Spectacular Spinels

Hope Spinel. 50.13 carats. Photo courtesy Bonhams.

Practically everyone has heard of the Hope Diamond, the large, blue, supposedly accursed diamond now in the Smithsonian Institution. But a couple years ago, the London office of the auction house Bonhams sold the 50.13 ct. Hope Spinel, presumably un-cursed.

Spinels have been largely unknown among mainstream gemstone customers. Even those who had heard of the stones thought of them as lesser versions of rubies and sapphires, two gemstones that share colors with spinels. Part of the problem in the past was that spinel supply was often spotty and undependable. Many historical stones came from Tajikistan, at the border of Afghanistan, geographically difficult and often politically dangerous to get to. But in 2007, there was a find of red spinel in Tanzania that flooded the market with top quality stones and people started to notice.

3.78 carat red Burmese (Myanmar) spinel. Photo courtesy Gemcal.

Rising popularity led to rising prices. Then when the costs of sapphires and rubies went through the roof, everyone “discovered” spinels. Unfortunately, that means the costs of fine red or deep blue spinels have also gone up–significantly–but you can still find the less intensely colored spinels that may not break the bank. (Colors other than reds are can range from $25 per carat to $500 per carat; commercial grade red stones may be as low as $700 per carat.)

Spinel-producing regions tend to have their own peculiar color range, according to Hemi Englisher owner of Gemcal Co. Ltd, in Bangkok. Burma (Myanmar) produces “the best reds in the world,” pink, purple, Sienna orange, brown, blue, gray, and colorless stones, he says. From Vietnam: orangey red, blue, cobalt blue, baby pink, “the best lavenders in the world,” and purple. From Tanzania: pink, pinkish red, and red stones that “tend to be slightly foggy or silky.” Small gray and silver material comes from Madagascar. Blue, lavender, change color, and purple stones, “most with a dark shade to them,” are produced by Sri Lanka.

4.68 carat cobalt blue Ceylon (Sri Lanka) spinel. Photo courtesy Gemcal.

Who’s buying spinels? Says Englisher: “Non-traditional buyers, rich hipsters, ex- hippies, and designers.”

A New August Birthstone–Spinel

5.48 carat Burmese Spinel, cinnamon color. Photo courtesy Gemcal.

There is a lot to love about peridot, but because color is such a personal thing, I can imagine there are people who don’t love its yellow-green color. But you can still have a birthstone to love! Because last year, the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) and Jewelers of America (JA) announced the inclusion of spinel as an official birthstone for the month of August.

Red spinel crystals. Photo courtesy ThaiLanka.

 

Okay. My bias is going to show here. But when it comes to spinel, I think it’s one of the most under-rated and under-used stones in the jewelry industry. Part of the reason for that is because it’s not as common as, say, garnet or tourmaline. But to have a stone that is beautiful, is rarely treated, is extremely durable (it’s an 8 in hardness and has little to no cleavage risk), that comes in a luscious range of reds, pinks, purples, oranges, and blues, and to make little use of it is, well, spine(l)less! (Sorry.) Just a few of the gorgeous possibilities are pictured here.

10.25 carat purple spinel from Burma/Myanmar. Photo courtesy Gemcal.

Neon pink spinel. Photo courtesy ThaiLanka.

You know they’re beautiful when enormous spinels found their way into the Crown Jewels of England and were, for many years, paraded as rubies. (I wrote a little about this last month.) But the range of subtle color is what really makes them great as a birthstone. You could can choose just one luscious spinel from a range of reds, oranges, and blues or create a brooch, bracelet or neckpiece with a lovely sherbet-colored palette of spinels. Thinking about using your birthstone as an engagement stone? This stone will still be around for your 50th anniversary.

Something to celebrate this month for your birthday!

Birthstone Friday–Rubies: Being Fair (Trade)

Three rings set with fair trade rubies from Malawi. Photo courtesy Trios Studio, Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Nothing says romance like gemstones. But the gemstone story is not always a pretty one. At the mining and manufacturing end there is environmental degradation, child labor, death from silicosis, low wages, dangerous working conditions. For wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, an uncontrolled supply chain can allow treated, adulterated, imitation, and synthetic materials to masquerade as naturals, creating distrust among buyers and lawsuits against suppliers.

The good news is that millions of “Millennials,” those socially and environmentally aware consumers born in the final decades of the 20th century, are having a tremendous impact on consumerism by demanding that same level of ethical commitment from retailers. Even though many Millennials have not reached their strongest buying years, they’re already willing to pay a premium for responsibly sourced—often called “fair trade”–products, such as coffee, chocolate, and beauty products.

Pink 1.16 ct. sapphire. Photo courtesy Crown Gems.

Montana green sapphire. Photo courtesy Nodeform.

Responsibly sourced gemstones can also meet the ethical standards of anyone concerned about environmental and social issues, and return to gemstones, such as ruby, the romance they deserve.

Essentially, fair trade means fair wages and treatment for miners and cutters; enforcement of health and safety standards; protecting and/or reducing the impact of mining on the environment; controlling the integrity of the supply chain to prevent fraud and deceptive practices; and giving back to the communities in which mining and cutting take place in the form of help with improved education, health care delivery and sanitation, infrastructure, and job training. (Fair trade is not the same as “conflict free.”)

Washing Pit, Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy Crown Gems.

It’s a tall order to change an entire industry, but gemstone wholesalers and retailers are doing what they can in a variety of ways.

Columbia Gem House, one of the first to promote responsibly sourced colored stones, partners with the Chimwadzulu Nyala ruby mine in Malawi. All rough goes to a top-quality cutting house in China that shares their ethical values. By paying above average wages, CGH decreases turnover, and raises worker skill levels over time and, as a result, the quality of the final product. To give back to the producing communities, CGH participates in projects in nearby Ntcheu, Malawi, that raise the quality of services there.

Well, partially funded by Columbia Gem House, Ntcheu Malawi.

Crown Gems, a British-Sri Lankan joint venture, provides a transparent gemstone channel from their own mines in Sri Lanka, or those they trust to use mining practices with less detrimental effect on the environment. They partner with, and oversee the work of small, independent cutters, ensuring that quality cutting is done in safe, well-maintained environments.

Ethical Jewellery Australia Pty Ltd, offers only Australian and Canadian diamonds to their retail domestic market. They buy colored gemstones only from artisanal Australian gem miners and cutters, or suppliers who have strict, transparent guidelines for sourcing and processing.

Fair trade sapphire and diamond ring. Courtesy Trios Studio, Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Owners of the US-based Trios Studio, in Oregon, educate their clients year round about fair trade gemstones. However, a special, in-store event once a year spotlights the stones and draws enthusiastic customers who appreciate knowing a percentage of the proceeds goes to support community projects in Ntcheu, Malawi. They’ve developed such a name that customer seek them out via the Internet.

The interest in responsibly sourced gemstones extends beyond the mine into the laboratory, making lab-created gems–Moissonite, sapphire, emerald, and ruby—a viable option for consumers, too. Designers, such as Konstanze, of Nodeform, and Tamara McFarland, of McFarland Designs, offer consumers the option of buying lab-created gems even for that time-hallowed purchase, the engagement ring.

Sapphire and diamond ring. Photo courtesy Nodeform.

Romance and responsibility. A match made in heaven.

 

Birthstone Friday–Passionate Ruby

Colored gemstones are becoming popular as engagement ring stones. Ruby, the color of passion, is an exceptional choice. Courtesy Tom Linenberger, Goldworks, Fort Collins, Colorado.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t love rubies, with their beauty and incredible color. Their durability and value is legendary. (Use them for shoes, however, and they can get a house dropped on you.) For those born in July, rubies are a special birthday gift they didn’t even have to ask for.

In their finest quality, rubies are a brilliant red almost unmatched by any other gemstone. (The Black Prince’s Ruby, found in the British Imperial State Crown, is really a huge red spinel. Had everyone fooled for a long time.) Yet there are lots of rubies that are not the finest quality. What makes a good ruby?

First, that brilliant red color. Rubies are red. A “light” ruby—meaning leaning toward pink or purple rather than red—may be called a ruby, but it’s considered in gemological circles to be more accurately described as a pink or purple sapphire. Continue reading

American Pearls: A Family Affair

Gina Latendresse, president of the American Pearl Company, in Tennessee, doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t “sorting pearls, playing with pearls, dreaming about pearls.” From a young age, she would travel to shows with her parents, John and Chessy Latendresse, and stand watch over the tables covered with piles of pearls. “When you’re eight years old, your parents don’t give you a paycheck,” she says. “I was paid in pearls. At the end of the day or week, I could pick a pearl. Once, when I was about 12 or 13, I was sorting through the mound of pearls there. Usually there is one pearl that is just outstanding and you fall in love with it. You put it at the top of the sorting tray and it gives you the enthusiasm to search for more of them. On this day I pulled out such a pearl, and said, ‘Daddy, this one is so pretty.’” Her father took the pearl, looked at it, and said he could see why. He proceeded to tell her all about the color and quality of the pearl. Then he put it away.

“At the end of the week, I didn’t get that pearl. I didn’t get that pearl at the end of the year. And I eventually forgot about it. Then after I came to work for him in 1991, at Christmas he handed me a white envelope. In it was a gem baggie with the note he’d written on it: 1979. For Gina one day. He had been saving that pearl for a special time. That pearl is priceless to me because it is truly a gift from the heart. All that time before, he had known I would be involved in the business some day.”

The American Pearl Company is truly a family affair. It started in 1961 when John Latendresse decided to try to culture pearls in the tributaries of the Mississippi. It took time, but he and his wife Chessy Latendresse developed a successful, proprietary, process. Although the company gives no tours of the processing plant, it goes something like this:

Wild mussels are collected by divers under contract and taken to the operation facility where a skilled technician cuts a pearl sac and inserts a mother-of-pearl bead along with a graft of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue triggers the mussel to form nacre around the bead. The pearl-pregnant mussels are suspended in nets from PVC pipe in Kentucky Lake and grown from between eighteen months to five years. When taken from the mussel, the pearls are washed in warm distilled water and mild soap only. No further processing or dying is done.

At any one time, they may have between 300,000 and 500,000 mussel shells in the water “pregnant” with one to four cultured pearls. The company does not focus on round pearls, but instead focuses on baroque pearls and their blister pearls, both of which are sought after by designers for their unique shapes and colors.

Birthstone Friday — Pearls: Go Big, Go Wild

This lustrous rare natural abalone pearl inspired Eve Alfillé to create her “Calla Lily” platinum pendant in the Art nouveau style. The 14.40 carat abalone pearl is studded with emeralds, diamonds and natural alexandrite to echo the color playin the pearl. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

If you haven’t noticed this month, I can’t get enough of pearls: the shapes, the colors, the sensuality of them. Probably the most romantic gemstone of them all.

Some of the most gorgeous pearls come from one of the most exotic places on Earth: Tahiti. These are some of the most striking pearls, not only for their color, but for their often immense size. The warm waters of the South Pacific means they grow quickly, and the large size of the oysters used to culture them means they can hold a much larger starter bead. They are some of the biggest pearls on the market. If you want to make a statement, go Tahitian!

Probably the best known are the gloriously iridescent black Tahitian pearls. And guys, take note. If you secretly love pearls, these are the gemstones for you! The Tahitian pearl people, many years ago, had a campaign that featured single black pearls on cords or chains for men. I have no idea why it didn’t catch on because oh, my goodness, fellows, let me tell you. That look was sex walking!

But I digress.

There are also subtly colored Tahitians: cream, gray, peach, and even chocolate.

This pin, titled “Orbiting,” features a lovely carved quartz by famed lapidary Dieter Lorenz, as well as a golden South Seas pearl, all accented by a diamond and set in 14 karat gold. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

But Tahitians aren’t the only heavyweights in the pearl world. South Seas pearls, farmed in Australia, Philippines, and Indonesia, are also big beautiful gems worth salivating over. Some of my favorite are the golden South Seas pearls, yellow being my favorite color. Hmmm. Maybe this is why I love Eve’s “Orbiting” pin.

But for sheer drama and color, look for the abalone pearls. These cultured pearls are usually formed by attaching a half round bead to the abalone shell and letting it do its work. Later, the blister formed can be cut from the shell and used as a half round in jewelry. But more often, the blisters are cut out and an area of the shell is cut with it to create some amazing freeform shapes. They’re like small Rorschach tests for jewelry designers who love working with them.

Indulge your sense of drama. Go big and go wild with pearls.

American Pearls: Finding a Home

When John Latendresse established the American Pearl Company, in Camden, Tennessee, he knew that water quality would be vital for mussel survival and pearl culturing. The water temperature has to be just right, and that means the depth of the water has to be right. Too shallow, as during drought years, and mussels will die in the overheated water. There has to be a steady flow of water bringing food and oxygen to the mussels, so ponds are usually not suitable. To find the perfect spot, John Latendresse spent nine months investigating 300 bodies of water, studying daily weather charts from the areas, and experimental farms. His daughter Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, remembers that at one of her father’s experimental ponds early on, a guard would take a power boat out onto the water, driving it in large circles so that the propeller could churn life-giving oxygen into the water.

The perfect spot on Kentucky Lake turned out to be only 20 miles from their home. It was her father’s only convenience in 20 years of research and development, says Gina Latendresse. 

Today, the main pearl farm is next to the Birdsong Resort, Marina and Campground. As that guard so many years ago, the boats on the lake benefit the mussels by keeping the water churning with oxygen, and pushing plankton toward the mussels where they hang in nets from PVC pipe incubating their pearls. In exchange, the pearl farm provides a tourist attraction drawing people to the resort

At first the family worried that the resort might create difficulties for the mussels with exhaust and gas. However, the risk of a boat spilling oil or gas into the water, says Latendresse, has proven to be minimal. “The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) are very up on keeping the lakes and rivers from being polluted,” says Latendresse.

However, water pollution has always been a concern at the American Pearl Company, because the farms are located on public, not private waters. Water quality is subject to the activities on land (as Japanese pearl farmers discovered to their cost). One experimental farm in Tennessee was destroyed in the early 1980s when unusually heavy rains flushed agricultural farm chemicals into the water of the pearl farm. The chemicals, just applied to the farmland, were at full strength, and the entire crop of mussels died as well as all the fish and amphibians in the water.

The pearl farm has found other ways to be a good neighbor, too. Gina Latendresse there is always someone concerned about the fact that the mussels are killed in the process of pearl farming. She explains that only adult mussels are taken from the wild. They are then kept for three to five years in nets, during which time they reproduce. As part of their reproductive cycle, immature mussel spat (more correctly called Glochidiae) attach to the gills of fish for the first year of their lives. Because of this, she says, the mussels in the nets are more likely to produce viable offspring as, by floating down through the water from the nets, the chances are greater of the spat finding a place on a fish’s gills. Mussels in the wild must eject the spat up into the water from the mud at the bottom of the river in order for the spat to attach to fish gills.

While the mature mussel is sacrificed when the pearls are harvested, “there is almost no waste,” says Latendresse. “The shell is used in inlay or to make more beads to use in culturing.  Some of the left over mother-of-pearl is ground into pearl powder that is used in cosmetics. The mussel meat itself is used as fish bait and feed for pigs.”

One of Gina Latendresse’s favorite stories is about the pigs. When the mussel meat starts to decompose, it creates a “powerful stench.” (In fact, when her father died in 2001, they received a letter of condolence from a man who said he always connected the vacations his family took nearby with the smell of rotting mussels.) The problem was to find a use for the meat as well as the other parts of the mussel. John Latendresse contacted a local pig farmer and offered the meat as feed. The farmer took it. Later the farmer called her father euphoric: the meat had produced the biggest, fattest pigs he’d ever raised. A few weeks later, however, he was incensed. The meat of the pigs, he said, tasted like fish and it smelled like fish when it was cooked. He had to feed his pigs on grain for three months before butchering them to rid the pork of the smell and taste of mussels.

 

Birthstone Friday–Pearls: Getting Fresh

This lovely freshwater pearl accented by diamonds and set in a 14k gold pin titled, “In the Cloud,” allows artist Eve Alfillé, to indulge her imagination. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

Are you a June baby who doesn’t like her birthstone? Do you still think your only choices are your grandmother’s pearls—the Queen’s pearls—round, white and boring?

Nope. Not true anymore. In fact, if you like wild colors and shapes, take another look at pearls.

Pearls have always been found in non-round shapes and colors other than white, cream. In fact, when there were only natural pearls in the world—those made without the encouragement of a human hand—round pearls were the rarities. Natural pearls form when something gets inside a mollusk—say a small parasite bores through the shell—and irritates the animals tender flesh. They begin to cover the invader with nacre, the same material that lines the inside of the mollusks shell, and that we know as “mother-of-pearl.”

The coating process isn’t an exact science, of course, so the pearls formed could come out any color, any shape, highly nacreous, or utterly meh.

Continue reading

Gemstone Care — Be Gentle With Your Pearls

If June is your birth month, and you love pearls (as I hope you do), treat them gently. Pearls are not as rugged as their crystal mineral counterparts. Made up of layers of tiny crystals of aragonite, they’ll scratch, fracture, discolor, and dissolve if not treated with loving kindness.

“The Nightlife II.” Freshwater pearls, peridot, tourmaline. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfille Gallery, Evanston, Illinois.

  • Never wear pearls when exercising; perspiration can attack them. They don’t like household chemicals, either. Never wear them swimming in a pool. (If Cleopatra’s pearls dissolved in wine, just think what chlorine can do to them.)
  • Don’t wear them if you’re doing work where they’ll come into sharp contact with hard surfaces. A bracelet constantly thwacking on a desk or filing cabinet can only harm the pearls.
  • Put them on after you’ve applied your makeup and perfume. Wipe them down with a soft cloth after you take them off to remove the pigments and alcohol that can damage them.
  • Store them in a soft cloth bag to protect them from scratching by the other jewelry in your box (drawer, suitcase, steamer trunk).
  • Give them a gentle bath, periodically, if you wear them often, and lay them out to dry thoroughly. Do not hang pearl strands up—the string can stretch.
  • If you wear pearl strands frequently, inspect them regularly, and have them restrung periodically.
  • Knots between the pearls protect them from rubbing against each other at the fragile drill hole. Knotting also prevents loss should the strand break. You’ll only be scrambling around on the airport floor looking for one pearl, not dozens. Because Mrs. Murphy says that if your pearl strand is going to break, it’ll break at the most inconvenient place and time possible.

Pearls: Born in the USA

Think pearls and you think Asian pearl divers and Japanese cultured pearls. Perhaps you think of Indian Moguls or rich belles dames from the glittering age of the turn of the century. But it’s a good bet you don’t think of the quiet backwaters of the Tennessee River. But you should. Pearls are an all American classic.

In 1954, John R. Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee for the purpose of exporting American freshwater mussel shells to Japan. In Japan, the shells were shaped into beads to be used as the nuclei in cultured pearls; at one point, the company shipped as many as 23 tons of mussel shells to Japan to feed the booming cultured pearl business. Latendresse eventually became involved with importing Japanese and Chinese pearls and selling them.

Inevitably Latendresse became convinced pearls could be cultured in the waters of Tennessee. After all, many mollusks produce pearls and pearls had been found for centuries hidden in the meat of freshwater mussels. Native Americans found and treasured them long before Europeans landed on the eastern shore. Thousands of pearls of all qualities had been found as a by-product of the mother-of-pearl button business. If pearls formed naturally, reasoned Latendresse, he should be able to culture them, and in 1961, Latendresse formed the American Pearl Company to do just that. His daughter, Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, once remarked the location was “not the pristine, clear blue waters of Tahiti with half naked women diving for pearls, rather it’s the muddy rivers of Tennessee. A little bit less romantic, but maybe more intriguing.”

While the Mississippi River and its tributaries (such as the Tennessee River) and Kentucky Lake, contain an estimated 300 species of mollusks, explains Gina Latendresse, her father discovered that not all of them will allow pearl culturing. Only 24 species are viable, and “only one we tested out of the 24 was best suited to our needs.” The freshwater mussels’ anatomy was different than pearl oysters, so Japanese culturing techniques wouldn’t work, either. After studying the differences in anatomy, John Latendresse and his wife, Chessy, developed new surgical techniques designed especially for the mussels.

Although John Latendresse had developed good relations with the Japanese pearl-culturing companies, says his daughter, the Japanese were not happy to find out her father was trying to culture pearls. “They knew the southeast had lots of water and possibilities for pearl culture. They were a little fearful. They asked my father, ‘What are you doing? This is part of Japanese history and heritage.’ My father was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘Henry Ford was part of our heritage and history, but look what the Japanese have done with that idea.’ My father said later, ‘It was so quiet you could hear a pearl drop.’” After 20 years and five million dollars spent in research and development, John Latendresse harvested the first marketable American cultured pearls in 1983; two years later, he began cultivating on a large scale.

Then in the mid-1990s, says Latendresse, “We got a call…saying that the president of Mikimoto [the huge Japanese cultured pearl company] was coming to the US and was interested in seeing our farm.  Eventually, Mikimoto became our biggest customer of American cultured and natural pearls. My father said, after that first visit, ‘Never in a million years, would I ever have guessed that I’d sell the Japanese American pearls.’ The Japanese buying from us was the most fulfilling moment for my father.”

When Gina Latendresse visited Japan after that, she was surprised to find that the pearls were being marketed as an American product, with a brochure explaining where they come from. “The brochure talks about these pearls being from the Tennessee River, a tributary of the Mississippi, which the Japanese know.” She bought a set of earrings designed by Mikimoto and containing pearls from her father’s company. She wore them at her wedding and they are still her favorite pair of earrings. The American classic had come home.