer result than the commercial look.

Pave Setting

3. Are there other setting styles?

Yes, there is burnished or gypsy setting, which is like a bezel setting but into a flat surface, the metal is then rubbed over the stone.  This cannot be done with anything over 3mm and it cannot be done with soft gems. 

Gypsy Setting
Photo from

There is channel setting.  This involves bending channel wire (imagine a straw sliced in half) around a gem.  That’s done by lazer because you have to solder the two ends together.  It can take up to an hour a gem and is very expensive (my retail price is $120 a piece!).  Channel setting works only for pendants and earrings because the back will poke out, but it offers a very delicate look.  Gems with more than one corner can’t be channel set because the metal isn’t pliable enough.  The corner is used for the soldering seam.  So rounds, ovals, and pears work, not emerald or princess cuts.

Channel Setting

4. I want to buy my own setting, what can I expect?

In the US market, expect to be restricted to 14K yellow or white gold and some silver (not much).  Get prong settings for faceted stones because bezels have to be fitted very exactly and if you order online you won't have the gem on hand.  Prong settings allow a little more give (.5mm at most).  When in doubt, buy the larger prong setting, not the smaller one.  For cushion gems, use round.  For elongated cushions, use emerald settings because there are hardly any cushion settings available anywhere. 

Specialty shapes: expect problems.  Many shapes just require custom jobs.  But if you have one you like, the cheapest way to go is doing a pendant and starting with a setting that can be adjusted a little (like narrowing down a pear to an elongated pear, or a trillion for an off shaped trillion). 

And one final note on using old settings: most settings are made for diamonds and those are not as deep as colored stones for the most part.  And since prongs get clipped to accommodate the gem, you may not have much room to work with.  Prongs can also get brittle with age, and they can break upon or after resetting.  So it may not pay to reset unless you have a more expensive ring.  Don't reset if it is pave style or if you don't see enough prong or bead to put back over the stone.