Status Quo Prevails in Colored Stones

In sharp contrast to last year’s robust spring selling season, 2001 has been slow and steady for most colored stone dealers who say there is little news to report. There have been no major price shifts, no dramatic supply changes and no new gem discoveries (apart from a major ruby strike in Madagascar that is yielding hundreds of kilos of mostly dark material).

In fact, most dealers voice the same refrain: Customers are being cautious, big-ticket items are moving more briskly than run-of-the-mill goods and the color universe continues to expand, growing more varied as our cultural preferences come back to center following the black-and-white binge of the 1990s.

“In general, business is OK. It could be more brisk. People are very cautious and want to weigh out what’s happening now and what might happen by the end of the year,” said Roland Naftule of Nafco Gems in Scottsdale, Ariz. “They’re buying stones that they can get mounted in time for the holiday but are holding back on jewelry, maybe not wanting to sit on it during the summer.”

This is typical when cash flow slows to a trickle, he said, adding that in times of stock market distress, fine quality is always a best seller and mediocre goods are slow to get picked up.

Here’s a breakdown of supply and demand for the industry’s most significant stones.

Sapphire

Sapphires from Madagascar are still the trade’s hottest ticket, despite a tightening supply, 10% to 15% price hikes (primarily for pinks) and more stringent enforcement of government control measures.

Shaun Ajodan of N.Y.-based Shaun Gems attributed the market’s vitality to the fact that Sri Lankan production is down and Madagascar goods, which are easily confused with Ceylon material, have filled that void nicely.

“Madagascar goods are so close; if anything, they’re even prettier [than Ceylon goods],” said Ajodan. He added that finer goods in 10 carats and up are hitting $3,000-$4,000 per carat, those between 5 and 10 carats are hitting $2,000-$3,000 per carat and goods between 2 and 3 carats are pricing out at $1,500-$2,000 per carat.

Prices on the pinks are rising steadily. According to Steve Taylor of Taylor Gem Corp. in Sacramento, Calif., pinks in 1-carat sizes are at about $450-$650 per carat.

“When they first came out, they were about 20% to 40% less,” he said. “We were selling everything for less than $500.”

But by all accounts, the country’s sapphire business is starting to lose some of its early momentum, as miners and buyers give up on Ilakaka and flock to the new ruby strike in the eastern province of Toamasina.

A triple murder in Ilakaka in March didn’t help matters. According to Tom Cushman of Sun Valley, Idaho-based Allerton Cushman & Co., the town has been put on a 9 p.m. curfew following an incident at a local hotel where the owner’s son and two Sri Lankan gem dealers were killed. The crime was allegedly committed by a Malagasy miner, who became enraged after learning that the hotel proprietor-cum-gem dealer was paying him less than market value for a continuous supply of sapphires.

Emerald

Still recuperating from the bedlam that ensued over enhancement issues several years ago, the emerald trade continues to lick its wounds and fortify itself against consumer vigilance. Prices on Colombians are firming up, said Ray Zajicek of Dallas-based Equatorian Imports, although they are still less than what they were three to four years ago. “It’s been a slow recovery,” he said.

Shaun Ajodan said fine-quality Colombian goods in 7-to 15-carat sizes are easily going for $7,000-$ 15,000 per carat, whereas “really fine gemmy goods” can cost upwards of $25,000 per carat.

Ruby

An estimated $40 million worth of rubies from at least four important deposits discovered earlier this year in Madagascar’s eastern province of Toamasina are now flooding Bangkok, according to sources familiar with the Thai ruby market. The goods, which have yet to be priced, are reportedly unheated and reminiscent of the older Siam ruby, a dark, garnet-red stone that fell out of production when miners in Mong Hsu, Burma, hit the ruby mother lode in the early 1990s.

Tourmaline

West Africa’s once ample supply of rubellite is dwindling, like most of the continent’s known gem reserves, said colored stone dealers. This scenario also holds true for pink tourmaline, which was hot last year, said Daniel Assaf of The Tsavorite factory in New York. Demand has fizzled, coinciding with the downturn in supply.

He recently bought a three-kilo parcel of Nigerian pink tourmaline that will yield “good calibrated sizes,” but this year, he thinks the goods may take some time to move.

“It would have gone really quickly last year,” he said. “But both supply and demand died at the same time.”

Not that Brazil, the world’s other big tourmaline producer, is faring much better on the supply side. Fine Paraiba tourmaline, whose very rare “Windex blue” color puts it in the nosebleed section of the price-per-carat list, continues to command buyer attention, said Naftule. Too bad supplies of the stone are virtually nonexistent.

In contrast, Taylor said he recently ordered “nice green tourmaline,” in rounds and trillions over 6mm from the new owners of a formerly defunct mine in Brazil.

Tanzanite

Prices on quality tanzanite are higher than ever before, due to a supply shortage that threatens to make these gems more exclusive than the trade ever expected them to be.

Dana Schorr of Schorr Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif., said demand for the gemmy goods continues to outpace supply, while overproduction in Jaipur, India, has produced a glut of low-quality, calibrated material, bringing a substantial price decrease to boot.

“Fine tanzanite will maintain its price structure,” he said. “But when people dump low-end, included goods, it can drag the whole market down until the stuff filters through the pipeline. For single, well-cut stones, prices are stable.”

Tsavorite Garnet

There isn’t much happening on the tsavorite scene, said Assaf, except for a slight increase in demand for 1 to 2 carat sizes. Prices have been very stable since 1999, when they experienced a brief dip because a new find in Tunduru, Tanzania, wrongly convinced the trade the market would be forever glutted.

“Melee is being widely used these days,” he said. “It’s becoming a great replacement for emerald. A very fine 3-carat goes for about $1,300-$1,600 per carat. Fine 2-carats are selling for $750-$950 per carat. And 1-carat sizes are at about $550.”

Spessartite Garnet

Supplies of orange-colored spessartite garnet from Nigeria are drying up, only a year after quantities of it appeared in Tucson Still, interest in the gem is growing.

“When it first came out, people looked at it like glorified citrine,” said Assaf, citing the market’s slow acceptance of this refractive gem. “The difference from last year to this year is that there is not as much large-sized material available, but a good amount of well-cut calibrated goods in rounds, trillions and princesses.”

Peridot

Peridot is becoming the toast of the jewelry scene, as designers fall in love with its pretty Granny Smith apple color. Yet prices on Pakistani, Chinese and Arizona goods are holding steady, said Mike Romanella of the Commercial Mineral Company in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Production from the three major peridot-producing regions is distinguished by size. Arizona yields the smallest stones, up to about 3 to 4 carats; China produces 5- to 9-carat goods; and Pakistan supplies the world’s finest (read: largest) specimens, ranging anywhere from 9 to 50 carats.

Assaf said Chinese goods are going for about $23 per carat, while the material from Pakistan, which tends to be cleaner, is going for close to double that amount.

Aquamarine

A stream of “very good quality” aquamarine is flowing out of Madagascar, said Naftule, but don’t get too excited just yet. “These will not last,” he predicted.

Iolite

As prices for fine quality tanzanite hover around $650 per carat, members of the trade are turning to iolite for a more cost-effective alternative. Ironically, the surge in demand for this purplish-violet stone has created a parallel price hike of about 25% to 40% for good quality, said Romanella. That brings prices for fine 2-carat stones into the range of $30-$40 per carat.

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