The Hottest Gems in Jewelry Aren’t Diamonds, Rubies, or Emeralds
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Forget diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Today’s discerning collectors are looking for jewelry that emphasizes rare, striking, and sometimes almost-impossible-to-find stones.
These spectacular gems are sought after because they have such fantastic optical effects as changing colors, in the case of alexandrite, or come from a unique organic process, as conch pearls do.
For the finest gemstones, provenance is paramount, so follow along on this guided tour around the globe to shine a light on the stories behind the most exciting stones on the market.
Peridot — Myanmar
One of the world’s oldest known gems, peridot has been coveted since the time of the ancient Egyptians, who called it the stone of the sun. Associating the yellow-green mineral with the stars was prescient. Peridot crystals have been collected from meteorites that crashed into Earth and by a NASA spacecraft that gathered samples from comet dust trails in space.
Peridot comes in a range of hues. The greenest versions can be so rich that before lab identification, the best pieces were sometimes confused with emeralds. Peridot has high double refraction, meaning more light reflects off its facets, giving it some of the fire and brilliance of a diamond.
The finest peridots traditionally come from Myanmar, and these stones are celebrated for their vibrant, saturated colors. This necklace from Verdura showcases 55 cushion-cut Burmese peridots weighing more than 275 carats. $265,000
Alexandrite — Russia
First found in Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1830, this remarkable gem with extremely rare color-changing properties was named for the prince who became Czar Alexander II. The stone shifts hues under different light sources: In daylight, alexandrite is green to bluish-green; under artificial light, it becomes a red to purplish-red tone.
The Russian mines from which the gem was originally sourced are limited in production today, but deposits have also been found in Sri Lanka, Brazil, and East Africa. Alexandrite is one of the world’s most expensive stones. At times prices reach $70,000 per carat for the highest-quality specimens bearing intense color changes and vivid hues.
Most examples, however, are less than one carat, making larger stones exceptionally valuable. This ring, from Oscar Heyman, features a stunning 5.74-carat alexandrite flanked by two oval diamonds. The size of the stone and strength of its colors make it an unparalleled piece for collectors. $370,000
Tourmaline comes in many colors, but only special and unique hues earn their own names. Paraíba tourmaline, renowned for its swimming pool blue, was first discovered in Paraíba, Brazil, in the 1980s. Copper deposits in the region give the gem a turquoise tone that is truly electric in the finest stones. A few deposits have been found in Mozambique and Nigeria, but there’s less copper in the soil there, so the color can be less arresting.
Many purists consider only Paraíba tourmalines from the original mines to be true Paraíbas, so Brazilian stones command higher prices. Those first mines have closed, limiting the South American supply today. At the same time, more collectors have been discovering its beauty.
The market has responded. Quig Bruning, head of jewelry at Sotheby’s New York, says: “We've seen an enormous jump in the demand of high-quality Paraíba tourmalines at auction in the past few years,” leading to record-breaking prices. Oscar Heyman frequently works with Paraíba tourmaline, with this necklace an exceptional example. It features 32 perfectly matched, pear-shaped Paraíba tourmalines with 52 diamonds scattered throughout, adding brilliance to the necklace and enhancing the color. $600,000
Grandidierite — Madagascar
Grandidierite is so rare that most collectors have never even heard of it, much less seen it in person. It was first discovered in Madagascar in 1902. So little gem-quality grandidierite was subsequently found—only 1 in 10,000 roughs meet the criteria—that it didn’t made its way into jewelry until a deposit was discovered in southern Madagascar in 2014.
Top-quality grandidierite has a blue-green color and is intensely saturated. The stones tend to be quite small. Last year, Phillips had the first, and possibly only, grandidierite ever to sell at auction: An exceptional 4.78-carat unmounted gemstone hammered for $52,500, coming in at almost $11,000 per carat.
Susan Abeles, senior vice president for jewelry at Phillips, says the bidders were the most sophisticated gemstone collectors who “recognize that it was unique and different. They probably don’t know anyone who has gem-quality grandidierite in their collection.” Today, only a small number of specialists produce bespoke grandidierite jewelry, including Omi Privé, which created this ring featuring a 2.21-carat stone surrounded by alexandrite and diamonds. $97,000
Padparadscha Sapphire — Sri Lanka
The rarest of all fancy-colored sapphires, the Padparadscha sapphire, comes from Sri Lanka, where it’s been cherished for centuries. It has a distinctive pinkish-orange hue and takes its name from the Sinhalese word for lotus flower, which has a similar color. “It is the rare balance of pink and orange that gives the sapphire at once a bright warmth and soft, subtle texture,” says Bruning at Sotheby’s New York.
The color doesn’t appear in any other natural gemstone, and the most valuable have a more intense color reminiscent of a tropical sunset. Sapphires with a similar look have been found in East Africa, but many jewelers and collectors believe a true Padparadscha sapphire can come only from Sri Lanka.
The limited supply makes the finest stones quite expensive. Lorraine Schwartz showcases the range of this special gemstone in these earrings by mixing different cuts—including pear, oval, and marquise—and featuring different shades that range from pink to more orange. $245,000
Tanzanite — Tanzania
Intense, violet-blue tanzanite is found in only one place on Earth: Tanzania. Geologists say the tanzanite deposit was formed at the same time as Mount Kilimanjaro. The presence of a rare chemical element, vanadium, amid the shifting of tectonic plates gave the crystals their remarkable color.
With such unusual conditions behind its creation, tanzanite, experts believe, can’t be encountered anywhere but the Mererani Hills. In 30 years, the mine complex’s supply could be completely depleted, and new tanzanite might not be available, making it a true collector’s stone. Customers discovered tanzanite only in the late 1960s when Tiffany & Co. named and introduced the new gemstone to the world in a spectacular jewelry collection. It’s a pleochroic crystal, meaning it shows three different shades of blue and violet when viewed in different crystal directions.
The most prized stones have a deep, purple color that separates them from another famous blue stone, the sapphire. This exceptional high-jewelry necklace from Tiffany features 108 carats of pear-cut tanzanite encircled with diamonds, highlighting the violet tone. $245,000
Conch Pearl — The Caribbean
Like true pearls, the conch pearl comes from a mollusk, but it’s not formed by nacre (mother of pearl) like a true pearl. It’s a stony growth. Centuries ago, both conch and true pearls were found only by chance in nature, which made them very scarce and valuable and worn exclusively by royalty and nobles. Today, true pearls are cultured in great quantities, so the thirst for wild versions has diminished.
Conch pearls, however, cannot be cultured, so they remain exceedingly rare and thus rank among the most expensive specimens. These pink ones are found only in the Caribbean, inside the queen conch. Although conch is abundant in the region, there’s just a 1-in-10,000 to 1-in-15,000 chance of finding a conch pearl inside one; only 10% of those found are gem-quality. Conch pearls come in shades of white, pink, red, and brown, but a deep-pink, bubblegum color is the most desirable.
They have a characteristic flame structure on the surface, which looks like the faint, wavy lines of a flickering fire; they are smooth, shiny, and sometimes compared to porcelain. Jeweler Cicada surrounds an almost 4-carat conch pearl with alexandrite in this cocktail ring. $74,000
Star Sapphire — Sri Lanka
Certain gemstones, including sapphires, exhibit a phenomenon called asterism, which causes a star to appear when the light hits the stone in the right way. Although star sapphires were quite popular in the 1940s and ’50s, they are no longer as well known. They are still coveted by knowledgeable collectors.
These rare sapphires are found in Sri Lanka and Madagascar, but the beauty of the star is more important than the provenance. Star sapphires appear silky. In the best pieces, a crisp, clear star appears at the center of the domed cabochon gem. These stones have bands of needle-like inclusions that cross in the center, causing the light to reflect and create the internal illusion.
The quality of the star depends on several factors. As Tom Heyman of Oscar Heyman explains: “The best star sapphires exhibit asterism with six equally spaced, straight legs that cross in the center of the stone. A collector looks for a stone with a primary leg along the long axis of the stone.”
Asterism can appear in sapphires of all colors, but blue sapphires are considered top quality. This ring from Oscar Heyman features a large 5.04-carat intense blue star sapphire surrounded by oval diamonds. $70,000
Black Opal — Australia
Australia’s unique geology produces 95% of the world’s opals, and some types can be found only on the continent. Its dazzling black opals are the most famous and prized of all. Contrary to its name, black opal is a stone full of rich and vibrant colors—usually shades of green or blue—that flash across the dark surface.
These most famous, prized opals are found only in three small towns—the most famous being Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. These sensational high-jewelry earrings from Chopard feature two Lightning Ridge black opals placed within open flowers that are fully set with precious blue-and-green gemstones that accentuate the opals’ play-of-color, including pink and blue sapphire, garnet, tsavorite, emerald, and diamond. Price on request
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