Happy Valentine’s Day

Bananas. I’m ready when you are! Photo Stuart Robertson/Dreamstime.

Happy Valentine’s Day! A day for hearts, flowers, chocolate, and, of course, love.

It’s Stacie Capella’s 29th birthday. Her wonderful friends have surprised her with a small celebration in her shop, The Bell, Book and Crystal, before opening. Eileen has brought a beautiful cake, which pleases the ever-hungry Colin, and a couple of Milk Bones, which is awarded much tail-wagging by Bananas, the labradoodle on steroids. Stacie is surprised and touched by the exquisite card Colin, a graphic designer, has created for them all to sign, and delighted with the lovely brooch Mir has made from repurposed costume jewelry. It is a wonderful surprise and Stacie enjoys it completely. Colin enjoys the cake.

Only later does Stacie allow herself a touch of melancholy. She lingers that evening by a window that overlooks the coast of Eden Beach, gently rolling her amethyst crystal pendant in her hand. Family legend has it that, when she find true love, the crystal will turn warm and pulse, like a second heart. She smile ruefully, half wishing the legend were true.

But Stacie has resigned herself to a life alone, there is another gift that she inherited from her great aunt, Amelia, in addition to the amethyst crystal. Stacie has the gift of second sight. It has cost her friends, it has cost her jobs. It has cost her love. She fights to hide and deny it. She only wants to be normal.

Her gift, however, seems to be getting stronger. In the end, she may find, she needs it to save her life.

For more, read The Listening Heart. Coming this spring.

Tucson! The World’s Gem Market

One tiny section of the vast Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona. This is the Tucson Convention Center. Where do you even start? Photo Derrick Neill, Dreamstime.

It’s February. And while most people are thinking groundhogs, Valentines, or simply not freezing in a polar vortex, in the gem and jewelry world, the movement of dealers, jewelers, designers, and suppliers–not to mention TONS of rock–to Tucson is shifting the Earth on its axis.

If you love gemstones, you owe it to yourself to try to get to Tucson once in your life. (Plan early. Hotels and other types of lodging sell out early. I expect that goes for RV space, too.)

It starts at the convention center but every hotel, every parking lot, every side walk, is filled with vendors. From the tiniest rubies to mammoth-sized geodes, it’s all here. You just have to find it. And if this isn’t enough, you can head down the road to Quartzite where things are quirkier.

The Tucson show, so called, is actually a number of overlapping shows, with varying start and end dates. The original is the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society show. They’re still buried in there.

Bring sturdy shoes, determination, and have some kind of idea of what you’re looking for, though you’ll want to be open to surprises, too. Oh, and be prepared to spend more than you thought you would. That’s a guarantee.

By the way, book three in the Eden Beach birthstone series, Sing Me the Rain, starts at the Tucson Show.



Birthstone Friday – A Little Emerald Lore

Gemstone crystals can connect us to the earth. But can they heal? Photo Somakram @ Dreamstime.com

If you need a reason to own your emerald birthstone, besides the beautiful color and rich history, you might think about its self-improvement properties.

Cramming for exams? Preparing for a big sales presentation? Dating a new love interest? Wearing an emerald might help boost your memory, give you the gift of gab, or let you know if that new someone is telling you the truth or not. Continue reading

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.