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.”

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.

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.