Coloured gems: The jewels of this generation

By Kirsten Ehrlich Davies

Offering plenty of variety and an ethical back-story, coloured gems are the ideal choice for today’s consumer.

The coloured gem market is as distinctive and individualistic as the endless array of luminous colours found in any gemstone collection. Approximately 70-80% of coloured gemstone production is sourced from small-scale artisanal mines, creating work and income for locals, without leaving a heavy impact on the environment. Consumer demand regularly shifts across the colour spectrum of gemstones, with gemstone popularity driven by a kind of “flight to quality” effect as consumers respond to the exposure of specific gemstones through social media or celebrity influencers.

Jewellery businesses must meet the challenge of staying ahead of shifting consumer demands while sourcing coloured gemstones from small scale mines.

Monitoring the gemstone popularity stakes

While the diamond is traditionally the most popular gemstone of all, coloured gemstones as a group have been steadily gaining ground in the popularity stakes.

Grant Hamid from Hamid Bros says that the consumer demand for a wide variety of coloured gemstones has increased dramatically. Hamid Bros Pty Ltd is a third generation family business, founded in 1898 by Sri Lankan immigrant Casim Abdul Hamid, and currently owned and operated by siblings and gemmologists Grant and Debi Hamid.

“The individuality and uniqueness of coloured gemstones is most appealing to customers and the wide range of colours to choose from has made them more desirable,” Grant said.

“The coloured gemstone market will always be fluid, due to everchanging availability, fashion trends and public demand.

Punala Kiripitige from The Gem Monarchy has also observed the consumer shift in preference for coloured gemstones rather than diamonds. Punala is a gemmologist and the founder of The Gem Monarchy, an international team of miners, workers and master lapidarists.

“The lack of colour in a white diamond does not always appeal to today’s customer who seeks more uniqueness in their own piece of jewellery, and hence they are drawn to colour,” said Punala.

“But the shift has come more slowly than we had predicted. This is primarily due to the big jewellery companies such as Tiffany & Co continuing to focus mainly on diamond jewellery, popularising it more highly than the coloured alternative. However, with the influx of younger generations into the market, coloured gemstones are becoming more and more popular.”

Gerri Maunder from Gerrim International says that coloured gems have come into their own due to fashion trends, affordability and wearability. Gerrim International is an Australian manufacturer and designer of jewellery and watches.

“Currently our leading coloured gems are across the full colour range in topaz, from bright blues to vivid pinks. The beryls, such as morganite and aquamarine feature strongly and of course the many colours in the quartz family,” Gerri said.

“We notice the warm colours such as smoky quartz, citrine and onyx are strong in winter months while the cool shades of blue remain popular in summer.”

Grant from Hamid Bros. says that blue sapphire, emerald and aquamarine are consistently popular with ruby, morganite and teal coloured stones (such as tourmaline and sapphire) are in high demand, as well as the highly prized padparadscha sapphire.

“While there is constant demand for certain gems, such as sapphires, emeralds and rubies, demand can fluctuate due to fashion trends and the availability of enough stones of quality,” Grant said.

“Ten years ago, I would never have expected today’s demand for morganite or grey spinel but the discovery of new mining areas has enabled a greater supply of these stones, so demand has increased.”

Punala says while The Gem Monarchy is best known for its sapphires, which are available in a range from 1.5mm calibrated to above 10-carat, their most popular gemstone variety in terms of sales is spinel. “This is mainly due to the promotion we put into spinel as a relatively inexpensive yet lustrous gemstone which can be compared to the likes of sapphires or even diamonds,” Punala said.

Punala says it is not too difficult to predict which gemstones will be popular.

“Birthstones will always be popular in those specific months, and anniversary stones will always be popular,” Punala said. “Pieces of jewellery featured in reality TV shows such as The Bachelor will always be in season after the show. Therefore, as a gemstone supplier it is in our job description to analyse said markets and have stock available before they become popular. Part of being a gemstone boutique is that we must predict such trends before they become trends, and sometimes even set these trends.”

Interest in provenance

While older consumers have traditionally been unconcerned about the provenance of their gemstones, younger consumers want to know all about the history of their gemstone.

Gerri says that today’s consumers are more conscious of the provenance of gemstones and are more knowledgeable. “Our clients often ask about the certainty of a gemstone’s country of origin and its authentication. Gerrim is in a unique position having connected with various overseas markets over many years. The variety of gemstones we use come from countries such as India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Germany and Italy to name a few.”

“Consumers are definitely more concerned than they were in the past, but a lot of this concern is due to the misconception that certain countries supply “better” quality stones than other supplying countries,” said Grant from Hamid Bros. “All mines are capable of producing extremely fine and extremely poor-quality stones – country of origin does not determine quality.”

Grant says that Hamid Bros sources their gemstones from numerous countries throughout Asia, Africa and South America. “Our rubies are primarily from Mozambique, with small amounts from Myanmar (Burma), Madagascar and Tanzania. Our sapphires are predominantly mined in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Australia, and Tanzania. We source our emeralds from Zambia. Spinel is found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam and Tanzania, and our aquamarine, tourmaline, and garnet come from numerous African countries.”

Punala has also observed that younger buyers are more concerned with provenance. The Gem Monarchy sources gemstones from all over the world, with sapphires primarily sourced from Sri Lanka and Madagascar, while he primary localities for other gemstones include Uruguay, Burma and East African countries such as Nigeria. Yet provenance is not just about the primarily location, but also the assurance of ethical mining practices.

“Through the decades that we have been in the trade, behind the scenes selling to the Australian trade through other gemstone dealers, we have noticed one main thing: the younger the client, the more inquisitive they are about the provenance of gemstones. This reflects an evolving gemstone trade,” said Punala.

“The generally older demographic of client is always interested in the gemstone for what it is, and what the price is, rather than the provenance.”

Punala says that the team at The Gem Monarchy prefer to deal with clients who hold similar values and concern for “the ethics of gemstones, the mine to jeweller approach and the sustainable gemstone approach.”

“We are actively involved in the holistic experience and mining of gemstones – which our clients recognise and commend us for by purchasing from us –rather than leaving the sustainability of the environment after mining to landowners and the government to deal with.”

The significance of artisanal mining

While diamond mining is a huge industrial concern, artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is a small-scale individual business model, providing a livelihood for millions of people in resource-rich developing countries. Artisanal mining is usually distinguished as purely manual work while small scale mining can involve mechanised equipment, although there are no fixed definitions of the two types of mining.

Grant Hamid says that Hamid Bros favours artisanal miners because of the benefits to the community.

“Rather than large international corporations gaining financial benefits from coloured stone mining, any local artisanal miner has the opportunity to find stones that may feed their family for a year or more,” says Grant.“ Artisanal miners willingly flock to new mining areas for the opportunity.”

Punala says The Gem Monarchy fosters a particularly close bond with artisanal miners, in comparison to other gemstone dealers who only deal with artisanal miners at gemstone markets. This close relationship has the extra benefit of giving The Gem Monarchy first choice of available gemstones. “Artisanal Mining is the backbone of the gemstone industry and nearly every gemstone merchant purchases their gemstones from an artisanal mine,” said Punala. “Most of our artisanal miners work full-time for us under a roster, making them a part of our family.

“Acquiring gemstones for The Gem Monarchy is more of a philanthropic project where we not only focus on gemstones but also the person; miners and staff who work with us get their phone, electricity bills, vehicle, and house upgrades and education (for themselves and children) covered. It gives us a sense of satisfaction to know that we are improving the quality of living of our workers rather than just paying for a gemstone.”

There is a perception that smaller mines mean that it is difficult to rely on a steady ongoing supply of gemstones, but Grant Habid sees it differently.

“I think this is one of the beauties of coloured gems, they are not necessarily reproducible which adds to their individuality, rarity, and desirability. Coloured gems are also generally found in small pockets within mines, meaning the supply to the market fluctuates accordingly.”

Punala says that while artisanal miners only work small mines, they compensate for this by constantly finding new mines whereas larger mines will eventually dry up and close.

“From our perspective, smaller mines always deliver a steady stream of high-quality gemstones, whereas there is always a competition for good quality gemstones in larger mines. True that you will always have gemstone from larger mines in steady supply, but the more that a bigger mine is mined, the gemstone quality reduces.

This ultimately creates a faux demand for gemstones from a certain mine even though they are not the best of quality. The gemstone trade will never run out of smaller individuals trying to make a living by starting a small artisanal mine, whereas large mines will always eventually close, just as we saw with the Argyle mines.”

Queries about treatment

Today’s customers have done their research and they want to know they are getting value for money rather than a synthetic stone or an artificially enhanced gemstone. While synthetic diamonds are rising in popularity as an ethical alternative to natural diamonds, there is not the same demand for synthetic gemstones, as the gemstone industry does not have the same history of environmental and human rights abuses.

The issue of treated gemstones is a little less clear-cut from the consumer perspective. Grant says that consumers are aware that some gemstones are treated to enhance the colour and brilliance, but they don’t always understand the difference between traditional treatments that bring out the best in the gemstone and treatments that would devalue the stone.

“Clients are often confused about the difference between the traditional heating of stones that has been accepted for over fifty years in sapphires, rubies, aquamarines, citrine, etc., and unacceptable treatments where an outside additive has been introduced to the crystal lattice (i.e. surface diffusion, beryllium treatment, surface coating, etc),” said Grant. “Again, there is a misconception that an unheated stone will be better quality, and this is far from the case!”

Punala says that customers need to know that it is the onus of the seller to disclose the treatment of the gemstone.

“There are certain treatments such as diffusion and beryllium diffusion which are considered taboo in the trade and which heavily devalues a gemstone. Hence be aware,” said Punala.

While the variety of colours available have great appeal to the individualism of today’s consumers, coloured gemstones also have an ethical appeal in a time when consumers are particularly concerned about the provenance of gemstones and want to choose products with a positive impact on the environment and local communities. In every way, coloured gemstones are the jewels of this generation.

Further reading: